Ann Dowd is at the pinnacle of her career after winning her first Emmy last year for playing the brutal Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She is nominated again in Best Drama Supporting Actress this year for Season 2 of the Hulu series, this time alongside co-stars Alexis Bledel and Yvonne Strahovski.
Dowd recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about her memorable Emmy moment last year, how she is able to play such a villainous character, and whether Aunt Lydia is still alive heading into Season 3. Read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Ann Dowd, congratulations on your second consecutive Emmy nomination. Talk us through the morning of when you heard about your nomination.
Ann Dowd: Well I was in your lovely country. It was 1:30 in the morning, Australian time, meaning, New South Wales time, and I had a 5 a.m. pickup. So I told myself that under no circumstances was I staying up, because I was being picked up at five in the morning and I was going to be a responsible actress and go straight to bed at 9 o’clock, my normal time. So I woke up about 1:30, but then I went back to sleep and then I woke up at 2:20 and there was a message from a friend, saying, “Congratulations.” So it was like lovely, peaceful, happy, and then off to sleep I went, with the happy dreams. And then I woke up the morning and went, “I wonder if it’s true,” and it was.
GD: That’s lovely. So you’re the incumbent, you won last year, you’re back for a second crack at the award to win two in a row, which doesn’t happen very often. You’re against a lot of your own cast members. What was your reaction when you saw so many of your fellow “Handmaid’s Tale” cast members nominated?
AD: I was thrilled because I know how good they are and I know how deserving they are so I was thrilled that so many were included. That’s the best thing. It really is. Is that the question you asked me?
GD: Yeah, pretty much. “Handmaid’s Tale” doubled its nominations from last year so it’s actually now a real force to be reckoned with and I think a lot of that has to do with how it’s still so incredibly timely and so relevant. What are your thoughts on how the show continues to become such a hot issue in pop culture?
AD: That’s a very good question because I was stunned in Australia, the number of people who said the show meant to the world to them and they never missed an episode and how clearly it resonated. I think a couple of things. It’s very well done. It’s very well written. It’s well acted, the cinematography and all of those things. Having said that, which is crucial, it gives a voice and an image over and over again of repression, what it looks and sounds like, where something gone too far will take us. I think it resonates for women hugely. I don’t know how men respond. I don’t know how well they sit with it. I speak more to women than to men about it. The writers, I don’t think they’re trying to relate to what’s going on, certainly in our country. We’re in a very bad way. I think what they’re trying to do is to get people to wake up and think for themselves, because I think what’s striking about our story is that Gilead took over in very small increments, and as Offred said, “By the time we looked up from our phones, it was too late.” Just this notion of staying alert, staying awake, don’t let the small things go by, and that’s what’s happening now. I can’t believe the things going on with our president. They seem like small steps. Where are you getting these ideas? Who do you think you are taking security clearance away from people who are on to you? What happens when power is abused, it’s so entirely relatable, and it’s frightening in this country. I don’t think we’ve ever been this bad a way, ever. So anyway, I’m rambling on. Please stop me.
GD: I think that’s exactly right. It’s the coupling of it being a beautifully done show as well as it being so relevant. It’s dynamite. It really is. So, going back to more superficial things, I remember watching you on late night TV talking about your Emmy win. It was, firstly, the highlight of the Emmys last year was your win. It was such a beautiful, true, honest, gut-wrenchingly beautiful moment and when you describe it it’s so wonderful. If you wouldn’t mind just taking us through that night and how you felt when you actually heard your name being called out?
AD: Just the minutes before arriving in my seat I was as close to expiring and wanting to run from an event as I ever been, because of the amount of prep and the amount of anxiety about it, and you finally arrive and walk in and it’s an alternate universe. Everyone’s dressed beautiful, the cameras are everywhere, you’re told to step in this line, step in that line, “No, not over there, over here.” People are asking you real questions. I remember one wonderful journalist said, “And what do you feel like doing right now, with the excitement?” And I said, “Crying and going home.” Can you imagine? Not the right thing to say, but that’s exactly how I felt. My first impulse was truly, I walked in, I thought, “Get out.” Isn’t that awful? Now, it worked out nicely so I’m not complaining, let me say. The reason I take you through this is that by the time I sat in my seat, my first thought was, “Oh, I know what to do now. Just sit here and watch the show. That’s how this works.” And then out comes Stephen Colbert, with confidence and funny funny, and I remember thinking, “Where does he get it?” And I thought, “Don’t worry, honey, ‘cause you won’t be getting up there. You’re gonna sit here all night and just watch.” That’s literally what I said. I’m not kidding you. “Don’t worry, you’re not going anywhere! You’re just gonna sit here and enjoy it.” And then Steve came over and said, “Ann?” “Yes?” “Your award category is in Act 6 and it will happen at 6:14. Would you mind being in your seat?” And I thought, “I’m not going anywhere. I can’t wait to stay in my seat.”
So anyway, then I was prepared, it came up, and I went to my husband and I said, “Is this the category?” He said, “Yes, it is.” And in that split second I remember thinking, “Just be happy. Be happy and grateful and whatever happens, be happy for whomever it happens to.” And whenever I heard my name, it’s one of those moments in life that I think are very rare and very moving because what happens is, suddenly lots of your life flies in front of you and you think, “And right now, for whatever reason, this is a moment for you, and you can stand up and say thank you.” It’s amongst the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had, honestly. When I think of it, the feeling comes back right away. It was just beautiful. I wish I had a more articulate way of explaining it. And then the funny thing is, you go off the stage with the Emmy and they take it away right away, because that’s not really the Emmy. Yours is backstage somewhere (laughs).
