Margo Martindale totally called it: This is Ann Dowd’s year. The actor, who has stealthily stolen scenes since her film Compliance, has been nominated for not one, but two Emmys, including Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama for her part as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, and another for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama for her role as Patti Levin in The Leftovers.
For the latter, she represents The Leftovers’ sole nomination throughout three critically adored seasons. (Damon Lindelof seems to be doing okay.) Vulture reached Dowd on the phone where she’s currently in Wilmington, North Carolina, shooting the second season of Good Behavior to talk about her double-nomination morning, and to have her give a eulogy for the dearly departed Leftovers.
Hi, Alex, how are you? [Laughs.]
I’m pretty good, but I have a feeling you’re doing better.
I don’t even have words quite honestly. I’m sort of roaming around my little place here in North Carolina pinching myself. That would describe it. It’s a cliché, but I don’t know how else to put.
How did you react when you first heard the news?
You’ll not get a full sentence out of me, because I kept reminding myself, “You know what, honey? Deep breath.” I felt some serious anxiety. I was thinking to myself [as] I literally walked around this morning at around 11 o’clock, “I’m grateful for my life, I’m grateful for my family and the work I have. However this goes, may I receive it with grace.” That’s literally what I said to myself. I cleaned the house. I rearranged all the furniture. I hung pictures in different places. I’m not even joking. It’s not even my house, mind you. I waited till 11:38, and I texted Adam [her publicist] and I said, “Has it happened?” He then called and said, “You got both.” I was just stunned and shocked sitting on my bed. Stunned and shocked. That does describe it. Then I moved onto happy and deeply grateful. Really grateful. That’s the big word here.
Does it feel particularly gratifying because you’ve worked so hard and so long in this industry?
You know what I think? I think so many actors work so hard all of their lives. I’m completely serious here: So many actors work hoping for the next job. To be given these nominations — lucky me. That’s what I want to say. So many deserve [this], you know what I mean? I don’t deserve it any more than so many. I happen to be in this situation now. It’s one of those really wonderful moments in life. I remember once saying, when I had done my first Broadway show and someone was talking to me about awards, “You know, deep down actors feel like, ‘I’d like an award each time I get up on the stage just for the courage alone.’” We had a good laugh.
Are you going to do anything to celebrate?
I’m afraid to go out of the house because I’m still walking two feet off the ground! My choice is a bicycle here in North Carolina, so I’m just thinking to myself, “Perhaps you should stay in.” I’m celebrating as you and I speak. That’s what I’m doing. I’m celebrating as I speak to you.
I’m sure you have some feelings about it, but other than you, The Leftovers got snubbed! If you were to give a eulogy for the show what would you say?
I think The Leftovers is one of the most extraordinary shows that has ever seen the light of day. That goes to Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Without Justin Theroux, there is no Patti. There is no anything. If it were in my hands I would have nominated every one of them. I think they are extraordinary, and the work is extraordinary, and it’s deserving of profound praise.
In my experience as an actor over so many years, I don’t know when I have been touched so deeply on so many levels as I have been by The Leftovers in my three years there. It is a profound exploration of life, of grief, of loss. It’s powerful on so many levels that it’s almost hard to put it into words, which is part of the genius of the show. It hits us on levels that we can’t even name but we know are central to who we are. I will be forever grateful. When you walk away from an experience, and you’ve been changed by it, that’s a massive thing. It’s a rare thing when we’re honestly and deeply changed by an experience in our lives. That’s one of them for me.
How do you feel like you changed?
It changed my way of looking at life in the sense that I realized after working on it that sitting with grief, sitting with loss, learning to let go is the point of life. Especially my initial reaction when I read the pilot and I didn’t really get it. I slightly dismissed it. Then to walk into my experience I could feel the change in me and how I looked at the work I would choose to do. Before that experience, my vision was just much smaller. To have been opened up into that world. Honestly, how often does it happen in your life where you learn something not just about your own self but about what’s important in life? To have worked with someone like Justin was one of the strongest examples of trust, because he was always there. He taught me that. I’m not exaggerating here. In the very late hours of the night, when we’re filming in the middle of the woods in the rain in the cabin. Who he is as an actor and as a person and what he’s done for me is indescribable. I love him very much. That’s the other thing, I love these people. I don’t really know Damon personally, I don’t know Tom personally, [but] Justin I do. Carrie [Coon] and all of them, I didn’t work with many of them. I love them all deeply because of this experience that we shared. Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler, all of us — we were just like ships in the night in a way, but I will be connected to those people for always. To me that’s rare.
That sounds like a profound and beautiful experience.
Yes, and challenging. You’re brought right to the edge of your limit for fear. I would go into some of those scenes like, in the cabin say, or in the well, or in Australia, and you could feel the fear on the other side saying, “Okay, are you going to be able to do this or what?” And knowing you had to just jump, and there’s Justin. There’s the writing, there’s the story, and there’s Tom and Damon, who know her so well and write her. Even that stuff in the third season, who would have put it in that context? Who would have written that scene? No one else other than Tom and Damon, but what is consistent is that that’s her. That’s Patti. That’s so her. You don’t have to go and re-create a character, even though she’s in wildly different circumstances.
What was it like shooting the Doomsday episode?
It was fabulous. Surreal. First of all, you’re in Australia — let’s just sit with that for a minute — pretending you’re okay. Your body and your psyche have all caught up on each other — which they hadn’t, of course — I had worked very hard on the lines way ahead. And I said this to Damon: “Thank you for those lines, because, if I get them out they’ll stave off dementia for a good ten years.” It was complex, and really challenging, and there’s my Justin, and there’s his big portrait, and in comes Liv Tyler in these extraordinarily bizarre roles! Do you know what I’m saying? What’re we talking about? I just thought the whole thing was phenomenal, and we actually shot the end of it first. And there’s my buddy Craig [Zobel, who directed her in Compliance] — my love — and this is our third time working together. And the crew there, so good. I loved it, and it made sense, you know, making sure we’re going to blow up that world you go to hide in so that you can live your life. I mean, what is better than that? I just thought that was an extraordinary way to have that relationship go even further.
When you spoke with Margo earlier this year at our offices, she could tell it was going to be your year. Did you feel that?
It stuck in my mind. What a generous thing to say. And, I can tell you, whenever you have roles like Aunt Lydia, my god, what an extraordinary role and what a phenomenal piece. I mean, come on, I can’t get over my good fortune, and I was struck by that when Margo said that. And I just thought that that was very generous and she’s just pretty fantastic.
What are you looking forward to with Aunt Lydia for the second season of Handmaid’s Tale?
[In Aunt Lydia’s voice:] I can’t wait to get my hands on those handmaids and teach them a thing or two! Obviously I didn’t get the job done, so I’ve got a lot to do.
I do hope you treat yourself in some way in the coming days.
Well, let’s be serious, the treat is in this news. That’s a huge, big treat, and if I just roam around this sweet little townhouse here in Wilmington, just living with those thoughts — that’s a huge treat. I still can’t even believe it, honestly.