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Ann Dowd Was Inspired by Her Catholic Nun Teachers on The Handmaid’s Tale

Ann Dowd has a commanding presence onscreen. In her late breakout role, 2012’s Compliance, she played the manager of a fast food restaurant who, at the behest of a crank caller who claims to be a policeman, carries out directives against one of her employees . On The Leftovers, she plays Patti Levin, the leader of the Mapleton branch of the Guilty Remnant, a silent, extremist cult. And most recently, she’s Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a woman who inspires both terror and love in her charges.

That latter part is a more recent development. In the sixth episode, “A Woman’s Place,” Aunt Lydia prepares the handmaids for a dinner they’re about to attend, but at the behest of Serena Joy, removes the “damaged” ones — the women who were beaten and mutilated as a coercive tool. In this moment, Dowd reveals a tender side to Lydia, who does this work because she believes it is for the good of the republic. Dowd got on the phone to talk with us about building her character, the Catholic nuns she may have unconsciously drawn inspiration from, and when she finally learned to relax about not getting parts.

Aunt Lydia has such a particular way of speaking — an elocution, if you will. Is that where you started developing the character?
Well, it’s a good question. I was wondering that myself because, of course I’d been reading it many times in preparation to begin, and that’s just how it came out. And I had talked to Bruce Miller, and he said he imagined her as having been a teacher in the past, which made tremendous sense to me. You know how you allow things to hit you subliminally or unconsciously, you try to take your hands off certain things to see what presents, and the voice and that way of speaking is just what seemed to come naturally in the expression of her. And so I just said, I’ll trust that. I’ve had teachers in the past who spoke in a way that you just wouldn’t miss a syllable, trying to set the example for kids who speak too quickly or who’ve never heard of a consonant. And just trying to, by example, let them know: This is what good communication sounds like.

She speaks like a Catholic nun teaching diction at grammar school.
And it’s funny — oh god — I was raised Catholic and I went to Catholic schools for ten years of my early life. I didn’t say, “Now, who does this remind me of?” but of course, it’s in me. For so many years. I remember principals, one in particular, who spoke that way, now that I think on it. And she terrified me. Because, I can’t even penetrate this voice. Never mind what she’s saying. I’m just going to keep a distance. So that’s probably not too far off.

I remember a teacher, a nun, who I despised. And I mean despised because she wouldn’t let me breathe for a second in a way that would’ve been less than what was expected of me. If my job was to sweep the floor in the classroom, if I didn’t have it done to perfection, she would hunt me down in basketball practice afterwards and she would take me out and say, “she’s not allowed,” and drag me out. And I would be seething. I thought, Why is she picking on me? And she was relentless. She was relentless in math class. And then, I realized, years later, she changed my life. She made me realize, you are no different from anyone else. You have a duty, and your job is to perform it to perfection. I don’t care if you have basketball, I don’t care if you have things you want to do. Do your work first. Now, this is different, of course, but I think Lydia knows that far more important than being liked is doing her job well. And that job is to prepare them to be successful in Gilead.

The scene where Aunt Lydia is preparing the handmaids for dinner with the foreign delegates and has to remove some of them from the line was powerful. There’s a lot of tenderness there. What was it like showing that love?
Yes, I think that’s exactly the word. I’ve always thought that Lydia loves these girls. This is her whole life. And she has tremendous hopes for them. Hopes and concerns. Because Lydia experienced the world going to hell in a handbasket. Why someone has this severe and rigid a take on life, as Lydia does, people who believe the Bible literally, I don’t understand them necessarily because it just begs the question: Come on. Look at the whole world. Don’t just be stuck in this one perspective. But at any rate, Lydia is all in. And I think in her past perhaps there was a tremendous personal loss that flipped that switch of, “I have to go here to this safe, narrow place and live.” But the point is, she believes those things, she worries tremendously that if she doesn’t teach these girls properly, they’re either going to turn up dead or they’re going to go off to the colonies in its misery. They have a chance here to have a child, and how wonderful this will be, and what they will be giving to the world. And that God has chosen them to remain fertile. I think she’s deeply invested in their well-being.

I think when she has to take a strong stance, like removing the eye of Janine, that brings that particular child closer to her because she feels deeply responsible for how this child — I say child, though young women — will survive or not. And it’s infuriating to Lydia that these maidens who had to be taught in a strong manner are now being excluded when they’re doing their part. That hurts Lydia tremendously. It’s betrayal. Who’s in real charge? We’re gonna assume now, from what we see in that episode, that Lydia does not have the authority to say, “Excuse me. They’re going to sit down to dinner and you don’t have the right say no to that Commander’s Wife.” Clearly she doesn’t have that power, though I know she would like to.

