Aunt Lydia Finally Tells Her Complicated Backstory in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Talking with actress Ann Down about revealing the tragic history of Aunt Lydia.

aunt lydia
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale' | Sophie Giraud/Hulu
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale' | Sophie Giraud/Hulu

This post contains spoilers through Season 3, Episode 8 of The Handmaid's Tale.

Aunt Lydia has been somewhat of a mystery on The Handmaid's Tale, until now. Finally, we have an episode devoted to her life before the Sons of Jacob coup, her life before Gilead, with a glimpse of her relationship with a woman she deems unfit to be a mother, and perhaps her first effort to separate a child from his parent. Turns out that it's a little more complicated than Lydia would want to admit, even to herself -- given that part of her decision-making process stems from feeling rejected and feeling ashamed of her own sexual desires, and needing someone to blame for both. (If therapy were available to the Aunts in the post-Gilead plan, we recommend some.) Ann Dowd -- the marvelous actress who has embodied Aunt Lydia so perfectly, humanizing a woman who would otherwise be a symbol of complicity -- walked us through her character's complicated psyche and offered her thoughts on Lydia's real-world villainous counterparts. 

Thrillist: How did you reconcile what you had imagined as Aunt Lydia's backstory prior to them giving you the script for this episode, and then reading this? How did the two versions blend together?
Ann Dowd: You know, it's funny. I had thought about what might have happened in her past. Our showrunner, Bruce Miller, did give me some information, that she had been a teacher, which made tremendous sense. And also she must have had a religious upbringing that was very dominated by her father. Her mother was not present as much. Perhaps she died early on, that kind of thing. So I combined the loss of a mother with a domineering, highly religious father to whom she was very, very close. And clearly, what I think the episode suggests, is that shame is her compass. Shame and humiliation. It just changes everything, and it's immediate. Her first marriage failed. And she was obviously raised in a way where sex is as close to sin as you can get, you know? All of that twisted religious thinking about sexuality. 

So that early part I could imagine. But I was floored by the episode when I read it. I was thrilled with the backstory. I thought, "What a perfect idea," because it didn't occur to me. I remember finishing the script and thinking, "Thank god for writers." Because I had other things in my head about Lydia, but they were not these. And the shooting of it just confirmed how perfect an idea it was, because it blended so completely with who I understand Lydia to be. Shooting it was a straight-out privilege. And it broke my heart as well, because I thought of what could have been, had she somehow found a way to let go of the shame, the guilt, all of those things? Because it's unconscious. It's so old in her that she couldn't even put a name to it, necessarily. She just shuts down entirely. It's old and it's powerful, and it's never given a healthy way out. 

ann dowd aunt lydia
Jasper Savage/Hulu

She couldn't accept her own sexual desire, or examine her own feelings, or accept that she has any feelings. They're not her feelings, she decides. And so she blames the mother of this child, calling her a corrupting influence. 
She doesn't get the connection at all. She followed her heart, she followed her sexual desire for this man, and he didn't even reject her. He just stepped back a little. And that just shut all the doors for Lydia. That brought her to, "All right, what have I been doing? She said, ‘Put a little makeup on.' She said, ‘You need to date.' You know what? I should never have listened to her. She's a slut. She's had three or how many boyfriends since I've known her? No, no, no, no, no." And then she steps into her role as a protector of this child. "This mother was a dreadful influence on me; think of what she'll do to her son." She's shut men out and just buckled down on, "Do what you know you should do." And so shame rules the day. It's a force greater than she can manage. Even if you were to go over it a month later, when the shock of it had subsided, it would be very hard for her to separate what he actually said from the way she felt when it happened. It's got too strong of a hold on her. 

You know the play Doubt? Sister Aloysius, at the end, has a stroke of brilliance, which is to call doubt. And from that, she has a chance to start a new life. She was so sure that the priest was a pedophile: "I'm going to take this to the limit." And then she realizes that she did much more harm than good. Somehow, she has to strength to let that penetrate. Lydia does not. 

It's interesting that we've been learning about all these hidden hypocrisies in Gilead's hierarchy. Lydia was married before, and divorce is not tolerated in Gilead. Commander Lawrence and his wife had an abortion, also not allowed in Gilead. They penalize other people for these things, and yet they're exempt from the rules. 
And you see what it costs? Commander Lawrence's wife, she had an awakening. She realized, "Oh my god. This is a disaster. This is hell. We are participating in the worst possible way, to uphold Gilead." And he, too, is going, "Wait a minute..." And regarding Lydia, you can bet that marriage was annulled. If you have no control over how it fell apart… Maybe he was a philanderer. Maybe he was gay. I'm sure she did not leave that marriage without an annulment, so that means in the eyes of the Church, it did not happen. It was not sanctified. And that reinforces Lydia's feelings about marriage. You can see the flaw in her thinking, but from her perspective, I would say she did fight for the marriage and did everything she could. And she couldn't save it. 

commander lawrence
Sophie Giraud/Hulu

If Commander Lawrence and his wife can realize "this is hell," what would it take for Lydia to come around? Certainly a few things have given her some pause: Her injury, the DC protocols, seeing the extreme, absurd restrictions that the other Handmaids there face. And now we have a situation where one of her most pious Handmaids, Ofmatthew, has completely lost it and gone postal. What would it take for Lydia to realize her methods, the system itself, doesn't actually work?
Oh, yes. I think she's constantly challenged in her approach. I think she's committed. But seeing Washington, DC, was a major, "Wait a minute here… I don't want my girls silent. I want to hear the voices that God gave them. I want to see the growth in the way they express their love of God. I don't want their faces covered. Those beautiful young faces that God gave them…" And so on and so forth. She's being presented with these cases and has to consider, "Wait a second… Let me rethink this." Ofmatthew, she didn't gauge that correctly, just like she didn't gauge Emily [Alexis Bledel] correctly. I'm sure she chastises herself over that. "I should have known Ofmatthew was on the ledge. I should have protected her. I should have taken her out of this petty situation." I think Lydia is always thinking she could have done this better. "It's on me. This is my fault." 

