'The Handmaid's Tale': Ann Dowd on Aunt Lydia's Pre-Gilead Past and Vulnerable Present (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
A formidable character actress, Ann Dowd has built a career on making the most of limited screen time, as she did with her breakthrough role in the 2012 thriller Compliance and, later, opposite Justin Theroux on the acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers. The latter earned her one of two Emmy nominations in 2017, the first time she was nominated -- in the Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series category -- representing the series’ only nomination during its three-season run. “I will gladly hold the torch for that show because it deserves it,” she told ET at the time. Her second Emmy nomination that year -- and subsequent win -- came for playing Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Over the course of Hulu’s Emmy-winning series about women forced into child-bearing servitude after the totalitarian society of Gilead takes over part of the U.S., Lydia has often been seen as one of the show’s main villains. She’s a brutal caretaker of the handmaids, responsible for their training and well-being but also their discipline. She’s stood in June’s (Elisabeth Moss) way to prevent her reunion with her daughter; she’s punished Emily (Alexis Bledel) for sexual transgressions; and she’s wielded her cattle prod more than once on Janine (Madeline Brewer).
In season two, The Handmaid’s Tale came to a shocking close when Emily unexpectedly stabbed Lydia in the back before pushing her down the stairs of Commander Lawrence’s (Bradley Whitford) house. It appeared that she had been killed off, much to the shock of audiences, who’d grown to love and hate the unflinching den mother. Only two seasons in, Lydia had quickly become a fan favorite thanks to Dowd’s layered performance, showing her character’s torment over only wanting the best for her handmaids while maintaining an unflinching dedication to the rules “under his eye.”
Luckily for fans and Dowd alike, the producers quickly made it clear that Lydia wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m not a dummy. I know what happens when someone opens a script and sees they get stabbed in the back by Rory Gilmore,” jokes creator Bruce Miller, who wrote Dowd an email before she read the script to let her know that her character doesn’t die and would be returning for season three. “Which was very kind,” Dowd says.
While Lydia may not be dead, she’s far from the same woman she once was. “We find her in a far more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen her before,” Dowd says of her character’s journey in season three. “Physically, she got out of bed way too soon.” And mentally, she’s still reeling from the fact that she did not anticipate Emily’s attack. That moment not only brought physical harm, it also shook her confidence.
Lydia is embarrassed, ashamed and has something to prove. “She’s very concerned by the way the commanders view her,” Dowd says. That ultimately leads to an aunt who is lashing out -- delivering a particularly brutal beating on Janine -- as she attempts to re-establish her authority. “She’s furious and frightened of her own girls and she doesn’t want to be furious and frightened,” Miller says, while the actress adds that “she carries this fear, which she never had before. Things are out of her control and it's very uncomfortable.”
Now, more than halfway through the third season, audiences have seen Lydia become more resolute, more stern and more unforgiving. That vulnerability is still there, but the outer shell has hardened as she’s reclaimed her place among her handmaids, the commanders and their wives. “The changes will linger,” Dowd says, “but she does not veer from her path.”
And in episode eight, which plays out like Lost, with flashbacks that parallel the current action, audiences get a deeper insight her approach and attitude as the show dives deeper into her past. “It’s pretty substantial,” executive producer Warren Littlefield says. “It’s the beginning of an understanding of who she was before Gilead.”
In the past, Lydia was a divorced religious school teacher extending her care to a young student and his mother, Noelle, whom Lydia thinks makes one bad choice after another in the men she chooses to date. “She thinks, ‘I can help this mother. I really can. I think she will hear me and I can make a difference,’” Dowd says. And for a time, it seems that she does -- at least until Noelle encourages Lydia to open herself up to romance again.
In an attempt to put herself back out there, Lydia goes on a date with the school’s principal, with whom she clearly shares a connection. However, things turn sour when he stops things from becoming too physical, ultimately embarrassing Lydia in the process.
In a moment that only an actress like Dowd can pull off, Lydia goes into the bathroom and starts smashing the mirror with both fists. While it’s something she and the director discussed prior to filming, Dowd was unsure of which way the scene would go. “But, boy, did it feel absolutely right in the moment,” she says, adding: “On so many levels, she has shame, rage, loss and tremendous disappointment in herself. And I think to shame that image of herself felt so, so good.”
That anger is eventually transferred onto Noelle, whom Lydia subconsciously blames for her embarrassment. “Had she not listened to Noelle, this would have never happened,” Dowd says of Lydia’s thinking, which drives her to turn the young mother into social services for not being a fit enough caretaker to her son. “There’s so many people with so much love to give,” says Lydia, who is visibly broken. For Dowd, getting those words out nearly broke her heart. “Because that’s the end. That’s when the door finally shuts,” she says.
Even then, Lydia was consumed by shame, and it’s that shame that ultimately drove her down a path toward Gilead, where she’s now dealing with a multitude of women she feels she must restore to a meaningful life -- particularly Janine, who is perhaps the most striking comparison to Noelle.
A young, naive handmaid, Janine has developed an unexpectedly close relationship with Lydia over the course of the series, especially early in season three. When the other handmaids looked down upon her, Janine came to her aid, like a doting child. While she is ultimately her oppressor, Janine looks up to Lydia like a mother. “Janine’s relationship with Aunt Lydia is complex, so layered, so nuanced,” Brewer says. “I think that Aunt Lydia is representative of women in Janine’s life before Gilead who didn’t give her that nurturing and that respect that Aunt Lydia can give her.”
Ultimately, Lydia feels responsible for Janine’s livelihood, even if means serving out a punishment as severe as having her eye removed. “I love that relationship,” says Dowd, who admits that Lydia prides herself on being in control of her emotions and not reactive. “In other words, thinking before she decides on a punishment. But if Lydia had to do it over again, she probably would not have taken out that eye.”
“Lydia adores her and has to keep a very close watch… Lydia feels responsible,” Dowd continues. “I love the subtlety of that and the consistency of it.” Their dynamic is one of the few instances where Lydia’s vulnerability and authority clash -- and in some ways, could lead to Lydia’s breaking point down the road.
So, would something like Janine dying, as she almost does when another handmaid steals a gun at a grocery store at the end of episode eight and attacks her red-cloaked sisters, open the crack of self-doubt in Lydia? Dowd is not so sure. Admittedly, she hasn’t thought about it, but does say “it would be very, very, very painful.”
What unfolds in the next few episodes remains to be seen. No matter what happens, Lydia has become the most compelling character this season, revealing new and unexpected layers as her story unfolds. “Trying to make sense of a woman who's complicated and I know has a heart, contrary to the evidence presented; to step into somebody in a way that gives them half a chance to be understood, that's a tremendous challenge,” Dowd says. But it’s one that continues to pay off.