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Ann Dowd on Rebecca, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the decision that changed her career

From left: Ann Dowd in The Leftovers (Paul Schiraldi Photography/HBO); at Hulu's The Handaid's Tale season three finale event (Phillip Faraone/WireImage/Getty Images); and in The Handmaid's Tale (Jill Greenberg/Hulu)
From left: Ann Dowd in The Leftovers (Paul Schiraldi Photography/HBO); at Hulu's The Handaid's Tale season three finale event (Phillip Faraone/WireImage/Getty Images); and in The Handmaid's Tale (Jill Greenberg/Hulu)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

Blessed be Ann Dowd. Though recognized by many for her Emmy-winning work as The Handmaid’s Tale’s fearsome Aunt Lydia, she’s developed a reputation in Hollywood as quite the opposite: She’s is known for being a compassionate and hard-working performer revered by her colleagues. Indeed, Dowd is an actor’s actor who cut her teeth in the Chicago theater scene before moving to New York, where she found steady work on stage and screen, including motherly roles in The Baby-Sitters Club, Freaks And Geeks, Apt Pupil, Garden State, and three Shiloh movies, just to name a few. But things really began to change with Compliance—Craig Zobel’s 2012 true-story indie thriller—featuring Dowd as Sandra, a fast-food manager whose unblinking trust of authority takes her to some horrifying places. The jaw-dropping performance was widely praised—garnering an Independent Spirit Award nomination—and opened the door to a wide new range of work for her. “It was a turning point from my career,” Dowd admits. Since then, she’s been a dominant force in film and television, often betraying her sweet demeanor with characters that are meddlesome (True Detective), haunting (The Leftovers), or outright satanic (Hereditary).

This month, Ann Dowd can be seen in Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca, playing opposite Lily James and Armie Hammer as the gaudy Mrs. Van Hopper. The Netflix adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel provided The A.V. Club with the opportunity to talk to the actor about some of her standout roles. During the chat, Dowd reflected on her hesitance with Hereditary, the prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale, her hell of a 2014 with HBO, and the frequent comparisons to Margo Martindale. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.

Rebecca (2020)—“Mrs. Van Hopper”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: Rebecca

The A.V. Club: You’re so much fun in this role, also memorably played by Florence Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation. Did you feel inclined to revisit her work before production?

Ann Dowd: No, no, I stayed away. I didn’t watch the Hitchcock film. I think the writing was so good—I mean, the [Daphne du Maurier] novel itself, of course—and then the adaptation was terrific. You know, learning about that world, I was intimidated, like, “I don’t know anything about this.” Well then, of course, you you begin to learn and then you step into that world and, my god: The writing, it always begins there, but the costumes—what?—the hair, the makeup, the sets, the places we shot. I mean, just stepping into that bedroom, [I was] there, do you know what I mean? Living in that level of opulence and just never giving it a second thought. It was just extraordinary, really. So many things brought her to life for me.

AVC: There is a particularly memorable hat.

AD: Okay, how about the hats—like, what?

AVC: Please tell me you held onto that because it looked great on you.

AD: Oh, sweetheart, I wouldn’t dream of asking. Julian [Day], the costume designer, was so good, and the hair and the makeup people were fantastic—they really knew what they were doing. I’m very grateful to them. Fantastic. And the cast, and Ben Wheatley—you know, we could go on here.

AVC: Speaking of Wheatley, could you tell me a bit about his approach to directing? Hitchcock infamously compared actors to cattle, so I’m hoping he came at this from a different point of view.

AD: He couldn’t be better, from the minute I met him. He’s a terrific guy, very down to earth, very personable, funny, and very in love with this story and couldn’t wait to make the film. You can sense that energy right away; he just was raring to go. He knew what he wanted, knew what he was doing. If he needed you to shift what you were doing, he just told you—it was a very, very good working relationship. Loved him. And I’m really relieved I didn’t work with Hitchcock because, really? I mean, if that’s what Hitchcock represents, then Ben Wheatley’s the opposite, just the opposite.

AVC: I wanted to go back to Florence Bates, because there is something of a parallel between the two of you: She’s someone who led an entirely different life before getting her break as an actor, and you’ve spoken a lot about the long journey of your career. For instance, you were originally planning on medical school.

AD: Ah, that’s interesting. I’m sorry to say, I don’t know about her life, but she’s a very wonderful actress. Yeah, isn’t it funny? Well, just to be clear, I was in pre-med, you see, before medical school. I got my act together—no pun intended—before medical school.

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: Emmys Win

AVC: And I do think you’re often seen as an example of someone who has kept at it, and really earned that “big break,” so to say. What does that mean to you, to be held as this example of hard work and perseverance in the industry?

