With supporting roles in films such as Philadelphia, Apt Pupil, Garden State, The Informant!, St. Vincent and dozens more, TV appearances in The X-Files, Freaks & Geeks and several iterations of Law & Order, as well as award-winning turns on Broadway in the likes of The Normal Heart, Candida and Doubt, Ann Dowd has become one of our finest living character actresses.

Her career has hit a new level in recent years thanks to her ubiquitous work in television in particular, with roles in critical hits including True Detective, Louie, Masters Of Sex, Olive Kitteridge, and even the final season of Girls. Arguably her two most celebrated roles have come in HBO's The Leftovers, where she played cult leader Patti Levin over the course of three seasons, and in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, where she played the severe Aunt Lydia in its freshman season.

With both shows ending recently, we got the chance to talk to Dowd in depth about the end of The Leftovers and the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale—including what life in Gilead is like, dealing with extremism in real life, how The Handmaid's Tale is a form of activism, her takeaway from the Leftovers finale, and why Patti was "the most beautiful character I've ever lived."

When the season started, Aunt Lydia seemed like a cartoon villain, almost like something out of Dickens. But by mid-way through the season, I started to feel like she was very sincere in how much she cared for those girls, as misguided as she was. What do you think happened to her as the first season progressed that we got to the point in the finale, at the stoning, where she actually seemed vulnerable?I think what happens to Lydia is she attaches to these girls. I think in her previous life before Gilead she was a teacher—this is what [showrunner] Bruce Miller had suggested, which I thought was a terrific idea and made tremendous sense. This is her life—her students in the previous life, the handmaids in this life. It's what takes over her whole life. There are no other interests. And I think what happens in this very severe world is that she attaches to these girls and attachment is the enemy, if you want to keep a regime in place, because attachment then leads to love and love is more powerful than any repression you can impose. When she, for instance, damages Janine and takes her eye out, something clicks for her. She then becomes more responsible for these girls, especially these girls that she's had to damage. She shepherds them a little more closely.

When you begin to care about an individual, to you and I talking, the way to get through life is to pay attention to those in front of you, to form relationships that have meaning, that are based in love and not in repression or fear. The same thing happens to Lydia. She begins to attach and care about them and then the vulnerability is immediately present because it matters to her what happens to them.

So you feel like she genuinely cares about the lives of her handmaids? Yes, I think what she witnessed before Gilead took shape was the world falling apart. Everything that was of beauty and mattered and that was God-given has been destroyed: the earth, the beautiful gift of a child, the promiscuity off the charts, birth control, abortion, casual sex. I think Lydia didn't buy into any of that and thought that the world was deeply off track. I think that was noted by the people who were running this coup at the time and so she's in a very strong position in Gilead, the head Aunt. She takes her job deeply seriously and part of that means, if I don't teach them exactly what they need to know, if I don't ensure their clear understanding of what is expected of them, they will not make it, they will end up in the colonies with the filth and the nuclear waste and the creeps of the world and they will not make it.

She is their protector in her eyes, to protect them from themselves, to protect them from the rebellion that might live in them, because it will never work. I think she guards that very, very carefully and I think she reads the girls very carefully. Janine is not a tough one to understand because she's clearly unstable. Now, the ones that are more frightening to Lydia are [Elizabeth Moss's] character Offred and Samira [Wiley's] character. Wait a minute here. They hide their true colors. They possess a strength that is unnerving to her because she can't quite read. But to go to your question about protection, I think that's very high on her list.

I was thinking that this was one of these places where Lydia and Patti from The Leftovers have a connection, in that they are both women who came out of great tragedy and societal collapse and thrived, took control over their lives. Did you see any connection between them in that sense? It's interesting. I hadn't thought about it necessarily in that way, but I think what you're saying is true. Patti comes into her own for the first time in her life after the Sudden Departure. She suspects that something profound is about to happen. Her therapist tries to talk her out of it and says, "No, no, no, it's anxiety," and then she realizes, "Oh, I knew, I was right," and she comes into her own power, her own strength. She's a born leader.

I think in the case of Lydia, she was probably mocked by those students. Can you imagine? The nightly read for her is the Bible. It's what she clings to for survival. Who knows what her past was like, but I suspect she was a loner, a kind of isolated individual whose meaning was found in the way she spent her day, and she spent her day with the girls.

