Ann Dowd was in Australia, shooting her role as an “eccentric nun” in the upcoming series Lambs of God, when she first got word that comedian Michelle Wolf had compared White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to her character Aunt Lydia from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight,” Wolf said from the podium at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner as Sanders grimaced just a few seats away on the dais. “I have to say I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.” She tagged the joke with, “Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you would love it.”
Three months later on the phone from her home in New York, Dowd tells me that she had no idea what she was watching when someone showed her the clip. “I thought it was an SNL sketch. I’m not joking,” she says. “For a minute there I thought, what the hell is going on here?”
Almost instantly, critics of Wolf’s performance accused her of attacking Sanders’ “looks” by comparing her to Aunt Lydia. (Wolf also “complimented” the press secretary’s makeup, joking, “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”) But wouldn’t that be far more insulting to Dowd than it would be to Sanders?
During our interview this week, Dowd responded directly to those who suggested as much, such as Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt, who mused on-air, “Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, if you Google that image, it’s not complimentary.” The 62-year-old Dowd, who’s seen her career take off in recent years with roles in shows like The Leftovers and films like Hereditary, has learned to take comments like those in stride.
The Emmy-winning actress, who is nominated again this year for The Handmaid’s Tale, also confirmed that Aunt Lydia will be returning to the show for season three — despite the condition Alexis Bledel’s Emily left her in at the end of the season two finale — and explained why she refuses to “judge” her character’s often horrific actions.
You seemed genuinely stunned when your name was called at the Emmys last year. What does this type of awards recognition mean to you?
I wish I had different words, but it’s an honor. And I don’t take it for granted. I was quite thrilled. Before you get word, you say, c’mon now, keep your focus on the work and how fortunate you are to have this role. And you love playing her and that’s enough. But whenever you do hear that you’ve gotten a nomination it’s just a wonderful, thrilling thing.
I believe you submitted the season two premiere to the Television Academy this year. Can you talk about filming that harrowing opening scene set at Fenway Park?
First of all, it was in the middle of the night. It was cold, it was raining. You couldn’t ask for better circumstances in which to shoot that. It was scary, the sight of it. They were very cautious and all the safety things were put into place but still, the look of it, it brought it all to life in such an acute way. I’m from Massachusetts, I’ve been to Fenway Park and to think that here is this overgrown ball field, what a sight, what an image to make it clear what kind of world we all live in. It was a very striking evening. And I’ll tell you, I read the script and performed in the episode, but at the premiere, which is months and months later, way after we’d wrapped it, I was floored by it, as if I didn’t even know what happened. Physically, I just sort of limped out of the theater thinking, oh my god. Just the power of that was extraordinary.
When we last saw Aunt Lydia in the season two finale, she is lying on the floor, stabbed and beaten, pretty brutally. Is she going to survive?
You know, I think I’m allowed to say that yes she will. She does survive it. I hope they were telling me the truth. [Showrunner] Bruce Miller told me himself, so if he said it, it must be true.
That’s exciting for you. Maybe not for some of the characters who would like to see Aunt Lydia dead.
Exactly. It will be tough for Emily to reconcile, but we’ll get there.
Now that we know you are coming back for season three, what are your hopes for Aunt Lydia’s role in the story moving forward?
I can tell you honestly that I leave that to the writers. I don’t have any inkling of what will happen. If you’re to ask an actor, what would you like to see happen? — you know, we’re full of ideas and thank God it’s not in my hands. Because I’m not qualified. So I don’t know. I love what they’ve done with her, and I trust it. And I look forward to seeing it. As to hopes for her, you always wish she spends more time with different characters and all of that. They have a lot of characters to create full lives for on that show. I don’t know how they find the balance.
We’ve gotten some hints at what Aunt Lydia’s life was like before Gilead, but we haven’t actually seen it yet. Is that something that you would be eager to depict on the show?
Well, I think that would be fascinating, personally. Someone asked me once, “Who hurt her?” Which I thought was a great question. Because, how do you live on a narrow lane with such commitment? So I’m always interested to find out, how did you come to be the person you are? What contributed to that?
Seeing her get taken down like that was a surprising and cathartic moment for viewers. But as the actor who plays her, do you view it differently?
I guess the cardinal rule for any role is not to judge. So having done it long enough to know that that’s where we begin, with an open mind and heart, I love her. And I’m very interested to know about her. And I think she feels she’s doing what is best for them. I don’t think she has a doubt in the world that what she’s doing is in their best interest, that the life they were living before was going straight to ruin, the gifts that God gave us being destroyed by carelessness and greed. If in fact she was a teacher, which Bruce suggested she was, in her past, watching the promiscuity, listening to the language, the way everybody’s living their lives, it’s just a train wreck. I think she was and is fully committed to repairing the damage and trying to give them the option to lead a meaningful life. It’s the only chance they have in her eyes. And she’s able to say, whatever it takes, that is the most important thing. It may seem harsh, but her primary job is to let them know this is what needs to happen in order for you to continue your life, period.
Aunt Lydia, like Serena, was allowed to become a bit more human in season two. You have to empathize with her to some degree in order to play the role, but have there been moments when it was hard to understand her level of cruelty?
My thoughts don’t line up with hers, my beliefs certainly do not line up with hers, but I have no trouble jumping into it given the way the world has been built. She’s presented in a way where it’s not just this mean, horrible person, because that gets old after one episode. The complexity comes, I think, from her attachment to these girls. And the fact that she loves them. Once you love someone, that’s the most powerful dynamic. She didn’t sign up for the world they’re living in. I don’t think she signed up for a world in which she would go back to her dorm room with a twin bed and a light that’s not for reading. And then look at the opulence in the commanders’ homes and the commanders’ wives and the ridiculous gifts for these babies. Wait a minute, here, that’s not what we talked about. We talked about purifying the world that’s gone to hell.