AD: Oh, what a privilege. The thing is, too, I’m glad I can speak from experience, because at the end of the day, it’s not up to anyone to say, “Stop doing this.” It’s yours—these are the gifts you are given, this is what you have fallen in love with. Keep that alive, take care of it, and keep going. All the outside influences, now all the social media, all of it—I don’t know how young actors function with all that noise, noise, noise, noise. But, silence—stop the voices around you, stay focused. Do the work. When you’re not working on something, do your monologues, read your plays, keep the world alive. It’s so old-fashioned, I guess, so they probably think, “Okay, she needs to step it up a little,” but I don’t know. Keeping it simple, you know what I’m saying? Be humble and grateful, and just stay there and know you’re in the right place. All the work is coming.

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present) —“Aunt Lydia Clements”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: The Handmaid's Tale

AVC: Is this the role you’re most recognized for at the moment?

AD: I think that would be probably true, yes.

AVC: Aunt Lydia can be quite intimidating—do you think that might make fans of Handmaid’s Tale afraid to approach you?

AD: I mean, that has happened, and it’s kind of funny to watch. It’s very funny to be in the airport—not so much now, of course, everything’s changed, hasn’t it? But people would just stop. I remember one woman in particular just sitting right down [next to me], and I’m thinking, “I’m not sure I would do that to another person.” She said, “Now, I know you. I don’t know from where.” And she just continued the conversation, and I was like, “Well, nice to meet you—have a lovely day. Go away.” Only because it’s like, “Lady, I don’t know what to tell you.” When someone thinks they recognize you, it’s very sweet, and you can see where it’s going, but they don’t quite know. Hey, it’s always flattering to be recognized, you know what I’m saying? And that people are fans of Handmaid’s Tale. I’m thrilled about that.

AVC: Handmaid’s Tale has always felt prescient, which makes it quite terrifying, especially in this election year. From your perspective, what hope can be found from it as our world feels like it’s creeping closer and closer to Gilead?

AD: Well, it’s got to change November 3rd. Please. But, you know, there’s something very powerful about putting it right in front of you to see. In other words, you turn your television on, or whatever, and you watch—it’s there in front of you. The message is clear: Stay alert, pay attention to the small steps, see what is happening. Are you kidding that there are people in this world, in positions of power, who have been elected, who think they have the right to make a decision for a woman? I mean, really? That still think African American individuals are less than? What? Something about Handmaid’s—what can I even say, except, if you’re sitting in your living room and you’re watching, you have some protection there where you can say, “Hey, wait a second.” I mean, people who say, “We’re not anywhere near Gilead,” I want to say, “What planet are you on?” Open your eyes! I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense here because it’s so upsetting, but hopefully you can make sense of what I said.

AVC: On another note, your Emmy win still stands out as one of the most exciting in recent memory.

AD: Just thinking of it now, I have total goosebumps. I will never get over the honest joy of that moment. It takes me back to it, where I was just like, “How did I get so fortunate? What is happening?” And that beautiful audience. To this day, I don’t know how it happened. And then you think, “Gosh, I wish everybody had a taste of that.” We go through our day, and we do our work, and we’re grateful to have it, hoping we’re doing the best we can. And then, for someone to say, “Oh, by the way—come here a minute—you really did that well.” [Exhales.] It sounds so simplistic, but, really, it was extraordinary. I mean, I like to say I’m not attached to awards and I keep working, but, boy, there was nothing like that.

Compliance (2012)—“Sandra”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: Compliance

AD: Craig Zobel wrote—the script that man wrote is so good. And he knew exactly what he was doing. Yeah, that was extraordinary.

AVC: And, shockingly, based on a true story. But what excited you most about playing Sandra—did she feel real to you? Like it could happen to someone you know?

AD: I saw a woman who—you know, to testify with that amount of denial of the truth of the matter, the things that she chose to do. Going to backstory: When [you’re raised as] a kid who’s told, “What you do doesn’t matter. Shut up, just go to work—you’ll be lucky to get a job at all. Just shut up. You’re not important, your views don’t matter, don’t question it.” There are constitutions in people that allow them to say, “Wait a minute, go away. I’m not doing that.” But Sandra didn’t have that. And someone said, “Was it hard to connect to her?” Absolutely not. I was raised to defer to the church—don’t question it. I came from a very loving home, but with that idea of “Don’t question the authority.” I mean, it never occurred to this poor woman that he wasn’t a detective. It’s like, “Whoa, when did you give up that voice that belongs only to you that says, ‘This is wrong and I’m not doing it.’” I just felt for her, man. And it made total sense to me, her behavior. And then when it hits her, oh my—can you imagine?

AVC: It’s interesting what you said about “giving up that voice”—I think some people don’t realize they have that to begin with.

