Actress Ann Dowd has played two of the most intriguing, complex and frightening characters on television in recent memory, with her work on HBO’s The Leftovers and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. Since her work in the indie feature Compliance really put her on the map and in the public’s awareness, her career has been on fire, really showcasing her ability to make you believe that she’s anyone and anything her characters tell you they are.
During this recent 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Ann Dowd talked about the type of characters she finds herself drawn to, leaving such a huge impression on the world created in The Leftovers, why that project appealed to her, her incredible experience working with that creative team, being able to understand her The Handmaid’s Tale character, even when she is so scary, why it’s fun for her to play Aunt Lydia, looking forward to digging into Season 2, enjoying her time on the underrated but terrific Cinemax series Quarry, returning for the second season of the TNT series Good Behavior, and her upcoming horror film with Toni Collette.
Collider: You’ve been in this business for awhile now, but you’ve done some particularly remarkable work starting in and then following Compliance, and your work in both The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale is truly exceptional. Could you ever have imagined that you’d become the go-to cult leader for scary post-apocalyptic worlds?
ANN DOWD: Honey, isn’t that a riot?! No! I’m thrilled, beyond, but my goodness, I don’t even know what to say! It’s just been an incredible challenge and a pleasure.
You’ve become very good at finding your place among these very dark worlds. Do you ever wish you went down an acting path that lead you to worlds of lightness and rainbows and unicorns, or is exploring worlds that are vastly different from your own what most appeals to you?
DOWD: That’s so interesting. There are so many fantastic roles, but the ones that have always drawn me to them are the loners who, for whatever reason, never quite fit in and knew it and had to find their own way. I’ve always been drawn to that, for some reason. I’ve always been drawn to that sad, isolated place, but what it produces in behavior is something else, entirely. For whatever reason, I’m drawn to these people. Essentially, I think what draws me is that they are survivors against rather considerable odds.
The Leftovers was such an interesting TV series because it accomplished so much in its storytelling and the way it chose to tell its story, in just three short seasons.
DOWD: It was an absolutely extraordinary experience. After the first season of learning to work with Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, and all of the writers, you didn’t question it because it all made sense. Because Damon knows those characters so well and has thought it through so well, there was never a time that I asked a question where it wasn’t answered fully. Starting the second season, I was not even sure what Patti was. All I knew was that she was present in Kevin’s life. I was trying to figure out what she was doing there, why she was there, and what was going on. I wrote to Damon and said, “Is she trying to help Kevin with his relationship with Nora?” And he said, “Oh, no, she doesn’t believe in relationships.” Now, that clarified about five mountaintops for me. He said, “She doesn’t really know why she’s there. The last thing she knew, she killed herself and things were done. Suddenly, she’s sitting next to Kevin in a truck and she’s trying to put it together for herself.” And boy, was that helpful. The lightbulbs went off. I thought, “Okay, I understand her!” He always put me on the right track without too many words in my head.
Since you had no idea how the journey would turn out, what was it that initially attracted you to that series and character?
DOWD: You know, when I first read it, I didn’t get it. I read it and thought, “What?! What do you mean Departure? Nobody is departing! What is that?!” And I dismissed it. And then, my agent said, “Why don’t you have another look?” So, I read it again and I thought, “That’s interesting. What is happening?” You step one foot on a set with Damon and Tom, and Pete Berg directed the pilot, and suddenly I thought, “Okay, this is a world that is fascinating.” And it still wasn’t even conscious to me because I didn’t even know what I was doing. What is the Guilty Remnant? The not talking terrified me, at first, but then I grew to love it. It was such a fascinating experience. We rely so on words, but silence is a wildly powerful position to take. So, that was fascinating. And then, we got rolling and the first season was moving along, and I got an email from Damon that said Patti was going to martyr herself and it crushed me to think that I would not be involved anymore. I didn’t even know how attached I had become. Damon is hypnotizing. His imagination is without limits, and Tom, as well. You begin to just trust, completely, where the story is going, knowing that you’re entirely safe in the truthfulness of it. I always knew that none of it was random. I could play it with full awareness. I could not necessarily put into words what was going on, but I understood it. And then, to work with Justin Theroux, they do not come better, on every single level. He’s a tremendously kind human being and a wonderful actor. He’s smart and we trusted each other. The way those characters came to know each other, they were a very unlikely couple, if you will, and they both understood each other’s faults and fears and how they hid from their lives. As it played out, they came to each other’s aid, in the most crucial parts of their existence.
