Many villains are created purely to breed animosity among viewers and characters alike. Yet Patti — the leader of the GR in Damon Lindelof’s HBO drama, “The Leftovers” — was meant to do so much more. Clever, careful and above all else commanding, Patti was no mere sign-carrying protester rallying against a town trying to forget the past and move toward the future. She was a force to be reckoned with, and so is the woman who played her.
Ann Dowd had one helluva year in 2014. After breaking out in the film world with “Compliance” in 2012, Dowd landed key roles in a number of 2014’s most important television programs. From “Masters of Sex” to “True Detective” to “The Leftovers,” Dowd was provided an aptly diverse showcase for her wide range as an actress just one year ago. She’s got more on the horizon, possibly including a return to “The Leftovers” despite her character’s memorable suicide in Season 1. Below, Dowd speaks to Indiewire about Patti’s future, why she wasn’t interested in the series at first, how she understands the GR and her one-word summaries of every show she was in last year.
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I know you probably can’t talk about it, but there was a lot of buzz about your character’s future at the ATX festival. I’m not going to ask the blunt question of are you coming back or aren’t you, but when did you learn about your involvement with the future of “The Leftovers”?
Well, I think I learned it along with everybody else, which would be in the summertime.
This past summer?
Oh no, I mean the spring! I’m sorry, I’m a bit confused — it’s so hot out! Yes, so the spring.
How far ahead was the show mapped out for you before you even signed on?
Did you just read the pilot before you signed on or did you have a couple of episodes?
I just read the pilot. That was it. I went in to audition. Patti doesn’t talk much, so we did that. And then there was a scene where we did talk a little bit, letting Meg [Liv Tyler] back into the fold as it were. That was the only thing I read. Not even the whole pilot at first. Actually, that’s wrong I did read the whole pilot. [laughs]
What was your response to that? I’m so curious. It’s such a complex show and has so many layers to it, and everyone’s reaction to it is so different.
When I first read it, I didn’t get it! I just said, “That’s interesting. I guess I won’t be doing this.” I just didn’t get it. I wanted them to spell it out for me. “What do you mean they disappeared? What?!” It got at me and I thought, “Why don’t you have another look dear?” And the fact that this woman doesn’t speak and that she had gone through something, finding her way through to the other side, and didn’t talk or care what anyone thought, that was very appealing to me. Also challenging, since I’ve never done a role where you don’t speak and you have to communicate very strongly.
That’s a whole other side to the show that’s very specific to the people in the GR and your character. How did you approach how much you needed to convey without words as an actor? Did they put certain meanings in the script? Did you talk it over with your director?
We did some collaborative things. The very wonderful thing about that, and challenging part, is that you realize the basics are always the same. What is it that you want? The scary part about not talking, and then it became thrilling, is that you really had to know, because you’re not going to say a word. Somehow you’re going to convey [meaning] and it’s not going to be by making faces, because what is that? You’re just gonna have to hold your ground, know what you want and send that straight to that person without words. The writing of it was interesting, trying to wrap my head around how this person communicates. Sometimes she doesn’t communicate at all, even with writing. She just is in the room, has a thought, wants to get that thought across and just sends it laser-like. It became a position of real strength, and I loved it. Then I got scared when I had to talk. I thought, “How does one yell? Oh yeah, I remember how to do that.”
Was there any action that Patti took that just shocked you? Especially since you didn’t get the scripts that far ahead of time. She does…a lot of things.
Every single episode, I would go, “Wow!” When I read the episode called “Gladys” and realized Patti had organized it, the stoning of Gladys, I didn’t get that when I first read it. I thought, “What’s happening? We’re going to figure this out.” Then I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is her idea, she’s setting this into motion.” That was shocking to me. It’s curious to me that her death did not shock me. That’s what you learned they were going for, that was the goal in letting go of all attachments, acknowledging that life the way we knew it is over and done with and now we’re embracing for what’s coming. We’re preparing for what’s coming. That was thrilling to finally to get where she was at, her headset and mindset, where she was absolutely determined to go.
Did you always feel that Patti was the kind of person who would do whatever it takes? From that episode, could you see her getting to her eventual “ending”?
It never occurred to me then where it would go. It’s a new religion, the GR, and we were putting it together day by day. Damon was extremely helpful there, and not only in the writing. We got just enough to be able to make decisions on how to proceed. When I was confused about the GR and really what they do believe, what does it look like, he reminded me that it’s a new religion. They’re putting it together for the first time. There are things that are set things in stone — certain things like we don’t talk; we smoke; we wear white; it’s communal; there’s no “me me me”; it’s all about letting go.
When people ask me, “Who would want to be in the GR? What about it is appealing on any level?” I remember thinking, “I get what’s appealing.” It dawned on me that when something catastrophic happens, with the departure, and there’s no explanation and it’s not the good people who left, it’s not bad people; it’s random, [so] there’s a certain level of panic. Talk about loss of control and no understanding of something. It wasn’t a meteor that hit the earth. It is an unexplained event. When you square off with it, in other words, start trying to get back to life as it was — going to the mall, going out on dates, going grocery shopping to plan a nice dinner — when you stop doing that, suddenly the fear subsides because you’ve accepted it. You’ve accepted that my life, as I knew it, is gone. You start to embrace stillness.
