Ann Dowd, a name you don’t know, is one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors, with over eighty credits to her name. You want prestige dramas? Bam, True Detective and Masters of Sex. Comedies? She has appeared in Louie, Olive Kitteridge, St. Vincent, and Our Brand is Crisis. Also, for kicks, The X-Files and Freaks And Geeks. Her current role might be her most wonderfully weird: Patti Levin, a former cult leader turned ghost — or is she? — on HBO’s The Leftovers.
Like her co-stars Kevin Carroll and Chris Zylka, Ann Dowd spoke to Inverse about The Leftovers. Dowd talked about whether Patti is a ghost or a Tyler Durden-style figment of Kevin’s imagination, the atmosphere behind the scenes, the Guilty Remnant’s philosophy, and what Patti really believes. Warning if you haven’t seen episode 4, “Orange Sticker:” contains spoilers.
First things first: is Patti a ghost? Or is she a product of Kevin’s imagination?
Damon [Lindelof] doesn’t put it in a box that’s easily labeled. He’s not going to say, “well, Patti is a ghost,” or “Patti is haunting him.” I just say she’s present with him. She’s there with him on some level that’s powerful.
It’s fascinating to see how she’s operating. Her main focus is trying to get him to pay attention to her: ‘acknowledge my existence, I am here. Stop pretending I’m not here, I’m not going away.’ They’re present with each other. I mean, God knows he’s dying to get rid of her, but who knows — maybe she’s dying to get rid of him too! They’re just present together and she’s got something in mind. Their relationship is not finished. They’re in their world together still for a while.
In episode 4, “Orange Sticker,” we learn that Patti seems to have a degree of omnipotence — she claims to have witnessed Kevin trying to kill himself and to have seen Evie Murphy and her friends vanish. Does she really know these things, or is she just messing with Kevin?
Well, I don’t think she’s messing with him in certain ways. She can cross any boundaries, she’s not physically present to a lot of people. So it’s a good question. Does she know these things? Is she messing with him? I think it’s probably both. Part of her intention is to just mess with him and to say, “pay attention!” You know? “Be aware, snap out of it. Look around.”
I know you can’t reveal why she’s present with Kevin — but can you tell us if we’re going to find out, or if that will remain ambiguous?
Yes, I think a lot more will come to light. It was thrilling to do this season. The places it went just completely blew my mind. I’ll say that right now as an actor and as a person, it was extraordinary what goes on in this season.
It’s been extraordinary as a viewer too, how much the quality — which was already strong — has improved this season, how confident each episode feels, how well-crafted it is on every level from acting to storytelling. Do you watch the show yourself?
Yes. I don’t watch the parts I’m in. I know we laugh about this, because Justin [Theroux] — and he’s the best thing ever in the land, it doesn’t come better than Justin — he says to me, “What are you, Amish? Watch the damn thing!” It cracks me up. I love the show. I think it’s phenomenal. I don’t think there’s anything like it.
One of the most interesting things about Patti is that in Season 1, she was such a dark character. Now she’s become almost a Greek chorus sort of commentator. Which aspects of Patti do you like playing the most — her darker side or lighter side?
I love that there’s the balance of the two. When it’s that dark, you’ve got to know somewhere there’s the flip side of that, if you can just get to it. And I think the fact that she’s perhaps not in the same physical life that she was in — maybe it’s less of a burden of some kind. She made such a huge choice to kill herself. I mean, God. And then to realize, “whoa, I’m here. Somehow I’m here.” Obviously she’s there for a reason. Maybe a part of her was freed in crossing from the physical world.
The Leftovers spends a lot of time exploring the nature of belief — why people believe what they do, how they arrive at their belief systems, to what extent they deceive themselves. Do you think Patti really stands for anything?
I think the main focus [of the Guilty Remnant] was wake up, look at what’s happened — the world as we know it is gone. Stop the nonsense. Prepare for the end, because it’s already happened in a huge way. Stop with having a little parade about remembering our departed. Just get on with it. So that’s a belief system. The idea of, “well, maybe if I go to church every day,” or “maybe if I go back to my old habits, maybe we can just forget about this” — that’s a belief system too.
Patti is the opposite of that. She’s had a very, very hard life. If you’re with someone who treats you terribly and you choose to stay year after year — then something tells me you didn’t come from something very special. No one ever said to her, “you know what, you’re the greatest and I wouldn’t change one thing about you. You’re pretty fabulous.” That never happened. It was a series of being tolerated, being abused, and then seeking therapy.
Then she had this extraordinary anxiety, which her therapist thought, “oh, she’s just anxious because she needs to end this relationship with her husband.” But in fact she knew that something very, very big was about to happen. And the fact that it gave her such an awareness of her strength and that she could accomplish something in this life. And that is to move people to wake up and stop living a life of denial. Let go of attachment; let go of distractions. Stay present and surrender.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the Guilty Remnant’s origins. Do you think Patti had a hand in it?
It is a religion in development. It’s a new religion, so we’re putting it together as we go along. When it cropped up in Mapleton, she was a clear leader because she knew it was coming. She was chosen somehow. She takes a huge leadership role. Whether she’s the original, I don’t think she is, but she’s surely one of the early leaders.
You mentioned her suicide — that was obviously a heavy scene last season. Would you say that was the most challenging scene you’ve done, or is there anything this season that rivals that?
Every single episode was challenging. I thought, “hey, it’s not going to get harder than last season.” Wrong! And that’s what’s so fabulous. You just have to do your homework. It’s wonderful beyond belief. You trust the directors, you trust what’s going on. You just have to realize this is very tough stuff and everybody is going to be helping each other. It’s a collaborative event if there ever was one. Everybody brings their A game, they really do. And I had help. Justin is the best person to be in a scene with ever. He’s just there, present, ready and willing.
The Leftovers simultaneously celebrates the beauty of coincidence and symbolism and explores the human tendency to ascribe meaning to the meaningless. That kind of applies to viewers too — when people discuss the show, a lot of debates revolve around whether or not certain things are symbols and clues. Since you’re in the show and you said you enjoy watching it, what are your thoughts on that?
The thing I love about The Leftovers and the way Damon and Tom [Perrotta] present it is the audience has to do a little work. You have to follow it and put the pieces together. I think that Damon and Tom and the writers are highly conscious of what they are writing and I don’t think there are coincidences that have no meaning. I think all of it has meaning, whether it’s a little or a lot. It’s extraordinarily well put-together. And you may find answers to certain things in episodes down the line, but they don’t forget. There is a mosaic there and you will be left with questions. You won’t have all the answers, but there’s nothing that is carelessly tossed in that has no meaning.
I feel tremendously fortunate to be involved with this show because it’s challenged me personally and challenged me as an actor in a very fulfilling way. Boy, you can’t ask for more than that.