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The Duality of Ann Dowd: On Playing Aunt Lydia and Raising a Gay Son

ann dowd
Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg

We chatted with the Handmaid's Tale star ahead of her Emmy race. 

Although her career spans decades, Ann Dowd has become a household name in recent years. With seminal roles in film and television, her performances have sparked a visceral reaction from fans. Portraying dark and complex women in titles like HBO's The Leftovers and recent indie horror hit, Hereditary, Dowd has become a powerhouse of multiple genres.

Perhaps most memorable as Aunt Lydia in Hulu's series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Dowd has already recieved one Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and is up for her second. As one of a rare few female authority figures in the dystopian society of Gilead, she offers a dynamic portrayal of a maternal figure upholding oppressive patriarchal values. Her performance has become an assett for the show's dark tone, considering the uneasy political climate of which it airs.

As Dowd prepares to shoot season three in October, we caught up to chat about her Emmy-winning performance as well as some of her earlier. Discovering her purely pleasant disposition is almost a surreal experience after seeing the myriad of intimidating women she's portrayed. And in a pleasantly anti-Aunt Lydia move, she confirmed her love for the LGBTQ community, opening up about her son's recent coming out.

I love you in Handmaid's Tale. What's it like shooting such a heavy story during this turbulent time we're in?

I have to say, it's a wonderful experience. We've gotten our sea legs, let us say. We've worked together for a long time now, so we're familiar with the characters. The writers are wonderful, Bruce Miller, we couldn't have a better showrunner. And our directors are so good. We're all in it together, our crew, we're all there to do the same thing, to get the best work we can in a given day. There's a very good work ethic, I'd say. And then in the down moments, we just have a fun time laughing, doing whatever else one does to enjoy the day. It's really a privilege to be part of it, to tell you the truth.

Have you gotten used to playing these kinds of villainous characters like in Leftovers, Good Behavior, and Hereditary?

Well it's funny. I get that Lydia is considered a villain, and I guess Hereditary too, but I never thought of Patti as a villain. I just thought of her as a kind of loner committed to something very significant. And I loved Good Behavior, that was just a wonderful experience. I hope it comes back. But I'm having a very fun time.


Ann Dowd in The Handmaid's Tale

How does it feel to be noticed for such strong roles at this point in your career?

I wish I could find a more interesting way to say it, but it is a wonderful, gratifying experience. To have it happen now, I can't tell you. It's just a dream come true is what it is. And I don't take it for granted, I promise you.

I saw Hereditary months ago, but I still can't think about it without getting scared and needing to sleep with the lights on.

Oh my god, I haven't seen it yet.

You haven't? Were you too scared to watch it?

I haven't honey. (LAUGHS) Well no, I haven't had a chance to see it. I was out of the country when it was all going on. But that's what I hear, it's really scary. I mean I know it's scary because I read the darn thing, and I participated. But I think I read it with one eye closed. Because I thought, "Wait a minute!" Did you enjoy it or did it just scare the wits out of you?

I really enjoyed it. I love horror movies. It was so good, but it definitely scared me. Do you have random people associating you with that role or Aunt Lydia? Do people find you intimidating before they meet you?

I would say it's mostly Leftoversand Handmaid's Tale. Fans seem to be very lovely and polite. I don't know if it's because they're afraid of me or what, but the exchanges are very sweet. When there are young people, it makes me laugh because the stare like, "Not really, you can't be her." And then we have a lovely exchange, it's very funny to watch, I must say. When I was in Australia, the other side of the world, I was in a bookstore, and there were young people working there primarily. And this girl gave me one of those looks, and I was thinking, "Did something just happen there?" I couldn't quite tell. Then, when I went up to the register to pay, the other girl said, "My friend just said the dumbest thing. She said you're on that show, Handmaid's Tale." And then she said, "Have you ever head of it?" I said, "I have heard of it, yes." And then she said, "Do you watch it?" I thought how long am I gonna go on with this charade, so I said, "I play Aunt Lydia." It was the sweetest thing, she nearly fainted. It's so sweet when that goes on. It's a real pleasure.

That's sweet. I have to assume you're nothing like Aunt Lydia in real life.

Well, you never know. (LAUGHS) No.


Toni Collette and Ann Dowd in Hereditary

But do you like have gay friends in real life?

Oh, of course! (LAUGHS) Oh my god, my son just came out, as a matter of fact. Yea, and he's an adult with disabilities, so it was extra challenging for him on a number of levels. It's with great relief that he realized. We couldn't love him more if we tried. I don't know how else to say this, but as if growing up isn't hard enough, to have to come out and be worried you're not going to be accepted for who you are. I think the gay population is among the strongest people in the entire world. It takes tremendous courage, and I have tremendous respect.

That's amazing, congratulations!

Thank you. I'm very proud of him.

Speaking of which, I know you were in Philadelphia, which I cannot believe it's been 25 years since that came out.

I can't either!

What was it like making such a powerful film back then that dealt with queer themes and topics like HIV?

Oh, my goodness. You know, several of the cast was HIV positive. And I know of a few who have passed away because of course we did not have the treatment that would keep people alive. I can tell you this honestly, Glenn; I think I cried from the beginning to the end of shooting that. It was just tremendously moving and real. (Jonathan) Demme was fantastic, Tom Hanks - Imagine Joanne Woodward, all of these people. It was one of the first films I've done, so it had a tremendous impact. And just the story, the heartbreak of it. I honestly did, Demme would make fun of me, "What are you crying about now?" (LAUGHS) Every time I think about it, the sister coming into the room to say goodbye to him, it looked like he might not make it through the night. In the script, it was the brother who breaks down, and that was the power of the scene. They all get through it, and the brother goes to give him a hug. He breaks down and just collapses on him. So, in order for the scene to have the impact, the writer and director intended for the rest of the family to get through the goodbyes without breaking down, but the brother goes to hug him, the kind of stoic brother who hasn't said much, and he just breaks down and weeps. Tom Hanks hugs him, it's a beautiful moment. I'm saying to myself, you cannot break down when you go into that room because it's going to ruin the flow of the scene. Sure enough, I couldn't get through it to save my life. I remember that very well, it was a very moving experience. Hanks was terrific, all of them.

How would you say that compares to working on a queer film today like A Kid Like Jake?

That too, working with Silas (Howard), what a wonderful - it was fantastic. The young kid playing Jake, the courage it takes on every level to claim oneself in the world. It was funny, we had talks about this in various places. "Your body, you came in in a certain way. Don't try to change that." You know, finding it just to be a sacrilege that you would consider changing your physical yourself - but I keep going back to the point, do you honestly think someone would go through so much trouble if it wasn't at the core of their very survival? If you feel you are not who you are because of your gender or whatever it is, isn't it our job to find ourselves, whatever it takes? For god's sake, can't we just be supportive of each other as individuals, wherever we're at? To think it could even be an issue today, gay, straight, right to marry, I mean really? We're not past that yet? It just seems so basic, basic human rights. Let us be who we are.

Tune in September 17 to see if Ann Dowd takes home her second Emmy Award.

Advocate Channel - HuluOut / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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