Queen of dystopian TV reigns supreme in 'The Leftovers' and 'The Handmaid's Tale'
If it weren’t for Ann Dowd, two of the year’s best shows might’ve lacked the signature bite that made critics — and audiences — bark in support of both projects’ Emmy prospects.
Despite a 32-year career on screens big (she fronted her own Oscar campaign for the 2012 Sundance drama Compliance) and small (she’s appeared in everything from Girls and True Detective to Masters of Sex), Dowd has yet to bag a nomination from the Television Academy, something that could change this year if voters do justice to her supporting turns as the conservative oppressor Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the abused cultist Patti Levin in HBO’s The Leftovers — both of which have sustained relevance in today’s increasingly contentious political climate.
“I think of the show’s quote, ‘We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late,'” Dowd tells EW of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s newly forged legacy, which continues to gain relevance as Donald Trump’s presidency draws increasing ire from the outspoken left. “What we can do with The Handmaid’s Tale is put a voice to despair, to [inform others] to stay awake and alert. This is not the time to sit back and say, well, it’s not going to get any worse. This is the time to stand up every single time and say, no, not happening… to think that there’s such a large component of our country in leadership that doesn’t see the whole picture is a reason to be concerned, and The Handmaid’s Tale puts a name and a face to [the struggle]… The courage of those handmaids to stay alive and fight back, that’s inspiring.”
While Lydia — shepherd of the show’s titular characters who, amid a terrifying, grim dystopian future, bear children against their will for the wealthy elite — represents a memorably imposing reminder of the dangers of unchecked power in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s Dowd’s work on HBO’s criminally under-watched drama The Leftovers, which concluded its third and final season on June 4, that paints perhaps the most vivid portrait of her skills as a performer, registering one of the most consistently dynamic performances on the contemporary TV landscape. The series, like Dowd, has yet to emerge on the Emmy radar.
“It asks you to go to a place we typically want to run from. We don’t want to sit with grief, the unknown, or loss. Because The Leftovers is not a linear experience… it hits us on a level that is unconscious,” Dowd speculates on why the Damon Lindelof/Tom Perrotta series hasn’t made a splash on the awards circuit. “It’s painful, it’s brilliant, and it will change you. It will change the way you look at your life and your experience. It changed my whole way of looking at characters.”
While she initially dismissed the pilot’s script, she notes she revisited it several times with a newfound patience, and the experience of filming eventually changed her perspective on the craft of acting, opening her mind to portraying characters that aren’t always immediately relatable or easy to digest.
Dowd ultimately grew so attached to Patti — who begins season 1 as the leader of the Guilty Remnant, a nefarious group of white-clothed minions who serve as living reminders of the mysterious disappearance of two percent of the world’s population — she cried for three days upon learning of Patti’s shocking demise. Luckily for her (and for us), the character would live on as a mainstay presence in subsequent episodes.
“If you [stay with the show], it will change you in the best way. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that people are going to flock to because it’s a challenge,” Dowd admits. “That’s the best thing to go right toward because to me, entertainment is what engages me, what challenges me, what makes me feel, even if I don’t want to feel it… what moves me is something that engages the soul, but that comes with a price: Here, that is the question of can I sit with grief? For a lot of people, the answer is not right now, maybe later.”
For now, however, here’s hoping the Television Academy answers the call appropriately.
Read on for EW’s complete conversation with Dowd. Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming in full on Hulu, while every episode of The Leftovers is available now on HBOGo.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s so shocking to me that The Leftovers hasn’t received any Emmy nominations to date. Why do you think people are so apprehensive about it?
ANN DOWD: It asks you to go to a place we typically want to run from. We don’t want to sit with grief, the unknown, or loss. Because The Leftovers is not a linear experience… it hits us on a level that is unconscious. It’s painful, it’s brilliant, and it will change you. It will change the way you look at your life and your experience. It changed my whole way of looking at characters. When I first read it, I said, “What is this departure nonsense? What do you mean, departure? No one’s departing. Stop it.” I put the script down. I said I wasn’t interested. I read it again, and something changed inside… once we started filming, I was so in. I will never get over this character, and I didn’t realize how attached I was until I found out she was going to die [in season 1]. Then, I thought, oh, no. I can’t bear it. I can’t lose it.
