This interview includes spoilers for the first two seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Everyone’s favorite Aunt is probably not dead. Ann Dowd says she reports to work on the third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in October.
And perhaps “favorite” isn’t quite accurate, not when it comes to Aunt Lydia, the formidable enforcer who keeps Gilead’s handmaids on the straight and narrow in the Hulu drama. She does not shrink from taking extreme actions — that’s part of the reason Emily (Alexis Bledel) stabbed Lydia and threw her down a flight of stairs at the end of the second season.
But thanks to Ms. Dowd’s performance, the woman is not a caricature. She is a devout believer who is sure the way to save the world is to have the handmaids — after being reformed by the Aunts — repopulate a broken world. Anything that helps her reach that goal is on the table.
“The great thing is, at the end of the day is, she doesn’t answer to a man,” Ms. Dowd said. “Now, the Commanders are ‘in charge.’ I say that in quotes — she does not answer to them. She can lead them better than they can lead themselves.”
Ms. Dowd won a supporting actress Emmy last year for her “Handmaid’s” work and was nominated in the same category this year. (She was also nominated last year for her work in “The Leftovers.”) In a phone interview, she discussed what drives Aunt Lydia, Season 2’s controversial ending and how a long, challenging family saga from her own life helped her understand Offred’s curious choices. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve now had almost a year of time to process having won an Emmy for your work on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” What was that was like?
To be nominated is a thrilling thing. To have won last year — I’ll never get over that. The deep shock, the deep gratitude, all of it, I’ll just never forget it. All of those things are thrilling. I have no words.
The stuff surrounding it is very anxiety-producing. The dress, the press, going into the event itself is about the most overwhelming thing I’ve ever experienced. You walk in and your first impulse is to turn around and go out because it’s so overwhelming. It’s an alternate universe. The throngs of gorgeous people in their beautiful dresses. The cameras flashing. “Go this way, go this way.” It’s just unlike anything else. Now, it worked out nicely, so I’m not complaining. This time, I’m thinking, “Let’s have some balance, deep breaths, wish everybody well, don’t overthink it.”
Your speech was good.
Thank you. I was very stunned and I can tell you it was heartfelt and wildly grateful. It all comes before you — all the people that helped you, the support you got day after day, for years, when you couldn’t make the rent. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was 35 years old and I was working in a pet shop.
Offred made some controversial choices in the Season 2 finale, giving her newborn daughter to Emily and remaining in Gilead. Did you follow all the online debate about this afterward?
I don’t follow those things, but my daughter was extremely upset. She said: “Why did Offred not leave? She could help her daughter from the other side.” I said to her, “Listen, if you’re a mother and you have a young child who is vulnerable, it is very hard to leave.” My son is next to me here, right now. He’s 26 years old. [To her son.] Can I say that you are an adult with disabilities? [He gives his permission.]
If I had the choice to leave him or not leave him, I would never leave. I couldn’t. I would stay because the physical presence [matters]. There are others on the other side [for the baby]. For Offred, there is a child that remains who is vulnerable, and she cannot and will not leave. That made complete sense to me, emotionally.
I have to admit, it didn’t make sense to me for her to say “Call her Nicole,” referring to Serena’s name for the child.
What happened between Serena Joy [Yvonne Strahovski] and Offred [Elisabeth Moss] was profound in the truest sense. Nothing that we’ve been moving toward would prepare us for the moment in which Serena says, “Take the baby.” It was her baby, it was her pride and joy. She planned and hoped and despaired. Then she attaches as a mother to the baby, a true mother. And she realizes in this place, she will never thrive, she will never know herself.
I was very moved by the fact that Serena Joy allows it to happen. Offred understood that in the deepest part of her, what just transpired. It’s like forgiveness. Forgiveness in some cases is a flipping miracle, in the sense that you’re fighting and suddenly something happens. It’s a kind of grace. Whether you believe in God or not, something happens and it’s transformative. God only knows where the baby would be if Serena had not given her up. Let’s give Serena Joy part of this, and calling her Nicole does that, in my opinion.
Speaking of forgiveness, I don’t know that if I were a handmaid, I could forgive Aunt Lydia for some of the things she’s done.
This is what’s remarkable. It happens between two people. That is to say, Serena Joy did something that was extraordinary. She gave the baby up. It wasn’t for Offred to do it alone, it was between the two of them. I’ll give you a personal analogy.
My youngest child is 13. He was my foster son at nine months. The deal was, he goes back to mother when mother finishes her programs, whatever they may be. His mother was deeply jealous and angry at me from almost the beginning. The way she talked to me and treated me and my kids, and the stuff that went down between us was unbelievable. At one point, I hadn’t seen him in a year, she wouldn’t allow [a visit]. We’d plan a big party, balloons, everything. She’d never show. Time after time. And because we both loved the same child, I love her. I love her deeply.
What I’m saying is, something about the love of a child such as Serena and Offred had for that baby — it is the grounds on which miracles occur. And by miracles I mean forgiveness and love. Which is I think the strongest thing. Now, if Lydia didn’t change her ways or see the light or something, it might be very hard for someone to forgive her. But I think, where there’s love and where there’s some level of truth, anything can happen.
I can see the parallels to “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the idea of fighting for a child.
And knowing you have to be in there for the long haul. That because it’s love, and I believe Lydia does deeply love those babies. Doesn’t take two minutes to love your baby.
She can be harsh, but then she also took Janine to the hospital and allowed her to see her baby.
I think Lydia, in her complexity, has a very good read on how a mother and child thrive. She knows that if a baby is in trouble and a baby is not thriving, being away from mother is probably a good reason why that’s happening. It goes against the rules of Gilead, obviously. She’s fully committed to the fact that these young handmaids led reckless lives and therefore they have a chance to redeem themselves by bringing babies into the world.
Aunt Lydia seems to have more room to pursue an agenda than other women in Gilead.
If you think of those early meetings in the church basements, those secret meetings before Gilead took over, I don’t think what they talked about was Commanders living in huge houses with ridiculous baby showers and an absurd stuffed giraffe for the baby’s room. I think they talked about a simple life and a pure life and showing God, “We can restore the beautiful Earth you gave us. We will find a way to bring beautiful children into this world.”
She comes to Gilead fully prepared to take over her role, and looks around and sees all that [expletive], pardon my language. She has very strong feelings about it and knows how far she can go. Power is not what motivates her, or harming other women.
There’s a strength of will in many of your characters — in Aunt Lydia, in Patti Levin from “The Leftovers.” They’re very tough women, but they believe in something.
Yes, and then they commit to it. That’s what I love. They commit full-on.