On the morning I’m due to interview Ann Dowd, I find myself uncharacteristically excited. Not just because I’m a huge fan of the actress who breathed life into Aunt Lydia for the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, although that undoubtedly plays a part. Rather, I’m excited because Dowd – like myself – is one of the few privileged people in the world who were allowed to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments before its publication.
I personally signed my life away in an NDA before I was allowed anywhere near a copy of the book – which has already been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Then, I was invited into the Penguin offices and shown into a small room. There, they took my phone away from me, they provided me with a mug of tea, and informed me I would be left undisturbed for six hours.
Then, and only then, did they hand me a printed copy of The Testaments, which I devoured in one big greedy gulp. Just like The Handmaid’s Tale, the sequel is written in first-person. However, while Atwood’s first book focused on one woman’s viewpoint (the titular Handmaid), The Testaments offers up something different: three women, three perspectives, three very different stories – all of which collide beautifully as events unfold. But, just like The Handmaid’s Tale before it, Atwood’s new book isn’t one which sits well in silence. And, ever since I read it, I’ve felt questions bubbling up inside me: why 15 years later? Why these women? And why is Aunt Lydia, of all people, our conduit to the past?
Naturally, I’ve been desperate to talk to someone, anyone about it. And, in a phenomenal stroke of luck, that someone turns out to be Dowd. She, like me, was invited to read the book before anyone else. Unlike me, though, she has a brilliant reason for doing so: the actor narrates Aunt Lydia’s chapters in The Testaments audiobook.
“I had never done an audiobook, and so I was certainly a little intimidated by it,” she tells me, after laughing over the endless contracts she had to sign, and the “52 passwords” she had to use before being granted access to the text.
“And Margaret Atwood does not like basic, simple sentences. She writes complex, fascinating sentences that require a full deep breath just from a technical point of view, and being able to follow it through to the end. That was very challenging.”
While the experience was daunting (“It’s a tremendous discipline to get a handle on,” says Dowd), the actor – who has won several awards for her performance as Aunt Lydia – was over the moon to have been asked in the first place.
“Because I know Lydia, it was like a dream in which I find out something about the character,” she tells me. “When you play a character, you often think, ‘I wonder what happens in the future? I wonder where she will go?’, but most of the time you don’t know. The book ends, the script is finished, the series is over. So to get a glimpse into where this character goes was a particular thrill, one which I’ve never experienced it before. To have some sense of who this woman is… well, it was really a sensational experience.”
Why did Margaret Atwood decide to release The Testaments now?
It’s the elephant in the room and, for a while, Dowd and I dance around the fact that – in 2019 – Atwood’s feminist dystopia feels more relevant than ever. Eventually, though, I cave and ask her what lessons she feels modern audiences can learn from The Testaments? Especially considering the fact that the first book in the series – The Handmaid’s Tale – was published in 1985?
For a moment, I don’t think Dowd is going to answer me.
“I always used to stay away from questions like this,” she says, “because they’re very complicated, and the reason we can go to work on the set of The Handmaid’s Tale is because, at the end of the day, we go home. And, at the end of the day, no one’s missing an eye, and women are not being raped every month, and they’re not servants of the state. But now…”
Dowd pauses for a moment. Then, she continues shakily: “But now you see what’s happening in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and the impact of the abortion law. And you see the state of the world, of climate change, and the havoc it’s wreaking – that governments are choosing to ignore it, to do nothing to stop it, and instead increase the potential for damage. It’s so alarming.
“In the beginnings of Gilead, the world had been nearly destroyed by pollution: there were parts of the United States that you couldn’t go to or you’d die. Reading about that when the book came out in the 80s, you’d think, ‘Thank god that’s not gonna happen’… but now? Well, climate change is very complex, but I think the message of Atwood’s story is very clear. I don’t think scientists are gonna lie to us – we’re at a turning point, and the world is in crisis. That’s how Gilead begins, in fact: they need to suddenly take control of the situation in an extraordinarily extreme way.
