The last time we saw Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale, she'd been stabbed in the back (literally) and pushed down a flight of stairs. Her attacker, the increasingly desperate Emily (Alexis Bledel), fled the scene of the crime, escaping to Canada and leaving Aunt Lydia for dead.
It was a moment of betrayal for Lydia, who, despite her acts of violence and enforcement of an oppressive regime, believes she is in service of a greater good. She returns this season bruised and battered - her ego as much as her body.
"She got up out of that bed way too soon – she was not physically strong enough, and secondly, not emotionally ready," says Dowd. "But per usual, she expected 100 per cent of herself and was, I think, very surprised to learn how frightened she was, and how much she dropped the ball in terms of understanding that character that attacked her.
"She's not in control, which is a very rare and frightening thing for her," she says. "I think the first part of the season is really about her trying to get a grasp on how to get back in charge, and to be her full self again."
The act of violence adds weight to a deep insecurity about her role in Gilead that, in Dowd's mind, has been eating away at Lydia throughout the show. "You always wonder - someone who chooses a path that is narrow and very rigid as a way of life, when there is so much evident to the contrary that you could choose otherwise, it has to be covering something," she says.
The eighth episode of this season gives insight to Lydia's backstory - "It was beautifully written," says Dowd, "and I was so grateful for it, because you realise, 'oh, I see I see, I see'" - but Dowd has clearly understood Lydia's past from early on. She imagines Emily's attack was not the first time Lydia has been betrayed before, particularly on an emotional level.
"If I think back to my childhood," says Dowd, "I had a very loving family, but I remember being maybe 4 years old, and my father and his friends were talking about something. And I thought I had the answer to a question they had asked amongst themselves – and they all laughed.
"They laughed because it was cute, but the way I received it was that they were laughing at me. But I remember being tremendously affected by it, even though their intention was never to embarrass me. I crawled under a table, and I stayed there, mortified.
"We don't see the vulnerability of our children sometimes. Or, events that happen that go by the wayside, and the only one that tracks them is the individual experiencing it. And I think they were much bigger when it comes to Lydia's childhood. I think the rules were restrictive, it was all about religion, and all about: your thoughts that are outside of the box will not work."
Dowd herself was raised Catholic – but where she differed from Lydia as a child was her ability to question the rules of her parents' faith. She recalls one conversation in which she challenged her father on the church's rules on premarital sex: "My father looked at me, and he was trying his best to hear me without shutting me down, and he said, 'uh, I appreciate your point of view, but you cannot have those beliefs'. He didn't know what else to say," says Dowd.
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"I remember thinking, if I were of a different constitution, I could have crumbled. I just happened to not place a lot of value on what the church was telling me, because I thought, you know what? I'm going to make up my own mind about such things. However, I don't know that Lydia had that constitution."
Dowd is beautifully empathetic towards Lydia, a character that could easily be written off as pure evil. Perhaps that's because Dowd is used to playing morally complicated characters. When our conversation moves to the question of Lydia's ability to change – the way we saw Serena change in season two as her loyalty to Gilead began to slide - Dowd points to her performance as Sister Aloysius in a stage version of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt in 2007.
In Doubt, Aloysius is convinced that the Father at her Catholic church is sexually abusing a young boy. "At the end, she realises that she did more harm than good," says Dowd. "She says, 'I have doubt', and suddenly, her world breaks open and she begins again.
"The realisation of doubt is like the resurrection. It's a new chance at opening up the world you have closed down around you. If Lydia has that moment of suddenly, 'what am I doing? What was I thinking?' – she can begin again."
Dowd might be one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood today; she's perhaps most recognisable for Handmaid's, but has built a career as a brilliant character actor in a wide range of productions. Just last year, she had five films opening at Sundance Film Festival, one of which was the extraordinary horror film Hereditary. Dowd refuses to take full credit for her unrivalled career, saying it's largely the work of her manager Marsha McManus and agent Gary Gersch.
"Hereditary scared the wits out of me," she says. "I read it with one eye open. I'm reading along, I think, 'oh! I play a nice character! Isn't it great?' Because usually I'm, you know . . . and then I kept reading, I thought, 'oh my god'. I thought, I was raised Catholic, I'm not a practising Catholic, but you don't go round with the Devil. You don't go there.
"So I'm thinking, you know what? Maybe I just won't do that. And Marsha and Gary kind of calmly explained to me: 'this is well written, and he's a really fine director.' They just sort of suggested I take another look, and then I thought, 'they're right, of course they're right'.
"I'm the luckiest person in the world," she says. "I fit it in because they do it. They do all of that work, and they find a way to make it happen. And that is the whole reason right there."
Who: Ann Dowd
What: The Handmaid's Tale, season three
When: Episodes 1-3 premiere today; weekly thereafter