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Ann Dowd talks ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Hereditary,’ and cults

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Some spoilers for Compliance, True Detective: Season 1, The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Hereditary lie ahead.

Hollywood’s go-to malicious missionary, Ann Dowd, knows a thing or two about indoctrinating audiences. With over 30 years of stage, film, and television experience, Dowd has assumed the roles of politicians, doctors, mothers, FBI agents, and—as of late—lots and lots of cult members.

Gaining prominence in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the notorious character actress has earned a reputation, as well as an Emmy, for getting into the minds of antagonistic zealots and delivering disturbingly convincing performances.

Inspired often by the misinterpreted word of an all-powerful being, Dowd’s terrifying characters are not for the faint of heart or spirit. (This summer alone her on-screen personas in Handmaid’s and Hereditary respectively made cattle-prodding sex slaves and sacrificing a family of four to a Pagan devil regularly talked about plot points.)

In spite of the inherent nervousness that comes with speaking to the Aunt Lydia, I hopped on the phone with the three-time Emmy nominee, notes in hand. I was ready to talk critical acclaim, upcoming plot lines, maybe a red carpet or two.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how completely this woman’s infectious personality and abundant artistry would suck me in. 

Dowd’s sweet-as-pie demeanor, mentioned in nearly every interview she’s done—The A.V. Club aptly likened her to a “third grade teacher”—encases an intimidatingly methodical precision to character creation. And, although she claims to have “no explanation” for her history with fearful god-fearers, it is clear that these antagonistic women are more than her latest speciality.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

On abandoning judgment

If you’re in need of confession, I highly recommend seeking out Ann Dowd. Not only because she naturally radiates the aura of a forgiving priestess, but also because of her staunch stance on judgment.

When first asked about her recent history of cult-ish roles, Dowd speaks with a level of concern more akin to distant, troubled relatives than a horrendous group of fictional women. Yes, she recognizes the twisted cruelty of her characters’ actions, but insists on treating them as “whole human beings” and ingests each role with few preconceptions.  

“I think whatever she’s doing she has a reason for it and I’m lucky enough to see if I can jump in and put that forward, whatever it may be.”

“If you’re trying to get underneath and step into their way of thinking, to experience what they have experienced in the past and accept that burden for them then some things are going to come your way,” she notes. “Who is she? What does she want? Why does she think the way she thinks? These things come with trust, I believe. And not with judgment.”

Dowd takes her refusal to judge so far as to occasionally find herself deceived by the women she portrays. She admits that, upon first reading, it took her until the final act of director Ari Aster’s Hereditary script to condemn devil-worshiper Joan (who, by the way, is revealed to be loosely responsible for more than one beheading.) 

Eventually, Dowd says she snapped out of it, telling herself, “Ann, use your brain. Something’s going on here.”

Even more remarkable, Dowd for a period of time managed to forget her character in The Leftovers, an HBO drama series chronicling the fallout of a global rapturing, was a cult leader.

“It’s not that I forgot Patti [Levin] was a leader in The Guilty Remnant,” Dowd says of her highly-acclaimed role. “It’s that I didn’t think of it as a cult. Well, of course, it was a cult. And someone laughed when I said it, but what I meant was that it wasn’t trying to take money from people and it was just trying to get them to wake up and realize there’s no hiding here! It’s all over! But, of course, it was a cult.”

Clearly, not judging sadistic roles can be a slippery slope, but Dowd remains firm that it is the only way to consume her characters. Even in the case of their most abhorrent acts, she says, “I think whatever she’s doing she has a reason for it and I’m lucky enough to see if I can jump in and put that forward, whatever it may be.” 

Ann Dowd as Patti Levin (opposite Justin Theroux) in HBO's 'The Leftovers'

Ann Dowd as Patti Levin (opposite Justin Theroux) in HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’

On overcoming the past

With judgment cast aside, Dowd begins a kind of emotional forensics on each of her characters’ pasts—creating on-the-outside-looking-in backstories that are not always spoken, but consistently motivate her acting decisions. 

Drawn to characters who “were never asked to prom” or “had weird friends,” Dowd provides unscripted details necessary to enable her embodiment of evil characters. 

“You don’t matter. Keep your mouth shut. I’d like you to be seen and not heard. Defer to the church and defer to authority because you offer us nothing.”

She speaks at length about her role in Compliance, a 2012 film based on the true story of a predatory phone call scam. Across the United States, an anonymous caller, posing as a detective, manipulated fast-food restaurant managers into strip-searching their employees. 

Dowd plays such a manager, Sandra. In Dowd’s traditional zealous style, Sandra reacts to the unknown caller much like one might respond to the voice of God. Her blind obedience ultimately results in the sexual assault of a young cashier.

