Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for The Testaments.
For two long days in July, Ann Dowd — who won an Emmy for her role as the villainous Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale — hunkered down in a room to read a closely-guarded story about the Republic of Gilead. But the story at hand was not a script for an upcoming episode of the show; instead, it was Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated follow-up novel, The Testaments. Dowd is one of six people who perform on the audiobook edition of The Testaments, to be released simultaneously with the book on Sept. 10. The publisher revealed the audiobook cast to TIME exclusively.
Aunt Lydia is one of The Testaments‘ three central narrators, a group of women whose stories converge to chronicle the rise and fall of the totalitarian theocracy. Bryce Dallas Howard and Mae Whitman perform the other two — Witness 369A, a woman who grew up in Gilead, and Witness 369B, a teenager in Canada who has ties to Gilead she doesn’t yet understand. Derek Jacobi and Tantoo Cardinal read Professor James Darcy Pieixoto and Professor Maryanne Crescent Moon, the scholars who speak at an annual Gileadean studies conference long after the fall of the Republic in the book’s epilogue. The sixth reader is Atwood herself.
Aunt Lydia — both in The Testaments as in the show — puts on a menacing face, forcing women through brutal trainings to become reproductive slaves. But The Testaments adds new dimension to the character, complicating her relationship with Gilead and her outward status as a true believer. Dowd spoke to TIME about her first experience performing for an audiobook, her favorite Atwood memory and what it was like to unearth new revelations about the woman she has played for three seasons.
TIME: This was your first time performing a role for an audiobook. How did you approach it?
Dowd: I was fearful because it’s important to do it right. And Margaret Atwood does not write simple sentences: They’re complicated and unusual and when she puts the Latin in, it’s tremendously challenging. Her sentences require the full breath. And that’s significant, because it speaks to the level of writing, and how our job, as actors, is to step up and not just emotionally but also physically, take the breath and proceed. I’ve never had an experience — and I can say this without equivocation — like it.
What was it like to learn new things about Aunt Lydia, namely that she may not be the true Gilead believer we always thought her to be?
To drop into that world with which I was so familiar, and to see the direction she took it, and who Lydia turns out to be, it was like being let in on a secret. This happens regularly with actors: you wish you would know what happens later in your character’s life. When I play her in the world we’re now shooting in, not The Testaments but The Handmaid’s Tale, I try to find a way to explain to myself: why is she participating in this? Why the severity? What’s underneath? To be given that entry into that world and have it add up in the way you hoped it would, it’s completely extraordinary.
Were you surprised?
No, because Margaret Atwood takes such a clear, significant path. You don’t wonder, Hey, what’s the writer doing here? You just think, Oh my God, pay attention. Did I just read that? Is that real? Yes it is. It goes to the brilliance of the writer, that everything makes complete sense. But, as I said, it’s daunting. Because the director and the producer, their ears are trained to pick up any words you miss. When you finally land in a rhythm without interruption, it’s a thrill. Because then you let go of the concerns, you let go of the worry and you let the novel take you.
Atwood told TIME that she was thinking of you while she writing the Lydia chapters. Did you know that?
She did very generously say that I had something to do with it. I’ve met her a few times. She’s got wit and humor and subtlety, in her writing and in person. Margaret came to set during our shooting of the pilot. Here is Margaret Atwood. She’s a Canadian treasure — well, she’s a world treasure, but she is from Canada. Everyone has such respect for her. And I kind of hid. I thought, I’m afraid. Because I knew Lydia had a lot to do that day and that Margaret would be present. You just think, Is this going to be what she hoped it would be? At some point you just jump in and say, Well, this is what I have. Seeing her as an Aunt was so brilliant — she looked the part. She was supposed to slap Elisabeth (Moss, as Offred). She kind of slaps her a little, and then Lizzie said, “Well, you can really go at it.” So she gave her a good slap.
Do you feel like this reading of Lydia will impact the way you approach the character as the show continues?
Yes, I do. Because it gives a clear indication from the creator of this story of where she will end up and what will happen. And that affects the approach in terms of where her mind is going. She’s very savvy, very much a player and knows the politics. She’s always thinking, always planning, always assessing. In the end of the last season, you know we’re in trouble, because how many of those young girls got out? That is a massive, massive catastrophe, and the fact that Lydia was not onto it in a meaningful way — she’s got some work to do.
Would you hope to see The Testaments story as a season of The Handmaid’s Tale in the future?
Oh God, yes. It would be thrilling to watch Lydia get the job done. I guess you and I are allowed to talk about it because we’ve read it. But just spectacular.
The content of the book has been such a tightly guarded secret. When I received my copy, it was labeled with a fake title and author name. What was yours like?
I just had a lot of passwords. I couldn’t figure it out. I was like look, I need assistance here.
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