While Dowd’s nomination is one of 11 for the former series, hers is the sole recognition this year for The Leftovers‘ final season—and, in fact, the first nomination the excellent drama has ever received.
Looking at Dowd’s characters in these series—the formidable Aunt Lydia and Patti Levin, respectively—certain similarities present themselves. Both are dark characters operating within dark, dystopian worlds, in each case, bolstered by Dowd’s bone-chilling gravitas. With each character, though—however frightening they may be—the actress looks for motivation, backstory and the events that made them who they are, effortlessly playing up subtle moments of pathos to create the full tableaux.
Speaking with Deadline, Dowd gives her own insights into Lydia’s as-yet unseen former life, touching on a creatively fertile present moment when “actors of all ages, sizes, colors and creeds” can be embraced.
Had you read Margaret Atwood’s novel prior to taking on The Handmaid’s Tale?
I had read it when it came out, in the ‘80s at some point. I was very struck by it then. The writing, of course, is fantastic. The story was unnerving. And I remember thinking, “Ugh, can you imagine if this ever happened? Thank God this is way out there.” Then, I got a call that they were going to do a series—I read it and thought that Bruce Miller really got the core of the novel, and the adaptation was so strong.
Lydia’s a very fascinating character, so I jumped right on immediately.
Aunt Lydia and The Leftovers’ Patti Levin are two very distinct villain types with great intensity to them. Do you pursue roles of this nature or have they come to you?
They just have come my way. If you were to ask me what kind of roles I’m drawn to, I would say loners, ones that never fit in, that have tremendous strength and tremendous burden. I guess for an actor, it is what comes your way, at least for me, but these are very fascinating roles to me. I can’t say I ever sat down and said, “I gotta get villains under my belt. Let me go there.” But it’s wonderful and kind of thrilling to jump onto that train.
There were times when we’d be shooting The Handmaid’s Tale, and these young women—these wonderful handmaids—were all in a group. They hadn’t read the script because they’re not given the script. They know what they’re there to do, but I don’t think they had the whole script. To be able to play that and even improv before we began shooting scared the wits out of them.
To get everybody on the same page, that’s kind of fun, and then of course you let them know, “I’m just kidding.” But if anyone was slouching…[slipping into character] “You. What are you looking at?”
As a female character in power, Aunt Lydia occupies a unique space within the world of this show. What were the aspects of the character that compelled you?
If you were to ask me, do my beliefs line up with hers? No, of course they don’t. However, what I appreciate about her is her work ethic. I think she most likely was an only child who wasn’t paid much attention to. When someone has such a rigid way of thinking and believing, you wonder, how did you get to that place? Did Lydia get pregnant at 18 and have an abortion, and never could forgive herself? Never told anybody?
I think she is all in with the religious part of it. If, in fact, she did do something she felt she could never be forgiven for, her attachment to the Bible, to a very conservative lifestyle, has been paramount for her. I think Bruce Miller mentioned she was a teacher in her former life—can’t you imagine her in an all-girls school, or in a public school, watching the promiscuity, the language, the disrespect of authority, the disrespect for the Bible? Can you imagine her being mocked every second? “Oh, here she comes,” and nothing I said would matter to them.
Seeing the world just fall apart, I’m sure Gilead had those weekly or nightly meetings as we were taking shape, and she was front and center. “I am going to commit.” She was primed for that job, born to do it.
I was educated by Catholic sisters, growing up. None, of course, were like Lydia, and I say that really forcefully. Nuns get a bad rap of being mean, hitting with the ruler—none of that—but teaching me what it means to do what is expected of you, to do it thoroughly, and not to assume you can just do it halfway.
Lydia has that, and I think she takes it deeply seriously that the fate of these girls is in her hands. “If I can’t get through to them and let them know how they’re going to live and survive, then I haven’t done my job.”
That’s where, like Patti, Aunt Lydia becomes a sympathetic character. She is a tool of the system that is oppressing these women, but she is also protecting them from a worse fate.
They’re going to go to the colonies, and that’ll be the end of it. It’s in the trenches, where pollution is completely out of control. In my head, it’s where you go when you’ve got to put on the Hazmat, basically, to clean up this mess or that mess. I think of North Korea, that kind of life where you’re in the mud. Wherever you are, it is grueling, and you won’t survive.