She would use that cattle prod if she could.
Exactly. Imagine that life. We probably live in a dorm, do you know what I’m saying? She needs to lose 40 pounds. She has no makeup on. Her hair looks severe. She has some things personally that she perhaps would prefer were otherwise, but they aren’t. So the focus is entirely on the girls. And here are these gorgeous Commanders’ wives with all the privilege in the world and they flaunt their position and it’s infuriating. Do some work, will you? Or at least support the work I’m doing.

Lydia also says her name, Janine, which struck me as significant.
I think Lydia’s learning too as they go along about how to do this right. The decision to take her eye out was a severe one. Would Lydia have done something less? I don’t know the answer to that. However, it is her vulnerable place, Janine’s. And being called your former name connects them to the ground. It connects them to something that was real and had meaning to them. Their life. And to simply say her name is a way of reaching her because she’s starting to spin. And we learn about Janine. She’s not the most stable creature in the world. I think Lydia is protective of all the girls, but I think especially of someone like Janine, who is not handling it well.

How have you imagined her life prior to the coup?
In my imagination, she’s a loner. She did not have a great history with men or relationships. Whether or not she had a child would be a very interesting thing to think about. I think of Sister Aloysius in the play Doubt. If she were left to her own devices, she’d be a gardener somewhere and would spend a lot of her day in prayer. She would not be running a school. She’s not a social person, particularly, but that was the role she was given and she does it to the utmost. She maybe taught in a small school for girls and was probably laughed at and made fun of because she’s a peculiar person. I’m sure she loved Jane Austen in the days when she was reading. You know, a very kind of quiet life. I imagine she did volunteer work, perhaps in a hospital, and just pulled back in the world because she was so appalled by what was going on. How we could ruin the Earth and this disgustingness of this overt sexual promiscuity and so on. I think these things deeply offended her. And because she has the record she has, which I’m assuming was a very clean record in support of conservative values and as a churchgoer, she had the stance of authority that would allow her to run this program for the girls and wasn’t afraid of doing what she had to do.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the Handmaid’s Tale and it made me think of one of your other more recent roles as Patti Levin in The Leftovers — particularly in the first season where you barely spoke. Is there a power in that silence that you gravitate toward as an actor?
You know, I never did in the past, even though I knew that talking was only one thing you do in a room and it’s not necessarily the most important. I knew this in my head, but it wasn’t until playing Patti in The Leftovers when I realized just how powerful it is. If you have an intention and you are fully committed to it and you do not use words to express that, it unsettles the person you’re with, immediately. Because talking is what we go to to explain ourselves, to defend ourselves, apologize, take force. To just not use language and use the power of silence — it knocked me out. At first I was scared in The Leftovers — when you stand there in a scene, you better know what you want if you’re not gonna say boo. You really better know, because if you don’t, you’re not gonna have any presence in the scene. You’re not gonna be able to talk yourself out of it. You have to be absolutely committed to what it is that you want. So then, later on, when Patti does speak, I was totally unnerved. I thought, “My god, now what do I do?” It’s so funny, I thought, I kind of like this not talking situation.

Do you imagine Patti in season two as a figment of Kevin’s imagination or as a spectral Patti?
Well, regardless of whatever my interpretation was, the fact is I was with him. Whether I was with him only in spirit, the acting of it is not different. But Damon Lindelof was very helpful because I would read the script and I’d think, What the hell is going on here? It’s complicated, what goes on in his work. And it’s not obvious on the page. So I would say to him, “Is she trying to help him? Is she wanting the relationship between Nora and Kevin to end? Is she attached to him in a way that she doesn’t want anyone else to be?” And he said, she doesn’t know what she’s doing there. As far as she knew, she slit her throat and that was the end of it. And suddenly, she’s back. She doesn’t know why and she doesn’t know what she has to do, but she’s figuring it out as she goes along. And I think she literally puts it together second by second.

How did you get cast for your part in Girls’ final season?
Well, I got the phone call and I thought, oh my god. Couldn’t get there fast enough. I had seen a lot of the episodes, not too many. She is something else, that one. Was scared to death because she’s so bright and the character — she blinks and she’s there. You know what I’m saying? I say “she,” I’m talking about Lena, of course. She has that kind of intelligence, and she’s so down to earth and incredibly inviting and kind. It was a fantastic experience. I almost felt like I dreamed it because it happened so fast, you know?

You’re greatly prolific now, but what was it like working as an actor early on?
I went through a period after my daughter was born and I lost a ton of weight. I was the tiniest thing. I still have fantasies about going back there and I couldn’t get cast for the life of me. It was odd. I would come home every day and I would weep and wail and, finally, in the middle of a wail, I said, “You are choosing to react this way, dear. You don’t have to fall apart when you don’t get a part. You just move on.” I literally stopped and I thought, change that, right now. And sure enough, I swear to you, it was almost as if the suggestion was enough to change the habit. I just said, “Well, you know what? When I get ’em, I’m thrilled. And when I don’t, you can have ten, fifteen minutes of sadness and then you’re gonna move on.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ann Dowd on The Handmaid’s Tale and Her Catholic Teachers