Imagine how they would make fun of her before Gilead. I'm sure they did phenomenal imitations of her on a regular basis, probably had a dartboard with her face on it. But when Gilead takes shape, she had the chance to, again, step into a place of power and significance and she's going to be respected, whether she achieves that by frightening the wits out of them, which of course she does. I don't think she intends to alienate them, but you do what you have to do. She's a very duty-bound individual.

Now, I think with Patti, the subject matter, of course, is very different. I don't think Patti looks to any institution or religion. In that case, the beauty of that religion, if you will, is that you have to let go of attachment, let go of distraction, realize that the end is coming, let go. Now, Lydia holds on for dear life. That's the difference, I think, between them. Lydia just clings to all the tenets that Gilead puts forward and that's the thing that begins to crumble when you do that. We were talking before about attachment. What's the next step? Love, caring. Suddenly that structure, that rigid, "this is how it will be or else" begins to crumble and to lose its power and its significance. I think I'll stop because I'm going away from your question, but anyway, here I am.

Have you known or encountered people who are extremists like this in real life? How does one begin to reason with them? I often wonder when I hear groups far to the right speak about pro-life or the disenfranchised or Black Lives Matter as if it were some club that was not significant. I think we're surrounded by it, actually, where you're only seeing a part of the picture. When I listened to pro-life, anti-abortion people, it's like, look, you're not seeing the whole picture here. Before you continue berating and ranting about your absolute belief in pro-life, look around, go to your nearest foster care agency, go to the classes, bring a child into your home. Maybe look around and pay attention. Get off your narrow platform, which is not a reflection of reality. It's a reflection of the way you want it to be, but it's not a reflection of how it is.

Growing up, I was educated by Catholic sisters. I hesitate to mention it because you know the cliché about nuns with the ruler and this and that. They are, in fact, educated, extraordinary women who get into the trenches and get the job done that nobody wants to do with the people that nobody wants to be around, if you follow. So having said that, and it's an important thing to keep in mind, I had one in particular who was very, very strict, and very hard on me. If I didn't complete my after school jobs cleaning the classroom, and I had gone off to basketball practice, she would hunt me down and bring me straight back and have me do it all over again. She just wouldn't get off me and I couldn't stand her. I thought, "She is the antichrist." I couldn't get away.

It wasn't until later, and thankfully it did happen by the end of the year, she taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, which is you're no different from anyone else. If you have a job to do, do it to its completion. There's no excuse to wander off. "Oh, I think I'd rather go and do ..." No, you have a responsibility to do this. That never left me, especially that feeling of, "What does she want from me? Get away. I can't stand you" to "Aha, I see."

Now, the world of Lydia, of course, the severity of it, it's an entirely different thing, but just that notion of, "Oh, I see what she's going to do." She's going to make sure they understand what's expected of them, come hell or high water. It doesn't matter what I have to do, I will do it, until they understand.

Did you draw from that nun for Lydia? When you try to put a character together, you're witnessing what speaks to you, what comes up. I just remembered that way of being educated, the principal, the nuns. They were imposing figures presented as sometimes very, very severe, but it was to get a job done, to make sure we knew what was expected of us. I used that portion of it, let us say, that made sense to me in regards to Lydia.


Certainly Lydia is an imposing figure throughout the season, but by the time we get to the finale with the stoning, it seems as though she's had the wind knocked out of her. Do you think this was a moment of reckoning for her? A moment that will force her to reconsider some of these notions she thought were set in stone? Yeah, I think the rug is pulled out from under her in a way that she just didn't see coming. The wonderful thing about the way she's been gripped, she did attach to Janine. Janine has gone through a lot. She made a massive mistake and, oh, why, why, why did you have to do that?

When Lydia stands up to fulfill her obligation to start the stoning, she doesn't have it in her. She tries, but they're empty words because she's not behind it. She's trying, but it's staring her straight in the face. You don't want this to happen, Lydia. I think that's the shock, is her coming into her own realization, "I don't want this. I don't want to go through with this." And then when the girls go a step further and just say, "I'm sorry, Aunt Lydia" and drop their stones, I think she's spinning. I think the world as she knew it is suddenly in tremendous chaos. I'd be fascinated to know how she lands.

