The 2017 Emmys Belong To Ann Dowd, Peak TV's Greatest Secret Weapon

One last reminder that the actress, up for two acting Emmys in two separate series this year, has long been a key ingredient to television success.

Ann Dowd is peak TV’s secret weapon.

Not that the longtime actress’s power is unknown. She’s been hailed widely for her roles in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and HBO’s “The Leftovers” ― and she’s appropriately nominated for a 2017 Emmy Award for both. (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and Best Drama Guest Actress, respectively.) But whether she was playing the wickedly devout Aunt Lydia in Bruce Miller’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book, or the largely speechless, yet wildly intimidating cult leader, Patti, in Damon Lindelof’s series based off Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, she delivers something more than just a statue-worthy performance.

Across her many roles on TV (not to mention her beloved parts in films like “Compliance”), Dowd seems to bottle all the necessary elements of prestige entertainment into one body. Toss her into a series mix ― preferably, as the quasi-villain to the storied anti-hero of your dystopia ― and she’ll provide the pitch-perfect acting your well-lit drama needs. The best part is that her effectiveness doesn’t rest on scripted violence or gratuitous nudity; rather, her unrivaled elocution and unmissable grimaces are capable of captivating your senses for just as long as those other prestige fallbacks. Forget the 13 rules, just get yourself an Ann who can emote like millions of regularly engaged fans are watching. 

Need further proof of her power? Here are just a few more prestige shows and miniseries she’s graced with her presence: “Masters of Sex,” “Olive Kitteridge,” “True Detective,” “Girls.” (If you need a reminder, Dowd’s turn as an emotionally-stunted woman in an incestuous relationship with the series’ killer on “True Detective” Season 1 is fantastically distressing.) Before that, she was featured on fan-favorite shows like “Freaks and Geeks,” “X-Files” and “The Baby-Sitters Club.” Ann is everywhere.

Ahead of the 2017 Emmy Awards, airing on NBC on Sept. 17, we spoke to Dowd about her banger of a year, the possibility of learning more about Aunt Lydia in “Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, and the undeniable empathy of “The Leftovers.” While she might be more humble when it comes to her star capacity, she’s willing to explain how feeling like “the one who just does not fit in” helped her to stick her landings.

Hi, Ann! I was just on hold with some ominous music playing, and I wish I was more fluent in classical music, but I feel like it was very appropriate to talk to the actress behind Lydia and Patti.

Oh, my god, yeah. I bet that was intentional. No, I’m kidding. Wow.

So you have had quite a year in two very different, but two very culturally relevant television shows. So I wanted to ask you about both of them. But I’ll start with “Handmaid’s Tale”: Have you started shooting Season 2 yet?

No we don’t start until, I believe, mid-September. Yes, it’s nice. I’ve finished a series called “Good Behavior,” which is wonderful. And that was in North Carolina. It’s with Michelle Dockery, do you know it? And Juan Botto and Terry Kinney? It’s a terrific show with TNT, but I hope people see it because they’re so darn good. Anyway, and then we go into “Handmaid’s Tale.”

I was pretty excited to read Bruce Miller tell The New York Times that Aunt Lydia is one of his most fascinating characters and that he would like to explore her backstory more in Season 2. During the filming of Season 1, did you start to come up with your own theories about Lydia’s origins?

That’s a great question. I asked Bruce early, before we began shooting, how did he see her life before Gilead? And he said, “Well, I think she was a teacher.” And that made tremendous sense of course ― huge sense. And I thought, wow, I can just imagine her in a Catholic girls school or, say, a public school, watching the world go to hell. Meaning ― the disrespect, the promiscuity, the drug use, the pollution, religion having gone out of the lives of young people. You can imagine her just watching all this go down and thinking there’s got to be a way to salvage this world.

I think of her as having kind of a lonely life, really. She’s a loner, I think. Not a lot of friends, not a lot of social life. I think her church is her refuge. When you think of someone who has such a narrow view of life ― a rigid holding onto the Bible in its most extreme ― you wonder, where does that person come from? What creates that level of rigidness? Did she herself suffer a loss, did she have a baby, did she have an abortion, did she have men who mistreated her, that she had to absolutely shut down and promise God that she wouldn’t abandon him? Do you know what I mean? Going on those lines of, what brought her to this place of extreme beliefs? When you look around and you meet people in your life and think, wow, how did you get there? How did you get to that place where you exclude so much of what is evident in the world? Surely you can’t think that all people are going to fit into your way of thinking. But it’s a serious question, and I always think there’s got to be some level of ... there’s a reason why things are oppressed, let’s just put it that way. And I’m sure Lydia has her reasons.

I think what makes her so fascinating is that she’s a complex villain on the show. We see her preside over these vicious scenes like the salvaging, but we also see her in these pretty stunning moments of gentleness, particularly when it comes to the character of Janine. Did you ever think about the more gentle, mundane parts of her backstory, like what hobbies she might have been interested in?

That’s interesting. I think she loves, loves, loves to teach students and give them a level of understanding. And so she is very drawn to them and isn’t there to hurt them. I think she takes that very seriously and wants to protect them. As to what her hobbies might have been, well, maybe she’s a gardener. You know, and I kind of think of her with a sort of solitary life. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was probably a very fine Mahjong player or bridge player. I think she’s very, very bright and has her church circle. I think these are relatively solitary endeavors, you know? Trips to the country, explore the Vatican.

