A prolific character actor since the early 1990s, Ann Dowd has appeared in numerous film and TV roles, including Lorenzo’s Oil, Marley & Me, Compliance and Masters of Sex. She recently co-starred as a mysterious cult leader Patti Levin in The Leftovers (available to stream on HBO Now), who returns to the show’s second season in an unexpected way. We recently talked to Dowd about realizing her character’s place in a world after the Sudden Departure, and what it’s like working with the show’s co-creator, Damon Lindelof.
Going back to season one, how did you approach your role playing a character who is mostly silent?
I have to say, in the beginning it was daunting. You forget how much you rely on words. Surely in life we do, but as an actor, you start with the text: What is it I want? What am I saying? What am I talking about? Then, realizing you don’t speak, you’re going to have to figure out another way to get what you want from a person in the scene. But, I’ll tell you, as soon as the fear dissipates, it’s such an empowering thing. There is nothing like silence in a room when someone is talking to you and you are deliberately choosing not to speak. It ups the ante instantly, and the power shifts instantly to the person not talking.
The greatest challenge was just making sure I was clear on what Patti wanted in a given scene. If you don’t have that clearly in your gut, your body’s going to betray you, and it’s not going to look like you’re comfortable in that room. You’re gonna lose focus. As we started and continued, I have to say I absolutely loved it. Never had I done anything like that, and it was a very powerful way to proceed.
What went through your head when it was time for your character to eventually speak?
It was very challenging to start talking, because I knew who she was physically, and I knew who she was emotionally, but then to use words and decide to talk in that restaurant, it was kind of scary. Of course, you make the adjustment and you say “This is another way that this woman communicates,” and because Damon [Lindelof], Tom Perrotta [author of the book and co-creator of the show], and Mimi Leder, who was the director of that episode, they know her very well, and there’s nothing like that kind of support. Even though I hadn’t spoken prior to this scene, it made so much sense, it fit very comfortably.
It was a very revealing scene, for me, to realize there was something deep and dark in her past, and she’d cleansed herself by joining The Guilty Remnant. She knew something was going to happen, and she knew it was going to be huge, and she’d been belittled and abused in her marriage, and most likely in her family, but she came into herself when she realized something was going on and no one is believing her. Then, of course, it does happen, and boy, the power and the self-awareness, just claiming who she is and what she’s capable of was a very very big transition.
Did you know a lot about who Patti Levin was before going into this?
I had the novel, of course, so I had a sense of the world, and it went in some different directions, of course, but the essence of season one is in that novel. And Damon will answer any question you have about a character. He never imposes his perspective; the text is the text and you take from it what you take from it in a way that makes sense to me playing this role. But I remember asking him specific things about Neil, the husband, and I would get information that I needed. I didn’t have to know where it was all going, I got very comfortable with staying right where we were.