Another thing that I found very fascinating is that for a show about patriarchal societies, some of the most horrifying scenes are about women hurting other women. What do you think the show is saying about women who participate in systems that destroy them and destroy each other? Well, we're all capable, aren't we? No one is excluded. It's not a one-sided event. It is a feminist text. Obviously feminism comes straight to mind in The Handmaid's Tale, but no one is exempt from making a decision that they're responsible for. Who knows what the source of repression was in these women's lives. I don't know the answer to that. How was it that they're feeling comfortable with doing those things to these handmaids? I remember a couple of things. Antwone Fisher, did you watch it?

Yes, when it first came out. Remember how you're watching that foster mother, brilliantly played, absolutely abusing her foster children in the way that the white masters abused the slaves? It was extraordinary to see that behavior turned and passed on to these innocent kids. Remember Denzel says to the character, "You should read about this." He names what that is, that passing down of abuse. It goes from abuser to those who are abused and they then abuse. It's the same cycle of abuse.

I think that plays here as well. I remember...no, I'm not going to use his name because he's dead and gone and I hope he's resting in peace. There was an acting teacher who ran a studio in New York who fled the Nazis, and his parents I don't think survived. The curious thing as he grew older and he was running this theater, he was treating people with such abuse and such tyrannical actions. It was just baffling. Just that notion of the behavior you were on the receiving end of you then put others through. Where does it come from? I don't know the psychology of it. It doesn't make sense to me.

It's particularly interesting with someone like Serena Joy. We see how she's an intelligent, liberated woman before the fall, and yet she actively participates in the creation of this new society. Where she loses power. Yeah, that's a tough one. Imagine: she had a full relationship with her husband. It was an equal playing field, sexual, everything. Now it's like, what? What did you not only sign up for, but help create? I just thought of something: I grew up in a conservative home, a loving home, thankfully, very much so. Catholic. My father, a very loving father and husband, was the head of the household and the wife was expected to be subservient. That's what's on the page. I think with most women it's like, look, there's work to be done here. I don't think my mother ever gave it much thought, that notion that she was subservient to her husband. Bullshit. I mean, please. I've got children to raise and things to do here and I'm going to do what I think is the right thing.

It's not an unfamiliar place that women are in. We get the drill. Do you know what I'm saying? It didn't happen yesterday. It's as old as time, repression, second class citizen. You grow up with it. Even though it's maybe not named and certainly no one is going to say that to your face. The examples are all around us. I don't know where I'm going with this, though, so maybe I'll stop...

I think it's very interesting. It is speaking to the point about the way repression is a vicious circle. Can I just throw one more thing in there? Look at what happens to these handmaids who are so deeply repressed and controlled. So much is pent up of hurt, rage, fear, desperation that when they are in a position of killing and kicking to death this man who supposedly raped a handmaid [in the pilot], they do so such abandon and commitment, you know what I mean? It comes full circle.

It's an outpouring of emotion. It's almost beyond their control. Exactly. It's unleashed and that's intentional on the part of those masterminds of Gilead.

It's the same idea that fuels those horror movies like The Purge where one night of of the year there are no rules, anyone can kill anyone. It's another way of controlling people by allowing them to have certain outlets. Yes. Yes.

I was at the Tribeca premiere back in April, and it was very interesting because afterwards there was this Q&A and the cast was all talking about the show and the different issues. You were very forthright about talking about the fact that it was a very feminist text and feminist work, about the connections between it and real life and things we're going through right now with Trump and Pence and the various arguments about reproductive rights, but a lot of your fellow cast were a little hesitant to own the "feminist" nature of the text. It turned into a little controversy, and I was wondering what you thought of all of that. I think the actor's work is to play the characters to the best of their ability and to tell the story. It's a very different thing to speak about what's going on. That's part of our job, but it isn't the core of our work and it's actually difficult to be articulate, because suddenly you're afraid, "What if I say this? Is that going to be misinterpreted?" I hear the questions you ask and you ask an articulate, clear question. That's part of your work. See what I'm saying? That's your skill. That's your gift. That's your training. But it's a different thing to be sitting in a group on a stage in front of audience who is savvy and reporters and so on and then be able to speak comfortably. Suddenly, as I say, the fear of, "Oh my God, what if they didn't exactly understand what I meant?" So I understand that hesitancy.

