A Complicated Whole

Emmy Award-winning actor Ann Dowd (THE MFA ’82) discusses her craft

Ann Dowd (THE MFA ’82) (Photo by Anna Vaughn Clissold)

On Oct. 10, the DePaul Humanities Center (DHC) welcomed actor Ann Dowd (THE MFA ’82) back to campus as the latest guest in the “In Conversation with Great Minds” series. H. Peter Steeves, professor of philosophy and DHC director, introduced Dowd, acclaimed for her work in the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Leftovers,” as well as the 2018 film “Hereditary.”

Steeves said, “Dowd’s work from television to film to Broadway has earned her a reputation as a master of her craft, someone who disappears into a role. What Ann does is make the people she plays obvious and complicated wholes, and this is something that’s rare indeed. They’re immediately a whole person, the difference between imagining and experiencing.”

Citing her portrayal of Patti Levin in “The Leftovers,” a series premised on the disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, Steeves said, “That which is absent is never really completely gone. Patti, I think, understands this. She knows that the world cannot pretend that a sudden departure never took place, that those who disappeared can be forgotten, erased, ignored.”

Dowd originally wanted to be a surgeon. She said, “The approach in science is to study, study and study some more. And there’s one answer. Well, I thought that’s how I could approach acting. Of course, you can’t. It is a relationship, and the characters will find their lives in the way that we can express them.”

Dowd voiced her belief in the primacy of the script and her appreciation for the actors and directors who have helped her throughout her career.

She singled out Justin Theroux, who plays Kevin Garvey in “The Leftovers,” as a brilliant scene partner. “In season three, I had to sing a song,” she remembers. “I kept thinking, what’s wrong with it? Why am I not getting it? I turned to him and said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘You have to give it a beat. Just give it a beat and then sing.’ Problem solved!”

In response to Steeves’ question about the role of directors, Dowd recalled a guest appearance she made on the TV series “NYPD Blue.” “I was scared to death,” she admits. “I understood [the character] emotionally, but that’s a trap because you’ve got to know what you are doing. What’s the verb there? Because that’s how we function. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing.

“This character’s husband, a police officer, was found dead in his car with his mistress from [inhaling] exhaust. David Milch, the creator of the show, comes in and watches the rehearsal. He said, ‘Do you know what she wants?’ I said, ‘I don’t.’ And he said, ‘She wants to protect her husband’s honor.’ I tell you, we sailed through it! That’s what a good director does.”

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