The Handmaid’s Tale is back for its fourth season and Gilead, along with all of her subjects, is in trouble. That’s mostly thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s scrappy heroine June, who managed to send 84 children and a handful of Marthas across the border to Canada at the end of season three. June’s victory was a major blow to devout Gilead followers, chief among them, Aunt Lydia, the maternally-inclined overseer of the Handmaids, and when the show returns — the first three episodes are already streaming on Hulu — a reckoning amongst those in power will be had.
For Ann Dowd, who’s spent the past few years playing an abusive tyrant, the chance to peel back some of Aunt Lydia’s layers was enough reason to return to Margaret Atwood’s particular dystopia. The author’s latest book, The Testaments, imagines Gilead years into the future as Aunt Lydia, now firmly in opposition to the world she helped build, tries to take down the theocracy from the inside. It’s a major shift for the character, one that made all the clawing and social-climbing she’s forced to do this season to reclaim her status even more interesting for Dowd.
We chatted with her about this season’s cat-and-mouse game between Aunt Lydia and June, future spin-off possibilities, and yes, her thoughts on being compared to character actress Margo Martindale.
Aunt Lydia is in a very bad way when we meet her this season. What’s her mindset?
Well, it’s certainly a humbling position she’s in. I think she is very tough on herself regarding the fact that this happened on her watch, so to speak. She is personally in favor of taking ownership of one’s mistakes so she has a long road there, just to forgive herself, but then on top of that of course, are the commanders. It’s their job to punish her and have her tortured.
They’re putting the blame on her.
That’s enraging to her, I’m sure. She has the good sense to push a little but not too far, to fight for her job and her position. I think it’s a tremendous period of personal adjustment and I would say personal growth in terms of her relationship with Gilead.
There are some heavy scenes this season, especially between you and Elisabeth Moss. Do you have room for downtime? Do you get to have a little laugh in between these torturous scenes?
That’s the built into the day, hun. That has to be present, or madness happens. [laughs] Yeah, we’re very comfortable with one another. There’s a great deal of laughter going on. We know each other well. We trust one another and we take the time we need just before we do our scenes, but other than that it’s a lot of laughter or chatting or just checking in with one another. It’s a terrific environment.
Why is it that Aunt Lydia can’t actually watch June be tortured by Gilead after her capture in episode three?
I would say because it’s unbearable.
She actually cares about her, still?
There’s tremendous love for her and despite the anger she feels, the rage she feels, that’s her girl. She doesn’t want to watch her suffer.
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, came out last year and it basically charts Aunt Lydia’s crusade against Gilead years into the future. Is some of the groundwork for that – and maybe for a spin-off series – being laid this season?
I think what makes a lot of sense is — as in life — change happens slowly in a human being and I think the experiences of this season deeply affect her. I think they will gradually bring her to the place where she begins The Testaments. She doesn’t miss a thing, Lydia. Do you know what I mean? She takes it all in. I think she believes in that motto, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She’s endured a lot. She’s provoked a lot; she’s caused a lot of pain in people’s lives but she also loves them. Who is that person?
This new power struggle she has with Commander Lawrence – does that also play into her future rebellion? Who’s in control of this relationship right now?
She’s risking a tremendous amount because at the end of the day women do not have power. She hopes, of course, that what she has on him will push power in her direction, which is pretty thrilling. , There is information that could sink him. She’s got something. The question is, will he fold?
Lawrence seems disillusioned with Gilead’s belief system. Does Aunt Lydia really believe in Gilead or is she also just playing a part?
I think that’s a conflict for her. I do think she’s attached to the ideology. I do think she’s attached deeply to her belief in God and how she thinks one should live one’s life. On the other hand, it’s about survival as well. You either do as we say or you die. She’s very aware of the imbalance of power.
Freaks and Geeks just came to Hulu. People are re-watching The Leftovers. There’s a lot of Ann Dowd on social media right now. Looking back on your career, which roles are you happy to be recognized for?
This is so boring, my answer here, hun, but so many of them, you know? Because I loved them. When people say they watched Law and Order — that’s just the birthplace for actors. That’s the christening. You’re an actor, man. But I’m just grateful for every single one. As I’ve said before, celebrating the small victories — I mean every single job. I don’t believe I ever took a role I didn’t want to take. There are probably some I enjoyed more than others, but just the fact that someone said ‘Yes.’ It just all means so much.
Are you just trying one-up character actress Margo Martindale at this point?
[laughs] She’s a doll. I adore her. We had an interview together sort of about that. We laugh because, first of all, I think she’s phenomenal, and there’s nobody like her. We laughed at each other like, ‘How are we alike? Someone help me out here.’We had a good laugh about that and a great time. We also did a Zoom film, which is to say we did it on Zoom, but also the story takes place on Zoom in large part. It was a fantastic experience and just getting to work with her, I just love her. We have a very nice relationship.