But unlike Doubt, she doesn't let it penetrate more than that. That fall, that attack from Emily could have awakened her. She came to the brink of death, basically, and made it through. Now, one can do a lot of things with that. You know, it's funny… When my father died, which was many years ago, I remember living in a reality that I knew other people in the world were not in, of course. The grief was such that there was a clarity to what I thought about many things, because all the bullshit gets wiped away. You suddenly see all your defenses, the nonsense that you put up with just because. Suddenly it's all in a bright light. It's quite an extraordinary thing. Now, you can either say, "All right. Thank you. I'm going to do things differently now. I'm not going to cling to what makes me feel better, if it isn't being truthful." But that didn't happen for Lydia. She doubled down. I always think -- well, not always -- but I do think that love is the most powerful force in the world. And because Lydia loves her girls, she's vulnerable to that love. Love is what could crumble the walls and force her to go, "Wait a second. What am I doing? Surely we should have free choice…" But she doesn't allow that. The walls she has up are very, very thick, very well protected, and reinforced.  

ann dowd aunt lydia
Sophie Giraud/hulu

What flashes in Aunt Lydia's head in the moment when Ofmatthew points a gun at her? Does she even recognize her own culpability, why the Handmaids would want to hurt her?
No, I don't think so. I think she's chosen a very narrow, flawed view, and has had it reinforced over and over again, that these girls were living dreadful lives before Gilead -- rampant cursing, promiscuous sex, always on their phones, not one second of a relationship with God. Gilead is a chance for them to redeem themselves, and redeeming oneself means penance, and penance happens over time. And they can repent by showing remorse, having a baby, and giving this baby to a family that can raise it properly. That's her way of thinking. She doesn't even consider it brainwashing. She considers it putting them on the straight and narrow, because clearly they were lost. 

You know about conversion therapy, right? I tried to watch a film about it, but I couldn't. It was too upsetting, what they do to young people. But the guy who is teaching that, he's not wondering if he's doing the right thing: "It's going to be painful, but it's the way to salvation." So I don't think Lydia feels conflicted.  

You've spent so much time in Aunt Lydia's head, and understanding that particular headspace, that kind of rigid belief system, and I wonder if it gives you any insight into how to change the mind of someone like that, if it's even possible? Because there are plenty of people with very similar beliefs who want to restrict women's rights, so how do you penetrate that kind of thinking when the usual arguments aren't working?
That's a very good question. It's a very, very scary time. Protest. Fight. I don't mean physically fight, but pay attention. Speak up. Don't let one single thing go by. It's so appalling what's going on, and that they dare call themselves pro-life, because there is nothing pro-life about that. What they are is pro-birth. This is the argument from my perspective about pro-life. Go to the foster and adoption agencies and say, "Show me the children who have no home. Let me take them." That's pro-life. "Let me find the children who do not have love in their life and let me help them. Let me go to the border and fight for children to be reunited with their parents and not be treated as less than animals." That's pro-life. I don't know how you change their minds. What the fuck, you know? As if Trump gives a shit about abortion. Imagine him speaking up for pro-life, as if he cares. On so many levels, it's just appalling. 

What Lydia would do at the end of the day would be to get on her hands and knees and pray for forgiveness, and pray for guidance: "How can I better understand my Handmaids?" But if you won't listen to the answer… if the answer comes from deep in your gut and it says, "Leave them alone," she would just say, "That's the devil speaking." See what I'm saying? You have to be open to change. You have to let it penetrate. But clearly, as we've known since the beginning of time, regarding women, the desire to control is as old as time.

I did an Australian miniseries that isn't in the US yet called Lambs of God, and it's about three nuns who live on a remote island in a broken down monastery, until a priest finds them. It's based on the novel by Marele Day, and so part of the homework for that one was to read about the early Church, and it's so appalling, the way the Church was run years and years ago. It used to be run by women, until it was overtaken, through violence, by men. And it's so enraging. You can only take so much, especially when you see where the Church is today, excluding women. So what's the answer? I don't know. But it's deeply upsetting.

By chance, have you ever seen #AnnDowdAsEveryVillain
No. What's that?

This comedian Andrew Farmer makes these videos where he's essentially portraying you as you portray various villains.
Is it weird, or is it funny?

It's really funny. He wears a wig so he can resemble you, slightly, but it's more about the cadence. He does the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Beetlejuice, the Joker from The Dark Knight, Regina George from Mean Girls… And basically he does the monologue that slightly humanizes them or explains their motivations, so you get more of the complexity of the character, and how you would bring that out.
That is hilarious. Thank you for telling me, honey! That is lovely. I'll take a look. 

If you could pick one that he would do as you, which villain would you like to see next? 
Gosh. Well, the biggest villain that comes to mind is our President. I suppose one should stay away from that for the time being, but that would be an interesting take. 

He might have a little trouble finding just the right monologue. 
That's why I kind of hesitate on that one. Let's not do that. He's not deserving of that. Who should he pick? He should pick a Catholic cardinal in the Vatican who's opposing Pope Francis, because he's too much like Jesus. Pick a really outspoken cardinal. Or that really horrifying bishop in Rhode Island who tweeted something opposed to gay people during Pride month and caused an uproar. Pick one of those. Great villains.

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Jennifer Vineyard is a contributor to Thrillist.