Ann Dowd Talks ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘The Leftovers,’ Battling Stage Fright and Learning From Nuns

Actress Ann Dowd has become the face of a certain kind of evil with the unforgiving characters she plays on “Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Leftovers.” But her skill at being so convincing as a psychopath also allows her to limn everything from “Girls” to “Masters of Sex” to “Good Behavior” to Chekhov’s “The Seagull” on Broadway.

During a conversation Wednesday night hosted by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation in New York, Dowd talked about the highs and lows of long career and the years leading up to her personal Peak TV boom. Among the highlights from the Q&A with writer Bruce Fretts:

  • Dowd, who grew up in a large family in Holyoke, Mass., attended Catholic schools in her youth and has two aunts who are nuns in the Ursuline Sisters order. But contrary to how nuns are often portrayed, Dowd does not remember them as being cruel. The principle of her high school, Mother Claude, was a formidable presence. If Dowd hadn’t done her chores properly, such as sweeping a floor, she would be unceremoniously hauled out of basketball practice. “She was on me constantly,” Dowd recalled. But she valued the lessons learned from that experience. “You have a job to do so you do it to the best of your ability,” Dowd said. “Not just when you feel like it but every day.”
  • Dowd’s fearsome Aunt Lydia character in Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is a maniacal enforcer of the brutal laws of Gilead. Dowd said she asked showrunner Bruce Miller about Aunt Lydia’s backstory before the war. “Bruce said she was probably a schoolteacher,” she said. “That made so much sense to us.”
  • Dowd doesn’t hate Aunt Lydia. She doesn’t like what Lydia does most of the time, but she realizes that it comes from a place of twisted devotion and her “duty-bound nature.”
  • Dowd admitted to getting a kick out of surprising “Handmaid’s Tale” extras with her performance as Lydia, even when the cameras aren’t rolling. She’ll bellow at them and slam her cattle-prod device around “just to keep the world alive,” she said. “They’re thinking this is a nightmare and I’m only getting paid $100 for the day.”
  • A longtime New England Patriots fan, Dowd patterned some of Patti’s mannerisms after famed coach Bill Belichick.
  • Dowd was initially confused by the pilot script for HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She wasn’t sure what to make of the show, in which she played a leader of a cult that gains steam after 2% of the world’s population disappears. “What is this departure business,” she recalled thinking. Her manager pressed her to read the again and to remember that “this is an HBO show shooting in New York City and you have three kids,” she said. She came around after conversations with co-creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof once he explained that it was following a non-linear storyline. “Damon doesn’t volunteer information but if you write him he’ll clarify it beautifully,” she said.
  • The relationship between Dowd’s “Leftovers” character, Patti Levin, and Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey proved to be “a love story,” she said. “He sees her fear and she sees the same in him. The result is an intimacy that is rare in life.” She has nothing but affection for Theroux. “He will be in my life forever. I would throw myself in front of a train for him,” she said.
  • Dowd had a “Leftovers”-like moment early in her career when she was on her way to work as a waitress in Chicago and she passed a premiere event for the 1986 romantic comedy “About Last Night,” which featured her former classmate Elizabeth Perkins. “I went home and wept,” Dowd admitted. While sitting on her porch, she heard a voice from above tell her “You will be in your 50s” when success comes.
  • Dowd originally studied medicine in college. She resisted her family’s pressure to attend her father’s alma mater, College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. But when she learned her father was dying, she granted his wish. But she also continued to appear in plays. In her senior year, Dowd’s roommate encouraged her to apply to acting school. That led her to DePaul University in Chicago, where she became active in the city’s vibrant theater scene.
  • She met her husband of 32 years, actor Lawrence Arancio, during her first year at DePaul. She saw him performing with a scruffy beard in a production of “Antigone.” “I didn’t love the look but I said ‘That is my husband,’ ” she said.
  • After the couple moved to New York City in the 1980s, Dowd began getting TV and film roles. She played four different characters on “Law & Order” between 1991-2003. A supporting role in 1993’s “Philadelphia” was a big boost. But it was her role in the 2012 Sundance breakout “Compliance” that sent her into overdrive with key roles on “True Detective,” “Leftovers,” “Olive Kitteridge,” “Handmaid’s Tale,” “Good Behavior,” “Girls” and Broadway’s “The Seagull.”
  • Guest shots on TV shows are hard — really hard. “You’re a distant cousin and just here for the day,” she said. “It’s very hard. Everybody is trying to be nice to you.”
  • She played a nun on the 1997-98 ABC drama “Nothing Sacred,” which was the target of advertiser protests because it revolved around a priest who questions his commitment to his job. She still believes that there was “no reason” for the show to have been seen as controversial. “It was just real,” she said. “People are funny about religion.”
  • Dowd has long battled stage fright. During a period when she lived in Los Angeles, she went to a spiritual healer in Burbank who prescribed yoga and told her to lighten up. It was good advice, Dowd said. “You are trying to control the audience and their response to the performance,” Dowd recalled the woman explaining. “You are not receiving the help that is coming to you through the theater.”
  • The one type of role she’d still like to try is a multicamera sitcom. She’s been encouraged by working with “The Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons on the upcoming feature “A Kid Like Jake,” which also stars Claire Danes. When Parsons described his shooting schedule for “Big Bang,” Dowd could only think of her 12-15 hour days on “Leftovers” and “Handmaid’s Tale.” “You get to go home and have a life,” she marveled of sitcom work.

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