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How Ann Dowd crafted two of TV’s most disturbing characters without losing herself in the process

“Don’t sign on to the notion that you need to suffer in order for this to be good.”

Dowd as the menacing Aunt Lydia on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Hulu

Over the past few years, audiences have become intimately acquainted with actress Ann Dowd’s ability to portray agents of evil with a humanity that makes her characters even more compelling because you can see glimpses of who they were in a life long since past. As cult leader Patti Levin on The Leftovers and stern educator Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, the veteran stage and screen actress has brought dimensionality and deftness to these characters.

“My best friend told me once, ‘You know, you’re just going to play nuns.’ I was incensed,” Dowd tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff in the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “I haven’t seen her in quite a while, and I’d like to say, ‘I’m not playing nuns right now.’”

While her recent characters are far from saintly, Dowd is diligent in not letting their wickedness consume them, or her. In the case of Aunt Lydia, she says she considers what the character’s life was like before the events of the show began.

“I asked [Handmaid’s Tale producer and writer] Bruce Miller, ‘What did you think she was before?’ He said a teacher, and right away it sparked something immediately,” Dowd says. “You could imagine her teaching, perhaps in an all-girls school or a public school, and being made fun of and mocked as the teacher with values as Lydia saw the world in front of her fall apart.”

When VanDerWerff asks her whether she feels like we all have the capacity to be a Lydia or Patti depending on the circumstances, Dowd tells a story from college that has always stuck with her as a humorous yet dangerous example of the power of groupthink.

“I did something once in college, and I think of this from time to time. We were all in the cafeteria and there was a food fight. It was a big group, so somehow that personal responsibility gets shifted to the group mentality of, ‘Well, we’re all doing it,’” she says. “And I threw a tomato at somebody — right at them — and I still look back and think, ‘You could’ve hurt them.’ But I just sailed away with it.”

Now that she works with a lot of younger actors, such as the women who play the Handmaids, Dowd tries to share the perspective she’s gained on how to keep the weight of a role from becoming all-consuming:

It is not in my best interests as an actor to stay in that place; to me, that depletes the freshness and the energy. Other actors work differently, [but] when I see young actors do that, I get very concerned, and sometimes I speak up even if I’m not asked. I say, “You know, darling, you don’t have to suffer.” … The process of getting a role or understanding a role or finding a way to perform the role to your ability, those are all things that will have a certain amount of struggle in them. But just don’t sign on to the notion that you need to suffer in order for this to be good. I don’t believe in that.

Dowd says part of what’s helped her achieve that sense of perspective and balance is being a parent; she has two sons and a daughter with her husband, actor Lawrence Arancio.

“My little boy is 12, and he wants his mother at home. Handmaid’s is in Toronto, Good Behavior — which is another series I’m working on that I love — is in North Carolina, and I’ve got to find a way to get right back, because I’m responsible for him,” she says. “That’s my first priority, so that’s very difficult to balance that, but to step away from that singular focus on ‘I must spend all my time with the work.’ I don’t think [that mentality] is productive.”

Dowd also says that playing these outsider characters has given her insight into sections of our society that the media often doesn’t pay attention to.

“It’s always been my favorite place, for whatever reason. The loner, the one who never fit in, who thought in peculiar and strange ways, who survived somehow and found a way to make their life meaningful. I love those people, deeply,” she said, recalling a William Mastrosimone play she did called The Woolgatherer. “By all accounts, [my character] should have been dead but isn’t. She found a way through, with damage.”

Listen to the full I Think You’re Interesting conversation with Dowd for more about what it was like to shoot The Handmaid’s Tale in the shadow of Trump, Dowd’s thoughts on her short-lived cult hit Nothing Sacred 20 years later, and what it’s like to finally be offered roles after years of auditioning.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.