AD: Hello, the Republican Party, at this very moment. And I’m not joking. What the fuck are you doing? When did you give up your honor and your soul and your integrity to stand by this man and what he’s doing? Sorry, you’re not allowed to curse.

I remember an interview for Compliance. We were in France, and it was through a translator—very lovely—and he said, “So is this an American thing? Deferring to authority?” I looked at him and I said, “You mean other than Nazi Germany?This is across humanity, sir.” [Laughs.] “I don’t want to be responsible. I don’t want to make the choice. I want someone else to do it for me.”

AVC: You did get a deserving Best Supporting Actress win from the National Board Of Review, and you’ve talked about mounting your own For Your Consideration campaign for the role. In retrospect, what did you learn from that process?

AD: Well, it was a turning point from my career, may I say. I’ll never forget it. And I have a wonderful publicist, his name is Adam Kersh, and he educated me. You know, funding my own [FYC campaign], normally it wouldn’t occur to me. “Don’t draw attention to yourself—who do you think you are?” But I thought, “Why not? Let’s do this!” I didn’t put my whole heart and soul—I didn’t put my identity on the line there—and just keeping it as nonjudgmental of others as possible, you know what I’m saying? Because that just doesn’t go anywhere. I was just fortunate. And it was very early on for me, I didn’t know that world, not for a minute. So maybe I’m not answering your question there, but you get it.

The Leftovers (2014-2017)—“Patti Levin”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: The Leftovers

AVC: I’ve always been curious: Given Patti’s fate in the first season, was it a surprise every time they asked you back?

AD: Are you kidding? I don’t know what to say about Damon Lindelof except—you know, what are the words for him? Love him. And I thought it was over. I was heartbroken that I was gone. It made sense in the story, but I was like, “No, no, I’m too attached.” It’s so extraordinary. The things that happened in that show that reflected your life and what you were learning, and the relationships that formed—that closeness to Justin [Theroux], that will always be the case. The coincidences that occurred that you didn’t even question after a while because it was The Leftovers. We were in a world where typical restrictions and divisions don’t apply. I can’t say enough about that show.

AVC: It’s a show that can be bleak, but also very funny. When we interviewed Carrie Coon last year, she spoke to the balance of tones and said that, in many cases, “the heavier the material, the lighter the mood on set.” Was that similar to your experience?

AD: I can’t say that was true for—I didn’t experience that in The Leftovers, I don’t know why. Maybe I was too scared. I mean, that scene in the cabin is one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. But the filming of it was so special, so significant, internally. I didn’t do a lot of laughing on that day. But I understand what Carrie is saying. I did a film recently called Mass, which hasn’t come out yet. It’s one of the saddest things you’ll—it’s two couples who meet six years after their sons [died in] high school shooting. There’s so much sadness in that, but the laughing that we had in between? I mean, I doubled over weeping with laughter. But I guess you had to have that to get through, so I get Carrie’s point.

True Detective (2014)“Betty Childress”
Olive Kitteridge (2014)“Bonnie Newton”

AVC: You had The Leftovers start in summer 2014, your guest role on True Detective earlier that year, and then Olive Kitteridge that fall—all on HBO. Was that just kismet that it all came together at once?

AD: Oh my god, lucky me! I always give entire credit to Marsha McManus and Gary Gersh—they’re my manager and agent—because they just light the path, you know what I’m saying? They steer me in the right direction, and I’m fortunate enough to get it. I thought I would harm someone if I didn’t get True Detective. Because once I landed in there, I thought, “You know what? She’s mine. And I’m sorry, but she’s mine, and that’s just it.” I mean, thankfully, it went that way. I loved Olive Kitteridge, because [her character, Bonnie] was so great. And then The Leftovers. Come on now! Lucky me, what can I say?

AVC: You ran the network, it seems.

AD: [Laughs.] I miss them! Although, you know, nothing wrong with Hulu!

Hereditary (2018)—“Joan”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: Hereditary

AVC: Lately, many have taken to Twitter to share what they consider to be the “scariest scenes” in movies, and, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen people mention the sight of you, as Joan, in the parking lot in Hereditary.

AD: I read that script—I’m going to tell you the truth—with one eye closed. You know, being raised Catholic—I remember I was just talking about The Exorcist and how it scared the wits out of me. But, you know, jumping in this [playing] a satanist, I was like, “Whoa!” Of course, as I’m reading, I’m thinking, “Oh, she’s so nice. I’m playing a nice character.” Well, I mean, we know where that goes. I was afraid to shoot it at first, but then you talk to Ari Aster, and you’re just in immediately. He’s so good and so smart and—honest to god—he has so much kindness in him that you think, “Do you do children’s films? Why did you get to this place? How did it come out of your imagination?” He’s amazing, and he had an answer for every question. Like I said, why [does Joan] know [Toni Collette’s Annie] going to be at that art store? And he said, “Well, you’re clocking her. You’re watching where she’s going, you’re up at the ready.” And she was pretty great, Toni Collette—I mean, she is something else.

