Ann Dowd On Letting Go in ‘The Leftovers’

ADTV talks to award-winning actress Ann Dowd about her character’s journey in The Leftovers

Any nerves of excitement or apprehension I may have before diving into an interview with great actors, writers, or directors soon vanishes when you speak to someone so warm, and humble as award-winning actress Ann Dowd. Our pleasant conversation started with discussing our respective children, showing an encouraging enthusiasm for my little newcomers, and wishing me luck with them. And then I got to ask her about her terrific body of work on TV, film, and in the theater.

Dowd’s scene-stealing role as Patti Levin in HBO’s The Leftovers was a delight to watch, even in her most sinister moments. In season two, Patti makes an unimaginable evolution, filling the screen with the elusive partnership she shared with co-star Justin Theroux. The grounded, grateful actress behind Patti Levin is still learning, simply happy to be here, and enjoying the challenges of her work. This would be a walk in the park.

AwardsDaily TV: So, Ann Dowd, what would you say are the best things you’ve seen on TV and film this year so far? Anything you are watching?

Ann Dowd: I have three children and don’t watch very much. A little here and a little there. Trying to catch up on a few things, there is so much that is good. My children like The Golden Girls. My 11-year-old son is a fan of The Leftovers, but he only watches five minutes then can’t watch it. [Laughs]

ADTV: What are your earliest memories and aspirations about being an actress?

AD: I loved it in high school, doing plays, and loved thinking that I could not do this for a living – you don’t get to do the things you love. I went to college, and I was pre-med and had been doing plays in school. Also my organic chemistry teacher said to me, “This is great, but is it what you love?” I said “Well, not as much as acting.” She answered with “Well, that is the direction to go in.” And so I had some real encouragement. So instead of medical school, I auditioned for a conservatory and never looked back basically.

Ann DowdADTV: You have a pretty heft theater background.

AD: Yes, fortunately.

ADTV: I know you played Sister Aloysius in Doubt on the stage. No offense to that “nobody” Meryl Streep, but would you have liked to have done the film?

AD: Well, you know I would love to have done the film. And who better than Meryl Streep. I think you have to have been raised in catholic school, it really helps. I have two aunts who are catholic nuns. [Sister Aloysius] is not mean like she is in the film. She is duty bound and feels that is her job, follows a very righteous path. To her it is all about doing what is right and what is expected of you, doing your job without complaint – that I thought was an important distinction. The thing is, who am I? The playwright directed it. He must have felt pretty good about it.

ADTV: Yes, but you don’t know what happens in between theater and studios making it a certain way for film.

AD: That’s true. Playing that part was one of the finest experiences I have ever had. She was a stranger to me. She is a loner, given her choice she would have gone in the garden or served to the poor.

ADTV: What are you passionate about outside of your vast acting work? Anything you are particularly proud of?

AD: I live in New York you see. Space is limited. I have a balcony and have flowers there. I love to paint the walls of my apartment on any given day. A bit of a joke with my family. [Laughs] That is a passion of mine, to change everything as often as I can.

ADTV: Sounds like my mother. When we were kids, decorating every room in the house, then going back and starting again.

AD: [Laughs] That is adorable. That is funny.

ADTV: Impressively, you’ve been in films during a time when I was really getting into films, like Green Card and Lorenzo’s Oil.

AD: Oh my gosh. My first film, Green Card.

ADTV: A lovely film.

AD: Yes, lovely film. And Peter Weir, phenomenal. It was extremely nerve-racking, I was thinking, let me do it right today somehow. A wonderful experience, many years ago.

ADTV: Plus you’ve worked with directors like Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, and Clint Eastwood. What stands out for you from your film work?

AD: Well, Compliance changed so much for me in terms of being accessible. I don’t know if you saw Compliance.

ADTV: Oh I did.

AD: It was shot in fourteen, fifteen days, on a very low budget. I love the director Craig Zobel, and he was involved in The Leftovers as well (director). I remember thinking, every now and then when a role just clicks, and we count on that, using our skill to connect with a character. [Compliance‘s Sandra] made perfect sense to me, her choices. I found her very clear and got it. If you are raised in a religious home, as I was, full of love, etcetera, you defer to the church. You defer to authority. And if you are built with a constitution that doesn’t know how to say, “Excuse me, what?” I don’t like that. You don’t have that in this character. You put a few elements together, parts of life, and you have Compliance. It was a role I loved.

ADTV: So you went to the Sundance Film Festival with Compliance.

AD: Yes. A fascinating experience, my first. We were sitting in the premiere, a nice big room, packed. Sundance I find to be an alternate universe if ever I saw one. I watched the film, and I don’t tend to watch the things I do. Often the experience of doing it is so strange while you’re watching, it changes everything. I watched Compliance on my computer and now on a big screen. A bit of time had gone by, and I was so intrigued by it. As the film was coming to a end, a man was screaming at the back, just criticizing the film, and really screaming. And everybody was joining in. It triggered so many people. It was unbelievable.

ADTV: I didn’t know that happened.

