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The Leftovers’ Ann Dowd on Stalking, True Detective, and The Baby-Sitters Club

Ann Dowd of The Leftovers. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Prior to taking her role on The Leftovers, Ann Dowd admits, she might have “arrogantly” suggested that anyone who professed to be “fervently a believer in the Rapture” seek help and “realize that the Bible is a metaphor.” However, the actress’s mysterious character on the HBO drama might choose to stalk them instead. As the mysterious Patti, she holds sway over the Guilty Remnant, a group whose members have taken a vow of silence, wear white, smoke nonstop, and passive-aggressively disturb everyone around them, including the local policeman played by Justin Theroux, whose wife is a member of the cultlike organization. Luckily, Dowd was much more talkative in a recent interview with Vulture (“No vows of silence in this house!” she said); she chatted with us about The Leftovers, past roles playing memorable moms, and her bizarre True Detective character. [Note: The Leftovers and True Detective spoilers ahead.]

You actually have a long history with HBO: You played Kristy’s mother on The Baby-Sitters Club TV series back in 1990.
Isn’t that funny? I didn’t even know that was HBO! Oh, for heaven’s sake! What I remember is how important the story was to them, and protecting the integrity of that Baby-Sitters Club thing, because it had a very strong following. It probably still does. That’s the memory I have. And also thinking, Wow! Am I old enough to be that person’s mother?

You’ve played other pop-culture mothers over the years. Kim Kelly’s mom on Freaks and Geeks, for example.
Oh my God, yes! One of the best times I ever had, but not the best mother, and not her finest moment. But still trying to keep it together, even though she’s the worst example of what a parent could be. Of course she’s oblivious to that, and she parents as if she’s the best parent on the planet. “Riding in cars? No, you’re not going to do that.” Mike White, who wrote those episodes, played my son, and I could never look back at the couch [because] I would just laugh out loud. The way he just never moved? Oh my gosh. And they would write things on the spot. They would give you a line to say that was hysterically funny and you hoped that you could get it right, because of course the wording was everything. Busy Philipps, she was terrific.

You also played Natalie Portman’s mom in Garden Statewhich is having its ten-year anniversary next week. Zach Braff’s new movie is out, too.
Good for him! Here’s the thing there — they had ten minutes and ten cents to make that movie. And Zach knew who he was at that age. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what he wanted. And he writes characters that are so fun, like with the hamster and getting the Doberman to jump on him. There were so many wonderfully strange characters in that film! Just quirky, funny, strange people, everywhere you looked. What an imagination he has, Zach Braff.

You’re not lacking for strange people in The Leftovers, none more so than the Guilty Remnant members.
I remember sitting with Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler, who are both the kind of women you want to hang out with, especially at three in the fricking morning. And you just look around and you go, Oh my gosh, I will never forget these days, these nights, putting together this show where we don’t know where it’s going. I mean, I read the book, but because it’s a series, it’s going to go other places.

One perk of playing a character who doesn’t speak must be not having to memorize lines. How hard is it to remain inscrutable and not telegraph everything?
I’ll tell you, it was challenging! At first you feel very exposed. Words are only one thing we do, and it’s not necessarily the strongest way to communicate, but boy, are we dependent on them! So as an actor, you’re like, Whoa! I better know what the heck I want here. Because what you don’t want to do is put it all over your face, you know what I mean? You want to let it live deep inside you, and center it, and trust in it.

Do you think the Guilty Remnant is a cult?
Well, what is a cult? That’s a real question. What do you think a cult is? Surely there are things about the Guilty Remnant that say cult, for sure. But keep in mind they come and go. If a member of the Guilty Remnant left, got in a car, and drove away, far away, that’s going to be that, basically. I don’t think anybody is going to follow them. That’s not the goal. But of course [viewers] are left to decide, “Hey, is this a cult?” Certainly, we’re all dressed in white, we’re living communally, we eat porridge in the morning, and anything that distracts us from our mission is out of our lives. I remember running into someone once in Chicago, from the Unification Church, a Moonie. He handed me a rose and I said, “Honey, protein, and sleep. Go get that.” If you deprive people of protein and sleep, they’re not going to be functioning on all levels. Do we do that at the Guilty Remnant? I honestly don’t know. But surely there is some force going on there. Patti is a force to be reckoned with.

Stalking is actually a recruitment tool!
Yes, yes, yes! Yeah, exactly. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t know if this is exactly the rule of the Guilty Remnant, in terms of who they were going to choose to stalk, but it seems we have awareness of who is on the fence, who is vulnerable. Because it is a small town. So Meg, who’s about to marry this terrific guy and have a great life, she’s on the fence. And by stalking her and getting her to her breaking point, either she’ll say, “Get the fuck away from me,” or she’ll say, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live this life.” They just try to get people to lose it, to let go into the chaos, because life is now chaos.

Justin Theroux could probably relate to the stalking.
Justin is a doll. He is delicious. Completely. And he is a prince, always looking after people. And yeah, he’s got the body for sure, but he’s also got the sweetness and the humor. And having met Jen [Aniston, who] couldn’t be a nicer person, completely down to earth. Lovely, supporting — pick the words, they apply. The two of them together, wow. My mother said something hilarious to me the other day: “Someone told me they broke up.” And I was like, “Honey, honey, honey. No, no, no. We don’t pay attention to tabloids. We don’t read those things, darling. One, they’re not true, and two, they’re ridiculous. They’re very happy, and hoping to be married.” I don’t know how they can negotiate their lives. They can’t step outside for two minutes without being followed, I’m sure. It’s absurd.

Did you see any of that while filming?
Yeah. We were shooting in the middle of the woods, and how anybody found us, first of all, I don’t know. There was a strange guy, and I was like, “There’s something rogue about him.” And the director was like, “I want him off the set.” And the first AD very smartly said, “If you push, they stay. Just let them do what they’re going to do, and they’ll leave, and we can move on with our day.”

Can we talk about the True Detective finale? Your scenes were bananas.
First of all, we were outside of New Orleans, in the woods, and here’s the snake wrangler looking for the cottonmouths, so we were all safe. What?! I remember meeting the young son of this family who were all snake wranglers — that’s the family business. This kid was like 14, and he had this thing, a stick. I said, “What are you doing?” He said he was checking for snakes, and I thought, What world have I just landed in? And then you walk into the [set] house, where every single corner spoke of their lives. Oh my God, the hanging air fresheners … One of the directions Cary [Fukunaga] gave to Woody [Harrelson] was, “Remember the stench when you walk in the house — it hits you like a truck.” My character was so used to it, so deprived in that way of any kind of sanitary life, that she’s past knowing this is a strange thing.

She’s in an incestuous relationship with her brother. Do you think that was to protect herself, or was it just due to isolation?
She has the emotional capacity of a 5-year-old, but she’s a woman. She had sexual urges. And here he is! And he [was like that], too … They were raised on that, if you will — there was no example of a typical [relationship to follow]. The dysfunction, where do you start? And so the urges were there, he was there … I’m sure she loved it. I’m sure it was pleasurable on a primal level.

You wanna make flowers today?” still creeps me out. Where would a phrase like that even come from?
[Laughs.] Someone said they heard it on the radio in reference to that line, and I thought, “Oh, God! It’ll never mean the same [thing] again.”

Ann Dowd on The Leftovers and True Detective