Ann Dowd on Her 'Handmaid's Tale' Character's Shocking Role in 'The Testaments': "I Was Thrilled"

The actor, who plays Aunt Lydia in the Hulu series and voices her in the audiobook of Margaret Atwood's recently published sequel, says that she believes the character's actions in the new novel serve as her attempt at "atonement."
JB Lacroix/WireImage

[This story contains spoilers for Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.]

Ann Dowd has long imagined a backstory for Aunt Lydia, the trembly voiced, taser-happy villainess who presides over The Handmaid's Tale, both in the 1985 book and Hulu show of the same name. To play such a despicable character on the latter, the actor has often said that she had to find a "human connection" with the dutiful, brown sack-wearing servant of Gilead.

Now, Dowd isn't the only one considering shades of gray in Aunt Lydia's behavior. In The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's long awaited sequel to her original novel, which published Sept. 10 and is soon to be adapted into a Hulu title, Aunt Lydia is revealed to be the key strategist behind the fall of Gilead. As Atwood reveals via a secret memoir that Lydia is writing — The Testaments, like its literary predecessor, is an epistolary novel — Gilead's most powerful woman has hidden an explosive cache of secrets, replete with documentation, video and image evidence, that she intends to unearth to end the deeply misogynist regime that toppled the United States of America.

The revelation complicates the monstrous portrait of Aunt Lydia in the first book, as well as the nuanced character who has emerged in the three seasons (so far) of the Hulu's series. Lydia telegraphs as an antiheroine — at once a survivor and trauma victim, a murderer and opportunist. "How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask," the aging Lydia writes in the book, addressing her future reader. "You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to."

Dowd, who voiced Lydia for The Testaments' audiobook, had to adjust her own thoughts about Lydia's background when she first read the new book "under pain of death," she jokes (there was a strict nondisclosure agreement before it published). In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dowd discussed how the sequel surprised her, the challenges of reading Atwood's prose and whether she will play Aunt Lydia in Hulu's Testaments adaptation.

When did you first read The Testaments, and what was your first reaction to it?

I was thrilled — let's get real on that — by what Aunt Lydia does and how she does it, her understanding of Gilead to its core and what will bring it down. All of that is typical Atwood genius, if one can say "typical" about her.

What surprised you most about what Atwood had in store for Aunt Lydia?

What surprised me — and didn't — is how she got involved in Gilead in the first place. When you play a role such as Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, you search for a human connection that somehow explains why she would make the choices she makes. In Lydia’s case, in my imagination, [she was] raised in an extremely religious home, primarily by the father, the mother not present. In my understanding of Lydia, and also based on the wonderful episode ["Unfit"] by Kira Snyder about Lydia's background, shame and humiliation were the dynamics that ruled the day for her, so it made sense that in an attempt to just keep her sanity, she kept the world very narrow; she saw the world going to hell in a handbasket and the dropping of the birth rate and [thought,] "Something extreme has to happen here or we are all disappearing."

Now, you read The Testaments, and [see that] Lydia, being a family court judge, realized really quickly, “If I want to live and survive this world, this is what you have to do. Not only am I going to do it, I'm going to do it better than anybody so I’m going to be ruling the other Aunts.” The lack of sentimentality, which is pure Atwood, is what was the wake-up call for me, like, “OK darling, I get it, you want to humanize her story, but let’s look at the facts here, let’s jump ahead." I don’t know if Atwood would agree with me, but I think the decision to bring Gilead down and all the efforts she makes to do so, is, in a way, about atonement. Because somewhere in a human being, it mounts, the acts of cruelty, the acts of basic human rights being denied that you are fully in charge of.

That actually goes straight to a question I had, which is that, as the "Ardua Hall Holograph" reveals, Aunt Lydia was never sold on Gilead's values but played along in order to survive. Do you think she was always plotting the fall of Gilead, or did that come to her when it was strategically convenient? 

That was another surprise, which was that she never signed up for the religious take on things like Aunt Vidala in The Testaments really did. [Lydia's] a realist about such things; I don’t know if you would say she's an atheist, but she's certainly not religious: I think she was planning on survival and that she treated it as she would a court case, which is to say not engaging it as she would heart and soul, but intellectually: How are we going to do this? Let's come up with a strategy here: What's the best way through? I would guess that as she aged, [she thought], "OK, I’m getting older, and look at this amount of criminal behavior, c’mon. That's not what you all [Gilead's leaders] talked about in the beginning." I just think she realized, “OK, let’s put a stop to this.”

Did Gilead's values, or the cutthroat nature of the society, ever appeal to Aunt Lydia — is there a part of her that liked her ability to thrive there?

I think a deep satisfaction would be more accurate, on a very, very human level. In Handmaid’s, she does not take pleasure in harming people, and that was always my defense of her: It's not about power. Now, The Testaments would contradict that, possibly. My understanding of Lydia for Handmaid's was that I imagined her to be in the church basement in the beginnings of Gilead, not because she wants power but because she wants to see changes in the world, and she wants these young women to have a relationship with God and correct their lives. [Now,] I think she began to take notes very early on. And then realizing, “OK, I know what I’m going to do, watch me or don’t watch me, but I’m not going under here.”

The Testaments shows that Aunt Lydia is cutthroat and power-hungry but also incredibly humorous. In performing her writing, how did you strike a balance between her humor as well as her darkness?

I wish I could describe this accurately, which is to say, I wish I was a writer, because writers can do this. Reading the audiobook — I'd never done one — the profound privilege and pleasure of reading Atwood out loud, and the challenge, may I say, was present, start to finish. First of all, I knew Lydia, and nothing stood out as a different person. To me, she was full, pure Lydia. And Atwood does not write simple sentences or simple thoughts. That woman has a brain that is simply astonishing and boy, you better take your breath before you begin one of her sentences. That was challenging, technically. The pleasure of stepping into that sense of humor, that dry, beautiful way of thinking and speaking, it was a piece of heaven. It was just fantastic.

Will your experience reading and performing this book change the way you portray Aunt Lydia in the Hulu series?

Having realized that the Lydia I know from The Handmaid’s Tale isn't that different from the Lydia in The Testaments, on a very essential level, it has to affect the way I move forward. That will work because Lydia is aging and The Testaments [offers her] perspective 15 years forward. Age is underrated on a number of levels, and one of the primary ways is in terms of perspective and what that does for one’s choices as you move through your life. We’re left, at the end of [The Handmaid's Tale] season three, with many of the young girls gone from Gilead; our finest, most pure resource has been taken, and Lydia should have caught it, in her opinion. So when something of this level occurs she’s going to do a lot of thinking and a lot of self-reflection. I think her perspective shifts and begins to shift in a subtle but significant way about what the future could hold here and how she is going to participate. So I think it's going to connect very, very well.

Do you know yet whether you be playing Aunt Lydia in the upcoming Hulu and MGM adaptation of the book?

Well, I better be is all I have to say. I don’t know, no one has said [so], but I’ll track them right down, is what I'll do, and I’ll confront as only Lydia can do.

What do you hope readers will take from the book as it is being released in 2019?

I hope it will give them, as great writing does, a level of belief in their own point of view and a realization that they can act upon those beliefs. And that you have to stay alert and aware that the small steps add up to the big changes and the place we are in in this world requires action, resistance and a decision to take responsibility in any way you can for what is going on.