What's the story about? It's the story of women's enslavement. That's part of this story. It's a major part of it. But repression and control and fear are all in it together and until the repressed and the repressor get on the same page, nothing is going to shift. Now, to get on the same page might take a revolution, and it will, and it has in the past and sometimes that's the way it needs to happen. We can't all be Gandhi, who says we will do so without violence, or Martin Luther King, those extraordinary individuals. Sometimes the world will not shift unless you force it to.

Do you see any figures right now who could be leaders in that sense? Anyone who has that kind of magnetism? Well, I think the Catholic Pope is on the right track. I wish he had a bigger platform—by that I mean that social media was more attentive to him, because I think he has something significant to say and he has a way of saying it that reaches people regardless of religion, color, any of it, because he speaks to the human condition that we are all responsible for. I'm trying to think. I'm sure there are. We need Gandhi. We need to elevate those individuals in our society an find them because boy do we need them.

One of the things about the show that I was very pleasantly surprised about is the pilot and the subject matter are really dark and very heavy. I was worried that with everything going in real life—waking up every day to new depressing headlines about what Trump is trying to do to the country—that the show would be too much, that it would be too painful. Yeah, I hear it.

But as the season went on, I felt like it only gained strength, and it was not painful to watch at all. I was wondering—both when you were making it and now afterwards that it's come out and you've been talking about it and you've seen the parallels with real life—what has that experience been like and how have you connected the show with all of this happening? You know those times in your life when you have such strong feelings about something but you have no agency or no way to address it or no channel that will reach the people you want to reach, you just don't have that option? Well, this show provides that for those of us that are doing it. It's such a wonderful way to channel the despair or the fear or the rage, to do something positive and powerful with it. I think it doesn't get by any of us. We are all keenly aware. As I've said, it's a form of activism to be able to say, "Excuse me, this is what it looks like and this is where it could go. Pay attention. Stay alert. Stay awake."

Heading into the second season, you guys are moving pretty much completely off-book from Margaret Atwood's text. Are you nervous at all about losing the ambiguity of the text? How much is she involved with everything going on? That's a good question. I believe Margaret will be involved. I don't know the title she has, but the brilliant thing about Bruce Miller and our writers is that they understand, in depth, to their very core, what this story is. I think now they can comfortably leave the text and carry on with full awareness of where they want to go and how they want to do it. I think similarly, with The Leftovers, we left that text in the second and third seasons and I thought it was brilliant. Season one set the stage that these are the bones, that's the foundation, and let's see how well it sits and it does. I have full confidence that the same will happen with Handmaid's. There's so much more that we want to note too, thanks to what Margaret has set up. I don't know where the writers will go, but what is the background of the Aunts? How did they come into their positions? What about the Guardians, the Eyes, the Commanders' wives? There's so many places to go here.

I certainly would love more backstory on Lydia in particular. Yeah. I would too. That'd be so great.

Speaking of The Leftovers, you mentioned it was off-book in seasons two and three, during which it really became a marriage between Damon Lindelof and [original author] Tom Perrotta. They were able to expand the world and pursue certain story strains so far beyond what was in the novel thanks to the show. We barely knew Patti in season one, and even though she died in the penultimate episode, we ended up learning so much more about her as the show continued. What was it like shaping her arc over the course of the series? I thought it was the most beautiful character I've ever lived, ever experienced or played. As you say, we don't know much about her initially, but we do learn that she was in an abusive marriage where she was just non-existent trash to be stepped on and abused. She comes into her power, into her courage when the Departure happens. She sees it coming, feels it's coming, knows it's coming. Her therapist tries to talk her off that cliff, she said, "No, no, no" and then of course it bears out. I think the extraordinary thing for her in season one is, I'm here, I'm capable, I'm a born leader and I can commit to the end, which is exactly what she does. The achievement there is huge for her. Some people go through their whole lives and it never happens. She has that. And she goes right to the end and reaches the goal the Guilty Remnant provided, which is death. That's the goal. That's where we're headed. They had the courage to do it.

Her first season arc is so nihilistic in a sense, and yet it becomes so much richer as we pick up with her in season two. It's interesting. After reading the episodes of season two in which Patti appears, she was saying things to Kevin like, "Now I told you not to tell Nora. You went ahead and did it, and she left. Don't tell your daughter because she's going to do the same thing. She's going to leave."

