Ann Dowd knows too well the dangers of secretly blaming yourself for an unstoppable tragedy.
"I lost my father at 18, and that took a very, very, very, very long time to sort out, to free myself from thinking it was my fault," says Dowd, sitting at a portable plastic table outside a film stage on a cold Fox Studios lot.
Dowd's father, Philip, had heart problems, but this neither mitigated the actress's guilt – from thinking that she could have saved him, had she gone out less and looked after him more – nor did it save her from breaking into tears, every time she heard an Irish accent. (Her father was of Irish descent.)
Ann Dowd in Lambs of God.
"It wasn't until my 40s that I realised I was carrying the burden of thinking that I could have done something to help him," says Dowd, now 63.
This experience with buried grief is something the in-demand actress – thanks to her recent Emmy Award nomination (for The Leftovers) and Golden Globe Awards win (for her role as the terrifying matriarch Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale) – has tapped in to for her latest role, in the new Foxtel miniseries, Lambs of God, premiering on July 21.
In it, Dowd plays one of three nuns living in a crumbling convent, on a fictional island off the coast of England. The nuns, the last surviving ones of an enclosed order – the others are played by Essie Davis and Jessica Barden – have lived there for years, cultivating a distinctly feminine Eden. They live quietly and peacefully, off the land, tending to their lambs that roam their lush gardens and healing themselves with the fruits of a botanical library they maintain that dates back hundreds of years.
Quietly, too, is how Dowd and Davis' characters have tried to bury, and live with, the abuse from their past (Dowd's character, Sister Margarita, suffered a rape, a crime she has long believed to be her fault). One of their unconventional coping strategies is to tell each other revisionist fairytales, like Beauty and the Beast, but with new, happy endings, in which the heroines are spared much of their suffering and delivered saviour, instead.
Jessica Barden as Sister Carla (left), Essie Davis (Sister Iphigenia) and Ann Dowd (Sister Margarita) confront Sam Reid (Father Ignatius) when he arrives unexpectedly at the convent.Credit:Mark Rogers
But this is all upended when a priest, played by actor Sam Reid, arrives from the mainland with plans to help the Catholic church tear the convent down and build a luxury hotel in its place – a catalyst that spurs the nuns to confront their emotional wounds that, for too long, have lied coiled inside of them, like tranquillised pythons.
"Well," says Davis, of the priest, "he's such an arsehole." The actress – famous for her roles in films like Girl With A Pearl Earring, and, on TV, playing the title character in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries – is in between takes, on what is one of the first days of filming, last year. Dressed, like Dowd, in a rough woollen robe that looks like something out of the middle ages, she clasps her hands together; dirt is caked under her fingernails.
Essie Davis in Lambs of God.Credit:Mark Rogers
"He's such an arrogant, clearly non-spiritual, dollar-signs-in-his-eyes, kind of arrogant [man], seemingly exactly what the worst of humanity that [her character, Sister] Iphigenia has seen."
Davis can relate to Iphigenia's rage. Two years ago, she urged her fellow Tasmanians, in an open letter to council aldermen in Hobart, to prevent the building of a proposed set of high-rise buildings, saying they would turn her hometown into a "sad and broken town".
"I think there's certainly elements of that kind of … passion for protecting something special and sacred, and private," says Davis of the trait she shares with her character.
So did Davis enjoy playing her character's part in what becomes a macabre and twisted "fight to the death" that she says ensues between the nuns and the priest?
By way of answering, Davis tilts her head back and erupts with a staccato laugh – aha-ha-ha-ha-ha – reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead.
Her response points to a distinctive ribbon of dark humour that runs through the show. For instance, when Carla, the youngest nun, spies Ignatius' genitals (and her first naked man), after her fellow nuns cut off his clothes, deciding that perhaps they will need to kidnap him in order to dissuade him of his plan – she gasps, before whispering, with hushed reverence: "Baby Moses in the rushes."
"There's this beautiful comedy, especially for women, when you watch it, you kind of go, 'Oh no!'," says the show's writer and show runner Sarah Lambert. "You laugh with these two kinds of forces coming up against each other, there is great kind of enjoyment in that."
The humour, says Lambert, enables the show to explore the tragic elements at the heart of the series – most notably, the attempted ownership and abuse of women at the hands of more powerful men – without the show tipping into overly-harrowing territory.
"I loved Handmaid's Tale, the first series, but the second series becomes so dark, it almost feels torturous to watch, and we didn't want to do that," says Lambert.
Essie Davis, Maureen Dowd and Jessica Barden, the last surviving nuns of an enclosed order. Credit:Mark Rogers
Especially because, says Lambs of God producer Jason Stephens, the show, a twisted fairytale, is so ripe with relevance for current audiences.
"It feels very timely, now, about what it says thematically about the church, about the way men have run the church for so many years, [and how] it may have been different if women had been in control," says Stephens, an experienced TV producer and one-time member of the iconic Australian sketch comedy show The D-Generation.
"That's interesting, given where we're at now" – he is referencing the #metoo movement, and the highly publicised abuse of women by powerful men like Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and American president Donald Trump – "watching the story through that prism about what we now know."
Dowd agrees, for the most part. "Yes, of course it's timely, because of the #metoo movement, but it's…" She stops mid-sentence. "It's as old as time."
It's no wonder that Lambs of God has a storied genesis. Based on the best-selling 1997 book by Australian author Marele Day, it was reportedly optioned not long afterwards by Winona Ryder, who had plans to produce and star in it, alongside Susan Sarandon.
For Dowd, who believes in God, has two aunts who are nuns (one recently passed away), and was educated by nuns as a child, the show is a welcome opportunity to explore ongoing frustrations with Catholicism.
"Now, the fact that women are not on the ladder in the Catholic church in the same capacity that men are is absurd, and to place that as God's decision, that's the thing that sends me. C'mon now, men made up these rules, let's get real on this," she says, her voice suddenly taking on a more pronounced Irish accent, specifically that of a tough storekeeper shoeing a thieving teen out of her shop.
But Lambert, who has made documentaries on comparative religion, sees an element of hope in the story and in the way that the nuns refuse to be erased.
"If you own the truth, if you actually own the story [of your life], the darkness and the light of that story, all of it, then you actually get to write a new ending."
Lambs of God is on Fox Showcase, Sunday, 8.30pm and Foxtel on Demand.
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