“When I read recently what was going on in Alabama, I truly thought at first, ‘Why are they publishing this now? This isn’t current’, and to see that it was, was so shocking. How did we get here? How is it still a question as to whether women have the right to control what happens to their body? I cannot believe that is still on the table. I cannot believe that we are still talking about this.”
Getting to know Aunt Lydia again
In a bid to ensure she did her duty by this book, Dowd made an extraordinary decision. She “left the girls behind” (that’s right: thrillingly, the actor uses the same vernacular as her on-screen character) in order to focus solely on Lydia’s chapters.
“It was so exciting just to realise through Lydia’s reaction what had gone on with the other two women,” she tells me. “To learn about their experiences bit by bit from the inside, and piece together what had happened… I wouldn’t say I recommend it, but boy, it connects so beautifully.”
Recalling how she felt when she put her chapters down, Dowd adds: “I wanted to respond to Atwood immediately because the experience was unlike anything I had ever gone through, and I was completely privileged to have done so. Then I thought, ‘I can’t sit there and tell her I haven’t read the novel, I’ll sound like an idiot’.
“Eventually I realised, ‘I cannot go one more minute without saying to her that this was astonishing’, which is what I felt, and I didn’t want to have that feeling diminish over time because I felt guilty and stupid, so I got right to reading the other chapters. But I did text her and say, ‘This is the deal, this is what’s going on’.
Understanding the woman Lydia was before Gilead
Even if she hadn’t been asked to read and learn her chapters by heart, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Dowd would have given her full attention to The Testaments. This is, after all, the same woman who read and reread The Handmaid’s Tale before picking up a script for the Hulu TV show. And this is the same woman who dreamed up her own backstory for the show’s most complex villain, in a bid to better understand her decisions and her role within Gilead.
So, when she learned that Atwood had finally unveiled the truth about Lydia’s past, Dowd was unbelievably excited.
“It was a dream come true,” she says, “but it isn’t what I particularly expected in terms of how Lydia came to sign on for Gilead. I somehow thought of her as a huge believer – someone who met for the early meetings of Gilead, and was right there in the front row ready to jump in. But that’s not the case. And when you see the vulnerability of this person, some of the walls fall away. When you see her frailty and vulnerability, you take another look and say ‘ah, OK’, and a connection is made, I think.”
Of course, there are many examples of ordinary people caught in the sweep of history, taking actions that damage us all. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt said: “The most horrifying thing about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.”
When you consider the fact that Atwood is frequently inspired by real-life events and moments of historical importance, it makes sense that the same is true of pre-Gilead Lydia.
“It was a question of survival,” notes Dowd. “Lydia wanted to survive when Gilead took over and that’s what she did. We always have that decision, to participate or not. If someone ever asked me to harm children, I hope to God I would have the strength to choose death. Clearly Lydia did not.”
Can Lydia ever find redemption for her actions, though? Or, more pertinently, would she ever want to? Dowd, like myself, doesn’t want to give too much away (“What’s fun about that? It doesn’t serve anyone!”) but she is keen to open up the conversation.
“The thing is, as you grow older, things happen that give your past decisions some perspective,” she notes. “You can let go of the part of your brain that says, ‘Well, I did it because I had to’, and suddenly other options come into play. So how do you react? How do you plan to end your life? What do you want to be remembered for?”
Why did Margaret Atwood choose to show us Gilead through Aunt Lydia’s eyes?
In Atwood’s original novel, we only ever learn about the senior Aunt through narrator Offred’s own recollections. In the show, though, her role has been expanded – and beautifully so. Far from a caricature of evil, ideological zeal, Lydia is terrifying in her tenderness: she really does believe she is doing God’s work. Indeed, during a scene in the opening episode of series one, we see tears pooling in her eyes as she explains the crimes of a man the Handmaids will soon be asked to rip apart with their bare hands.
When I ask Dowd if she believes her award-winning portrayal of the character – and the public’s reaction to her – informed Atwood’s decision to reposition Lydia as a narrator in The Testaments, though, she’s immediately abashed.
