Aunt Lydia Lives! Emmy Favorite Ann Dowd on What Makes The Handmaid's Tale's Most Enigmatic Figure Tick

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Aunt Lydia Lives! Emmy Favorite Ann Dowd on What Makes <i>The Handmaid's Tale</i>'s Most Enigmatic Figure Tick

Your humble Handmaid’s Tale correspondent has never made a secret of this, but I will say it again: As much as I respect the hell out of Margaret Atwood, and as much as I read The Handmaid’s Tale three times trying to make myself love it, I failed. Hulu’s adaptation, while it has its weaknesses, is something I have loved, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out the difference. Some of it is admiration of its visual artistry: that ultra-saturated color, the attentiveness to visual metaphor.

But the big leap here has been in character depth, and in particular the performance artistry that has given flesh and blood to two characters who always felt two-dimensional to me on the page: Yvonne Strahovski’s stellar portrayal of Serena Waterford, and Ann Dowd’s mesmerizing, Emmy-winning turn as the formidable Aunt Lydia. (Both are Emmy-nominated this year, along with co-star Alexis Bledel, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.) All through Season Two, I wished I could ask Dowd what she felt was really going on with this woman. Was she sadistic? An opportunist? A true believer? Where had she come from? What and who had she been before Gilead?

What a treat to get the chance to do just that. (Editor’s note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Paste: To begin with, were you a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale from the beginning? I mean the novel.

Dowd: Oh, definitely. I was in college, I think. I thought it was wonderful.

Paste: One of the main reasons I prefer the adaptation is the richness and depth of characters like yours, that I felt were very distant and rather flat in the book.

Dowd: Well, yes, distant. Although what Atwood does that I find very interesting is she doesn’t hand the characters to the reader on a plate, she leaves them for us to interpret. You get to imagine what might be going on in their minds.

Paste: I never thought of that as an advantage in the context of a novel, to be honest, but as you say it I wonder why I don’t! How did you develop Aunt Lydia? Was there input from Atwood, or from [showrunner] Bruce Miller, or did you mostly form your own interior world for her?

Dowd: Some of each. Bruce and I discussed it and the question of who Aunt Lydia had been before Gilead specifically. He suggested that he thought perhaps she had been a teacher. I’ve taught and I love teaching—I taught Tennessee Williams at a conservatory, so I could relate to that. And I think, you know, this is probably a person who, for whatever reasons from her own past, perhaps saw young women around her, you know, short skirts, cursing, provocative behavior… and just felt like the world was falling apart. And then with the environment and the plummeting birth rate? She probably thought the concept of “back to basics” was for the best.

Paste: So you think she believes in Gilead?

Dowd: At first.

Paste: Because it becomes clear, especially in Season Two, that she’s very aware of the unique position she holds in Gilead’s power structure.

Dowd: Oh, yes. It is.

Paste: Not just with regard to Handmaids. There’s a moment… well, for me there are three defining little moments for Aunt Lydia, times when I really sat up and thought, “Who is she?” One of them is when she’s examining Offred [played by Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss] and Serena’s watching her make notes. And she’s looking at that pencil like she wants to eat it. And Aunt Lydia makes some placating, tossed-off remark about how having to read and write is really a burden and not a privilege, but the look on your face clearly says, “How do you like me now, Mrs. Waterford?” You can see that Lydia has no particular patience for the Wives either.

Dowd: [Chuckles.] Indeed not. I think that if she is, or was, someone who believed a back-to-basics movement was a good idea, she couldn’t possibly have any patience with the Commanders and Wives; I mean, she sees them, she sees that for the Commanders this is about fun, and power, and sex, and all the things it was about before. And those baby showers, the preposterous stuffed giraffes and everything… I don’t think she has any misconceptions about it being…

Paste: Corrupt?

Dowd: Corrupt.

Paste: Does she love the women in her charge?

Dowd: Absolutely. They’re her world.

Paste: And yet she’s quite willing to physically and emotionally torture them.

