Ann Dowd Q&A: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Leftovers’
“It hits you. Let me tell you, it hits you. And it stays with you,” admits Ann Dowd during our recent webcam chat (watch the exclusive video above) about the profound effect that HBO’s “The Leftovers” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have had on her. Dowd has never been in more demand than this past year, starring as the menacing Patti Levin in one episode of the emotional final season “The Leftovers” and the sadistic Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s timely and relevant “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“I have never been more deeply affected by an experience than I was on ‘The Leftovers’,” the actress says. “Because it is so truthful, it knocks you out,” she adds. “It touches on grief and loss and hope in a way that is haunting. And so, saying goodbye was hard.”
Her ongoing show “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, and stars Elisabeth Moss as an enslaved ‘handmaid’ forced to give birth for the barren ruling class in a near-future dystopia where the authoritarian theocracy of Gilead has usurped and replaced America as we know it. Dowd plays the cruel Aunt Lydia, a fundamentalist zealot who oversees the handmaids by any means necessary, even if that includes physical and emotional torture and abuse.
Dowd was keen to explore issues such as women’s rights, religious extremism and freedom of speech when taking on her role in the Hulu drama. “As a woman, you are just so familiar with the drill. How do you fight back? You pursue what you believe in, you speak up, you stay alert, you stay awake. All of those issues in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ resonate. The one thing they don’t do is shock me,” the actress reveals.
As sadistic and cruel as Aunt Lydia is on the show, Dowd was keen to understand who this woman was and what led her to be so uncompromising. “When you play a character you try to find what you understand about her. That’s your way in,” she explains. “The thought that she could be so harsh with these girls and yet love them at the same time was very clear to me. First of all she’s a believer in Gilead and was appalled at what was happening to the world, she’s obviously a very conservative person who is very familiar with the Bible, believes in it, it’s her best friend,” she says. “The promiscuity, the trashing of the world, it all brought her to a place of ‘sign me up for whatever will cure this.’ So she has a strong position in this community.”
Along with her work on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Dowd also returned to “The Leftovers” this year. After two seasons as the mysterious and menacing Patti Levin on the HBO supernatural drama, fans were thrilled when co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta brought her back for a final curtain call in the penultimate episode of the season, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother).” In that episode, a sequel of sorts to last season’s audacious “International Assassin” episode, leading man Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) returns to the mind-bending limbo-afterlife in an attempt to finally let go of the pain that has paralyzed him ever since the Sudden Departure seven years earlier, when two percent of the world inexplicably vanished into thin air.
“Nothing surprises me any more from Damon. Nothing. When I read this it made such tremendous sense to me,” she reveals. “In my mind, she has let go of a lot and she’s dropped the armor and the burdens of her own life so she is going to get right to the point. I am here, Kevin. In the construct you have created for yourself, the place you keep going back to, to escape your life. We are going to blow it up. We are going to do something that will not allow you any longer to hide from who you are and what is meaningful to you.” The episode was another stunning showcase for Theroux and Dowd, who likens the journey these two characters have taken as ultimately a strange and powerful love story. “What they achieve in their relationship, even against their deepest hopes, is intimacy. The kind of intimacy that says I see where you’re hiding, I see your faults, I see what you are afraid of, I see what you will not face,” the actress explains. “When you achieve intimacy on this Earth, in all of our fright, it is profound.”