Ann Dowd On ‘The Leftovers’ And Creating Backstories For ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestants


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.

Now, if I had a question that had to do with just plain-old plot to make sure I was on the right track, I would ask those questions, and Damon would answer those questions very, very clearly. And he’s thought this through in such a dense and complete way, while of course leaving room for one’s interpretation.

It sounds like Damon Lindelof has a great sense of just how much he needs to answer a question. 

Exactly. And there was a moment, Patti’s death in season one, when I had a lot of questions. A lot of questions, and here’s the thing, as an actor you have to know what you’re doing. The minute you’re unclear, you go into your head quite unnaturally, and that’s not where you want to live as an actor. You have to be clear about what’s happening, and if I could flush that out on my own, then I would do so.

But this whole issue with the Guilty Remnant, I was unclear about what the “religion” really was — religion in quotes. What were their feelings about death? Why is it important that Kevin (Justin Theoroux) is the one that kills her? And Damon was hugely helpful, he’d say things like “Well, it’s a new religion, and they’re putting it together day by day.” That was extremely helpful, realizing there’s not a Bible here.

And why was it important for Kevin to kill Patti? Because he was the peacemaker, and the population that wants to go back to going to the mall or the movies or have a nice little parade, he wants to have that group and the Guilty Remnant just get on. And these people don’t want to get along, they want to create chaos. That way, their message of letting go of attachment. And if Kevin was the peacemaker, him being the one to take her life would just throw that into intense uproar, which is what happened.

That scene suddenly finds your character to be very sympathetic, and it’s a little unexpected.

I was really thrown when I found out she was going to die. When I started the series, I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t quite get it. I knew very little. We wore white, and we didn’t talk, we wrote. Then, as time went on, I did not realize how deeply connected to the material, to the character, and to the story. So when I found out two weeks before it happened that the character was going to die, and it really upset me. It threw me into some kind of chaos, I’m attached here, and I didn’t want to go. So, the dovetailing of personally being able to let go, and not in an angry way, but let go. Just as Patti was doing the very same thing: letting go of her life and her hurts and her attachments.

I’ll never forget that day filming, it was pouring rain, we’re in the middle of the woods in a cabin, the rain on the roof, and this character finally breaks down, and you see her vulnerability. The way (Justin Theroux and I) pulled together, and drawn to one-another, we felt like we were filming a love story, as odd as that may sound. This continues in season two, but there is something they both understand very deeply about fear.

Speaking of season two, were you surprised to learn you’d be coming back?

Well, yeah, I was ecstatic about it! We joked about ‘How many ways can you die?,’ but the world of The Leftovers is not as clear. There’s the death of the spirit, there’s the death of the soul. Spiritually and emotionally, Patti was not finished, she’d only began to look at her own vulnerability, and in season two, trying to sort things out, and was she a ghost, was she… Whatever. I didn’t feel attached to naming it, per se, what was clear was that she was clearly present in Kevin’s life, and others did not know it.

I remember asking Damon “what does she want from him? Is she trying to help him get back with Nora?” He answered it so brilliantly, he said “she doesn’t know why she’s there, she’s trying to put it together herself. She’s not exactly thrilled to be back.” Because at what point can we leave this life when we know we’ve done the work of this life?

There were some parallels between your big emotional reveal in the second season and your final scene in the first.  

I agree with you. Her death was not complete in season one, as we come to understand the world of The Leftovers. (Patti and Kevin) are still drawn to one another, and they don’t even know why until it actual happens. And that extraordinary choice to put Patti as a little girl in there… how they ever were able to do that and be able to watch it, the way that was put together really just blew my mind.

That was definitely unexpected. Did knowing that impact your performance for your monologue?

You know, to put it in a public arena like Jeopardy!, a show we all know — and I’ve watched it a million times, even though I don’t know any of the answers, maybe four a week — but I’ve gone to it, and when you watch those contestants, you do a backstory in your head about them. Can’t you just look and think “What must that life be?”

All the time, actually.

You know, some of the time it breaks your heart, it’s like “Oh my God, do you have a friend? Do you have a social life? Do you enjoy your work? What happened to you when you were a kid?” For Damon to have chosen that platform for Patti just blew me away. I thought it was gorgeous.

Out of all the game shows to reference, Jeopardy! seemed like a very specific choice.

This is a smart woman, and consider the potential: Had she had a different entry into the world, a different family, or not chosen that husband, what could her life have been?

She’s also the one character who really seemed to have been almost more comfortable with the world after the departure.

Yes! Because it confirmed what she knew would happen. Imagine being told your whole life “nobody cares what you think, you piece of shit!” Imagine that growing inside you, and your therapist just says “it’s your anxiety about Neil, and it’s all perfectly natural,” and all that. And you know what? Patti was right!

In an interview with Enstars, Damon Lindehof said that Patti Levin had become his inner voice during season two. Was that ever mentioned during filming?

No, this is the first time I’ve heard that, but that’s very interesting. You know, I don’t know him [Lindelof] socially, I’ve been to events with him as part of The Leftovers, of course, but I feel very close to him. It’s the kind of thing that happens between a writer and a character. The intimacy is very strong. It’s hard to describe that kind of closeness, because there’s nothing else like it, but I always felt his voice was true and strong and dead-on for Patti.