But I also think, to her: “Girls, wake up. This world fell apart for a reason, and now you have a chance to rethink your lives and be of use to the world, and honor God in the following ways. You are the luckiest creatures on this earth. You can still bear children. That’s the greatest gift God ever gave a woman.” I think she’s all in there.
For whatever is repressed in her, she’s operating from that place of, “Look at your opportunity here. You’re the luckiest among us, and we will get this done together. It looks like I’m your enemy. I’m not your enemy.”
Though The Handmaid’s Tale and The Leftovers are quite different in tone, they’re both set in bleak, dystopian worlds. What has it been like to inhabit such an emotional space as you’ve worked on these series?
The atmosphere on set is wonderful. With Handmaid’s, Lizzie [Moss] has a terrific sense of humor, as do most of the cast. You don’t stay in that place.
Has it felt like a playful endeavor?
Oh, heck yeah. Once the camera’s rolling and we’re doing the work, it’s a different matter, but you’ve got to get out of that when they cut. Then, you relax, we talk and we’re a good group together—easy, fun conversation. The hours are very long, so you’ve got to find a way to keep yourself present. On The Leftovers, most of my time is with Justin [Theroux], who’s my soul mate for life.
It’s unusual to see a show like The Leftovers where beloved characters can be brought back from death itself. What has it meant to you to be able to return to the show every season?
As I’ve said before regarding The Leftovers, I will never really get over that show. Because of the nonlinear nature of it—the fact that you’re being asked to accept that process—you don’t really know where it’s going. By that, I don’t even mean the storyline. I mean emotionally. The writers take you to places you didn’t necessarily sign up for, the way the story unfolds and the brilliance of the context in which they place these characters.
I don’t even know where to start—I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this in this way. When I first read this script, The Leftovers, I was like, “What?” I mean it. What? What is the Departure? I really went, “Eh.” Didn’t get it. Dismissed it, quite honestly.
My agent said, “Okay, why don’t you just have another look?” Probably going, “Ugh. Didn’t know she was that dumb.” Then I read it again. I thought, “Oh, okay. Kind of interesting.” Then, I started doing it, so attached to it, I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t even realize how attached. It works on you from the inside immediately.
We’re on Episode 5 and I’m thinking, “Ugh, she’s amazing,” this character. I found out she’s going to die—I get the email in the morning. Thank God it was an email. I went immediately to my husband in the kitchen and said, “Does it say what I think it says?” He said, “Yeah, it does.” Three days, I wept—couldn’t believe it was happening. Back and forth with Damon, how it’s all going to happen and so on.
I came to such a close place with him—I love that man. That’s the thing that happens here. I don’t know him well personally, but I will be attached to him for the rest of my life. Justin Theroux, I don’t have words.
As far as the Emmys, this year feels like a great one for women, with so many terrific performances being celebrated—including two from you. Have you seen a radical shift in your career, in the kinds of roles available for women?
In my earlier career, it was mostly theater. The same kind of restrictions about one’s look don’t necessarily apply in the theater, so you get to get your sea legs with terrific roles: Shaw, a little Shakespeare, not too much.
I began to do film a little bit later, television. I didn’t really know what was out there. You just say, “Focus on this job, and then the next job.” But I can tell you that now, I feel much more comfortable in the roles. Maybe it’s just because I’m older now, and I have some perspective. There’s so many more opportunities, so much more content. It’s just like, “Ah, okay.”
It starts with the writers. The way, for instance, Damon writes characters, that character is the same—first season, second season. In totally different contexts, he’s kept that consistency.
There are a number of other actors like you this year who have put in the work for a long time and are finally getting their due notice. What do you think that reflects?
Again, there’s now so much more opportunity, so many more varied stories. There’s somehow permission to tell a story in a different way with actors of all ages, sizes, colors, and creeds. Before, there was a limited number of stories that were acceptable to be told. Now, there is no limit.
I think once that happens, actors are ready and waiting to step in. If you’ve held on and kept your focus on the work, which is the only way to do it, and this incredibly good fortune happens, of course it feels great.
To see these actors who I know, and have been working hard, staying sharp, staying aware, it’s just deeply satisfying, the gratitude one feels. You don’t go into this business saying, “You know what’s going to give me pleasure? The awards.”
You can lose your way on that, may I say. You can lose your focus. But if you stay focused, the disappointments will come—and as The Leftovers teaches us, sit with it. Don’t run from it, it will pass, and you’ll move forward.