Ann Dowd on The Handmaid’s Tale: it’s a form of activism

by Mark Anderson
Comments are off for this post.

After a late-career renaissance with roles in The Handmaids Tale and The Leftovers, the actor explains why her work is defiant and how she got inspiration from an unlikely source: American football coach Bill Belichick

As Aunt Lydia in The Handmaids Tale, the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwoods 1985 dystopian novel, Ann Dowd is both terrifying and tender, a disciplinarian tasked with policing the fertile handmaids who bear children for the oppressive theocrats of Gilead. As Patti Levin on The Leftovers, she barely uttered a word in season one, playing the steely, chain-smoking leader of a doomsday cult thats sworn to silence. But if anyone can make the most of a largely inaudible character, its Dowd, who, with Pattis massive season two arc, became a star, that rare breed of actor who gets in the psychological trenches with stoic, gritty characters to reveal a hidden humanity.

Its been a very happy surprise, she tells me of her long-awaited breakout. All I ever wanted was a successful career as an actress.

How Dowd pulls it off makes sense only when we speak; her performances are so nuanced and immersive that their conception can seem unintelligible, a scrumptious meal with a secret recipe. But she found inspiration for Lydia and Patti in strange, unexpected places: a Yeats poem, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a former Catholic schoolteacher named Mother Claude. An actor of lesser ability might hyperbolize, turn Lydia and Patti into caricatures of cultish evil and ideological zeal, but not Dowd.

First of all, if youre playing a character, its a relationship, she tells me of her experience playing Aunt Lydia. And you better not move in with judgment because youre not going to get anywhere. Youre going to have a one-sided evil person, and then it becomes a horror movie where you can say, Thank God thats not real.

Dowd, 61, frequently slips into the first person when talking about her characters, which is immensely charming and a bit scary, especially when it seems like Aunt Lydias talking directly to me. Shes a human being. She loves those girls, shes devoted to their wellbeing, and its up to me to make sure they have a meaningful life, Dowd says. So lets stay sharp, girls. What were doing here is going to save your life.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaids Tale Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Dowd sees her role in The Handmaids Tale, which has re-emerged in the national consciousness as a frightening parable of Trumpism run amok, as a form of resistance: the better she plays it, the more impact itll have.

The day after Trump was elected I happened to be home in New York. I went to bed for the day, she says. I was texting Liz [co-star Elisabeth Moss], because I knew she was on set. I didnt know how she was working. And she said to me, because shes so smart and sharp: This is a form of activism, what were doing here. We must put our energy straight into this show.

Dowd and Moss would text each other an epigram from the novel: nolite te bastardes carborundorum, or dont let the bastards grind you down. She saw that same resolve in her aunts, both nuns, who informed her remarkable turn as Sister Aloysius in the play Doubt, and also in Belichick, whose impervious demeanor resembled that of Patti Levin.

I was always intrigued by Belichick, the fact that he didnt give a shit what anyone thought, says Dowd, who grew up in a family of pigskin fanatics. Not a lot of chatter, just get the job done. About three episodes in I thought, Who am I reminded of? Theres someone in me here. And it dawned on me: its Bill Belichick.

Dowd acted in plays throughout her time at the College of the Holy Cross but was a pre-med major, formerly educated at a Massachusetts Catholic school, where shed been bred to see theatre as a leisurely pursuit. It never occurred to me that something that gave you such joy could also be your lifes work, she says. Thats not how I was raised. Not that one has to suffer, but thats a hobby.

A lightbulb went off her senior year. My acting teacher, Don Hilko, said to me, You could do this, you know. Thats the phrase. Ill never forget the wording.

After graduating from DePaul Universitys Goodman School of Drama and working steadily in Chicagos regional theatre scene, Dowd moved to Manhattan, where small roles gradually made themselves available between what she refers to as periods of quiet. She goes on: I think of Sonya in [Chekhovs] Uncle Vanya: You must endure. I just put out of my head any thought of failure. Its not an option. Im not going down that road.

Dowd talks about Patti Levin and The Leftovers with awe and reverence, as if both came into her life as acts of divine vocational intervention. I tell her Ive been a bit disoriented since the shows series finale, a testament to how emotionally burdensome and gratifying its three seasons were.

The first time I read Leftovers I didnt get it at all, she says. The shows fantastical premise, in which 2% of the worlds population vanishes in a Rapture-like event, was too much like science fiction for her. I was dismissive. What do you mean, Departure? What the hell is that? Then I took another look at it and, as you know, once youre in, man, are you in.

Justin Theroux and Ann Dowd as Patti Levin in The Leftovers Photograph: HBO

Dowd watched the final two episodes back-to-back with her co-star Justin Theroux. We sat together in his apartment in New York and it was like time stopped, she says. Suddenly, it was two in the morning and I said to Justin, Where am I? It took me days to let go of it. Because you dont act it, you live it, you know? It just haunted me.

Dowd had practiced letting go. Her character, Patti, speaks for the first time in a speech she gives toward the end of season one. Its a thrilling scene she shares with Theroux in which Patti gives a stirring monologue, a sort of eulogy for the pre-Departure world, before splicing open her neck with a shard of glass.

When I found out she was going to die in the episode I was heartbroken, trying to rally with the fact that I was no longer going to be in The Leftovers, that this character I became so attached to was no longer going to be in my world. I was reading Yeats, who is my favorite poet. And there is a poem that I often go to where he wishes his beloved be at peace.

Dowds husband, the actor Larry Arancio, told her the poem, Michael Robartes Wishes His Beloved at Peace, was referencing the end of the world. I almost fell of my chair. I swear to God, I didnt know thats what it was about, she remembers, beginning to recite the poem in her wonderfully declarative timbre. I wrote it to Damon [showrunner Lindelof] to tell him how I was feeling about leaving and he said, She needs to say that. So it ended up being in the speech.

As it turned out, Dowds character would return for the following two seasons. I mean, my God, she tells me, almost overwhelmed by her recollections. The way The Leftovers works, the serendipity of that.


Share this article

Comments are closed.