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[This story contains spoilers from the season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, “The Wilderness.”]
The Emmy-winning actress adds, “When scenes are particularly emotional or challenging, of course it will stay with you until you let it gently go. But we don’t take it home because, at the end of the day, the consequences don’t come home with us.”
When it comes to Aunt Lydia and the key role she plays in the dystopian world of the Hulu drama, Dowd has had no shortage of challenging scenes while doggedly, and often viciously, keeping order among the Handmaids. But the fourth season, which released its final (shocking) episode on June 16, steered the high-ranking Gilead villain into more nuanced territory.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Dowd explains that the responsibility Aunt Lydia has placed on herself over June (Elisabeth Moss) being able to orchestrate the escape of so many Gilead children at the end of season three has been driving Lydia’s actions in season four. “She’ll never forgive herself,” says Dowd, whose Lydia finds a way to reclaim her power, thanks to an allyship with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), and reassume her rank by the end of season four.
When viewers last see Lydia, she is again running the Red Center where Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Esther (McKenna Grace) reluctantly reassume the red cloak and fall in line in order to survive. But Dowd, in the conversation below, notes that, going into the already renewed fifth season and with Hulu’s Testaments adaptation looming in the future, “there are a lot of ways that Lydia is shifting, and they’re powerful.”
What took the most getting used to when filming season four under pandemic-era challenges?
I don’t know how production pulled it off. The work done to make it safe and peaceful, the whole experience was extraordinary from start to finish. We’re in four years now; there’s a lot of love on that set. A lot of closeness and a lot of trust. And the producers just stepped up in the most remarkable way. There were scenes made smaller because of what we had to contend with. However, the intimacy of the scenes we shot for Lydia made tremendous sense. It became more personal for her with her time with June and Janine. The whole thing was really very powerful.
Given the dark material you are often dealt, can you easily snap out of playing Aunt Lydia or does some of the Handmaid’s world come home with you?
I say this respectfully: It’s make-believe. We’re pretending. So that means we can dive in with everything we have and then let it go. Playing Lydia is fantastic. It’s a blast. I can’t get to her fast enough. It’s a wonderfully written role and very challenging. You want to dive in there and treat it with the respect it deserves, and then let her go at the end of the day. And that’s something that I think happens naturally over time, where you just get a little better at saying goodnight. Plus, the days are long; you’re tired! And happy to go home and put your feet up and watch the news or read a book. It’s all a very good process.
Lydia is villainous, but through the seasons more of her emotional layers have been exposed — and even more so in season four. What has helped you to understand her?
The beginnings are always important, aren’t they? I remember Bruce [Miller, creator and showrunner] talking to me about her, suggesting she was a teacher. And that put things into perspective very quickly. You know where to go in one’s own path or upbringing, or the way I was taught in Catholic school. The nuns were not cruel, to be very clear. They were very well-educated; their purpose was to help us to grow into strong, responsible individuals. And so I was able to take with me that work ethic that I was taught by many of those Sisters. I think most actors would agree there’s no judgment of character, because then the relationship stops. I just assume that whatever she’s doing, like the rest of us in our lives, she’s doing for reasons that she believes in. So the job is to find the reasons why and to build her life prior to the beginning of Handmaid’s that would lead her to this place of signing on for a very, very difficult [role in Gilead].
What backstory have you created for her?
There’s nothing in Lydia’s job description that you’d ever want to do to somebody. But going back to what Bruce suggested, I could imagine her very easily being in charge of a classroom and getting it into shape very quickly. I imagine her beginnings are that she was raised by a very distant, cool father who was very religious. She was taught that sex is the way of the devil, everything is for God and you do not use your own feelings to get in the way of God’s purpose. And, as a teacher, I can see her looking at the behavior of young people and saying, “The careless language, the sexual freedom, the clothing, the easy abortion. No, no, no. Not God’s intentions at all.” I can see the meetings in the church basement and her joining a group of very conservative people who think the world is falling apart and signing on. We learn from Margaret Atwood in the beginning of The Testaments that Gilead just took over, and either you joined or you died. So, it is about survival. It was very helpful to go in the direction of Lydia being fully all in as a believer. That she believes in the cause and would want to do everything she can to offer these young girls a chance for a better life, a chance to meet their maker at the end of this life. That kind of rigid, narrow thinking. Atwood said everything that has happened in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened somewhere in the world. She did not make it up. That’s shocking. The world is a complicated place.
Lydia seemed to experience a crisis of self this season when losing her power within Gilead. What were some of the internal questions she was wrestling with?
It’s such a good question. The thing is, when you come to love a person as she does love June and love Janine, something happens. I think it’s fair to say that love is the most powerful force in this world and that if you allow it in, some of those walls are going to crumble. To live the way Lydia lives and the way Gilead operates, you have to have built walls that are strong and tall, because you cannot let too much in. To keep it on that straight and narrow path? You can’t. You have to have defenses that are just unbelievable. But if you begin to care about someone or love someone, you’re going to have a little bit of a problem keeping those walls intact. And so I think that has happened for Lydia, because of the love she has for her girls. She doesn’t take that lightly. And I think that’s the part of what enraged her.