AVC: I’m specifically thinking of the fantastic seance scene you two share.

AD: Oh god, that woman. She had to jump in to the most emotional uproar every time. I don’t know how—she was fantastic. Loved her.

Shiloh (1996), Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season (1999), Saving Shiloh (2006)—“Louise Preston”

AD: I loved those so much. I love those people, and that simple life, you know? And the simple values.

AVC: Are you a big dog person?

AD: We have three, and we live in New York City, can I just say? [Laughs.] Of course I’m not home now to walk them. My family members are attending. But, everywhere I went—we shot The Leftovers in Austin, Texas, so the first thing I did, honestly, was to go and get a rescue. My husband would leave me if I did it again: “You just can’t come home with a dog and another dog.” And then when I was in North Carolina, straight to the rescue! Anyway. So, yes, dogs, Shiloh, loved it.

AVC: And that series stretched over a decade. It had to have been nice to have something so warm-hearted as a constant.

AD: I know. Yes, it really was lovely—everyone involved was lovely.

Shoot The Rooster (TBA)
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)“Pediatrician”

AVC: A couple of years ago, you sat down with Vulture for a conversation with Margo Martindale.

AD: Oh my goodness. Love her!

AVC: In that interview, the two of you said that that was only the second time you were in the room together, after meeting at an awards show. But in revisiting your work, I realized you were both in George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil. There was no crossover there?

AD: None! Zero! Though we just did a Zoom film together [Shoot The Rooster]. It was fantastic. I love her. We used to crack up. I’d say—well, she’s a tremendous actress. And, just to hear her speak, I’m a little afraid of her—I’d never tell her that. Just the way she talks, and the accent, I love it. Come on, I can’t beat it. But we would joke and say, “We’re nothing alike! What are they talking about?” I mean, we don’t look alike. She’s got a thing about her that’s so unique. So we we had a good laugh about it. But, you know, to each his own, we decided.

AVC: It’s exciting to hear that you’ll finally be on screen in the same movie, at least to put to rest the rumors that you’re the same person.

AD: [Laughs.] That’s so funny. Because people have said to me, “Oh, I loved you in such and such.” And I’m thinking, “I wasn’t in that?” And, of course, they’re talking about Margo. And I just say, “Thanks so much,” thinking maybe I should’ve handled that differently.

AVC: A compliment’s a compliment.

At Home With Amy Sedaris (2017-present)—“Janice Shanks,” “Teri Tucker”

Ann Dowd, Random Roles: At Home With Amy Sedaris

AD: Is there anyone in the world like [Amy Sedaris]? She’s also so lovely. There’s not an unkind bone in her body. And she’s so accepting of everything. She came to my home, and my oldest boy, who’s on the spectrum, was struggling that day. She just was so fantastic and brilliant. Accepting. She accepts everything. And the last day I was there, she had several [costume and character] changes—as she does on her show—I would stare at her and say, “There is no way on this Earth that is you. I mean, you’re lying to me.” She’s unbelievable. Nobody like her in the world.

AVC: In the season three episode, you’re doing a play on Notes On A Scandal with the ginger snap cookies.

AD: Oh, god, we had a blast. It was the funniest thing ever. That woman [Janice Shanks] so just wants to get her in bed as fast as possible. [Laughs.] Well, that was hysterical. I loved going to work there.

AVC: And that was the second time. In season two, there’s the great casting of Chassie Tucker’s family—there’s you, Juliette Lewis, Taryn Manning, and of course Cole Escola.

AD: And Cole, yes. The whole thing. I loved it, absolutely loved it. She’s a good friend now, and I love her work.

The Baby-Sitters Club (1990)—“Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas-Brewer
Freaks And Geeks (1999-2000)—“Cookie Kelly”

AVC: As a final note, you’ve played a lot of great mom roles, including your early work as Mrs. Thomas-Brewer in The Babysitter’s Club. Which, by the way, did you know that Netflix just made a new one with Alicia Silverstone in the role?

AD: Oh, they did? Oh, she’s great. I wasn’t—I’m not aware of it. But, oh god, that’s very sweet. I loved doing that though, but I was scared of it, too. I was new to it all, you know what I’m saying? It was very early. I loved it though.

And Freaks And Geeks—I’ll never get over that as long as I live. I’m sorry, but, you know, the genius of those people there. And the writers. You’re looking over and you’re like, “But you’re 20! You’re a kid!”

AVC: That’s so that the whole high school experience was still fresh in their minds.

AD: Yeah, oh yes! Oh god, I loved it.

Rebecca is playing in select theaters now, and is available to stream on Netflix starting October 21.