You mentioned the idea of reading and the fact that she may have been a teacher before. That was a big theme this past season, exploring this world where women are not allowed to read. How does that affect Aunt Lydia in ways that we might not even see?
I think it’s a hardship. I mean, you can imagine her reading Dostoevsky and doing just fine with it, you know? I think she was an avid reader. I think she was a loner. I think that’s what she did with her time when she wasn’t in church. Surely you thirst for what a novel can do for you. In my schedule now, which is quite busy, lucky me, I have to have a novel. It’s the greatest way to relax. It’s a departure. Imagine being kept from that when it meant something to you?
What was your relationship to Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale before you got this role?
I read it in either college or high school. She’s so good that Margaret Atwood, so prescient. She has her pulse on something very scary and the potential for it to be real is lurking there. I remember being quite struck by the book and, of course, I read it again once I had the role.
With each new policy announcement during the Trump presidency, there are people who will say we are now one step closer to The Handmaid’s Tale becoming reality. And there are some obvious parallels there. Do you share those concerns or do you think it can be a little overblown?
I can tell you that it’s not the writers’ intent to mirror what is going on, sadly, in the world and this country. But it is to wake people up, keep the dialogue going, talk. Don’t let the small things go by. You know, the line that I find so haunting from the first season is when Offred says, “When we finally put our phones down it was too late.” Just pay attention! I’m sure there’s a fair amount of hyperbole in terms of we could turn into Gilead. I don’t see that happening. Having said that, the permission people seem to have now to step out of the shadows in terms of white supremacy, that shocked me, how organized it was and the degree of it. When you see, also, Roe v. Wade, that’s not a simple question. The lack of awareness of how complicated the idea of abortion is. To all those pro-life individuals who are picketing and doing what they’re doing, I want to ask them how many foster children live in their homes? How many children without family have you taken in and said, “I will accept this responsibility?” I find all those things shocking, the degree of ignorance, of racism. With Handmaid’s, what is shocking is in this era that we live in now with this president, things I didn’t think were possible are in fact happening, in much larger numbers than one would have thought.
On a somewhat lighter note, what did you think when you first heard Michelle Wolf’s joke comparing Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Aunt Lydia at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Do you think it’s a fair analogy?
I was in Australia at the time and I turned the television on and I thought it was an SNL sketch. I’m not joking. For a minute there I thought, what the hell is going on here? The whole thing was completely surreal for me. Listening to Michelle Wolf just go at her, full-out, and there is whatever her name is, Sanders, sitting there. I had never seen a Correspondents’ Dinner, I don’t get why anyone shows up. It’s so bizarre and it seemed so primitive to me. All these people dressed to the nines, and these things being said. So I was asked to make a statement and what I ended up saying was something like, Aunt Lydia has very little room for confusion and mayhem, so I don’t think she would have ever taken the job in the first place. And secondly, Lydia has the comfort of believing everything she does is in service to God, and of course Sarah Sanders doesn’t have that luxury.
I am very happy that my line of work involves stepping into roles that are written. I don’t know why Sarah Sanders is doing the job she’s doing. I think her talents should be used elsewhere. Personally attacking her, I have no interest in doing that. I would have no problem doing that with Trump, because he should be in jail for a number of reasons. And I believe in voting and I believe in protest and I believe in activism. I don’t think I can go for the jugular, just personally. That’s not my role, thank god. Comedians, they have a huge fierceness and bravery and commitment and more power to them. I’m relieved that’s not my role.
Wolf’s critics argued that the joke was about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ “looks,” and I want to read a quote from Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt. She said, “Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, if you Google that image, it’s not complimentary.” How would you respond to that?
Well, you know, I didn’t think [Wolf] was comparing her looks to Lydia’s. I assumed she meant in choices and behavior. I have no personal hurt to that at all. I can only say, thank god I’m older and there’s some perspective. People will say what they say, they’re free to do so. All I want to do is play her well. It’s not my place to make a personal judgement on Sarah Sanders. I can disagree with her entirely, and I do. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing, but I’m not here to personally insult her. The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction. Her world is not. It’s real life. That’s a big, big difference. When we go home at the end of the day, everybody has their fingers, nobody’s eye has been taken out. The girls are not being raped. The consequences don’t exist. In her world, they do.
For what it’s worth, I definitely took the joke as comparing Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ behavior to Aunt Lydia’s and not anything else.
Poor thing. I mean, I say poor thing, like, where’s your president? You had to go to that event and he’s not going and he knows why he’s not going? And yet you’re sitting here. I mean, the list goes on and on. I wish someone could have infused her with tremendous laughter at the absurdity of the whole thing. Except the stakes are too high and she can’t.
You’ve played a lot of dark, even evil characters in recent years between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Leftovers and I’m personally too terrified to see Hereditary, but I hear you’re very scary in that as well.
Yeah, I haven’t seen that either. I haven’t had a moment to do so, but it’s scary, for sure.
Do you like scary things?
No, no! And in fact, when I read it, I read it with one eye shut. I thought, I’m not doing this, this is terrifying. I remember being raised Catholic and watching The Exorcist, which scared the wits out of me. It seriously scared me. And then I talked to Ari Aster, the director, who is so lovely. And the minute he said ten words, I said, I’m doing it.
So now that you’ve played all these dark characters, are you eager to portray a genuinely sweet, good person?
Well, I think it’s probably good to change it up a bit. And I have no idea why I get these roles to be honest with you. [Laughs] But I’m very happy to be playing them, I’m enjoying them immensely. They must be seeing something deep and lurking in there. My husband said something like, “What if you were to play a normal nice person with a regular job?” And I said, absolutely, let’s give that a shot.