Ann Dowd sails in New York Harbor
Actress Ann Dowd stood upright at the helm, her hands gripping the wheel, her eyes fixed on the green-gray-blue river that stretched out before her like a crumpled blanket. The Statue of Liberty was waving just beyond.
“Everyone looks awesome behind the wheel of a sailboat,” said Jonathan Horvath, the captain. “But some people look more impressive than others.”
Ms Dowd, 65, perhaps best known for playing Aunt Lydia, a brutal theocratic performer in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, grew up boating. She and her six siblings spent summers at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, piloting motorboats and a Sunfish. They always meet there on weekends, although she insists her siblings are all better sailors.
“This sister,” Ms. Dowd said, pointing a finger at herself. “I don’t know what happened there.”
Ms Dowd, who lives in an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, thought it was time to improve, so on a recent Thursday morning, she ventured out to TriBeCa for a lesson with Mr Horvath and Eric Emerick , instructors at Atlantic Yachting.
She had dressed for a quieter day, in a navy striped dress, white and navy blue with sequin details. But that morning the winds were blowing on Pier 25 and thunderstorms were threatening.
Mr. Horvath and Mr. Emerick led Ms. Dowd to the boat, a 38 foot mast sloop named Vitamin Sea. Used primarily for pleasure cruises in the Bahamas, it can seat four to six if you put cushions on the dining table. The wharf toppled in the wind. The boat, as Ms. Dowd climbed on it, also tipped over.
Mr. Emerick loosened the stern line and bow, then jumped aboard as Mr. Horvath headed for the river. Military helicopters were circling overhead, probably because the United Nations General Assembly was sitting upstream.
Under Mr. Horvath’s direction, Ms. Dowd raised the dart sail, using a winch to tension the line and then secure it. “Beautiful,” Mr. Horvath said, encouraging him. “Well done.” She asked why they hadn’t raised the sail to the end. It was because the wind, which sometimes blew at 30 knots, was too strong. But if there’s one woman who can watch a storm, it’s Mrs. Dowd.
A longtime veteran of the Chicago scene, Ms. Dowd began to book larger roles in her 50s, as a gullible fast food manager in “Compliance”, as a cult leader in “The Leftovers” and as as Aunt Lydia, the role that brought Ms. Dowd her first Emmy.
A compulsively kind woman, she specializes in characters who do cruel and terrible things – terrorizing women with cattle prods (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), conjuring demons (“Hereditary”). She doesn’t understand why the casting directors call on her to play these terrifying women, why they never see her for cool moms, funny grannies, talented surgeons.
“But I know I love to play them,” she said of her villainous characters. “It’s imaginary, and I can’t do it fast enough.”
Her last tortured role is in “Mass”, an independent film which is released on October 8, in which she plays a gentler character, Linda, a church mouse of a woman who reckons with the harm her son has caused and what responsibility it bears. She spends the film mainly listening, her eyes sunk, her mouth hurt.
As soon as she read the script, she knew she wanted to play the part. But she hesitated, which was unusual for her. “How am I going to live in this level of grief?” she wondered.
So she did what she often does: she offered a kind of prayer to the character. And Linda responded. “It was like she told me, I got it,” Ms. Dowd said. “There is something about this experience that was sacred.
Winning the Emmy four years ago changed the arc of his career somewhat. He is now offered roles, like that of “Mass”, rather than having to audition. But she still lives in the same Chelsea apartment where she raised her children, and her concern is still for work rather than the traps of stardom.
“My desire is to keep it very simple. Because work is always work, ”she said. “And that’s where the focus should be.”
As the boat passed the financial district, Mr. Horvath invited her to step up to the helm where she spun the steering wheel with a trained hand. Engine off, the boat is sailing at 7 or 8 knots, heading towards the bay and towards the Statue of Liberty. But once the boat passed the southern tip of Manhattan, the wind got stronger and the boat slid to a surprising degree. “Well, I’m going to make someone seasick,” she said.
The sailors prepared Ms. Dowd to change course. “Do you remember the name for turning into the wind?” Mr. Horvath asked him.
– No, honey, she said.
It was spinning, he told her. Hand in hand, she turned the steering wheel and the boat tacked, straightening up in the water. Ms Dowd sailed for the next hour, back and forth, tracing a wake through New York Harbor, the downtown skyline behind her. The water made her feel, she said, “Completely relaxed and interested. “
The wind continued to blow in gusty winds, picking up each time the ship passed Manhattan and sailed through the freer waters of the Upper Bay.
“Yes, there she is,” Mr. Horvath said as a strong breeze blew over the stern.
“There she is,” agreed Mr. Emerick.
“Why is it always her?” Ms. Dowd asked.
“Because of patriarchy, I’m sure,” Mr. Horvath said. “Sailors talk about the wind like her. They talk about boats like her, almost like romantic relationships.
The gusts never rocked Ms. Dowd, although she became concerned when the occasional water taxi approached her. But she held her course, even through what Mr. Horvath called “the college-level wind,” which flapped her skirt like a second sail.
When it was time to return to the wharf, Mr. Horvath had her barged behind a garbage barge, zigzagging back and forth until she put the boat back on its moorings.
“Prepare to tack,” Ms. Dowd said as if she had said so all her life. “We are now in the process of tacking. She had fully embraced the role of sailor. “Someone is taking the lead very well,” said Horvath.