If you [stay with the show], it will change you in the best way. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that people are going to flock to because it’s a challenge. That’s the best thing to go right toward because to me, entertainment is what engages me, what challenges me, what makes me feel, even if I don’t want to feel it… what moves me is something that engages the soul, but that comes with a price: Here, that is the question of can I sit with grief? For a lot of people, the answer is not right now, maybe later.
In “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” why was it so important for Kevin and Patti to end on the note they did?
They see each other’s fears, vulnerabilities, grief, and how they hide from their lives. When two people do that, without armor, intimacy results, and that’s a rare experience. They’re an unlikely couple… this is a love story because these are people who can be with each other without hiding. The journey for her in season 1 is… she comes into strength and courage, and commits 1,000 percent to what she believe… and the result of that is killing herself. [In season 2] she releases the burden of her life, which is when she had an opportunity to leave the abuse, but didn’t do it, and that’s the burden she carries with her. She lets go of it with Kevin’s help… That’s something she can’t do on her own. Season 3 is about her returning the favor. She says, Kevin, you need to stop hiding… That place you go to escape from your life? We’re going to blow it up, and we’re going to do it together. I’m going to be right by your side. I’m going to take the step you’re not able to take on your own, and… you’re going to live your life.
The Patti in that episode still feels totally evolved from the Patti we saw in season 1, but was there something essential you tried to preserve across her entire arc, even across all of those dynamic iterations you performed?
[A lot of it’s] in the writing. Characters are alive, and once they’re created, they’re waiting for you to be the vessel that presents them. So, if she’s written well and you’ve put the time in, she’s not going anywhere. You do your work, you say your prayers, and you [ask her to] not leave. There were times when I felt she had left me and I didn’t know where she was. Of course, the connection you want is not the conscious connection, but it’s the unconscious connection — that’s what rules the day. [I latched on to] squaring off with her grief. This series, among many other things, gets to the core of grief, so for Patti… it was about what it’s like to be a survivor, and… and moving through into a place of strength… I kept going back to that place… [In season 3], she’s dropped her burdens. They’re gone. She’s come through the other side… There was a consistency in that.
So you feel as if you and the writers did Patti justice at the end of season 3?
I think so. The release of her physical life in the first season, and then the release of her emotional burden in the second, and then, in season 3, being the one who really did something for somebody else because she took care of her own situation, [is made more powerful because she] did it with the help of an unlikely, true friend.
Why do you think The Handmaid’s Tale resonates with people now more than it did, say, five years ago?
The danger is so much closer. When Trump was campaigning, I thought it was a joke… he can’t even complete a sentence that doesn’t have the word “me” in it. I wasn’t taking it seriously, and that’s a red flag: not reading the current correctly. There’s a strong component of this country that was unhappy, dissatisfied, and ready to believe what was coming out of this man’s mouth. It’s the same with The Handmaid’s Tale. I think of the show’s quote, “We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.” [When Trump was] elected, I was texting [costar Elisabeth Moss]. We were in despair. We were writing back and forth in Latin, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” which, of course, is in the show. What we can do with The Handmaid’s Tale is put a voice to despair, to [inform others] to stay awake and alert. This is not the time to sit back and say, well, it’s not going to get any worse. This is the time to stand up every single time and say, no, not happening… to think that there’s such a large component of our country in leadership that doesn’t see the whole picture is a reason to be concerned, and The Handmaid’s Tale puts a name and a face to [the struggle]… The courage of those handmaids to stay alive and fight back, that’s inspiring.
Lydia is part of that cycle of oppression, but she seems to genuinely believe she’s doing something good. How do you approach painting her as a character?
I asked Bruce Miller, the wonderful showrunner, what [Lydia] did in her prior life. He said he thought she was a schoolteacher, and that resonated so strongly with me. I could imagine her in a girl’s school, watching the demise of a respectful culture, the promiscuity, the drugs, the alcohol, the rampant sex, just watching the pollution kill the gifts God gave us… Anyone who adheres so strongly to a position, there’s gotta be a red flag that goes up immediately. She is a full believer that her solace is the Bible, [but] I think the handmaids are her life. She genuinely loves them and feels responsible for them, and she knows if she doesn’t get that message across, they will not survive. I believe she wants to shepherd them through this experience… Lydia feels responsible for them. Her greatest challenge will be that she’s going to attach to them, and once you attach, the heart takes over, and all those rules and regulations begin to dissolve and their hold on a creature lessens, because love is more powerful.