Ann Dowd’s decades-long career has seen her in dozens of roles, but she is probably best known for her frightening character on Channel 4’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale.
Aunt Lydia is a disciplinarian tasked with keeping a watchful eye over her handmaids, fertile women used by the extremist regime of Gilead to bear children for privileged couples.
Throughout the series, the character shows occasional glimmers of humanity, but they are frequently overshadowed by the sheer cruelty of her actions.
Nonetheless, Dowd feels an affinity with the role that she has thoroughly made her own and was excited to see Lydia play a central part in Margaret Atwood’s sequel novel, The Testaments.
“I was thrilled. It’s more than I could ever have hoped for,” she told RadioTimes.com. “The actor can sit there all day and say ‘Oh, I hope this happens to the character, oh wouldn’t this be great.’ This is beyond all expectation and it’s done, of course, in the way that Atwood always approaches things: with such intelligence, humour and absolutely no sentimentality.”
That lack of sentimentality stems from Atwood’s drastically different origin for Lydia to that which is seen on the series. While the show presents her as the product of a deeply religious father and aimed to understand how she strayed down such a dark path in life, The Testaments does no such thing.
The book depicts Lydia as coming from a non-religious family and rising to her role in Gilead simply as a means to survive. Yet Dowd’s sympathy for the character remains steadfast, still seeing the light even in this version of the character.
“It goes in the direction that, I believe, there’s redemption in this for Lydia. Now, I don’t know that Atwood would agree. But, from my perspective, what ends up happening could be described as Lydia in her ageing and in looking back, making a decision that acknowledges a desire for redemption,” she adds.
Dowd’s latest role features similar religious fervour, playing the traumatised Sister Margarita on BritBox exclusive Lambs of God, alongside Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) and Essie Davis (The Babadook).
The series finds three nuns living in a crumbling monastery located on a remote island. After years of being completely alone, they are horrified when a priest arrives and informs them of the Church’s intention to close the place down.
While the trailers present Lambs of God as a more dramatic series, Dowd explains there are humorous elements to the show which she wasn’t initially aware of.
“The circumstances themselves produce the comedy, meaning a priest shows up on this island which is almost impossible to get to. Mind you, these women have been living in cloister for years and they don’t like men, let’s just put it that way, nor do they trust men.
“So, just imagine putting those two circumstances together and our response to the arrival of this man, the lengths we go to make his life miserable and to keep him from completing his mission. It just produces so many circumstances of humour.”
While Sister Margarita and Aunt Lydia are wildly different characters, Dowd drew from elements of her own upbringing to understand their shared religious devotion.
“What I found tremendously helpful about growing up in a Catholic home was how much I was exposed to prayer,” she says. “In Lambs of God, we had to learn many prayers and it’s a very comforting thing from one’s childhood if you have good memories of prayers learned in church or prayers said at home. I found it extremely helpful, they made sense to me.
“In Lydia’s case, it was the work ethic that was so helpful. Not that any of the nuns in my upbringing treated me the way Lydia treats the handmaids, God forbid. But just that notion of, ‘You have a job to do, you will do it to perfection and it’s not all about you. You are here in service to God, your life is a gift from God’ and that sort of thing.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently gearing up for its fourth season which begins shooting next month, although Dowd insists that she has “no idea” what will happen.
Fan speculation that the show could one day adapt The Testaments (set 15 years later) remains entirely unconfirmed, but the show has no danger of losing its Aunt Lydia any time soon.
“It’s a privilege to come to know a character well over time. That’s generally not how it happens. And also, I’m attached to Lydia for life – that’s the problem. Meaning I can’t imagine stepping away from her. So, I would be honoured to continue playing her,” she says.
“I think she’s a beautifully written character and I would stay attached to her if they asked me. I’ve not received an offer about The Testaments, let’s put it that way.”
Lambs of God is streaming now on BritBox. The Handmaid’s Tale will return in late 2020