“That silence was thrilling,” admits Ann Dowd as we chat via webcam (watch above) about her role on HBO’s “The Leftovers” and the challenges of bringing her character to life. “This woman doesn’t speak, she writes, she smokes and she wears white. And suddenly she became very interesting to me.” The premise of “The Leftovers” is that two percent of the world’s population (140 million people) have suddenly disappeared off the face of the Earth, in what is known as the “Sudden Departure.” Dowd plays Patti Levin, the mysterious and menacing leader of the Guilty Remnant cult. “Death is the end game for these people, the Guilty Remnant. They don’t know why people can’t see it,” she explains. “Stop your nonsense! Stop with your going to the mall! Stop with your ridiculous parades and face the facts that life has ended!”
The actress relished the opportunity to play this enigmatic character who, during the show’s freshman season, terrorized the residents of fictional Mapleton, New York. “A lot happens when you walk into a room and you don’t speak. You’d be amazed. I never do it; I’m a talker, I think most of us are,” Dowd explains. “When you walk into a scene and you aren’t going to say a word, you better have your wits about you because we’re used to getting our strength and our power of communication through the words that we use, but we come to find out that it really isn’t the most powerful means of communicating, necessarily.”
In the second season set in the “miracle” town of Jarden, Texas (which was not affected by the Sudden Departure), Patti was anything but silent as she continued to haunt lead character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). After she violently slit her own throat near the end of the first season after having been abducted and held prisoner by Kevin, Patti begins to appear as a ghost or figment of his imagination. She offers up scornful and unwanted commentary to an already unhinged and desperate Kevin. “She killed herself, and that to her was the end of it. And then suddenly she’s deeply present in another human being’s life. She didn’t ask for that,” Dowd declares. “They’re connected in a way that is perverse, intense and mostly, intimate. Because intimacy for either of those characters is the most difficult planet to touch.”
Their storyline culminated in the audacious and mind-bending “International Assassin,” the climactic eighth episode of the sophomore season. In it, Kevin Garvey has committed suicide in a last-ditch attempt to finally rid himself of Patti for good. He wakes up in a limbo-like afterlife in which he is an assassin tasked with exterminating senator and presidential candidate Patti Levin. After Kevin fails in his mission, Patti eventually meets her maker, again, when Kevin throws her down a well and she drowns.
Despite the absurdity of the premise, especially to newcomers to the show, the episode stands as one of the most heralded, a stunning showcase for the performances of both Dowd and Theroux. Indeed, her involvement in the episode deeply affected the actress, who is visibly moved when discussing it. “That whole experience was so mind-blowing and so profound in its completeness; I just went home and had to go straight to bed and let that whole thing turn into a dream.”
Looking ahead to season three, she is understandably guarded and tight-lipped about what fans can expect and whether we are done with Patty. “You know, I don’t think I’m allowed to say!” she proclaims, adding, “how many ways can you die? Well, let’s see!”