The brilliant Ann Dowd talks to Awards Daily TV about Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and finding the character of Aunt Lydia.
Actress Ann Dowd is having a stellar year. She closed 2016 with acclaimed roles on Cinemax’s Quarry and Good Behavior and entered 2017 with a high-profile cameo on the final season of HBO’s Girls. Plus, she returned to her classic role as Patti on the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers. Yet, it’s her work on Hulu’s critically acclaimed The Handmaid‘s Tale that holds the strongest Emmy® Award buzz.
An actor would be proud of any one of those performances in a single year. All in one year? Awe-inspiring.
“It’s such a fortune thing. Whatever has been sent, has been so great. My wonderful agent and manager finds a way to sort it all out for which I’m so grateful,” Dowd gushed. “You read these things and think, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ The hope is can I? It’s really been a question of very good fortune to receive material that is so terrific.”
With a 30-year career under her belt, Ann Dowd brings immediate authenticity and gravitas to any project. It’s a wonder her door still stands after casting directors repeatedly beat it down.
Ann Dowd read Margaret Atwood’s original novel of The Handmaid’s Tale several years ago. The story of Gilead and its collection of surrogate mothers forced into childbearing immediately struck a chord with her. When she read the pilot screenplay, she knew that writer / producer Bruce Miller found the right take on the classic novel.
“It was extraordinary to read the script, the pilot… It worked so well with the novel. Sometimes, it doesn’t go as nicely and as powerfully as the writer intended, but oh wow!”
Dowd immediately re-read the novel to capture the sense of the original source novel. And to capture the soul of the “Aunts” and, more specifically, her character of Aunt Lydia. The Aunts collectively train the handmaids and prepare them for their critical role within Gilead.
So, how do the Aunts really function within the male-centric Gilead?
“That’s such a good question because this is a new regime, so to speak, that’s finding itself,” Dowd explained. “So, who has the power in the hierarchy is not abundantly clear.”
Dowd speaks to a confrontation between Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) where Serena Joy dismisses “physically imperfect” handmaids. Don’t mistake that for a lack of power on Aunt Lydia’s part. She simply chose not to make a scene.
Because making a scene isn’t what proper ladies do.
Finding the Soul of Aunt Lydia
Aunt Lydia does not emerge as a one-note character. Credit Dowd for finding what makes this woman tick and radiating that through the harshest of circumstances. Dowd posits that Aunt Lydia, a very religious person, is a damaged individual, evidenced by her rigid viewpoint on the broader world. She equates Aunt Lydia to another famous character, Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Stanley’s Doubt.
To create the character, Dowd imagined a backstory for Aunt Lydia. She probably taught at a private girls’ school. Maybe she was a mother herself once. She definitely saw an overall decline in values, unwanted pregnancies resulting in abortions, and pollution as travesties.
Dowd sees that desire to return to a simpler, cleaner world as Aunt Lydia’s ticket to go all-in on Gilead.
“Her attachment to [the handmaids] is huge. I think she loves them, and the only sort of pitfall for her that I think catches her unaware is that she does become attached. When you become attached emotionally, it blurs your vision a bit. Makes it harder to stick to the rules. That’s the challenge she faces.”
According to Ann Dowd, Aunt Lydia thinks it’s “high time something happened to put the world back on its feet again.” Just through cattle prods though.
Pushing The Handmaid’s Tale Beyond a Conversation of Gender
The Handmaid’s Tale naturally resonates different for women than it does for men. It impacts women on an entirely different, more threatening, more real level. Bruce Miller and producer/star Elisabeth Moss hired talented directors to help set the right tone, one that speaks to women but remains inclusive of men.
Although the directing team was predominantly female, choosing only women to lead the team was never a concern.
“Looking at this kind of material, the women are not shy. Women are not shy by nature. If there’s ever a question or concern, out it comes. Male or female director, it does not make a difference. We’ve been incredibly fortunate all season.”
Dowd raves about the sensitivity of the entire creative team – male or female – who took great care and love in adapting Atwood’s novel. Ultimately, the novel and television emerges as a conversation about the human condition. Both ask the question, “How did we get here?”
In the hands of such sharp-minded creativity, The Handmaid’s Tale becomes an unforgettable experience. Nearly as unforgettable an experience as Ann Dowd’s powerhouse performance.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 finale airs Wednesday on Hulu.