Ann Dowd’s route to becoming an actress in Chicago began with a promise to her dying father. She vowed that she would become a doctor.
“I knew my life wasn’t in medicine, but I wanted to make my father happy. He was given two to five years to live and died in three months. When he was sick, I went to see him in his office at his insurance company. I wanted to become an actress, but I told him, ‘I won’t do summer theater. I’ll go to Holy Cross College. I’ll become a doctor.’
“He was thrilled,” she recalled.
After her fourth year of premed at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a friend casually mentioned something that changed Dowd’s life: The Theatre School at DePaul University was conducting auditions.
Dowd made one of the hardest phone calls in her life. “My poor mother! Mother of seven. Widowed at 43,” she cried. “The one in medical school is now saying, ‘Um, Mom, I’m leaving med school. I’m going to Chicago to become an actress!’”
Cut to 2017, when Dowd stunned everyone winning an Emmy for playing the brutal Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In the series, based on the Margaret Atwood best seller, Dowd plays the abusive, punishment-driven den mother assigned to indoctrinate Handmaids and force them to accept their fates in a dystopian society where females have absolutely no rights.
“I think that Emmy finally convinced my mother that I made the right decision,” Dowd said from her New York home.
Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” begins Wednesday with Lydia preparing female rebels for death via a noose. With her calm, teacher-esque voice, she makes it clear that she’s only doing what’s right for this new America.
“We ended last season with the group of girls stunning Lydia,” Dowd says. “The first episode of the new season is her saying, ‘This is what you forced me to do.’ And she does feel forced. Lydia has always made the rules clear. The mission of a new world is the most important thing to her.”
Dowd delights in the fact that audiences don’t know much of Aunt Lydia’s life — or what brought her to this role of jailer.
“I think the power of the character is that we don’t know everything,” she said. “Part of her power is the mystery. I want the audience to ask, ‘Did she have a baby at 13? Did she have sex at 13? Was she caught and shamed and shamed and shamed? Maybe she just wanted a chance in life and inside was screaming, ‘Please, please, please!’”
As one of seven kids growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, Dowd said that she wanted to make everyone happy. After that stint in medical school, she found her own happiness at DePaul.
“Oh God, Chicago is such a brilliant place for an actor to begin,” recalled Dowd. She laughed and added, “I remember living in a very sketchy neighborhood by the lake my first year. It cost $175 a month. To make ends meet, I waitressed. I closed more than one restaurant from pure attitude — and I’m still very sorry.”
After graduation with a MFA in acting in hand, Dowd stayed in Chicago. “There are so many lovely theaters where you could get your sea legs. You had a chance to take a breath and try out what you learned.”
Dowd also met her husband of 32 years — actor and teacher Lawrence Arancio — in Chicago, at acting school. “I looked across the room and saw this man with a scruffy beard. I literally thought to myself, ‘That’s your husband.’ And I didn’t even like the way he looked with the shaggy beard.”
Dowd went on to do Broadway and appear in movies including “Philadelphia” (1993), “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), “St. Vincent” (2014), “Our Brand Is Crisis” (2015) and “Collateral Beauty” (2016). On TV, she also was Emmy-nominated for playing Patti Levin on “The Leftovers” (2014-1017).
Her success is a sweet reward after tough times during her first year in Chicago.
“I approached acting like I tackled organic chemistry in medical school,” she said. “I thought if you put in the hours and stick to a schedule while not letting up then you will get the work done. That’s not how characters reveal themselves. Characters do not come out under pressure. It has to be organic. You really must turn around and look at yourself, too.
“I had also buried all the grief over my father’s passing and applied pressure to my acting because of it,” she said. “I remember many hours walking by the lake in Chicago reminding myself why it was important to be alive and do what you love. I’d see all that beautiful nature by the lake, stop and sit under a tree and get a grip.”
C.L. Gaber is a freelance writer.