Ann Dowd, 65, spent decades acing small roles in big hits like Law & Order and Garden State, became an indie film star in 2012’s Compliance and won wider fame (and an Emmy) as terrifying Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale. She tells AARP about what’s she’s learned from life and her increasingly ascending career, and her heartbreaking 2021 film about a school shooting, Mass (streaming on Jan. 11, 2022).
I went to a Catholic school for 10 years. Two of my aunts were Catholic sisters. They didn’t resemble Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale at all, but one takes things from different parts of one’s life. The nuns in my education were lovely, intelligent, educated, devoted. I learned the work ethic, that you are not special, you do what is required and you respect authority.
Better living through chemistry
I was premed in college, determined to be a doctor. I learned a lot from organic chemistry — how far your brain can go. I know it sounds boring, but it was thrilling. I still have the book.
Following a passion
One day my college roommate said, “Do you really want to be a doctor?” “No.” “What do you want to be?” “An actor.” She said, “Well, what are you doing?” So, I went to DePaul University’s school of drama.
I worked many waitress jobs. It’s intense. Then when I was pregnant with my first child, at 35, I went to work in a pet shop. I needed something less intense.
In 1986 I passed a premiere, with limos, for About Last Night, starring my DePaul classmate Elizabeth Perkins. Oh my God, here I was, going to wait on tables! I'm losing it! And then there was a calm voice that said, "Everything will be OK when you're 56."