Until March, 2017, the notion of what a Handmaid looked like was informed by only a handful of things: the cover design of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the shoulder-pad-heavy 1990 film adaptation by Harold Pinter, and one’s imagination. Then Hulu, the American streaming network, dropped the trailer for their TV series. Suddenly, a Handmaid was clean-cut: rigid, white bonnet, floor-length A-line red cloak. The show, now in approaching its fourth season, illuminated our understanding of Gilead, Atwood’s dystopian re-imagining of America.
So when, 18 months later, it was announced that Atwood would be writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, our visual identity for Gilead was already set. The Testaments, released to bestselling and Booker Prize-winning success last September, put ruthless state enforcer Aunt Lydia at its core. And for many millions of readers, Aunt Lydia looked – and sounded like – Ann Dowd, the American actress who has won an Emmy for taking on the role.
“You know, I’d never considered that!” Dowd says when I tell her I read The Testaments picturing her Aunt Lydia – buttoned-up, gimlet-eyed, undeniably chilling; a Miss Trunchbull for grown-ups – darting into the library, plotting against the totalitarian regime she created. “That is such an interesting point.” She mulls on it before releasing a laugh: “Yeah, ok. No pressure!”
We’re speaking, of course, over Zoom. After dark in London, noon in Toronto, where Dowd has been filming The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s delightfully normal. Un-made up, hair tangling around her shoulders, peering through tortoiseshell glasses and frequently apologising for “talking too much”, the 64-year-old is a far cry from the tyrant she portrays. Every now and then, though, Lydia’s voice glints through Dowd’s enunciation.
Dowd knew about The Testaments’ existence before most people did; she voiced Lydia in the audiobook, something she describes as “terrifying” due to the technicality of it. “Margaret doesn’t write short sentences. And the producers! Every breath that went off, every sound that went off, even the smallest change in the word, they were right on it. It took some rearranging of what I’m accustomed to. But boy, when you do get it. It’s so thrilling. And you go home at the end of the day and say, ‘I think, I think Lydia’s now out there’.”
The book gave her character something Dowd had always had to guess at before: a backstory. Atwood brings three narrative threads together: Lydia’s along with two girls, Nicole and Agnes, who will enable her to seal Gilead’s fate. Their perspectives – presented as historical records, journals and witness statements – are intertwined to fearsomely page-turning effect. In The Testaments’ acknowledgements, Atwood writes that the book “was written partly in the minds of the readers of its predecessor… who kept asking what happened after the end of that novel”. Atwood gives them an answer, but also fleshes out a before, too. The result being that Lydia, previously only a figure of fear, becomes rounded, sympathetic, even witty.
“Lydia gets it very quickly: you wanna survive, you join in,” Dowd says, succinctly. “And you wanna be in charge? Then you do it better than anybody else. I would say the course of her life in The Testaments is a form of redemption, although Margaret might well push back on that.”
Before The Testaments, an episode of the show revealed a pre-Gilead era of Lydia as a schoolteacher who had spent much of her life keenly aware of shame. Dowd speaks at length of the process of character construction she went into (“when you’re playing a character that’s as misguided as Lydia is, you’re thinking, what happened there? How do you live a life as a woman that allows for the continual rape of young women?”), and says being given a backstory like that of The Testaments was “the kind of thing you hope for but don’t voice out loud because, it’s like, ‘stuff your nonsense!’”
Atwood came on set during the filming of season one. “The honour she received upon coming in the door, the respect, it was beautiful to see,” remembers Dowd. The author took on a cameo role as an Aunt, whose main task was to slap Elisabeth Moss, the show’s star. “Being the sensitive woman that she is, she sort of tapped Lizzy on the cheek,” says Dowd. “And Lizzy was like, ‘You know what hon? You can go for it’. Aunts aren’t known for their gentle nature.”
Did she give Dowd any feedback? “I’m not saying she said, ‘You know what, you’re doing a great job!’ none of that, that’s not how that woman operates. But she was kind and generous and I could tell Lydia was going in the right direction as far as she was concerned.”
Where the show and both of Atwood’s books have collided is in reflecting a world that has looked worryingly like our own. While The Handmaid’s Tale may have always been classed as being about the future (something Atwood has long challenged, pointing out that “prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now”), the right-wing political swerve that arrived with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 encouraged women to take to the streets dressed as Handmaids to protest for their reproductive rights. The New Yorker dubbed Atwood “the prophet of dystopia”, while “Trump’s America” and “Gilead” became synonyms in certain newspaper headlines.
Dowd and I are talking a few days after it becomes apparent that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have won the 2020 election. The actor has never been shy in her aversion to the current US president, and says the result is a “relief”. Nevertheless, it's no coincidence Trump’s rise has coincided with The Handmaid’s Tale’s success. Dowd remembers election night 2016: “I couldn’t be awake the night before it was just too much anxiety, but then I woke up and opened the door and there was the paper announcing that Trump was the winner.”
The Handmaid’s Tale had already started shooting. “I texted Lizzy and was like, ‘What are we going to do here?’ And she texted back, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ [mock-Latin for “don’t let the bastards grind you down”]. What it did for us as we continued to shoot was to give a voice and an image to a level of activism. I mean, you can only hope that a show you have the privilege to be involved in is going to exist beyond the living room. It just knocks me out.”
By the time series four debuts, America – and the world – will be looking towards a new era in the White House. And, Dowd suggests, the show will be taking an interesting turn, too: “we begin to see the shift of Lydia’s awareness and the subtle changes she begins to make that will bring us to who she is as The Testaments begin.”
Image: MGM/Hulu/Alicia Fernandes/Penguin
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