Ann Dowd on Grieving ‘The Leftovers’ and Creating Backstory for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Ann Dowd Variety Facetime Conversation
Caitlin Cronenberg for Variety

Ann Dowd is having quite the year. She became a first time Emmy winner for her role as re-educator Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” but was also nominated for her guest starring work on HBO’s “The Leftovers” in its final season, and also had an arc on TNT’s “Good Behavior.” Dowd considers the 2012 film “Compliance” the turning point in her career that led to all of this more recent success. “It increased visibility,” she says. “Suddenly there was more attention, and that led to the next thing, and those things have been very good.”

What were your initial impressions when you first got the script for “The Leftovers?”

You know, when I first read “The Leftovers,” I was one of those idiots – and I’ll just admit it – I didn’t get it. So I immediately said to my agent, “I’ve got to tell you, I just don’t get it. The Departure? What is that about?” And he took a beat, he didn’t say anything, and he was probably thinking, “Oh my God, how are we going to proceed here?” But what he said instead was, “Well, it’s a HBO series shooting in New York, so maybe you want to have another read.” And it was the beat he took between what I said and his answer that really said to me I should take another look here. So I read it again and thought she was really interesting. And then I went in to, so to speak, read for the role because there wasn’t a lot of talking, and I thought that was a fascinating experience. Ellen Lewis was the casting director, and she’s something else; she’s amazing. So then I was really taken with it, but I didn’t even realize what a grip it had on me until we started shooting. I knew I was happy to be there and I was loving exploring not talking and what a phenomenal experience that was. You go into a room and don’t speak and the next thing you know you’re in charge of the room. It’s phenomenal!

Even though your character Patti died in the first season, the show found ways to bring you back through the end of the series. Did you know that was going to be the plan?

I was going along and I found out Patti was going to die – that she was going to kill herself – and I was crushed. I wept for three days. I couldn’t believe it. “No, no, I love her!” But I had to play the episode, so [I said], “Stop your weeping and get ahold of yourself.” Experiencing that is one of the most personally and artistically significant moments in my life because literally what Patti was going through and what I was trying to go through were the same thing, meaning “let go of attachment.” I didn’t want the role to end, but it was ending, and I had to accept it and experience it until its end. And that was what happened in the shooting of that episode. It was about letting go and sitting with the grief, which is the great gift “The Leftovers” gives us. You can’t run from it, there’s no point to it. So I’ll never get over her – that character. To this day it hits me in ways I don’t even realize, quite frankly. But then finding out I was coming back after I had let go was amazing.

How did your experience with that show influence the type of work you wanted next, to lead you specifically to “The Handmaid’s Tale?”

After the first season of “The Leftovers,” because of the depth of that material and because of where you go with it – and you may not even be able to name where you’re going with it because it’s on an unconscious level, it’s not a linear process – that is a fascinating experience, and you become hooked on it. And not to put it down in any way, but then it was very different to read a more straightforward approach to storytelling. But then “Handmaid’s” came along and “Good Behavior,” and “Good Behavior” was so appealing because I thought, “Wow, I’ve never played a role like that.” And I liked how bizarre and quirky and odd she was. She had a lot going on there, and what a great group that is! And with “Handmaid’s” I had read the novel, and it wasn’t so much that I was looking for any particular thing, but Bruce got it so right. I thought I could get my head around this woman and get to love her, more to the point. I had a deep interest in her, and that deep interest, I think, is the beginning of what could be a very loving relationship. In general, between an actor and a character there needs to be a falling in love, if you will – which I’m saying in quotes.

Where do you fall regarding Nora’s story in the finale of “The Leftovers?” Do you believe she actually traveled to an alternate world?

Here’s what I think – and Lindelof and [Tom] Perrotta, for writing the novel as well, were brilliant – whether it happened or not is irrelevant because what we know happened is however she came to grips with her grief and her loss, she found a place where she could say, “They are safe, they do not need me, they are living their own life, and I can go on now.” And the reason I love the way it’s presented is because it allows every one of us, as we do in life, to come to terms with our own grief and loss in whatever way we need to free us to move on. And that to me is extraordinary.

