Double Emmy Nominee Ann Dowd: Please Don't Call Me a "Character Actor"

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Ann Dowd

Ann Dowd, recognized for both 'The Handmaid's Tale' (supporting actress) and 'The Leftovers' (guest star), examines the limitations of the label she and many of her peers would rather shed.

I heard the term very early in my career. It was at lunch with an agent — not my agent but one of several on my team at the time — and at one point she just looked over at me and said: "Well, let's face it. You're a character actor."

This was not meant as a compliment. What she was saying, what most people mean when they call you a character actor, is that you're going to live off of small parts. There are no lead roles in your future. Whatever is meant by it and regardless of who it comes from, it's come to have no relevance to me. It's a label, a category. And what most actors come into the world with, in my opinion, is the ability to say, "OK, that's nice, but I'm going to do what I'm going to do."

It's a little different in theater. There, I was able to get lead roles, ingenue roles, in George Bernard Shaw plays. When I was 34, I went out for Abigail in The Crucible. That character is 17, but I understood her, and Arvin Brown gave me a shot. One's look is not so crucial to the casting in theater. "Young and pretty" does not get the No. 1 slot. That kind of labeling is particular to working in television and film, where I was never in that category. I'm sure there were auditions I didn't get because I wasn't thin enough or pretty enough or "not right for it." But, as an actor, you're usually not privy to those conversations. And I'm happy not to be.

Aging is underrated in many ways, but one of them that comes to mind is perspective. You don't hold on to as much. You realize there is a bigger picture. I have this whole life I live that I need to attend to, so I've stopped with the distractions and concentrated on the work. Because all roles are worthy. All roles are important.

As for that agent, I never said anything to her, but I remember thinking to myself — in addition to the fact that I wouldn't ever work with her again — that I will never accept a label that I have not placed on myself. Labels are limitations. Labels confine the image, they cut short, they dismiss the greater dream — whatever that may be. I once thought I was being placed in a lesser-than category by being called a character actor, which of course is absurd. People who need to categorize me or others as this or that, knock yourself out. That's just not my thing.

If I were to label myself now, I'd say that I'm a very fortunate actress to have been given so many chances to play roles that I love, that challenge me, that frighten me.

I'm just one of those wildly grateful actors, and I'm excited to keep going.

Keep your sense of humor, always. You are the captain of your ship. There is room for you at the table. Let no one tell you otherwise. 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.