Dowd: I think she cares deeply for them in spite of that. Imagine what her life must be like; she goes, does her rounds, makes visits, if there are pregnant Handmaids, has these management tasks, and then goes home and has dinner with, I guess, the other Aunts, and goes up to a dorm room, with a twin bed, and she’s not reading poetry or watching TV up there. She’s alone with her thoughts. I think she has to believe she’s doing the right thing, or she wouldn’t survive.

Paste: And she genuinely loves the babies, that seems clear. That every one that makes it is in fact a personal triumph for her but also just… a baby, and lovable and priceless. A life that she’s helped create, in a way.

Dowd: Very much so. This is a woman who doesn’t have the “value” of being able to bear children herself. The babies of the Handmaids are the closest she gets to that experience.

Paste: In the beginning of Season Two is another of those moments, the first one for me, where I saw that. When she goes up into that bell tower and pulls the rope… after what just happened of course you see that shot and immediately see a noose, but when she starts ringing that bell? You have this look on your face, of ecstatic joy. And I remember thinking, “No… she’s not faking that, no one’s watching her, that’s real, that’s the real Lydia. And she’s… thrilled.”

Dowd: Yes!

Paste: Do you think she’s aware of herself as also cruel?

Dowd: I think she has a lot of regret about Janine. She realizes that taking that eye was just too much. I think she wishes she could take that back, that she’d been less harsh with her.

Paste: She has a different relationship with Janine than with most of the Handmaids, clearly. I wondered if it was about guilt. Or admiration. I mean, Janine’s interesting, and Madeline Brewer does such a splendid job of conveying how losing your mind a bit can be a safe space in a world that’s lost its mind too. She’s strangely bulletproof, though obviously also very damaged.

Dowd: Yes, I think so. I know Lydia does feel responsible for her.

Paste: And it seems like Offred sees that and understands that perhaps she can trust Lydia, in an odd way, at least about the welfare of that baby, or maybe even as an ally against Serena. She starts dealing with a woman and not just an oppressive idea. Which leads me to the third “wow” moment for me with your character, where she does that pivot when Offred asks about her nephew who died and she just says, “It wasn’t my fault.” I mean, that’s quite a thing to say.

Dowd: Well, I think she means it quite literally. Clearly there was a child, who was her godson and she probably cared for him in that capacity, and he died. Whether that was while he was in her care or not isn’t known, but it’s of course something she carries with her, this death.

Paste: The fact that she seems to imagine anyone would assume it, though. And it’s the only time I can think of her being vulnerable in front of Offred.

Dowd: And she might make Offred pay for that at some point, who knows?

Paste: Yes! So, we last saw Aunt Lydia in kind of a “Well, she’ll be feeling that in the morning!” type situation. I assume Lydia survives?

Dowd: You know, I don’t get anything in advance, but yes, I do know she lives. And I think I caught one little clue about… what kind of shape she’s likely to be in.

Paste: I couldn’t believe I felt sorry for her! But I did. Do you think the door’s been opened for us to get more into Lydia’s world, her backstory, how Aunt Lydia became Aunt Lydia?

Dowd: I suppose so, potentially. I believe production begins in October, but I won’t really know much until then. That would be interesting.

Paste: I’m hoping for it. That we get a little more of her world, and Serena’s. It seems like the story will need to shift that way, but who knows? Anyway, I take it you’re pleased to be doing a third season?

Dowd: Oh, most definitely. I have to tell you, it’s really a lovely show, everyone is just… you know, not just excellent performers, which they are, but so nice to be with, to be around. Just such… You know, I’m so happy for Joe Fiennes, for example. He’s delightful.

Paste: And scary.

Dowd: (Laughs.) I mean, really, everyone is. And that’s a gift.

Paste: I can imagine in longer forms, especially, like serial drama, it can be immense pressure if, you know, if it’s a good role and a good show and you happen not to feel comfortable around your colleagues for whatever reason.

Dowd: That does happen, and it is so draining it’s unbelievable—but not here, no. It’s been a joy.

Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.