“I don’t know why Margaret Atwood chose the character she chose, and I wouldn’t take the slightest credit for what comes in The Testaments,” she says firmly. “The only reason I was able to access the character was because Bruce Miller, even in his pilot script, was so in keeping with Margaret Atwood. He clearly understood where she was going, and I was just floored by how thorough and good the writing has been. But I love playing her, I can tell you that much. Finding the complexity of her is part of the challenge and part of the fulfillment one feels at the end of the day.”
While Dowd has no idea what prompted Atwood to push Lydia into the spotlight, though, she’s “very, very happy about it”.
“I think that it’s perfect for the story, and if we’re going to see Gilead taken down, let’s just let Lydia be a part of it!” she tells me.
Getting inside an older, battle-weary Lydia’s head
Until now, we have never been inside Lydia’s head. As Dowd points out, “We get a glimpse of the Aunts together in the TV show – we find out how they talk when no one’s around and how they discuss things. But getting inside of Lydia’s head is a new thing… so, when you have a minute, just start reading The Testaments out loud. It quickly becomes clear that we’ve barely scratched the surface of this character, because the humour – and the subtlety of the humour – and the weariness translates into wisdom and patience. It’s so clear in the reading what the tone is.”
I understand exactly what she means. Just as Elisabeth Moss’ portrayal of June in the TV show allows us to delve beneath her chillingly polite exterior – she’s far more cynical, far wittier, and far more inclined to drop the F-bomb than she ever lets on – Atwood’s new chapters reveal a whole other side to Lydia. We get to know what she’s really thinking when she trills orders at her beloved ‘girls’. We get to know what she really believes. And it is, as Dowd says, utterly “thrilling”.
The Testaments takes us to a seemingly hopeless place…
If The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing, The Testaments is, in many ways, even more so. Less violent, sure, but Gilead isn’t fresh and new at this point. It is a society that has existed for well over a decade, and as such, it has become normality for all those who live there. The babies and young children who were born at the beginning of it all have never known anything else. This is their reality, and they accept it without question. And this is, perhaps, far more frightening than the punishments and cruelty we see in the original text.
“I once performed in a play that involved Berlin just after the war, and the character I played was looking for proof that her husband even existed,” Dowd tells me. “She’d lost him; he was Jewish and died in the camps. And so I researched the role by reading about Anne Frank and her family – that moment when they were first taken, and the appalling, indescribable behaviour that was going on in the camps.
“In the beginning, you couldn’t put words to it. After a week, though, they were getting used to it – not just accepting it but realising that this was going on all the time. There was a shift in the psyche, out of shock and into acceptance, because what else could they do.
… and yet, somehow, it delivers a message of hope
To paraphrase Rihanna, The Testaments finds hope in a hopeless place. Because, despite the nightmarish nature of Gilead’s reality, this is a tale of strength, survival and sisterhood – one which feels all the more relevant in 2019.
The Testaments also brings closure to fans of the original text, not to mention an end to Aunt Lydia’s tale. As such, Dowd has said she will fight tooth and nail to portray the character once again in the rumoured TV adaptation.
“I’d jump at the chance,” she says. “I’d have to chase anyone who wanted to take over Lydia. I’m sure they’re certainly capable, I just have a little bit of a problem letting go of her.”
For now, though, Dowd is content with her role as narrator – and will be reading from the book on Tuesday 10 September as part of a special launch event with the National Theatre.
“I’m excited about it. I suppose I’m kind of nervous about it, to be honest with you. I’ll be prepared, I’ll take a breath… I’ve not done anything like that before. But it’s like the audiobook – what better book to do this with? It just means so much to me, this story, and where Atwood has taken it. That’s just the biggest privilege, to be a part of it.”
On 10 September, the Atwood Live event to mark the publication of The Testaments will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and worldwide www.margarteatwoodlive.com
The Testaments will be published by Chatto & Windus, an imprint of VINTAGE, on 10 September. The audiobook will be published by Penguin Random House Audio and will be available in digital download or CD.