Actress Ann Dowd, 62, was born and raised in Holyoke and graduated from College of the Holy Cross before studying acting at DePaul University. Last year, she won an Emmy for her portrayal of Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale, and she was nominated again this year for the awards that will be announced on Sept. 17. Her stage work includes The Seagull, Taking Sides and Candida on Broadway. Her television career has included roles on The Leftovers, Olive Kitteridge, Masters of Sex, Quarry, Judging Amy, The X-Files, NYPD Blue and nine different characters within the Law & Order franchise. In films, she has appeared in Collateral Beauty, Marley & Me, The Manchurian Candidate, Garden State and Philadelphia, and recently starred in Hereditary and American Animals.
Jonathan Soroff: Blessed day.
Ann Dowd: [Laughs.] You said that very well. Very naturally.
How does it feel to be the most hated character on television? Delightful.
What about The Handmaid’s Tale drew you in? It was so well written. So on the money with regards to Margaret Atwood’s novel. I loved the novel, and the script was so good, there was no way to not want to do it.
Do you see Aunt Lydia as a fascist? What is a fascist, by your definition?
Someone who follows a charismatic absolute dictator regardless of moral imperatives. Yes, I hear you. In that regard, I’d say that God is her dictator, so I suppose you could call that fascist. Everyone else is in a very far second place to her belief in God and what she feels God has in mind for us.
Do you feel like The Handmaid’s Tale reflects what’s going on in the world right now? I think there are comparisons to be made, that’s for sure. I don’t think it was the goal of the writers to mirror what is happening. I think they have their own story to tell. But the fact that so many things connect is terrifying, and as we can see, there are many things that jump out and make you say, “Hold on a minute, here. Stop.”
OK, shifting gears: Your grandfather was a pro baseball player. Are you a big baseball fan, and more importantly, are you a Red Sox fan? I am a baseball fan, for sure. I was a big Red Sox fan, until I met my husband, who is a huge Mets fan, and somehow, I had to jump to there, see. So I’m a lapsed Red Sox fan. I do love them. And there’s no one like a Red Sox fan. They’re scary in their enthusiasm.
Where do you keep your Emmy? Oh, it’s on the prettiest shelf. It has its own little area on a beautifully painted shelf, and she sits and sort of looks over the apartment, and it’s lovely.
Was Jonathan Demme the most brilliant director you ever worked with? I would describe him as a huge enthusiast. He was all in, in whatever he was filming. That’s where his passion and joy was, and his expertise. An incredibly lovely man, and he was just thrilled to be doing whatever he was doing. That was my experience of him.
Is there an actor you were intimidated to work with? Well, I can tell you that when I did Collateral Beauty and I sat at the table with Kate Winslet and Ed Norton, and around the corner was Will Smith and Helen Mirren, I had a moment of “Oh, God. I hope I can get the words out in the right order.” That was definitely intimidating.
Anyone who you’d never work with again, and what did they do to make you feel that way? There’s no one I wouldn’t work with again, because when you see qualities that make you say, “If I ever do this, I hope someone slaps me and puts me in a corner,” I find that very fascinating. And there are actors who you think, “You’re kidding. You’ve gotten this far in your career, and you really think that behaving like an arrogant and entitled child is preferable to acting like a grown-up who’s grateful for their life and their job?” You see some of that, and I’m always fascinated by it.
What’s your worst audition story? God knows I’ve had more than one. But right out of acting school, I had the text in my hand, but I was so nervous I couldn’t read what was in front of me, and I made up words. No one said anything, because I think they were saying to themselves, “Hmmm…I wonder what we’re dealing with here.” But with Jonathan Demme, my agent had worked very hard to get me the audition for Philadelphia, and it was one of those days when it’s a million degrees and you just don’t feel like talking to anybody. I walk in, and I’m in no shape to do the audition. Casting directors can totally pick up on that. Dead silence is one of those things. I read the scene, called my agent and said, “I’m sorry. It went terribly.” And when I got home, my agent said, “I think you got it! They want you to go in tomorrow and meet Tom Hanks.” So I went the next day and I got that role, and I found out later that it was because no one could believe I could be anything like a lawyer or a doctor. They thought I was dull as dishwater, and she’s exactly that woman.
Favorite understudying experience? I understudied once in my life, and it was for an Edward Albee play. It had Mary Beth Hurt, Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris. Superstars. They were phenomenal. It was called A Delicate Balance. I understudied for the understudy of Mary Beth Hurt, because she went on vacation, and the bizarre thing was that I had no intention of going on, but I did. It was terrifying.
Anything you get typecast as? You’ve played a lot of nuns and holy rollers. Well, my husband has pointed out, “You could do someone who’s nice and normal. Try that!” I do seem to be in the land of cults, for some reason, but I do find these women interesting. Whether it’s typecasting or not, I try not to think about that. The roles are wonderful.
The Guilty Remnant is a great name for a band. Any chance you’ll start one? It is! I’d love to start one with this wonderful woman in Australia, who’s named Nora Fax. She’s looking after my son, and she’s a musician, and I’d love to start a band with her. That’s a brilliant idea. Thank you.
What’s your favorite play of all time? That I’ve been in?
Not necessarily. Our Town. It knocks me out. To me, it says everything about life, right there, in your two-hour time in the theater. My husband once said something very smart, which was, “If anyone ever got that play completely right, no one could get out of their chairs at the end of the show.” It’s that powerful.
Chekhov or Tolstoy? Chekhov. Love.
Name a working actor who hasn’t appeared on Law & Order. An American actor? No. [Chuckles.] What a great institution that show is. It was always a triumph to be on that show. I loved it.
Actor you get mistaken for? Yes! Margo Martindale. And we look at each other and say, “Why?” But we get a chuckle out of that.
Role you think you’ll be remembered for? I’ll leave that to the audience to decide.
Role you were up for and didn’t get but you wish you had? I let them go as fast as humanly possible, so I don’t remember them.
Thoughts about the way people watch TV now, seeing an entire series in a weekend as opposed to waiting to see it week by week? That’s such a good question. It’s meant to be a pleasurable experience, so whatever works. You can spread it out, and that’s how I grew up. But there’s something to be said for instant gratification. It’s great to have the option.
So should I watch Hereditary? I read it with one eye closed because it scared the wits out of me. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard people say it’s absolutely terrifying. Ari Aster is a very good director.
Do you think you’ve had a more interesting career because you weren’t a so-called “name”? I don’t know. I loved every part of my career. Every job was a triumph in one way or another. I did have moments of wondering whether it would go anywhere, and so the fact that it has at this stage in the game is a source of great joy and gratitude.
Predictions for the Emmys? When I think of the Emmys, I get excited, and the anxiety soars. So no. I don’t have any predictions, ’cause I can’t allow myself to go there. But I wish everyone the best. ◆