There’s no denial going on. Denial, I think, is the GR’s biggest enemy. Trying to pretend that this did not happen and that it doesn’t mean something huge. I guess that the appeal for the GR was that you stop lying to yourself. With that comes a certain level of peace.
I think a lot of people strongly engaged with that in that first season. We talked a little bit about the silent aspect of your acting in every performance, but is there a specific scene that really took it out of you or maybe a scene that you were really proud of?
Being in a series in which you appear in the episodes one following another, that’s not an experience I’m familiar with. It can be overwhelming thinking, “Am I getting this at all, building the chapter here? How’s it going?” My criteria, and I’m trying to stick with it for this season, too — if I’m in it or I’m not in it you don’t know — any time I felt I understood her, and that I acted on her behalf, I was proud of. Episode by episode last season, I thought, “Okay I’ve got to know her just a little better.” And that, to me, was success. It really feels very good. For instance, even that scene in which Kevin is running after his father and he crashes into us and knocks me down, just standing up and looking at him and understanding their relationship and what it meant was so thrilling to me. I don’t know that anyone else in the world noticed it. There’s a clock, “How well do I know this character? Are we understanding one another? Have I stepped in the right arena to know her?” It’s those little things. I don’t watch the episodes. I do watch what my colleagues are doing. I don’t watch what Patti is up to. I just like to experience that separate from watching, if you follow. It’s not fortification, it’s not like, “Oh, look what I did.” It’s just that I want to experience the story from doing it and one day I’ll watch it.
I’m really glad you brought up Kevin, too, because I found Kevin and Patti’s relationship fascinating in Season 1 in part because it’s not a typical hero and villain kind of dynamic. How did you see that relationship? As you’re in it, how did you see your interactions with Kevin?
At first, I’m just after him. He’s messing with what I want. The GR does not wish to be rescued. And don’t step in with the cop because then I’m going to make peace. We don’t want peace. We want it all to just blow up. At first, he’s the enemy standing in my way. And then realizing and trying to get him to see, and realizing that he can go where we’re going. He can understand that. He’s just fighting it. He’s holding on. He’s pretending everything’s going to be fine. I can get through to him. He’s the way through. He’s the way it’s going to bring our Guilty Remnant to the place it wants to be, which is to explode the world we’re living in and make it impossible to continue. He does that, step by step.
That scene in the cabin — which was an extraordinary time as an actor, to be part of that on every level — the writing, the crew, the director and especially my relationship with Kevin. Afterward, we thought about it, and it’s like a love story, one of the strangest love stories ever. That’s what it felt like. Just that level of intimacy and level of connection. I have never been in a relationship in a play or anything that resembles this. It’s a connection as strong as it can be. You don’t know where it’s going and it’s an unlikely pairing.
I love the way you describe it. It’s very easy to slip into another dynamic where you get so mad at Patti, or you get frustrated with Kevin or you see them as sparring partners. The romance of it is very effective.
I loved it. It was so compelling to me, and so unusual. Like, what the hell’s going on? I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s powerful.
That’s very true. With that character, because it’s so powerful, I feel like it’s inspired a lot of different reactions. What did you hear regarding Patti — what people thought of her, what they thought she was going to do, or what they were shocked by?
[laughs] I got a lot of, “What is going on there?” Sort of an interest and curiosity, like “What is going down with that woman?” I didn’t do a lot of explaining because I didn’t really know how to explain it. I just knew that it felt right. I didn’t know where it was going ultimately, so it was kind of fun to have people thinking, “What’s going on? Is she going to — are they going to— ?” I don’t know the answer there. Just stay with the story. Don’t try to figure it out beyond that. See if you can hang in there and let it unfold. That would be an interesting thing, too. “Wait a minute? What’s going on?” I love that about David and Tom’s writing, our other writers. What is going on? We don’t know what’s going on. Stay with that for a minute. You don’t need the answer. Just live there in that question and wait to see what happens.
I love that kind of storytelling, as well. I think it’s very similar with what went on with “Mad Men,” where people kept thinking, “What’s going to happen in the end?” and then it kind of took them away from living in the moment. With “The Leftovers” you have to just be in it. There’s so much there.
We were talking about binge watching and all of the options we have know as a way of television. I remember growing up and shows you loved where you had to wait a week to get the next episode. There was no binge watching. It didn’t exist. You watched it and then you waited until next Thursday at 10:00 to see the next episode. You just had to wait. We don’t have that now. You only see one at a time, but later you can just binge watch the whole season. It’s a very different experience.
In 2014 you had such a great year and were in so many great pieces of entertainment. I was wondering if you could just give me a one word reaction to each experience on these projects.
First up was “Olive Kitteridge.”
That was a wonderful experience. Beautiful story, and just being able to go in and out of it. I don’t have the words. And Fran — I loved Fran, the director. Exceptional. There’s the word.
What about “True Detective”?
This one’s kind of a cheat since you’ve been on it for two seasons, but “Masters of Sex”?
It’s like being home.