After a long but largely uncelebrated career that consisted mainly of minor roles as moms and authority figures in such films as Lorenzo’s Oil and Philadelphia, Ann Dowd broke through, at the age of 56, playing the harried, self-doubting fast-food restaurant manager in the 2012 film Compliance. That role paved the way for a steady stream of often complex parts in shows like True Detective, Olive Kitteridge, and Girls. This year she’s nominated for two Emmys: for her performances as Aunt Lydia, a tightlipped teacher who whips handmaids-in-training into shape, in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Patti Levin, a ferociously focused cult leader, in The Leftovers.
Last week, I talked to Dowd, who’s in New Hampshire enjoying an annual week-long vacation with her husband, actor Lawrence Arancio, and their children. Radiating enthusiasm, emotional transparency, and an eagerness to connect that stand in stark contrast to Patti’s stoic self-containment and Lydia’s awkward stiffness, Dowd often slipped into character while talking, sometimes speaking as her own past self and sometimes as one of the women she’s played on screen.
You’ve said that in your 30s, when you were waiting tables while trying to make it as an actress, a voice in your head told you that you’d make it in your mid-50s. Did you have enough faith in that voice to carry you through all those years? Or was it just something that’s helped you frame your journey in retrospect, after you finally broke through?
What I knew at the time was that it was true. I had that feeling of: “You’ve just been given a gift here. Pay attention. Don’t despair. Just let it inform you when you go south.” The great thing about a long career is you have your ups and downs, and you become used to it. But as long as you’re working, that angst is not present nearly so much, because you’re focused on the work—as you should be. Maybe there’s one or two [jobs] where you think, “Oh my God, why have I done this?” or “This job is really frightening.” There were periods where you don’t know where you should put all that stuff—the desire, ambition, whatever it is—and I would say, “Okay, take a breath here. You’re working, and that’s what matters. Whatever will happen, will happen. And just let it.” The work itself keeps the focus where you want it to be.
There are also periods between roles in an actor’s life, when you don’t know what’s coming next, if anything. It can be hard to maintain your emotional equilibrium during those periods, can’t it?
Exactly! I can’t tell you how many years I had to go without knowing what the next job would be. Now, having some idea of what’s coming next, I can’t tell you. It’s like: “You’re kidding me!” [laughs] It’s recent enough where it’s just—it makes me laugh when I hear someone say, “You have an offer.” Oh, those beautiful words! It’s great!
You’ve said that playing Patti, whose journey was so much about learning to let go—even of her life—helped you learn to let go of things too. How much do you think you changed because that role came to you at a time in your life when you were getting ready to make that transition anyway?
When I found out that I was no longer going to be on The Leftovers, that Patti was going to die, it hit me like a truck. I was so upset. You’re actually right, as you grow older you think, “What’s the larger picture here? Let’s step away for just a second and take a look here.” But what kept coming up with Patti—and it’s not even subtle, because it’s in the language she uses—was: “Let go. Let go of attachment.” That’s literally one of her lines to Kevin. So I said to myself, sitting in a sort of a public garden, working through the material, “Are you going to acknowledge this or are you going to let it upset you? Can you let go of the stubbornness and the wanting to keep this role and see what’s going on here?” It was a complete revelation to me, and a powerful one.
It’s like the second season of Good Behavior, which is something I’m working on in North Carolina with Michelle Dockery and Juan Diego Botto and Terry Kinney—wonderful show. I’ve only got one episode left, and I feel that thing coming right up again: “I don’t want to lose [this character]! I don’t want to let her go! I love her!” And I just laughed. I went, “Okay, I get it, Ann, but now we’re gonna appreciate the experience and we’re gonna see what happens. Let it go!” I felt like that’s Patti, as corny as it may sound.