Ann Dowd Unpacks ‘The Leftovers’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

You may not recognize Ann Dowd’s face, but you most likely love to hate her characters.
By  · Published on June 22nd, 2017

You may not recognize Ann Dowd‘s name, but you most likely love to hate her characters.

Ann Dowd is among a group of actors you’ve seen and you recognize, but it probably comes with an, “Oh, it’s what’s her name” rather than the proper “Oh, it’s Ann Dowd.” For fans of premium-cable television, Dowd is a goddess. In just the past few years she’s appeared on True Detective, Masters of Sex, Olive Kitteridge, and Quarry. She gained a heightened notoriety following her surprise knockout performance as Sandra in the 2012 film Compliance. Most recently, Dowd is sharing universal acclaim with the costars of HBO’s The Leftovers and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Leftovers – which recently concluded its three-season run – quietly began to modest acclaim when it premiered in 2014, but by the end of its second season, many were rightly proclaiming it as one of the greatest television series of the decade. Dowd stars, among a large ensemble cast, as Patti Levin. The head of her district’s branch of the Holy Remnant cult, Patti leads a group forcing the Mapleton townspeople to continually acknowledge the mysterious departure of two percent of the world’s population. [Spoilers for The Leftovers to follow.] Patti committed suicide towards the end of the first season but shocked fans when she returned in ghost form as the second season began. Whereas living Patti rarely muttered a word, Ghost Patti refused to haunt quietly. In the late-season episode “International Assassin” Patti was killed once again, and it was to be permanent this time. Of course, Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey would find himself in great mental despair at the end of the third season, calling for one last surprising – and damned powerful – return of Patti Levin. With one series coming to close, Dowd starts a new beginning with the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on the classic novel by Margaret Atwood, the series is set in a dystopian future in which most women cannot carry a child. Much of the United States is now the Republic of Gilead, and officials have created a solution to the infertility crisis. The richest and most powerful citizens employ the work of handmaids, women being forced to procreate. Dowd appears as Lydia, whose position as “Aunt” requires her to both train and monitor the handmaids. In the role of Lydia, Dowd crafts a complex character with a quiet vulnerability that seeps through her often-violent dedication to her job.

It was a Thursday afternoon when my phone rang. I assumed a publicist would patch me through to Dowd, so my jaw dropped a little when the speaker exuded a “Hello honey!” from the often-disguised natural voice of one of my favorite actresses. After expressing my deep admiration for the pure brilliance of The Leftovers we proceeded to a long, often emotional, entirely enlightening conversation on her work on two of the year’s best series.

What was it like to play Patti Levin and how did you approach her differently each time she was resurrected?

When I originally read the script it didn’t land on me, I didn’t get it. First I thought, “What do you mean departure?” Then I read it again and I thought, “Well it’s written by Tom Perrotta, they don’t come any better.” It sort of struck a chord in me and then the experience of not speaking and the journey of that character, no agency to full agency, to come from abuse and be worth nothing, to knowing something is going to happen and the therapist saying, “No, no, it’s anxiety. It’s your relationship with your husband.” Then when it does happen she steps into – for the first time in her life – her courage, her fortitude. She’s a born leader, she commits all the way. That’s an extraordinary journey that a character gets to take in one season. Then finding out that she was going to die crushed me. I think I wept for three days; I had fallen so in love with her and with Damon [Lindelof] and Tom [Perrotta] and Justin [Theroux]. I hear you say how it affected your life, believe me, I understand you. It will never leave me, the experience of what went on there. It’s not linear, so it hits us in ways that are unconscious and deep and about the basic meaning of life and what matters to us. What is grief? What is love? What is vulnerability? What is loss? You don’t even have words to describe what you’re feeling when you watch it; and imagine when you do it. That experience of season one, of learning to let go – Patti does, and for me learning to let go of her, because I was not going to have her any longer, dovetailed in a way that was just so strong.

And then getting the word that she was going to come back in an email from Damon. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After I had let go of her, and said, “That’s it honey, she’s gone.” Then she comes back in season two. With Patti and Kevin we have one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve ever been a part of in my life and in my work. They see each other

It’s so radically different in season two, because the show very much becomes about Patti and Kevin’s relationship, whereas in the first season they only interacted a handful of times.

