(Note: 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 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,” the 62-year-old 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.”
Dowd won a supporting actress Emmy in 2017 for her “Handmaid’s” work and was nominated in the same category this year. (She was also nominated in 2017 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 (Elisabeth Moss) curious choices. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: 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 like?
ANSWER: 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.”
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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.
A: What happened between Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Offred 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.
Q: Lydia can be harsh, but then she also took Janine to the hospital and allowed her to see her baby.
A: 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.