Ann Dowd on ‘The Leftovers,’ Kevin’s Fate and Whether We’ll Ever Get Answers
We all thought Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the fearless leader of the Guilty Remnant, was gone after she slit her throat and died in Kevin’s arms last season on The Leftovers. It was utterly brutal and painful to watch, but like many things on Damon Lindelof‘s metaphysical series, trauma from the past doesn’t go away easily.
Sunday’s episode, “The Most Powerful Adversary“ — major spoiler alert — ended on the biggest cliffhanger yet when Justin Theroux‘s Kevin Garvey seemingly died after drinking poison. Though he risked his life, hoping to only die temporarily, to rid himself of Patti, it was she who warned him against drinking Virgil’s poison. Was she genuinely trying to save him? Is she as evil as the “powerful adversary” that encouraged Virgil to commit acts of sexual assault, or is she just a lost soul stuck following Kevin?
After some tears and pacing my apartment in shock following the episode – Kevin can’t be dead, right? – I hopped on the phone with Dowd, who gives one of her best performances in it. While the episode stirred more questions of whether or not Patti is real or merely a creation of Kevin’s psyche, the truth remains unknown. Dowd believes The Leftovers is less about easy answers and explanations and more about dealing with the hard circumstances life gives us. Yet still, I asked her questions hoping for some concrete answers. Read on to find out what she had to say about Kevin’s poisoning, uttering hilarious lines about drinking cum out of an Egyptian chalice and the challenges of going from a non-speaking character to one who never stops talking.
Last night’s episode was one of the most phenomenal of the season. But let’s start with the end first – is Kevin dead?
Well, you know, I think we should believe what we see, for sure. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know, there it was.
Patti balances both roles of the guardian angel and the powerful adversary, but does she genuinely want to protect Kevin?
I think it shifts for her. I think there’s a very, very strong bond between them, no question. I would say the strongest [bond] of Patti’s life, who has not had a history of strong relationships. I don’t think she knows how to have a healthy relationship. It’s not been the story of her life. But I think her connection to Kevin is huge and powerful. I think she’s trying to figure it out also as she goes along. She doesn’t really know, What’s happening here? Sometimes she knows, other times she’s trying to find her way too. She made a strong choice at the end of Season 1, it doesn’t get stronger than deciding to end your life. Then the next thing she knows she’s with him. She didn’t sign up for it, if you will. So I think sometimes as a protector, yes, there’s a strong need to do that, and also, hey, when she’s got her act together it’s usually when [Kevin's] losing it. When he’s steady and resolved I think that really unnerves her and puts her on the defensive and brings out the aggression in her. Don’t think that answers your question, but it’s a hard balance for her. I don’t think that she knows.
What is it like playing off Justin Theroux, with one being calm and the other acting in defense?
I don’t know a better human being than Justin, that’s a fact, and a better actor to be with. I love that our stuff was together. We have a very, very close friendship, as people and as actors, and I feel entirely safe with him. I’m always eager to get in there with him. It’s a very wonderful thing to be in a scene with him. He’s smart and open and just right there.
How much did Damon tell you about Patti’s existence while filming? Did you know the whole scope of the season or just go episode by episode?
No I never know, we don’t know the full scope. We know it as it comes.
How does that effect how you play her?
Well it’s wonderful. At first I was like, Woah, how do you…? But then learning to work with Damon, who’s fantastic for lack of a more original word, I have full trust in him. It’s kind of thrilling. If you have questions, he will answer. I don’t know if I would have asked him, “Hey what’s going to happen to her?” I don’t know if I have that curiosity in a given episode because it’s too wonderful to play what you’ve got in front of you. Now if I have important questions for an actor to know, like, “What does she know for real,” or “What is she just trying to figure out?” Those things are very helpful and Damon is right there with answers. For instance, the question you asked, is she the protector, is she the aggressor, what’s happened? For him to explain to me she doesn’t really know exactly what’s going on and sometimes it feels comfortable and sometimes it feels very uneasy. It’s just her point of view, it’s just the decision she makes from then on.
Since it’s still unknown if Patti is a real person or a hallucination, how does that impact the way you play her?