Right. It’s funny, after we shot that scene in which Patti kills herself in season one, Justin and I both described it, separately, as a love story. A love story is about two people who find intimacy because they see each other’s fears, they see where each other hides, and there is no filter. For whatever reason those two saw each other in their most vulnerable way. When that happens you’re in it for life. You’re in it no matter what world you live in. The creation of that level of intimacy is about the strongest thing there is, because there is a love in it. It is without hiding. In season two I remember asking Damon, “Now, is Patti trying to help him in his relationship with Nora? Because Patti says things like, ‘I told you not to tell her, but you went ahead and told her. Don’t tell your daughter or she’s going to leave too!'” He said, “Oh no, no, no, she doesn’t believe in relationships.” And then suddenly the bell went off. He said, “She doesn’t even know why she’s there. The last thing she knew she took care of business and killed herself, now she’s sitting in a truck next to Kevin. She’s putting it together as she goes along.” The journey for her in season two is being able to release that burden which she did not release in season one because she never got there. That burden is, ‘when I had the chance to leave the abuse, when I had the means to walk away and claim my life, and stop the abuse, I could not, did not, do it’. Kevin holds that for her and then helps her depart.

Dowd as Patti Levin, pictured haunting Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey in the second season of The Leftovers.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the character this way, because I think in season two the audience thinks so much about the Patti situation from Kevin’s point of view. We don’t really know if he’s really sitting next to Patti, perhaps until the episode “International Assassin” where it becomes clear that in the world of the show she is really there and her backstory is real.

And how about the brilliance of that? Does it matter if she’s physically present or not? Does it matter if someone who died one hundred years ago – if that person is still with you, what’s the difference? For me that is the brilliance in that. People would say to me, “Do you think she’s a ghost?” I don’t know what she is but she’s present in his life, that’s all I need to know. Then season three – it’s like, ‘Honey, I’m here to return the favor. You’re going to stop hiding from your life. You’re going to stop running away from your life, and the way we’re going to do it is we’re going to blow up that world that you escape to. Then you’re going to be released into your real life.’ I think that is such a stunning story. I got to watch it with Justin, Patti’s final episode and the finale. That was surreal and beautiful. When you work with someone like Justin. He’s a prince on every level. When you go through all of that together, you discover it together. Like I said, it’s not a linear story. I have an attachment to him that will last for the rest of my life.

Patti Levin returns for a moving single episode appearance in the penultimate episode of The Leftovers.

I’ve spoken to many people about Carrie Coon’s incredibly profound monologue at the end of the finale. She gives what could be the answer, or what could be something that Nora has created herself to allow someone else to cope. I wonder what you think about the reality of Nora’s story.

You know whose answer I love – I’m sorry to steal it but at least I’m going to give it a footnote – Damon’s response. Someone asked him, “Are we to believe her story?” and he said, “I want to believe it.” I think that answer lives in the same place the series lives in. What is the truth, really? What form does the truth take? If you say to a woman who is older who has feelings about her looks and wants to be younger, if you say to that person, “How old are you?” and the woman says, “I’m forty-eight,” when in fact she is sixty. The truth of that statement is, “I wish I were forty-eight.” In other words, she’s telling the truth that makes sense and something she can live with, speaking of Nora. This is the truth she’s going to live with and standby, and then release. What did you think?

You know, the series put me through so many emotional experiences over three years. I wept through so much of that series so when Nora tells this story to Kevin I looked past the clues in the episode that may have suggested that it wasn’t true. We have this stuff with the goat and Nora taking the necklaces off the goat and putting them around her own neck. I said to myself, “That’s the truth. That’s what happened and that’s it.” I accepted it. I usually love ambiguity and I have no problem watching a show with an unanswered mystery. I went into that last episode not expecting any answer to what happened to the departed, which is perhaps why I was so moved by this elaborate explanation that works, that makes sense.

I wonder what will happen to you when you go back to watch it in five years, where you will be with that. Whether you will be able to find a space where maybe it’s not true. I’ll tell you something, a personal story. My son was diagnosed at age five-and-a-half and he is on the autistic spectrum. When I got the diagnosis I was pregnant with my second child. They did not use the word ‘autism’. They used the phrase, ‘non-verbal learning disorder’. I accepted that, and the neurological psychiatrist said, “He lives in a different world than you and I live in,” and I said through sobs, “But will he be able to marry and have a family?” and she said, “He might, but he lives in a very different world.” Now, I accepted that then. A year goes by and I tried to get my son into a special school, and the woman said, “We don’t take children on the autistic spectrum,” and I yelled at her. I said, “He’s not on the autistic spectrum! How dare you say that!” I couldn’t handle that. Now, two years later, he’s eight or nine, the word was used again by someone I trusted, and I could accept it. I don’t know if that has the slightest thing to do with The Leftovers, but it came to my mind, so I’m sharing that with you. I’m so grateful that they didn’t share that with me in the beginning, because I couldn’t have taken it. I wasn’t prepared to tolerate it.

Dowd as Aunt Lydia in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

As the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale comes to an end, we do not know much about your character Aunt Lydia’s life before Gilead. Did you create a backstory for her?

