New Emmy Winner Ann Dowd Embraces Her (Late) Rise to Fame

With an Emmy for 'The Handmaid's Tale,' the 61-year-old actress is among TV's most in-demand stars.
Courtesy of TNT
Dowd in TNT's "Good Behavior"

At the age of 61, Ann Dowd’s career is taking off.

If you don’t know the newly minted Emmy winner’s name yet, you almost certainly know her face. Over nearly three decades, the actress now best known for her turn as the draconian Aunt Lydia on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (for which she took home the gold) was the quintessential working actress. Her performances in such films and TV shows as Philadelphia, Freaks and Geeks, Garden State, and four different iterations of Law & Order (a franchise in which the actress played a total of nine characters) were never less than solid. And yet stardom remained elusive.

Then came Compliance, writer-director Craig Zobel’s button-pushing drama in which Dowd starred as a hapless fast-food restaurant manager whose blind trust in a debased prank caller leads to the sexual assault of one of her employees. The film debuted to some controversy at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival but rose above the noise on the strength of Dowd’s performance, which garnered her the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress and even spurred talk of an Oscar nomination.

Yet even as she continued to rack up impressive credits in the film’s aftermath (see: True Detective, Masters of Sex, Olive Kitteridge, etc.), Dowd remained obscure — even to many in the industry. This included Good Behavior showrunner Chad Hodge, who cast her as oddball FBI agent Rhonda Lashever near the end of the TNT drama's first season.

“When we were casting for this role... my casting director Debra Zane said, 'What about Ann Dowd?'” Hodge recalls. “And she sent me her reel... and I was like, 'Oh, her!' From, like, everything. You see her in so many things, but I didn't know her name.”

That was a year and a half ago, before Dowd won the Emmy and gave a quietly moving acceptance speech. “I’ve been acting for a long time, and that this should happen now, I don’t have the words,” she almost whispered, her voice audibly shaking. It’s a moment the actress has just now begun to wrap her head around.

“It's starting to just sink in actually, in the last I would say five days,” Dowd tells THR. “We [the cast and crew of The Handmaid’s Tale] hit the ground running [on season two] after the Emmys, which was a good thing, I suppose, just to get our feet where they belong — on the ground, you know?”

Dowd is certainly busier than ever. In addition to promoting her role on Good Behavior season two — which Hodge expanded after being over the moon about her delightfully off-kilter performance last season — she is currently in production on Handmaid’s season two, which will reportedly offer a further glimpse into Lydia’s life before the events of the series. Offers are also now coming her way on a regular basis — a stroke of good fortune she terms “lovely” after a career spent proving herself in audition after audition.

What seems clear is that Dowd’s hardscrabble, often frustrating, occasionally thankless experience as a working actress offers her a practical perspective that those who “make it” early in their careers so often lack. In her vigorous assertion that she simply wouldn’t have been ready for fame as a young woman, there’s a rare and refreshing self-awareness at play.

“I look at these handmaids, these young actors that I work with, and they're so together, do you know what I mean?” she says with an air of puzzlement. “They're wonderful people, and they're wonderful actors, and I think, 'I don't know how you pulled this off. Because I certainly could not have done so at your age. Never.’”

If nothing else, Dowd is a case study in perseverance. After spending four years in pre-med at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusets (her late father’s alma mater), she resisted outside pressure to attend medical school in order to pursue her dream of acting. This led her to DePaul University’s prestigious Goodman School of Drama, where she excelled and then became active in the Chicago theater community. But after receiving at least one glowing review in the local press for her performance in Ara Watson’s A Different Moon (the theater critic at the Chicago Reader called her turn “simply astonishing”), she became gripped with doubt.

“The headline [of the review] was, 'Who is Ann Dowd and where will she go from here?'” Dowd recalls. “And I almost, uh, I don’t know — the guilt, the fear, the 'Oh! What?' Oh, it was totally overwhelming. Totally.”

This strong notice came amid a prolonged period of career struggle, during which time Dowd suffered bouts of self-doubt and a nagging sense of futility. At age 30, while walking to her waitressing job in Chicago, she was overcome by professional jealousy when she stumbled upon the red-carpet premiere of About Last Night, which starred her old DePaul classmate Elizabeth Perkins.

“There I saw it… and all the limos were in front, and I almost went down,” says Dowd. “I thought, 'No, don't tell me. I'm doing this and she's doing that.'” In an industry where acknowledging career envy is all but verboten, hers is a rare and very human admission. “I didn't even want to be happy for her,” she continues candidly. “I was too upset to be happy for her.” (The two later co-starred in the 2005 drama The Thing About My Folks, an experience Dowd characterized as a “pleasure.”)

As Dowd sees it, what separated her from Perkins was a matter of confidence. “[This] is a compliment: She didn't come, it seemed to me, with restrictions attached of how one should behave,” she says. And yet Dowd herself was equipped with something just as crucial in achieving a dream: Indomitability in the face of all obstacles. This she ascribes in large part to her genetics (“I think one comes into the world with a certain constitution … for which I don’t take credit,” she says) and her years in pre-med, during which she became, in her words, “tournament tough.” Also important? An unwavering commitment to denial.