Well again, in whatever form she is real to Kevin. Real as you get. And haunting. So I play her just as she written, meaning she’s a real presence with an awareness that not everybody sees her, just he does. It was very interesting with [Steven Williams] who [plays] Virgil who knows she’s right there. That’s fascinating to be sitting in the truck and he comes to the window and says to [Kevin], “Come in.” Being sensed there in the car. It’s exciting to play it and challenging. Oh challenging, because you really want to get the whole scope of it. Because what [Lindelof] chooses to write, they’re not small things that happen, they’re large and life changing.
Last season you hardly spoke and now you have so many pivotal monologues. How do those challenges compare?
When we first started last year I thought, How in the world do you play someone who doesn’t even talk? In the first parts of doing that it was very unnerving. But then you come to realize that talking is only one thing you do in the world and it’s not often the most important. So really being clear on what she wanted and who she wanted it from, because if you’re in a room with somebody who doesn’t talk that person who’s not talking has tremendous power. Right away you’re changing the rules of how human beings communicate. That became very clear that just by not speaking, volumes was being communicated and I loved it. Then once she began to speak I thought, Oh god. I forgot, how do you do this part?! But then of course I was like, Hah! I don’t like that no-talking! But what I love about [this season] is you get so much history of who she is and where she came from and why things have gone the way they’ve gone. It’s not about the Guilty Remnant this season for her, it’s about other things. She has her own things to work through that she’s responsible for or trying to unravel for herself. I love the things she has to say. [It's] hard to learn them because Damon writes very specifically, and Tom Perrotta, so you don’t want to change a word, not that you every would. Our writers should be respected and it should be said as written. But there’s something about Damon, you’re never tempted to ad lib. Never. And as soon as you do you think, What just went off there? That in itself is challenging and thrilling.
One big question surrounding Patti this year has been her Southern accent, which wasn’t as prominent last year. What was the choice behind that?
Well she had it in the first season [subtly]. I think it’s more pronounced this season. You know, you’re in Texas and something just happens when you’re in Texas! I think whatever her roots are, she comes from a southern background. I think it just becomes more pronounced when she’s in that milieu.
I love how hilarious Patti is this season. What’s it like to have comedic lines that are so grounded in trauma?
Getting to know her and getting to realize her take on things, it was just laughs. It didn’t surprise me that it came through that way. That’s in fact a part of who she is, because Damon is so plugged in to her. Given the intensity of the material it was a wonderful little adventure to go in that direction. I loved it.
This season has shifted to a lighter, more optimistic tone than the last, especially with the new opening titles. How do you think that’s served the new story in Jarden?
In the first season the enormity of the Departure and the enormity of the grief, to really live in that and the way the music [of the original titles] just reminded us every time, this is what has happened. And then the choices people make to move on, to try another place, to make a decision, to try again, to start a new life, that in itself has huge optimism in it, doesn’t it? And trying to make a family, trying to keep people together, that’s a very hopeful choice and I think this season supports that. Now what goes on, what happens, still has enormous consequences. These are large things that happen, but it’s in the scope of trying to put our lives together. So I think it makes sense that it allows us in in a different way.
We’re at a moment in TV culture where viewers are so obsessed with solving mysteries and finding answers, but The Leftovers defies that in a lot of ways. Do you think there are answers in the series, or for you is it more about what’s happening around those mysteries?
You know what I find really fascinating is something that’s introduced early on in a character – I’m speaking of course for Patti – Damon ties it up six episodes, seven episodes later. I don’t mean that all questions are answered by any means, I don’t think that’s an interest of his and I don’t think that’s what life offers us, really. Our lives don’t get tied up easily and nicely. Oh that’s what that meant, or Oh see, now it was that all along. I think that’s one of the most frightening parts about life is that it doesn’t present that to us. While things have consistency and you can track things in a clear way when you think back on the season, I don’t think his goal is to tie up all of those things. I don’t think there are answers. Certain things will be resolved and I think the audience will appreciate them and the answers that aren’t presented will give them a certain satisfaction because they’re going to have to sort it out themselves. It’s funny, people say, “Now what was that?” When someone asks a question and you answer, “We’ll what do you think?” But if you say to someone, “How does that strike you?” They’ll describe their response and you think, Well that’s dead on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Leftovers airs on Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.