Ann Dowd has an acting resume chock-full of rich, three-dimensional, and often very dark characters. The 2012 film Compliance, for which Dowd won Critics Choice and National Board of Review awards for Best Supporting Actress, for example, is so disturbing that many will never be able to look at a manager/employee relationship the same way again. And True Detective fans likely will not forget the unusually twisted brother-sister scenario she undertook at the end of its debut season. Last year, we were treated to another troubled character by the name of Patti Levin in HBO’s The Leftovers, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta. Patti Levin is a member of a cultish nonspeaking, chain-smoking group called The Guilty Remnant (The G.R.) which formed after two percent of the population mysteriously vanished. In each of these roles, along with her many others, Dowd astounds with the level of believabililty she brings to otherwise larger-than-life characters. We recently had the pleasure of talking with Ms. Dowd about her experience working on The Leftovers and here are five things we thought fans would want to know.
CAUTION: Season one spoilers below!
Dowd calls herself a “big talker” and knew a non-speaking role like Patti would be a challenge. “It was an extremely exciting experience,” she said, “because you realize, ‘OK, you’re going to have to get across what you want without words, and so you better know what you want,’ and that was the greatest part of it. You had to be very specific, be ready, take your deep breaths, be very focused and have your sea legs, let us say. The challenge, too, about being silent, is it teaches you to be in your whole body, which is what’s hard in acting, isn’t it? Somehow you just end up in your head when things aren’t going well and that’s not the space you want to be in. You want it to be part of your whole being. And somehow not talking puts that into motion very quickly.”
Dowd shared that silence can be a powerful thing and that her recently adopted young son “uses silence and, boy, I know what he wants. He’s very clear. It’s in the whole being. It’s not about making faces; it’s about [how] every part of you knows what you want. And to pour that laser onto somebody, it’s an extremely potent way to communicate. And you learn it and I grew to love it.” A few of her scenes in season one of The Leftovers, however, did contain dialogue. “That became scary,” she said, “to go back to that way of communicating, because you know there’s a lot of things we do in a room to get a point across and talking isn’t really the most important one half the time. So much else plays into getting what you want. And it’s very unsettling to people. Just to not respond verbally.”
In the show, Patti and the other cult members are chain-smokers. Ms Dowd explained that since the reason not to smoke is to be health-conscious, the purpose for G.R. members to smoke is to show it doesn’t matter anymore: “It’s over.” Dowd used to smoke in her 20s, so the idea of playing a chain-smoker was troubling. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to smoke.’ ‘Yes you are, Ann, you are going to smoke. They do smoke.’ It’s like anything else; it’s part of the work. It adds to the performance. It adds to what this group is. In other words, it didn’t seem gratuitous to me. And so it’s like being out in the cold. It’s part of it. Or being in Austin now, being out in the heat. No point in resisting — just step up.”
The Guilty Remnant may be considered a scary cult (if it were real). But actors need to find the emotional seeds that justify their characters’ behaviors. And Dowd is oft asked what could possibly attract people to the the G.R. Living communally, eating gruel, chain-smoking, and wearing only white are just some of the G.R.’s unseemly attributes. “What I came to understand,” she ventured, “is if something catastrophic happened, like two percent of the population disappears, it’s random. And randomness is a terrifying thing. It wasn’t the good that left, it wasn’t the bad, it was a mix. And that’s what sends people over the edge, the randomness of it.”
Denial can lead to mental distress and people who resist accepting the tragic circumstance by defaulting back to a regular way of life, according to Dowd, are forcing themselves to forget: “Go back to the mall, go back to going to dinner at a restaurant, continue your life. Denial is the enemy of the G.R. So the attraction to the G.R., to me, was a huge reduction in anxiety. In other words, if you just accept that it happened, and it’s all over, and you don’t put one shred of energy toward resisting it, there’s a certain peace that comes with it. It gives you purpose. You realize, ‘I’m not here to fix anything. I’m here to let go of attachment, to keep my head clear, to let distractions go by, and prepare for the end.’ Because living in anxiety is horrible. I don’t know if you’ve ever had bouts of that — you know where it’s not just nerves — it takes over your whole being. You can’t think about anything else except the obsession of what the anxiety is about. That’s a horrible and exhausting way to live. And I think the choice to say, ‘OK, I accept; I hear it,’ makes sense.”
While the actor herself never has any suicidal inclinations, once she got into the mindset and the traumatic shift in the world of the show, Patti’s “martyring” of herself made sense to her. She said of preparing for the scene with star Justin Theroux, “Oh my God, and working with Justin, it’s all about that better half, and he was for me throughout. He had so much to do throughout the whole [series], as you know, and so then it’s all revving up as the episodes continue. You’re reaching a climax, obviously. And we would say to each other, ‘Remember this is now the third act of the play. So the audience knows the characters. And we know them. So we can do this. We can manage this. It seems huge. And how are we ever going to do it? But let’s remember now, we’ve done this for weeks and weeks and weeks, and we know who these people are, and we can live in their skin, and we can do our jobs. It’ll be okay.'”
Sometimes during the production of shows with mysterious premises, we hear stories about strange occurrences happening on set. Ms. Dowd said she’s begun receiving some mysterious messages since her stint on The Leftovers: “I’ll tell you what’s weird is, I was driving in Austin and the radio came on. I turned the radio on, and a woman who sounded very educated — in other words not evangelical craziness — she’s talking and she said, ‘We are accused of obsessing about the end of the world. We are not obsessing about the end of the world. We just want to make sure people are ready for the end of the world.’ I thought, ‘What? What?!’ And you’d think it was a rational conversation, I’m not kidding you. And the man said, ‘Yes, I know many are not called to speak of it. We are.’ It unnerved me completely because it seemed very reasonable, the way they were talking. And I thought, ‘What am I hearing?’ And I started asking people, ‘Did you hear that?’ They’re, like, ‘No, no.’
“And now, on my phone I get e-mails about preparing for the end of the world, and I have no idea how that’s happening. I’m not kidding you. ‘Survival: how to prepare for the end.’ I get them on a slightly regular basis now. Man, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ And Chris Eccleston who plays the reverend, he said he’s got stuff that goes on. [These things] happened and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on?'”
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