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.