The way season three ended was a colossal failure to Lydia. She knew something was happening, but she couldn’t nail it. And she’ll never forgive herself. There is no worse thing that could have happened than those children getting out. Talk about a disaster. And then losing her status and being threatened. The last thing that woman wants is to be in an old age home with some Aunts. She’d rather just leave and end it all; there’s no way that’s gonna happen. She has a tremendous work structure and ethic that she clings to. So when she almost lost her position, she took the step of facing off with a Commander [Lawrence] who can’t even stand her, who has always disrespected her, and she has to go threaten him to get her place back. There’s a lot of ways that she’s shifting and they’re powerful.
You speak of the love she has for Janine, the one who draws Lydia’s emotions out the most.
She made a mistake with Janine. She can’t quite forgive herself for taking that eye out. That was an emotional response to a girl who had the nerve to curse right in her face, when she already said that’s not a word we use and she said it anyway. So Lydia can say all she wants that she was trying to teach a lesson to the other girls, but she did what she’s trained not to do — she reacted emotionally and punished this person. She now feels responsible for her and will look after her all of her life. And seeing how Janine will never be the same; she changed the soul of innocence. Maddie plays her so beautifully. Lydia is responsible for who that girl is. I think she loves her deeply and feels responsible as well, they come hand in hand.
How do you imagine Aunt Lydia will react when she finds out that June killed Fred (Joseph Fiennes), in the bold manner that she did and with the help of other former Handmaids?
I don’t know that she’ll express this, that will be up to the writers, but, those Commanders? Enough is enough. When they put Gilead together, it wasn’t about them having sex with these Handmaids unless it was in the monthly protocol that was established for the purpose of conceiving a child. And it wasn’t about the Jezebel’s club; Lydia knows all of it. And she’s experienced the disrespect. And then the ridiculous way the wives live, the money spent on parties for the kids’ birthdays. “That wasn’t the original plan. Stop this nonsense,” is what she’s thinking. I think Lydia has a lot of opinions. So, that man deserved to die and, June, she won’t say it to your face but, well done. And, of course she’d also be enraged, because June never listens!
The end of this season seemed to set up Janine and Esther as the show’s window into the world of the Handmaids. How do you envision Aunt Lydia’s management style changing in season five?
It wouldn’t surprise me if she steps in with the renewed confidence of someone who has found her footing again. Will she soften? I think I read it in one of the scripts that the rebels are not as plentiful among the Handmaids anymore. The Junes and Moiras [played by Samira Wiley], that level of “fuck you” is not [there]. I don’t think Lydia will have any problem getting order and following what she needs to follow to keep things moving.
Bruce Miller said in his finale interview with THR that he could do an entire Aunt Lydia show, and how the Lawrence-Lydia relationship helps to set up The Testaments. Will you be a part of the Testaments adaptation on Hulu?
Yes, that’s the plan. It’s a fantastic novel, it’s brilliant. I’ve listened to the audiobook, which I loved, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It takes place 15 years later, after the end of Handmaids. For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, I’ll remain cryptic.
What are some other parts of Lydia’s past you’d like to see in flashback, whether in Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments?
I thought the flashback in Handmaid’s of Lydia was beautifully written and it was really wonderful to shoot. We know that the takeover of Gilead was not a gentle one. It wasn’t, “All right, those who wish to come with us, come with us.” There was nothing peaceful about it. It was, you join or you die. And you die right here, right now in this moment. Lydia was a family court judge and she saw some of her colleagues killed right in front of her. It was a hostile, vicious takeover. They changed everything in a split second. And, Atwood would say, it’s about survival. From that perspective, Lydia is no fool. She’s thinking that not only is she going to live, she’s going to be one of the people in charge. And, she’s not going to be second position to this woman or that woman. The men are in charge, but she’s very smart. That’s what’s so great in The Testaments. She has tremendous patience and she knows how to stay alert and aware. She has her sources. She keeps it private and hidden, but she has it all.
This season explored justice and what people deserve after Gilead. What does Aunt Lydia deserve?
She participated in all of the things you’ve seen. Is she guilty of that? Yes. There is no other way to look at that. Supporting the rape of women; regularly, rhythmically. There’s no good way to see that and there’s no way that clears that violation. The cruelty, the physical harming of the girls; there’s nothing to say about that takes away the atrocity. But, what do you do with it? And that’s what you’re going to find out in The Testaments. What does Lydia do? I don’t know that Atwood would agree with me, but I think what she does it a form of repentance, if you will, in its best form. In a way that goes well beyond “I’m sorry,” words that I don’t know that she’ll ever say.
Next up you star in the adaptation of Enemy of the People at Park Avenue Armory on Broadway. What roles are you attracted to while taking time off from playing Lydia?
Live theater is a whole different set of talents and different set of joys. That’s how I learned about acting. I have a great love and respect for it. It’s a phenomenal experience. We’ve had a few audiences so far and it’s been a remarkable experience. I look forward to the run. The Armory is back and the whole thing is extraordinary. When I read the part in the 2018 horror Hereditary, I thought, “Oh, she’s a nice person. A nice character. I haven’t played a lot of those lately.” Of course, that went totally south! But it’s all a challenge. All of the roles are different. I just look forward to whatever comes and I’m very, very fortunate and grateful for it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu.
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