Our show runner Bruce Miller told me that he thought she was a teacher before Gilead. That rang such a strong bell for me because I could imagine her teaching at a private school for girls or in a public school where she was watching the world go to hell. Seeing the behavior; the sexual promiscuity that went on, the smoking, the drinking, the lack of respect for god or anything resembling some level of purity or authority. Whatever she was trying to teach wasn’t landing and she was mocked often. She is fully in, for whatever reason. Religion, god, the bible are central to her existence. I think the bible is a nightly read for her; it is what she holds onto to get through her life. Now, did she have a child once, was she in an abusive marriage, who knows? I often think that someone who appears so strictly and firmly to a rigid way of thinking has damage, has profound fear, and therefore has to gain control in any way they can. Especially if you haven’t had a therapist who is going to help you unwind that fear. So, when the world finally shifts into Gilead, I think her behavior prior has been trapped and she has been chosen as a leader because she never varied from that path. She thought that we have got to take control of this out of control situation. The beautiful earth destroyed, the birth rates – the most beautiful gift god gives us destroyed. She’s fully in and I think she takes her job deeply seriously because it is all she has. I think that the key to her is that she loves these girls deeply and is committed to them. She knows that if she does not get it clear for them, teach them, “This is what is expected of you,” that they will never make it. They will end up in the colonies with the filth and the nuclear waste and the sluts, this and that. Only in this world where they have the privilege of possibly carrying child, that’s their only hope and my job is to make sure there is clarity on that. If someone such as Janine has the extraordinary blindness to the use the words “fuck” and “cunt” at me, meaning Lydia, I’m going to have to make an example of her immediately. It’s got to be clear – girls, take a look here – and the next time you see her she’s got an eye missing. Don’t kid around about what’s at stake here. The world is different now. But the thing is, I believe she becomes attached. Her love for them is genuine. Now her adherence and her attachment to that world could crumble at some point, I have no idea if it will. You know, it’s a funny thing; did you ever see Compliance by chance?

Of course!

When a crisis occurs in your life, as it does for that character of Sandra, when you realize, “Holy god, I have just been a participant in something that was so horrible, and I did it willingly.” If you are doing that, and it happens, and it comes to life as it does in Compliance, then two things can happen. You can deny, deny, deny. Your world can fall apart, which is should, all the walls come crumbling down. Everything that made sense to you in the past falls away, or you defend it as Sandra does. She says, “You know, you would have done the same thing. It was a police officer, why would I think otherwise?” She can’t accept that the big revelation did not come to that person. It’s unfortunate, because it would have allowed her to start her life again with full meaning. It’s like in the play Doubt. Aloysius is so sure that she is on the right track and then doubt blasts into her and it will allow her to begin her life again.

Dowd as Sandra in Craig Zobel’s Compliance.

In thinking about the dedication to their roles, Sister Aloysius is somewhat similar to Aunt Lydia as well.

Exactly. She doesn’t go as far. Thank you for bringing me to the point which is, will Lydia have that same moment of “Holy shit, I have been clinging so desperately to my understanding of how the world needs to work that I’ve missed a whole part of it.” Sandra in Compliance chooses and will continue to hold onto, “You would have done the same thing if you were in my shoes,” instead of, “Oh my god…” It will be very interesting to see what happens with Lydia. You see it already crumble in a way. Her enemy quite frankly, and I don’t think she knows it, is attachment that is based on love. Love is the strongest force in the world and when you love someone, you suddenly stop judging and you stop holding onto, “well, this is what’s going to happen to you,” because you see that person as an individual. Each of us is different. She took Janine’s eye out. I think when she does damage to these girls she says, “They took a punishment for all of us.” When she does that I think she sees herself as their shepherd in life and keeps a keen eye on those who have been damaged and gives them a little more support than the others, because they need it. Janine really needs it. She’s not stable, she’s not doing well in this world, and I think Lydia is very key on “Come on honey. You got pregnant. Look at that miracle, come on honey, hang in there. Now you’ve got a new place we’re going to go to.” My point simply is, I think a rigid world begins to crumble when you let go of fear and you make a move towards love. I think this is creeping on her slowly but surely. I have no idea where Bruce and the writers will take it.

There seem to be more great roles for women of your age on television now than there has ever been. Why do you think that is?

I think writers have been waiting in the wings for an opportunity, for chance, for an opportunity to get those things out there and now there are so many opportunities. Cable, streaming, there’s just more opportunities. It’s always been there, that kind of material and now there’s a chance to get it out there. Now we see that people are actually interested in the material. They do respond to these characters, they want more depth in what they’re seeing, they want more pieces of real life and I think that it’s all there for the taking.

Seasons 1-3 of The Leftovers are available on demand and to stream on HBO GO, and the entire first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is now available to stream on Hulu. 

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.