Amanda Brugel and the Art of Surprise
Amanda Brugel packs a full life. She’s a mom of two boys and a partner, and while balancing these two acts, she works her chameleon-like talents on screen as an actress, the role you most likely recognize her in.
You might have seen her in the award-winning dystopian series, The Handmaid’s Tale, or working her comedic chops on Kim’s Convenience, or perhaps even as a judge on last season’s Canada’s Drag Race. But with all that she’s accomplished, after two decades in the industry, Brugel still finds excitement and something new in every role. She forges on, in search of strength in each new character to breaking stereotypes, and with the goal of keeping audiences guessing.
“My team and I, we’ve done this for a long time,” Brugel tells Linger Magazine. “We strategically pivot from one genre to another and the biggest compliment I usually get is, ‘I didn’t recognize you in that.’” And this proves true. A look into Brugel’s credits lists varied roles in countless genres. “I’m a genre jumper,” she adds, humorously. And if you go back to her beginning, before she made her mark as an actress, you’ll find that the genre-jumping isn’t just from screen to screen. The initial jump first stemmed from the stage.
Brugel, in her youth, fell in love with performing under the bright lights of the stage with the National Ballet of Alberta in Canada. At 11 years old, in the production of Cinderella, something clicked. “It changed me for good,” she remembers. “I was in a lot of different ballets, but ‘Cinderella’ was the one I ended up having a lot of stage time in.”
In pursuit of her dreams, she precociously managed to convince her parents to help her find an agent – or, so she thought. Ten letters, each personalized and typed, were sealed and entrusted to be mailed out. But, unfortunately, unlike Cinderella, there was no dramatic turn of events. “My parents never mailed them out,” she says. A year later, the letters were found behind a bookshelf in the middle of a move. While disheartened at the time, she understood her parent's wishes on keeping her away from the industry at that age. Looking back, “I don’t know if it would be the same for me if I started at 11,” she affirms. “Being a young biracial girl, a child actor in the eighties, I don’t know how much I would have loved it.”
Brugel continued to perform in school plays, and then for college, funnily enough, she applied for screenwriting at York University with a thesis on The Handmaid’s Tale’s Rita Blue, the character she will go on to play for five seasons in the concluding Hulu series. While she was accepted and awarded a full scholarship, she decided to turn it down and graduate with a BFA in the university’s renowned Theatre program.
Fast forward to today, it’s safe to say her silver screen dreams didn’t end at 11. Though, that’s not to say building a career in Hollywood for the past two decades as an adult was smooth sailing. The challenge fell in finding the right parts and saying no to the ones that didn’t align with her values. “There were the curveballs, of not enough roles for people who look like me,” she says.
Roles like the “sassy black girl” or the girl-next-door archetype with the one-liners were examples of the parts that she didn’t want to portray. “The most important thing I look for in a character is strength, nuance, and an unusual side you don’t typically see in women and women of color,” shares Brugel, which fittingly describes the character she plays in The Handmaid’s Tale. The show, for those who aren’t familiar, is about a dystopian future where a patriarchal and religious political power called the Republic of Gilead takes over the United States. The women are then relegated to the roles of wives, housekeepers, and surrogates for powerful Gilead families. Brugel plays Rita, a housekeeper who serves the Waterfords. Initially introduced as stoic and steely, as the show progresses, we see another side of the once intimidating Martha, one of vulnerability. Trapped in desperate circumstances, she is in a fight for survival while dealing with the trauma of her beliefs shaken by those she thought she could trust.
“I think in the beginning of her journey, she was shell shocked,” says Brugel. “There was a bit of Stockholm Syndrome going on with the Waterfords. She had a role, a purpose but she wasn’t happy and sort of accepted her fate.” Heading into the final season, Brugel shares that there will be a new side to the character, who has since escaped Gilead and was last seen trying to adjust to freedom in Canada. “This season, we take it even further with her finding her own voice and becoming comfortable in her skin. It’s interesting. As I’ve grown as a woman and evolved into my forties, I’ve grown with Rita.”
Now with the final season of The Handmaid’s Tale wrapping this year (in which she drops three suspenseful hints on what’s to come: “Unexpected, fight-or-flight — and death”), Brugel thinks about what she’d like to do next. She looks forward to moving past supporting roles, though she admits, she’s had a lot of fun with them in the past as there’s more room for play. She also brings up an interesting take on the role she’d like to tackle if, by chance, she finds herself cast in one of the industry’s biggest superhero franchises. “I desperately want to be in a Marvel movie,” she says earnestly. “I’m a bit younger now but I would like to play a 50-year-old, or late 40s ripped bad-ass superhero.”
“We’re slowly starting to see people of all different ages, shapes, and sizes in that universe,” she notes. A film that comes to mind is Black Panther. Directed by a black director and starring a predominantly black cast, the cultural impact of that film is significant. Its billion-dollar box office success proves there is an audience that has long been waiting for a moment like this and sets up opportunities for more diverse stories of that scale to be told. “I was crying so hard in the theater,” Brugel says. “It profoundly moved me to see bodies that looked like mine, the faces, how they were also powerful and were the heroes.” She continues with a smile, “I know a ton of badass 50-year-olds that could hurt someone. So I just want to represent them.”
And if anyone else would know a thing or two about breaking convention, it would be Simu Liu, Brugel’s co-star on Kim’s Convenience. Like Black Panther, the film, Shang-chi and the Legend of the Seven Rings, starring the Chinese-Canadian actor, was also the first of its kind with the actor becoming the first-ever Asian Marvel superhero. “He manifested that for himself,” she shares. “He carried around a binder with a picture of Shang-chi, just to remind himself that that’s what he wanted to do — and this was four years before he even auditioned.”
Well, until Marvel comes calling, Brugel has plenty of projects to keep her busy. The final season of The Handmaid’s Tale will air on Hulu in the fall, and she’ll be back on Pretty Hard Cases as detective Karina Duff. You’ll also catch her in the upcoming second season of Sort Of, which will be coming to HBO Max, playing a larger-than-life character, Gaia, that she says is a pivot from anything that she’s done. “I am nuts on the show,” she quips. “I am having so much fun.” And when all that settles down, she’ll be back in family mode, seeing The Weeknd in concert with her son, and leaving for a trip to Jordan with her partner in the fall.
Her year was a busy one, and the summer even more so, and on the seasons to come? Well, Brugel’s dreams have gotten her this far. “This business is all about rejection,” she reflects. It’s no secret that one of the toughest parts of making it in the industry is having to withstand a barrage of no’s until that one opportunity comes along. “I’m not saying that now, it doesn’t hurt — it’s just that I don’t take it as personally as I did. I have a lot more wins under my belt and I’m validated by other things in my life other than someone saying ‘Yes’ to me for a job.” She then imparts a universal lesson for anyone that has ever experienced growing pains in their career can relate to. “When you’re young and someone says ‘No’, it’s hurtful because it feels like they’re saying no to everything you represent,” she explains. “And it’s just not that.” If Brugel’s journey has proven anything, it’s that life’s full of surprises, even despite a little discouragement. So what’s next? Keep your eyes on the screen. She likes to keep you guessing.