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.
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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."
Many times I was discouraged. Many sob sessions. I would just get over it and say, "Don’t be silly. Let’s go." And every job I was deeply grateful for. It wasn’t until Compliance that doors opened up in my career. At 56.
Lydia’s global reach
In Australia, the girl at a bookshop counter blushed and giggled with her friend, and I realized they knew Lydia and Handmaid’s Tale. It was sweet.
What mothering teaches
Patience. Faith. When new babies come, it’s the greatest joy and the greatest worry. I'm learning to let go, since my oldest boy is 30.
Every child deserves a loving home — period. I am so deeply grateful for my youngest, my foster son and now my boy. It taught me the beauty of love, understanding trauma and what has to happen for that beautiful child to move to a place of safety in his heart and soul.
Our world, film by film
In Mass, I play a school shooter’s mother meeting a victim’s parents. They come to a place of understanding, and forgiveness permits them to drop the burden of holding on to such profound grief. It’s a great example of how a film can allow an audience to experience something like the Sandy Hook shooting not just as news but through the people, the actors, telling the story.
Tips for older actors
Trust the gut. Just listen to the Goddess; the universe will provide, and you will succeed. Thank God that now there are so many more roles and opportunities as we age. Aging is underrated, and beautiful. Our bodies are, like, whoa, wait a minute, sit down. One day at a time. But life gets better and better.
—As told to Tim Appelo
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.