Actress Ann Dowd on What It Was Like Not Finding Success Until Her Fifties

At the 2018 Glamour Women of the Year Summit, The Handmaid’s Tale star Ann Dowd opened up about finding success later in life. Her story, below.

I want to tell you a brief story, if I may. When I was a young actress, 30 or so, I was on the way to my waitress job in my black pants and my white shirt and my black tie—glamour is not the word that would come to mind at all. Feminine? No. Nothing. I looked across the street, and there were several limousines parked outside the theater. And I looked at the marquee and it said, “About Last Nightstarring Elizabeth Perkins,” who was my classmate. I was going to wait on tables, and she was going to a premiere of her film that would launch her into stardom.

I got through the shift, and I went home on my porch, and I wept and screamed into the night, “When?! When is my turn?” And it was one of those dark nights of the soul—we’re all familiar, I’m sure. And a voice—I’m not kidding—quiet, probably from the inside, said, “It will all be fine. It will all be all right. You will be in your fifties. You will be 56.” And I said, “Oh no! No, no!”—missing the whole point of the voice—I said, “I’m not waiting until my fifties. I have no intention, so you can take that message and…”

Keep your love story alive.

Well, as it turns out, I was in my fifties, and I was 56 when I did the film called Compliance, which shifted things for me tremendously. But this story is interesting because what do you do between the ages of 30 and 56? Because, as we know, life is long. Life is short, but really life is long in that regard. So, darlings, I want to tell you a few things that I believe deeply in the hopes that it might, in some way, give you a moment to think.

Keep your love story alive—and by love story, I mean the love you have for the work that you do—for it is a pure and powerful dynamic, and it will sustain you. Pay attention and take care of it. We are here to do the work we are able to do, the work we love to do. It doesn’t mean there won’t be ups and downs; there will be plenty of them. Keep the love story alive.

For some reason I had an unshakable faith that all would work out. I don’t know if it’s because of that voice, which I tried to stop and kill, or because I just thought, I am an actress, and that is what I’m going to do. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future. I would suggest that—a little time but not a lot. Pay attention to where you are. Celebrate the small victories. Every time I got a role, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I didn’t care if I had two lines or if it was a Broadway opening, which was thrilling. I thought, Oh my gosh, someone said yes. Someone said, “I see. I agree with you. Go on now.” It’s a beautiful thing, but celebrate the small ones, darlings. It may take time.

Stay humble. Stay grateful for every single day and for all that goes on in that given day. I can tell you from experience there is nothing worse than an ego gone wild. When I see it in the business I’m in, I want to say, “Sit down a minute. Who raised you? I don’t think your mother and father thought this would be the way to go.” Darlings, stay humble and grateful. It will suit you. It will support you. Use your manners. Manners are a wonderful and forgotten thing. Use them.

I can tell you from experience there is nothing worse than an ego gone wild.

Darlings, take many trips out of your head and into your heart and soul. That is where freedom lives. That is where lack of judgment lives. And that is where hope and love thrive. It’s a very good compass, that heart and soul. Consider it as often as you can.

I mean this without any irony: I worry about your generation because you came into the world with phones and things, didn’t you? So why would you know there’s another way? I could barely find the phone in our house growing up. Darlings, put them down and do so regularly. I promise you this: The answers come with the silence. In the quiet. The answers for you and the secrets that are yours alone to know come in the silence. You don’t find them in the phone or in the computer or on the television. Consider nature a very good teacher. Keep learning.

Let the world know in no uncertain times what you plan to do. When I came to New York—I’m not kidding you—I had no agent, no job. I stood in front of Broadway houses—I didn’t care who saw me—and I said, “How are you?” to the theater. “I will be seeing you soon, and I will not be in the audience. I will be on your stage, and I thank you.” I did it countlessly. Don’t obsess about the details of how. Just let the universe know, “Excuse me. I’m coming. I’ll be here in a minute. And thank you.” Gratitude. I remember those days of loneliness and despair. When I didn’t have an audition or anything happening, I would go straight to the bedroom, I would take out my monologues, and I would do them. And I would remind myself in the mirror, “You are an actress, and you are in charge of your life.” It is not for others to say—no, yes, anything—you are in charge. That is the gift you came into this world with.

It is not for others to say—no, yes, anything—you are in charge. That is the gift you came into this world with.

Here’s the last thing I want to tell you, and I think it’s the most important: You do not have to be the best. That’s a whole lot of pressure, darlings. Say no to it. The last thing I’m going to do is read you a beautiful poem, and if you could think about when you have time. It’s called “Wild Geese,” and it’s written by Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

I wish you, from the bottom of my heart, all the very best. Thank you.

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