Patti was not a very sympathetic character in “The Leftovers,” and Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of Gilead’s villains. How do you approach such characters to make them relatable to you?

It’s a relationship, so like any friendship, you introduce yourself slowly. You have to have an awareness because no one is going to open up if you are judging them, no way. So your hope is to reach a level of understanding so you can fight their battles for them. “Let me know your grief and your fear, and we’ll move forward together.” The writer gives us all of this, but then we add sound and body to it. Without getting too abstract, that’s the approach.

They’re both very complex women whose present-day upsetting choices are obviously informed by their pasts, yet little is known about Lydia’s past thus far on “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

I love, love that they’re loners. That’s always appealed to me. They’re outsiders. They don’t fit. Lydia fits now, in Gilead, but she didn’t before in her life; she was probably made terrible fun of. I asked Bruce Miller what he thought she did before, and he said, “I think she was a teacher.” And I thought, “Oh that makes all the sense in the world.” You can sort of imagine her teaching in an all girls’ school or maybe a public school, and being a very limited woman. Maybe she got pregnant at 14 and her parents shunned her and took that baby, and she said to God, “If you just give me one more chance I’ll never be bad again. I’ll do everything you ask of me.” Why do people go to hardcore divinity? There has to be a reason. I’m generalizing here, but if Lydia is a teacher, and they’re making fun of her with her long skirts or whatever it is and disrespecting her constantly, and everywhere she looks there are girls in low cut shirts. They’re going straight to hell; they’ve got no relationship to God. And in our world, the level of pollution is so extreme with birthrates falling. So I think she went all-in.

Is there concern that if Lydia’s backstory is actually explored in the second season it won’t be what you imagined? 

I’d love for there to be an episode about her backstory, but is there going to be? I don’t know. But there’s all kinds of ways to shift and to adapt, and no one knows what’s going on in your imagination and what this means to you or doesn’t mean to you. I think Bruce and I are pretty much on the same page, and whenever there’s new stuff or I’ve had questions, he’s had the answers, and I trust him. Just like with Lindelof, my God, you can’t be in better hands! Same with Chad [Hodge] on “Good Behavior.” They know what they’re doing. An actor’s job is not to fix the writing, so it’s a great relief to be in such good hands there.

What are some projects or characters you would point to as being particularly meaningful to you personally?

Most of the roles I think of are from the theater because when you’re in the theater rehearsing for a period of time, those experiences are extraordinary. The role is challenging, always. The last play I did was almost two years ago, “Night is a Room,” the Naomi Wallace play that Bill Rauch directed. It was challenging, and of the 60 shows or however many we did, I could say maybe five where we just landed in sync with all of the characters and the audience. It doesn’t happen often. To be able to fall into sync completely and let go of the control and just live in that light in that character with this audience is a wonderful thing.

After winning the Emmy, do you give more or less weight to awards buzz?

I was so grateful to win an Emmy, but just being nominated, it’s not overrated! I’ll say it straight out-loud. But where does our focus belong? It belongs on the work, and that’s true. Stay grounded, stay focused, and stay grateful – you have to, in every aspect of life, otherwise you can really fall off the rails. And when “Compliance” happened and there were talks of Oscar nominations, it took me into a world with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and it was traumatic in its way because it raises hopes that were so dormant for so long. Wherever the career wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, I would experience those disappointments and I would put them somewhere where I could say, “Come on now, you’re still working. Keep your focus where it belongs.” So that’s the struggle. When I won the Emmy the profound sense of gratitude when my name was said I cannot express enough. It was one of the most beautiful moments, hands down, of my life. But in regards to what comes ahead, I’m going to follow the path of keeping my mind on the work, doing the best work I can, and let the rest go.