I said to Damon, "Is she trying to help Kevin with his relationship with Nora? What's she doing there?" And he said, "No, she's not trying to help. She doesn't believe in relationships."

That just was like a bell going off. I thought, oh, he's so good. He doesn't give you information up front. But if you ask, he'll give you all of it, all of what you want. He knows the characters so thoroughly. I would ask him and he was always there with the answer. He said, "She doesn't know what she's doing there. She thought she ended it. She took her life. Over. Next thing you know, she's in a truck with Kevin and he's harassing her. She's harassing him. She's putting it together for herself. She doesn't know why she's there."

What emerges is that these two people have achieved—we see this in season one—a level of intimacy that is very rare. It's a kind of love story. The intimacy comes from the fact that they see one another with clarity. They see where each other's fears, their vulnerabilities, where they hide, how they hide. Once you see that in another person, the connection is for life.

In the second season, that continues, that duel with one another because it's not easy to live in that kind of relationship and to know where it's going. What Kevin allows her to do is to acknowledge where she failed in her life, that burden that she's carried, which is that when I had the chance to leave, I didn't. When I had the chance to claim my life as a woman and say, "I will no longer be abused by you or anyone," she still stays. She carries that burden and that regret and it's released in the end of season two and then she can leave. And who helps her? Kevin, the only one who can. He's the one who deeply knows and understands. It's a form of, for lack of a better phrase, love without condition.

Then in the third season, Patti has come a long way. She doesn't have burdens. She's there for one reason only and that is to come to his aid so that he can stop hiding from his life, stop going to places that will allow him to check out, and the only way we're going to do that, Kevin, is we're going to blow up that world so it will no longer exist for you to return to. I am returning the favor. I will be by your side. We will do it together and then there you go. To me, it's such a brilliant and beautiful story of a relationship that started out with such antagonism and such disgust for one another.

Yeah, and that ultimately is what The Leftovers was about. It was about the relationships that form between people and the love that keeps them afloat in a world in which anyone could die at any moment, no matter whether it's because of a supernatural event like the Sudden Departure or someone just dropping dead of a heart attack. What did you think of the final season, and Nora's final story, as a viewer? I want to watch it five or six times. I'm going to sit down when I'm alone entirely and I'm going to watch it all again. But I love Damon's answers to the question of Nora's story. His answer was, "I want to believe her." I think whether she's telling the truth or she isn't, it is a form of truth. By that I mean...If you say to someone, if you say to a woman who is 65, "How old are you?" And she says, "I'm 52." By most accounts she's lying, but her truth is, "I want to be 52. I want to look like I'm 52" or whatever the age. That's her truth that she's telling. Did you understand that there's a truth in what she's saying?

Right, I did. It's her personal truth. I love that. I think with Nora, whatever she came to in herself so that she could move on, was that her kids, wherever they are, are safe and they have moved on in their lives without me and they are okay so now I will let them go and I will move on. I am free to do so. Somewhere in me, I have come to that place of peace. I don't know if you're a parent, but it never leaves you, the fear that your children are in jeopardy, that your children could come into harm's way. If someone had taken my child from me, I don't know if there would ever have been a peaceful moment in my life, ever. The haunting, the desperate need to come to their aid and to be able to put that to rest. And then, to realize that my loved ones have found their way and they have done so without me, and that is okay.

You know, again, the thing that that material does is it travels into the deepest part of us and allows us to come to our own understanding. It is not a linear experience and it is not the same experience for everyone because we all have our story. And with [Kevin & Nora], it's a very, very good story. They can find each other. They can find each other at the end.

HBO sent out seven of the eight episodes to critics before the finale season began, so they only episode that we had to wait for was the finale. I binged the whole season then spent eight or nine weeks wondering, "where is this going? What can this end on? How do we get out of all of this?" I don't think that there could have been any more satisfying ending than that, that it ends on these two people finally, finally seeing each other. She has settled her own despair, he has blown up his world of hiding, and they see each other as they really are. I mean, come on. How do you get better than that? With all their flaws, with all their whatever they have, they have their love for each other and it will survive. Love is the savior in The Leftovers and love is the enemy to people like Lydia. It's her salvation, ultimately, but love is going to be the downfall for her. I mean, I don't know how it will go exactly, but you see what I'm saying.

Well, Ann, thank you again so much for talking with me. My pleasure. My pleasure.