GD: It’s interesting because we could tell how emotional you were that night, how moved you were. It was slightly surprising because there was a lot of competition in your category but looking back, surely, it wasn’t a surprise. Aunt Lydia has become such an iconic villainous character but with light and shade. She’s not just a baddie. Do you agree? A lot of it is because of you.
AD: I love her, and I appreciate her. I can say that honestly, and I honestly think she’s a survivor and I think there were things that happened to her in her life. I don’t know what they were, but they shut many doors. Because a child doesn’t do that on their own, and I think however she came to be in the world, there are reasons for it, so my hope in playing her was to come to know her without judgment and I think when that happens there are a lot of opportunities to show a lot of sides of an individual, if that makes sense. The things she does, would I ever do them? No, I would not. But thankfully I’m not in that position. When I go home at night, I don’t take home with me her consequences.
GD: Aunt Lydia is so bad because she really believes in what she’s doing. She actually thinks what she’s doing is the right thing, but these things that she’s doing are so horrible. How do you marry those two concepts when you’re trying to make that person a real character and not just a caricature?
AD: Well, think about it now, the world that she’s in, she was a teacher. Imagine her in an all-girl school or even better, in a public high school, boys, girls. Imagine she comes from a religious background, she sees the level of promiscuity, the language, the disrespect of life and of God and of the gifts God gave us, the Earth, the pollution is destroying the Earth, and worst of all, where are the babies? So in her mind, the world has gone almost past redemption and if you think of early Gilead in the church basement, going over the state of the world and her saying, “Listen, we can’t go at this halfway, these girls who have lost their way, pregnant without marriage, divorce, abortion, God forbid, they have no chance. There is one chance at a meaningful life and that is in Gilead.” I think you have to think of the world she’s in and the world that she comes from, that if she goes halfway with this, these girls have no life. If they don’t get what’s going on in Gilead, they’re going right to the Colonies and that’s the end of it. Yes, it’s extreme. Believe me, I’m not defending the actions, I’m just saying as an actress how I go about it is she really believes she’s doing the only thing that will give these girls a chance at a meaningful life. I see I have not convinced you and I understand.
GD: You absolutely have, and you know why I tell you that? Because in the finale, when Lydia is thrown down the stairs and beaten, a lot of us think she’s maybe dead, we’ll go there in a second. But I almost felt for her, like, “No, not Lydia!” And she’s supposed to be the villain! So that’s fascinating to me, that we actually care about this woman. We see she’s very damaged and we see that she’s got issues, but she’s not just a mustache-twirling villain, and that’s fascinating to me.
AD: It’s fascinating to me, too. And the other thing, and I think this is going to be what shifts her: she loves them, and she loves them. That’s it. Her days, there’s nothing else. She’s not going home to the fancy house and the alcohol and then whatever else the commanders do in the privacy of their study with the handmaids. That’s not her life at all. Home to the dorm, the single twin bed, no heating because it’s given up. There’s no reading to be done. She goes home, has a meal with the aunts, I don’t know if she’s particularly fond of them. She’s not a social woman. She goes about her business, goes back to her room, reviews the day, “What could I have done better? Who needs more attention from me? Who was slipping? Who have I been too hard with? What baby is in danger? What can I do to get the commander and his wife to get them to settle down and create an environment?” That’s her whole life. And so because she loves them, she has a chance for redemption, I think. I don’t know if we talked about this, but the play “Doubt,” you remember it?
AD: So Aloysius, her life begins at the end of the play, when she says, “I have doubt.” And I think the reason she has a chance is because her wishes were pure, to protect the children from what she felt was a sex offender. She went to the mat for them and suddenly she realized at the end of the play, “What I have done? Because my actions made things worse.” And secondly, “What did my actions have to do with my own personal problems that I didn’t even realize I had?” In that moment, life begins for her. Maybe Lydia will have a similar experience where she realize the walls begin to crumble because she loves them.
GD: So she’s not dead, right? You’re coming back?
AD: Am I coming back? That’s such a good question. Well, Bruce Miller, just before I read the script for the episode, literally just before, Bruce Miller wrote back and said, “She alive, by the way. Don’t worry.” So that was kind of him, I thought. It’s happened before. “The Leftovers.” “Oops! Bye, now.”
GD: (Laughs.) Talk us through the scene with Alexis Bledel, because we’ve spoken before about this and how Alexis is a sweet, lovely, beautiful person and then she got to beat you to death! How did that work?
AD: First of all, she’s about the loveliest person in the world. She plays the role so well and she’s shy, sweet, very smart and very private. She has so much recognition for role on “[Gilmore Girls]”. She keeps a very low profile. So to try to get that girl to shove you, she can’t do it. I say, “Honey, you weigh 10 pounds. I’ve got a little extra weight on me, you can shove now. Come on.” It was like a pat on the back. She said, “Did that hurt?” And I’d say, “Doll, shove me. Hello.” It was a riot and the poor thing had to kick me down the stairs. It was almost humorous because the poor thing, it bothered her more than Lydia, let me tell you.
GD: It was a great moment. It was really a cathartic moment and also as I said earlier, then I thought, “No, no, Lydia surely can’t be dead.” I was beside myself and I think most of the audience was.
AD: That’s very kind of you, and I appreciate that so much!
GD: We’re really glad that you’re still on the show and thank you very much for everything that you’ve brought to this show, “The Leftovers,” all your work. We just love you.
AD: Thank you.
GD: We wanna see you maybe on that stage again. You never know!
AD: You never know, and I love talking to you. Thank you.