When did you find out that you’d be returning for the final season, and that it would be in such an incredibly memorable, stand-out episode?
DOWD: It’s a funny thing. I thought it was over with the first season. And then, I found out that no, that wasn’t the case. At the end of Season 2, Damon wrote a lovely email about how her life had ended and that it moved both of us, so I knew that she would not be a part of Season 3. You can die physically, as she did in Season 1, and you can emotionally let go of your life, as she did in Season 2, but how many more ways can you go? So, I just accepted that. I thought, “Okay, I love it, but I’m going to let it go. It will always be a part of me, no doubt about it.” But then, the pick up happened and a cast letter was sent out by Damon, and I was included in that letter. At first, I wondered if he made a mistake and just happened to include me because I was on the list. But, Damon is not careless. Those things don’t just happen. So, I wrote and said, “Is there a chance that I’m in Season 3?” And he wrote back and said, “You know, it will be one episode, probably towards the end, and you’ll shoot in Australia.” That’s how I found out. I didn’t know what the storyline would be. I was never tempted to ask, anyway. I knew that, if there were any questions, he’d be there to answer them, but I loved it, and it made total sense.
Because this character was so different in each season, did it feel like you were playing different versions of her, or did it all feel like it was pieces of a whole?
DOWD: It absolutely felt like pieces of a whole. What I love so much about Damon is that he knew her so well. She was evolving. Season 1 is about her finding her power and her confidence, and saying, “Hey, excuse me, I’m not a big, fat loser. In fact, I knew something was going to happen and it did happen. Not only that, I’m a leader and I will commit to the end.” And she does. She killed herself, which is the goal of the Guilty Remnant. They want to stop the nonsense of fighting and pretending that life is going to continue because it’s not. It’s over. That was a huge thing in her life. And then, in the second season, she’s able to release that burden of profound regret. When she had a chance to step away from the abuse and say, “No longer will you treat me like I’m a piece of shit,” she does not do it. She’s able to release that burden with Kevin, who then helps her to just leave life again, knowing that she’s let go of that burden. And then, when she becomes someone who has let go of all those burdens and the nonsense, she knows exactly what she needs to do. She knows she’s going to have to push because he’s going to fight it, so she comes in ready to do the job and shepherd him through. That, to me, is a beautiful journey for a character and for a human being. It’s remarkable to me, what unfolds with her.
You made a very big impression on everyone who watched The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a chilling and difficult story to watch, and Aunt Lydia was a truly terrifying figure. When people tell you that they’re terrified of her, whether it’s fans of the show or even your castmates, can you understand where they’re coming from and why they feel that way, or is your first instinct to defend your character?
DOWD: No. I guess getting older has its benefits, one of them being perspective. I don’t share Lydia’s perspective, but I understand her. I think she loves those girls and that she takes her job very, very seriously. She feels that, if she does not prepare them for their lives, as they will be in Gilead, then they will not make it. They’ll be in the colonies before you can blink, in the trenches along the pesticides and nuclear waste. They have an opportunity here to do something quite beautiful, which is to bring life into the world. (Show creator) Bruce Miller told me that she was a teacher prior to Gilead taking shape. That made huge sense to me. I think she loves those girls. That’s her life. I was educated by nuns. None of them, of course, did anything resembling the actions of Lydia, but they taught me a work ethic, that I had to toe the line, that I had to step up and do my work, and that we would stay until it was done, and that came from a devotion to making you the best person you can be. That’s the take I have on Lydia. She knows her actions are firm and sometimes very harsh, but she also looks after them.