Villainous and compelling, Aunt Lydia in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale falls into the sweet spot of characters we love to hate — and actress Ann Dowd has the stories to prove it.
"I was giving a talk at a fundraiser recently, and one of the women collecting donations came up to me and asked, 'Can you be mean to me?'" Dowd relates. "So I said, 'Give me your name tag,' and i threw it across the room and said, 'Now, go get it!' The woman was howling with laughter."
Dowd, who has had many such encounters with fans of her tyrannical character in the dystopian drama, won an Emmy in 2017 for the role and was nominated again the next year. Sometimes, it seems, being bad is the best option.
Couple that acclaim with accolades for her performance as the haunting cult leader in HBO's The Leftovers (also Emmy-nominated), and it's no wonder she's been dubbed the nicest woman with the darkest roles.
The road to success has been long. "Oh my gosh, I waited tables forever, and when I was pregnant at 36, I was working in a pet shop," she recalls.
Born in Massachusetts, the second of seven children, Dowd studied pre-med in college while pursuing acting on the side. Encouraged by her college roommate and instructors (and against her parents' wishes), she switched to drama full-time and earned an MFA from DePaul University in Chicago. That's where she met her husband, actor Lawrence Arancio, with whom she has three children.
She credits her initial training, thick skin and slow-burn career for her current success. "That's how you start: you train," she says. "And the thing about this business is that it sorts everyone out on its own. Either you can take the rejection or you can't."
With supporting roles in critically acclaimed series such as Showtime's Masters of Sex and HBO's Olive Kitteridge, as well as film successes like 2012's Compliance, she had a résumé that spoke for itself by the time The Handmaid's Tale came around.
"When I first read the script, I thought the adaptation was spot on," she says. "Clearly, [showrunner] Bruce Miller was in sync with Margaret Atwood," who wrote the 1985 novel on which the show is based. Dowd's affection and empathy for Aunt Lydia run deep. "I love her to bits," she says. "I would say, in a positive way, she's fully committed, and her love for the girls is real."
With season two ending on a gruesome is-she-or-isn't-she moment that sent the internet into frenzied speculation over Aunt Lydia's fate, season three (debuting June 5) is wide open for unexpected twists and transformations.
"Bruce did write to me ahead of time and say, [spoiler alert] 'Oh, by the way, she lives,' but aside from that, I don't know much. They're smart like that. But I do think it shocked the wits out of her, and I think she blames herself to a degree."
Shooting started back in November in Toronto, an easy commute from Dowd's New York City home. "It takes roughly nine shooting days for one episode, it's beautifully done and everyone brings everything to it," she says.
Her schedule is decidedly more booked now than it was back in her waitressing days. Busy as she is, Dowd has unwavering appreciation and enthusiasm for the women she portrays: "That great excitement of meeting a new character or finding out something else about a character never dims for me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019