One of the last times we saw Lydia, she was in a pretty exasperating situation. She’d just ordered the handmaids to stone Janine only to have them band together and refuse. At this point, do you think Lydia is starting to see the light a little bit? Or do you think this is sort of the beginning of her doubling back down on her devotion?

I think she’s in some form of panic and wondering how in the world this could have happened. How did they miss the boat? How did they not realize the severity of what was happening, and the shift that was underway? I think that she’s going to reinvest, for sure. This just is not acceptable on any level. I mean, things in life are hard. I imagine her feeling, you know, the stoning and so on and so forth. She was very, very conflicted about it herself. But in the end, you don’t just change the plan because something is difficult. And I think the reaction of the girls was unacceptable to her, and I think it really threw her, completely threw her. And she’s regrouping and I think she’s panicking.

Obviously you’ve all been asked a lot about the show’s relevance throughout the series’ first season, and we’re seeing a lot of religiously motivated legislature popping up in state congresses across the country since, particularly related to reproductive rights. For you, did sitting with the story of “The Handmaid’s Tail” over the past year influence the way you digested current events?

Yes. You know, it’s just so hard to believe that people could make a choice to control others and to repress others and then all in the name of God. I am baffled by that. Those who claim to be pro-life. When I think of those in the “far right” or those who are pro-life to the extreme, and at all costs protect the unborn, the thing that enrages me is you want to ask everyone of them: How many foster children are in your home now? What children who have no family, who have no one supporting them, or sticking up for them, or educating them, or loving them ― how many are in your home? How dare you picket and repress, and take into your own or try to take into your own hands others’ rights. Why don’t you pay attention to what is around you? To the issues that surround you? I find it baffling, and really deeply upsetting.

The show has inspired more than a few women across the country to dress up in handmaid robes and protest in congresses in Missouri, Ohio, Texas and California. Was it surprising to you that the show had such an impact on activism?

I was so thrilled. And that was the hope, you know? When someone puts a name and a face to something and says here’s what, it just opens the door to more. That would be the hope. Yes, you can speak up, there is a way! I love that about it so much and that certainly doesn’t surprise me. It just thrills me, actually.

While Handmaid’s Tales had more of a direct connection to current affairs in the U.S., I think that “The Leftovers” has had a different kind of cultural relevance. For me, its relevance was a bit more emotional. It sort of captured this feeling of desperation and anguish that seems to dial into something universal about our present day. Did you feel that or consider that at all when you were playing Patti?

Yes, yes, I agree with you. Because haven’t we all been in that place of panic, and repression? How can I move forward here, what am I going to do? Oh yes, and to see that there is a way to survive, there is a way always to move forward. I don’t say always ― think of those who have lost their lives, think of what goes on all over the world for refugees. It’s so desperate. But yes, I do think [“The Leftovers”] gets right to the core of it. And there’s something, if you’ll forgive the term, that entertainment provides ― something beyond a way to forget your life for a moment. It offers you a chance to think more deeply about your life. To just connect to it, and sit with it, and say, “Wow, how can I move forward with this?”

That to me was a gift in “The Leftovers,” as well. How do you sit with grief? How do you sit with loss and not run from it? How do you let go? And with “Handmaid’s,” [how do you] identify the repression, stay awake, stay alert? Don’t think someone else is going to do it for you. Look up from your phone. Take action. Fight for the small rights, because they build very quickly into the difference between life and death.

The characters that you play in “Handmaid’s” and “Leftovers” ― they have some similarities to varying degrees. They’re both part of cults, and they’re portrayed as villainous or counters to the protagonists. Were you drawing any parallels between the characters of Lydia and Patti?

Well, of course they’re very different human beings, and they come from different lives. Of course, don’t we all? What they have in common, I think, is that they found their true strengths and agency in committing to these various beliefs. Patti, for the first time in her life, became the leader she was meant to be. I think she lived an entirely repressed life, an abusive life, and no one gave her any credit for anything. And she knew something was going to happen, and when it did actually happen, that woke her right up and she stepped straight into her place of power and strength and confidence and leadership. And she was able to commit fully to the end, which was taking her life. Lydia similarly, she was in it for the long haul. She will, I think, go to the mat and stay there until the job is done.

Do you think that you’re personally drawn to acting in roles like these ― strong, agency-driven women ― or do they sort of just find you?

Well, it’s a good question. It would seem that way, that these roles have come to me. And how phenomenal; they’ve fascinated me and you jump on board quickly. I guess I could say I’m drawn to the loner, the outside, the one that just does not fit in, never has, probably never will. I think they’re beautiful creatures, and they move me every time. So to be able to participate in the life of someone like that, it just means the world to me, honestly.

If you could take on a role in TV or film that’s outside the realms of Patti and Lydia and these beautiful outsiders, do you have an idea of what that would be?

Well, I would love to do Joan of Arc. Now Joan of Arc is [a teenager], but there was some great British actress who said you can only be too young to play Joan. I’m hoping that’s true. [George Bernard] Shaw’s “Saint Joan” is what I’m speaking of. But yeah, I just think I’ve always been drawn to her. I love her.