Ann Dowd wants to “get down on knees to praise Handmaid’s Tale protestors”

She's made her name playing some of film and TV's most disturbed and disturbing characters but her success in later life is down to "keeping the love story alive"

Need a menacing cult leader or cold-hearted oppressor for your high-class television series? Or an abusive co-worker for a thriller, or a devil-worshipping psychic for your horror film? In recent years, there has been only one woman for the job.

Ann Dowd has cornered the market in disturbed and disturbing characters – on the big screen in Compliance and Hereditary and her Emmy-winning turn as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s no surprise then that her fifth on-screen nun, Sister Margarita, in new series Lambs of God soon has blood on her hands (and all over her face).

The Big Issue: You’ve been very busy in recent years – are you working at the minute?

Ann Dowd:I’ve just come home to New York from the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. I took my mother, which was quite lovely. It was heaven. She is 89 and had a lovely time. I’m not working again until we begin The Handmaid’s Tale.

What drew you to your new drama Lambs of God?

I’d never seen a world like this one, or characters like these – everything was so original and strange and mysterious. It sparked the imagination immediately.

Why do you think you’ve you been cast as a nun so often?

I was educated by nuns and had the privilege of two aunts who are Catholic sisters, so I’m very familiar with the world. But I don’t know why. My best friend told me very early in our careers, “You’re gonna play nuns.” And I said, “What?” I was furious.

Do you find their devoutness admirable?

I have tremendous respect for sisters – their complexity, their intelligence, their service to the poor and disenfranchised. It is true service. Nobody’s making their beds or making their dinner, you know? They’re down in the trenches, hands-on – and you can’t always say that about priests.

The Blue Mountains of Australia, where you filmed Lambs of God, have been hit by the recent wildfires. Have you been following the story?

I can’t even imagine so much devastation. I’ve been in touch with the director a little bit. And it’s catastrophic. The beauty of Australia is remarkable.

What draws you to religious or quasi-religious characters such as Aunt Lydia, Patti Levin in The Leftovers, and now Sister Margarita?

In Lambs of God, Sister Margarita is hiding tremendous grief and rage and they’re all fleeing a world of trauma they could not manage, so came to live a life of solitude in nature and honouring God. The reasons for being there are extreme but there is true devotion. Whereas Gilead [the totalitarian state in The Handmaid’s Tale], in essence, has nothing to do with God. They can pretend all they want, but it is about power– not true devotion. Not for one second. You don’t take over other’s people’s lives, young women in particular, and rape them and call that devotion to God. That’s a great big lie.

There are things about The Leftovers that haunt me to this day if I spend too much time thinking about it – the way we were dropped into levels of grief. It’s written in a way that doesn’t give you the answers but encourages you to keep thinking about it. I loved it.

What do they all have in common? I would only say what every human being has in common. Look at one’s past, own one’s injuries and one’s grief, then face it and let go. That is when we move on to a new and better life. As an actress, one just says one’s prayers in the hopes of knowing a character without judgment.

How do you feel when you see women protesting and defending their power over their bodies dressed as handmaids?

I want to get down on my hands and knees in praise of them. That is so exceptional. You can only hope that something you were part of has an effect in the world that is positive, and it thrills me. I am filled with gratitude to them for getting out there in the street, in those costumes. Nothing but greatness is what I feel when I see women who have the courage to step out and speak up.

When we do work that puts words and an image to what is going on or what could happen, it gives people a chance to see it from one step back and say, “I don’t want this. I have to speak up.” It puts a visual to the plain old truth. You watch and think, “No, no, no, no, no – that’s not OK.”

I make phone calls to senators and that sort of thing – especially what’s going on here with the impeachment. It’s criminal. A travesty.

Do you get involved?

I’ve given speeches and I would be out on the street. My schedule at this point has not allowed it. Actually, that sounds like a complete cop-out and you should call me out on that – say: “Find the time and get out there.” But I make phone calls to senators and that sort of thing – especially what’s going on here with the impeachment. It’s criminal. A travesty.

You found success later in life than some. Has that been a blessing?

It’s been a profound blessing. It’s funny: when you’re in the early years of your career, you have to have a very strong sense of denial – denial meaning, “I will not consider that this will not work.” I think back to being pregnant at 35 years old and working in a pet shop with no money in the bank – and not worrying one bit. Now I look back and the anxiety just shoots up. What was I thinking?

And how does that contrast with now?

Now I’m so grateful. I’m almost 64. My oldest boy lives in a beautiful community for adults with disabilities, my daughter is going to graduate from college. I was able to pay for that. I’m very proud of that young woman for never giving up or even considering it. Which is not to say there weren’t moments of profound frustration. I’m proud of her for the stamina. It sounds sentimental, but your love for the work you do, your belief in the gifts you were given – if you keep that love story alive, you will have what you need to persevere.

Lambs of God is available on BritBox