“I didn't think, 'OK, I'm going to do this, waiting on tables all my life. I'm going to be scrapping all my life,’” says Dowd. “I just didn't go there. I couldn't go there. I mean, the thought of that, that just got shut out of my conscious mind. I just said, 'No, that's not the case... so why think about it? Just do this today, and that tomorrow, and it'll be fine.’”

After living in Chicago for several years, Dowd relocated to New York City with her husband in the late '80s to pursue a bigger stage. There she continued to toil, taking low-wage service jobs to pay the bills (“I was pregnant at 36 and I’m working in a pet store, do you know what I’m saying?” she quips) while garnering solid notices for her stage roles, including an off-Broadway production of Russian playwright Yuri Yeremin’s The Paper Gramophone.

As she moved deeper into the following decade, Dowd’s career prospects brightened. She graduated to Broadway (her credits from the time include Candida and Taking Sides) and also began racking up film and TV roles. In 1993, she was cast as Tom Hanks’ caring sister in Philadelphia. In 1998, she nabbed her first role as a series regular on the religious-themed ABC drama Nothing Sacred. In 2000, she memorably played Busy Philipps’ caustic mother on Judd Apatow’s short-lived critical favorite Freaks and Geeks. This is when people began to know Dowd’s face: Those stirring eyes, capable of communicating so much with so little. And that unique, sing-songy accent which later became a source of inspiration for at least one writer.

“I don't know if you noticed when she accepted her Emmy, the way she said 'Hulu,’” laughs Hodge (the internet did). “So when I'm writing her dialogue… I choose words because I hear what I think would sound funniest coming out of her mouth.”

Incidentally, that remarkable voice was almost completely silent early on in season one of The Leftovers, the HBO drama that recently ended its run after three critically beloved seasons. On that show — which netted Dowd a second nomination at the 2017 Emmys, this one for guest actress — she turned in a fierce performance as Guilty Remnant cult leader Patti Levin, who initially communicated almost entirely via pen and paper before showrunner Damon Lindelof decided it was “a waste” not to have the actress speak.

“It's interesting to characterize Ann as having read for The Leftovers, because she didn't read,” says Lindelof. “Her audition was wordless. … But she radiated such immense power and confidence, and there was something very frightening about that. Ultimately, she just held the screen in a way that was, like, you just couldn't look away.

When asked if they’re proud of the part they’ve played in lifting Dowd’s career to new heights, those who have cast her invariably give the same answer: It is really Dowd who has done the lifting.

“She's the one who elevated me,” says Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller. “[She] took this character and these scripts and just brought it to life in the most complicated way. She made you feel sorry for and understand such a complicated woman [as Lydia].”

“The fact that Ann Dowd is a big deal now, after years and years of — decades of — incredible work, that's an amazing thing,” adds Lindelof. “But I feel great reciprocity because casting Ann Dowd changed my life too. I can't imagine the show having reached the pinnacles that it did if she hadn't been it.”

Perhaps due to her years of tough luck, Dowd is eternally humble in the face of such praise, and she admits to suffering from many of the same doubts as she did early in her career. But her experiences have allowed the once self-admittedly uptight performer (“I was a very serious actress,” she laughs) to let go of things that at one time may have sent her anxiety skyrocketing. “I don't know that I've changed that much, except to say that I've matured, one hopes,” she says. “And age offers perspective. It's underrated, aging, you know? I mean, it comes with its problems, God knows, but just a sense of, 'OK, OK, I can drop that, I don't have to worry about that.’ Because why worry about it? It's not going to help you.”

Off-screen, Dowd’s hard-edge performances are belied by her storied personal warmth; collaborators universally describe her as caring, grounded and unfailingly kind. “[Sometimes] it's like, 'Ann, we need to start shooting the scene,' but she's off talking to someone about their sick mother,” says Hodge. “I mean, she's very, very in tune with other people.” And for the record: “She also has really good texting game,” Hodge offers. “Really good.”

It’s that same humanity that comes through in every Dowd performance, even when, as in the case of Aunt Lydia, she’s inhabiting a character whose humanity has seemingly been lost for good. In so doing, she illuminates the vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface of every “bad” person warped by struggle; whose constitutions, perhaps, didn’t allow them to transcend hardship the way she managed to.

For herself, Dowd is under no illusions about how she’s ended up where she has. Genetics, talent, and luck all inevitably played a part (and are irrevocably wound together), but when you keep at something for as long as she, it’s impossible to underestimate the role of good old-fashioned doggedness. Whether innate or learned, it gave her the edge she needed to keep moving.

“There were times of despair, no question, where I'd sit howling on my porch and say, 'When, and how?'” she says. “And then you get over that, and then you go to the audition, and you get the part. It's just literally one foot in front of the other.”

Good Behavior season two premieres Sunday on TNT.