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Ann Dowd: I want to get up and do a play and not be terrified from start to finish

Ann Dowd originally trained to be a surgeon but now is considered a major Hollywood player. The star of The Handmaid's Tale tells Jacob Stolworthy about getting older and of her fascination with complex roles

Ann Dowd is the most terrifying person on TV right now. Not only did she recently play the formidable cult leader Patti Levin in the HBO sleeper hit The Leftovers, she's also the dark, beating heart of the dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale, which has just returned to Channel 4.

Indeed, as the God-fearing matriarch Aunt Lydia - a disciplinarian required to police the fertile "handmaids" who bear children for the brutal theocrats of a government called Gilead - she is all the more unnerving for occasionally showing the tiniest glimmer of humanity. Hers is a performance that makes the viewer fluctuate between sympathy and scorn.

Dowd, born in Massachusetts to a religious family and later educated by Irish Catholic nuns for 10 years, says that she mined her own experiences to bring Lydia to life. "I was very familiar with that world," explains the 62-year-old, who now lives in New York. "No, I was never treated in any way resembling Lydia but what did I learn? A work ethic."

We meet in a hotel in LA ahead of the season two premiere. Based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, this unflinching, nerve-shredding piece of television was the best new show of last year, its central theme of women suffering in a misogynistic world freakishly capturing the zeitgeist. Not for nothing did it win multiple Emmy Awards, including one for Dowd for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

In person, Dowd is the antithesis of her on-screen alter-ego. Holding my hand throughout our interview, she has a maternal manner and frequently asks questions about my family (she loves that my mum gave all her children biblical names). There's also a megawatt smile to go alongside the easy, self-effacing charm.

Dowd, who acknowledges she's continually "fighting to understand" her character, says the role is about surrendering to the process. "It depends on one's perspective but to me, it's a relationship that I'm fortunate to have," she explains. "You make a decision early on, and as in a friendship, you don't judge because if you feel like you're being judged in a relationship, you just shut down."

Success has not come overnight for Dowd. Having spent four "gruelling" years training to become a surgeon, she turned to acting and landed her first role in director Peter Weir's 1990 comedy Green Card. Yet, although she's since appeared in films such as Philadelphia (1993), Garden State (2001) and Side Effects (2013), only now is she being recognised as a major Hollywood player. "I was never hired for my looks," she says. "My face is perfectly fine, but you know what I'm saying? I didn't age in a way that took me out of the running of what I'd been getting."

I ask whether she has experienced ageism in Hollywood. Dowd bats away the suggestion. "You don't know this yet, honey, but ageing is underrated," she says, laughing. "It's perspective. You think, 'I can't worry about that, I'm too tired.' You can land on your feet and just say, 'Yep, it's gonna be messy, but it's alright'."

Time and again, she steers the conversation towards The Leftovers, a project that turned the tide for Dowd. The series - from Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof - deals with the aftermath of an event that saw 2% of the world's population vanish into thin air. Starring Justin Theroux, the drama initially debuted to middling ratings in 2013, before ending with two further seasons, which positioned it as TV's greatest hidden gem. Review aggregate site Metacritic ranks its third and final run as the most critically acclaimed series of the past year. In the same list, The Handmaid's Tale ranked third.

"I'll never get over The Leftovers," she tells me. "It didn't have a huge following and people say, 'Why do you think that is?' I don't know the reason but it asks you to sit with grief so the first instance is to say, 'You know what? Actually, I'm going to watch something else'."

For a role that fills Dowd with such enthusiasm, it's strange to think she almost passed up the opportunity. "It's completely embarrassing but I read it and dismissed it - I was such a flipping idiot!" she says, clutching my hand tightly. "So I re-read it, went for the audition - and then the tug began. I was heartbroken when my time on the show ended - I didn't realise how attached I'd gotten. I was so all-in I couldn't see straight."

The series reunited her with director Craig Zobel with whom she'd previously worked on little-seen indie thriller Compliance. Released in 2012, the film was based on a real-life incident in which a restaurant manager - played by Dowd - carried out unlawful procedures on an employee at the order of an anonymous caller posing as a police officer. It won her the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress that year, placing Dowd in the Hall of Fame alongside past recipients including Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Penelope Cruz.

By her own admission, Dowd finds herself gravitating towards this type of "complex" role, especially since Compliance.

"If you show me a character who's a loner going her own way, right away I'm like, 'I'd love to know her'," she explains.

"So lucky me to have played these solitary women who are actually interesting beyond being in a sexual relationship. I love these characters. It's been a pleasure to come to know them." This year alone, she'll add five more to her impressive catalogue, including crime thriller American Animals, drama A Kid Like Jake and horror Hereditary, which was described as "the scariest film in years" on its debut at Sundance Film Festival in January.

Next year, she'll head up four-part series Lambs of God opposite Essie Davis (The Babadook) and The End of the F****** World's Jessica Barden, playing one of three nuns residing in an isolated convent by the coast. The production will bring the hardworking star to Australia once she's done promoting Handmaid's.

"You know what the goal is for me?" asks Dowd rhetorically. "It's to go back to that simple place. I want to jump into a story, be these characters and just have fun. I've learned the skills and now I want to do that make-believe part. I want to get up and do a play and not be terrified from start to finish." She flashes yet another smile. "I'm tired of that s***."

The Handmaid's Tale Season Two continues on Channel 4 on Sunday May 27, 9pm. Hereditary will be released in cinemas on June 15. The Leftovers is available to watch on Sky Box Sets

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