AD: Yeah. You realize how it affects people. You do a lot of things that don’t see the light of day and that can have an impact on people, which I love.

ADTV: Yeah, I think some people don’t realize that [the disturbing events in the film] actually happened. The film is very short, but it is the equivalent of someone scraping their fingernails down a blackboard. It is awful to experience, but you have to anyway.

AD: Yeah. There was a woman in the screening who was going to walk out, but said “I have a granddaughter and want to educate her.”

ADTV: Yeah. It says at the end of the film that this happens to so many Americans.

AD: That’s right.

ADTV: There was no Oscar nomination for that. I know you were in the running, but a film like that can fall at the last hurdle, which is a shame as it was a perfect supporting role. I think you should have gotten in.

AD: Oh thank you, I appreciate that so much. I have not really been in that arena, in that situation where there is a thought of any nomination of any kind, as all of a sudden you want it, but you keep focused on the work. It took me a fair amount of time to say, “You know awards are wonderful, and I am grateful to be honored, but you must keep your feet on the ground.”

Ann Dowd
Van Redin/HBO

ADTV: Let’s talk about The Leftovers then. The second season was more of a success because I think not many saw the first season, which was also very good. Then at the Critics Choice Awards, you and Regina King were nominated and Carrie Coon won. That was great for the show.

AD: Yeah, that was a thrill. My family watches, and they love it. My brother John can’t make heads or tails of it. He was looking for something more linear. You go here then you go there, a natural progression of story. That is not what we have here, to our great delight. The first season was fascinating to do because putting it together and not knowing what the Guilty Remnant was and their beliefs. Then in the second season Patti is in a different place. People asked me what it was like to not speak. Quite daunting, as I rely on words. We all do. I had to learn what she wants and just get it and not use words. It was a very powerful experience, an extraordinary position to take. Damon [Lindelof] and Tom Perrotta know her so well. The whole group was so phenomenal.

ADTV: Yeah, a really great cast. The stuff with you and Justin [Theroux] was so good.

AD: He described it later as a kind of love story with just those two in the scenes. They were drawn to one another. They achieved something, which was intimacy. Justin understands the shape of a scene when you are playing the scene he is right there – it is a very safe place. As the material is daunting. Everyone had to be on their game, the writer, directors, actors, costumes, make up, hair.

ADTV: Do you empathize or support the Guilty Remnant’s plight? Did you get on board with it? Why they were like that?

AD: It is a terrific question. When I first read the material I remember thinking, “Well what is this now? What is going on here?” This show has taught me so much. I am a kind of kitchen sink actress with everything in front of me, but, hello, that is not what we are doing here. I found her very intriguing, and by episode three I am all in. Then I find out as I am fully attached to the show that my character is going to die. Damon gracefully wrote me an email, and I was heartbroken that I was now going away. When I started to realize what they were preaching – to let go the attachment – I didn’t know I could ever do that. What it did teach me to do was just let go. Do the work, enjoy the work as it is happening, but let go. A miraculous experience that whole thing. I remember asking Damon what does it matter that he kills her? What does that mean? He is always clear when you ask him. He said it is a new religion and are putting it together for the first time.

I had such empathy for the Guilty Remnant and that whole experience. You can come home to your family, have dinner together, go to work, pay your rent. Life offers its own kind of suffering – your children grow up and stop nursing. We wave goodbye. That is a privileged sadness. The Leftovers throws in from the start a catastrophe. And watching people trying to put their lives back, to get to get some semblance of grief, it made me think of my own life, and if such a thing were to happen, how it would change you. So I connected to their way of seeing the world.

Ann Dowd
Van Redin/HBO

ADTV: It must have been nice to get that email to say your character is going to die, but now you get some lines.

AD: [Laughs] Oh yes, you have something to say. They wrote it like a play.

ADTV: Season two was great, and you were fantastic. Patti’s haunting of Kevin was extraordinary – you were outstanding by the way. Chilling, funny, and then sympathetic. At the end it was a little bit like hero and villain falling in love. The well scene is very sad.

AD: Yes. We were talking about this, watching that little girl, and the things they made her say. When you realize you have the privilege of spending time with a character, and having time with her and then realizing it is time for her to go. She was in his life and did not know why, then able to say out loud how she failed in her life. I could not get over the writing, that well scene, that is a long day ahead sitting in a well. [Laughs] That was the day I realized Patti is going to die. Anyway, it was emotional. And thank god for Justin.

ADTV: He has worked with David Lynch so he is used to weird.

AD: [Laughs] Right, yes.

ADTV: Well, good luck with everything, the Emmys, the show’s reception, and just keep doing what you are doing. It is a pleasure.

AD: Thank you. And good luck to you with your children.

HBO has renewed The Leftovers for a third and final season of eight episodes which began principal shooting in May 2016.

Ann Dowd
Van Redin/HBO

Published by Robin Write

BIO: Robin Write lives in the UK, and has been writing screenplays for over fifteen years. He also has a blog at and can be found on Twitter @WriteoutofLA. He'll be around.