If you’ve only got to know Ann Dowd through her recent roles in Hereditary and TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale (like a certain writer, ahem), you’d be forgiven for wanting to steer well clear of her if you ever met her. Playing Aunt Lydia in the two seasons so far of The Handmaid’s Tale, she is ruthless, vicious and intimidating – though like many great villains, more complex as the layers of her character are revealed. In this year’s equally brilliant horror Hereditary, Dowd’s grief support group member Joan turns out to be anything but a welcoming shoulder to cry on. (If you’ve seen it, you know.)
She sells the dark side of both parts quite sensationally and scarily well, but look back at the 62-year-old’s substantial career – continuing this week with the release of American Animals – and there’s much more to her than that. A perfect example of Dowd’s versatility can be found in 2004 indie darling Garden State, Zach Braff’s feature writing and directing debut.
Scrubs star Braff also plays Andrew ‘Large’ Largeman, a struggling actor who’s back in his New Jersey hometown for his mother’s funeral. He meets and falls in love with Sam (Natalie Portman) while also reconnecting with his own emotions after years of being heavily medicated. Dowd plays Sam’s supportive, upbeat mum Olivia, and she is as far removed from Aunt Lydia as you could get. On first meeting Andrew, she’s warm, welcoming and bubbling with positivity despite holding their just deceased pet hamster which she gives to Sam to bury. RIP Jelly.
It’s an undoubtedly small supporting role and not showy enough to stick with you too much on a casual watch of Garden State, but when Olivia next appears she has an important effect on the main protagonist. After inviting Large to watch Sam’s old ice skating video with her unorthodox but happy family, Olivia hugs her daughter goodbye. She then insists that Large gives her a hug too and despite Sam’s protests he says “I’ll take a hug”. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment which actually means a lot.
The plot eventually reveals that Large was responsible, though accidentally, for his mother being left paraplegic when he was nine years old. He’d pushed her, and she’d fallen over an open dishwasher door. Subsequently, his psychiatrist father prescribes him various mood stabilising medications which leave him numb to his feelings. Aged 26, when the film takes place, he still can’t express his grief at his mum’s death until he ditches the drugs during his visit home. The embrace with Olivia, just a little longer than is usual for casual acquaintances, is one of a series of moments that get Large on the path to recovery. He has been unable to connect with others, his paralysed mother physically couldn’t give him that affection and his father, evidently blaming his son, refused to show him any.
Dowd’s warmth, sincerity and compassion in this deeply maternal role feel wonderfully natural, in a movie populated with quite a few larger than life oddballs and Portman’s undeniable manic pixie dream girl. The choice to end the hug scene with a lingering shot of Dowd smiling as Sam and Large leave the house is another nod from Braff that her inclusion, though brief, is a crucial piece of the overall picture.
Between Garden State and The Handmaid’s Tale, Ann Dowd has made a name for herself as a solid, often formidable, supporting actress in big and small screens. In 2012, she led true-life thriller Compliance and appears as cult leader Patti in HBO’s The Leftovers, while there are dozens more credits on top of those. In real life she is, by all accounts, more like happy-go-lucky Olivia than the Draconian Aunt Lydia, but her talent has allowed her to play characters from both camps with equal brilliance.
When she won a (well deserved) Emmy for her Handmaid’s Tale role in 2017, Zach Braff tweeted that she ‘played Natalie’s mother in Garden State. #trivia’ and it was met with so many replies like ‘she was so loving in that’, ‘been a huge fan ever since’ and ‘thank you for showing us how awesome she is.’ Even those few short minutes in Braff’s movie more than a decade before had gained her plenty of Dowd Disciples. She’s truly a scene stealer. Better watch out for her as she returns to our cinema screens in heist movie American Animals – she might just be stealing a few more.