Cautiously defending Sandra’s actions, Dowd says, “With Compliance, you just had the sense that no one ever told her her opinion mattered. ‘You don’t matter. Keep your mouth shut. I’d like you to be seen and not heard. Defer to the church and defer to authority because you offer us nothing.'” 

Dowd says this rejection and repression resulted in Sandra not having the “wherewithal” to stand-up to the anonymous voice on the phone. The same diminished agency, she says, was also once true of Leftovers Patti Levin who “was that lonely outcast of a person who finally stepped into her own sense of self” through her cult. 

Ann Dowd as Sandra in the 2012 film 'Compliance'

Ann Dowd as Sandra in the 2012 film ‘Compliance’

Even in the case of Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid’s Tale warden known for removing a few fingers and eyes in her day (for God, of course), Dowd zeroes in on what she believes to be a “complicated and painful past.” Late in Season 2, the seemingly untethered Lydia admits to at one point having a godson who died unexpectedly.

“That vein, that artery, that is pulsing in all of us when we come into this world… We can’t resist everything.”

“It’s a very small little something that’s just a gem…,” Dowd says of the revelation. “Imagine someone who is as devoted as she is. She is committed to doing things well, to doing things right, and she loses her godchild. She says, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ But imagine how she must have punished herself through all of that.”  

From this there is a demonic, phoenix-like rise that results in the gruesome misdeeds of her characters. The consistent restraint, persistent marginalization, or life-altering trauma Dowd’s characters experience results in powerful self-actualizations that allow their long-awaited senses of self-worth or purposes to come out in all the wrong ways. 

“That vein, that artery, that is pulsing in all of us when we come into this world… We can’t resist everything,” Dowd notes.

Ann Dowd (opposite Toni Collette) in A24's 2018 film 'Hereditary'

Ann Dowd (opposite Toni Collette) in A24’s 2018 film ‘Hereditary’

On going all-in

Even if sadistic tendencies can bubble up in most people, few choose to act them out for a living. But, Dowd’s willingness to charge towards the darkness has made her performances unquestionably gripping.

Her latest spine-chilling contribution in Hereditary, however, gave her pause. 

“Well, I read it with one eye shut,” she says. “I literally thought, ‘Oh, I can’t be part of this. This is terrifying.’ I remember as a young Catholic girl in high school seeing The Exorcist and it scared the wits out of me. And I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to get involved in this arena. It’s a little too nerve-wracking.'” 

“There is a common thread and I would say that would be the ability to full-on commit. In body and soul.”

But, after some convincing, Dowd signed on and followed her cardinal rule of acting: no matter what, go all-in. For her final scene in the film, the crowning of Pamon (one of the eight kings of Hell), Dowd was saying prayers between takes—but was dedicated to nailing the delivery of the film’s final lines. (Ultimately, she sang them as a Gregorian chant.)

She, similarly, dove head first into a smaller, but perhaps even more disturbing role as Betty in Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective. A sexual companion to a serial killer with distinct cult-like tendencies, Betty is the embodiment of horror. Again, Dowd was initially adverse, recounting, “When I first read it, I thought, ‘Okay, this is just so twisted. I don’t think I can do it.’ But then the writing is so good and then I got to her and I thought, ‘Oh! Cannot wait. Cannot. Get me in there as fast as possible.’”  

Going all-in isn’t exclusive to Dowd’s acting method. It applies to her characters’ approaches to life as well. When asked about any observations on her numerous cult castings, Dowd notes, “There is a common thread and I would say that would be the ability to full-on commit. In body and soul. In other words, it’s not just going to church on Sunday and then living your life during the week. It’s all in.”

Ann Dowd as Betty Childress in HBO's 'True Detective'

Ann Dowd as Betty Childress in HBO’s ‘True Detective’

On her future

What’s next for the infamous, fictitious occultist? Dowd made it clear she could tell me nothing about Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale—including the outcome of Aunt Lydia’s stabbing, something I almost regret cackling at—but she did say her husband had some ideas on Dowd’s future endeavors… namely, that she “try playing someone lovely and kind.”

Lucky for fans, it doesn’t seem like Dowd will be excommunicating herself from dark and twisted narratives quite yet. 

She gratefully adds, “These are the roles that I have been fortunate enough to be given, but, certainly, I would just go anywhere and do anything.” 

So, yes, that could mean another cult leader — or a role in a Netflix rom-com. Or, perhaps, if Dowd ever left acting, she could start a church of her own. 

No, our conversation didn’t reveal Dowd plotting a biblical takeover. But, after only 30 minutes on the phone, this artist had me under her spell. And, even now, I’d follow her and her characters to the end of the Earth… or, at the very least, the end of my watch list.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream on Hulu.
Compliance is available for rental or purchase on Vudu.
True Detective and The Leftovers are available to stream through HBO.
Hereditary is available to purchase for streaming now and on DVD/Blu-ray Sep. 5

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