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From TV to the big screen, Ann Dowd is everywhere

Actress Ann Dowd in the family home at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.
Actress Ann Dowd in the family home at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File August 2014/Globe Staff

At some point midsummer, Twitter became an Ann Dowd fan club. With roles on two high-profile cable series — Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and HBO's "The Leftovers" — the Massachusetts-raised actress, who also appeared in the finale of HBO's "True Detective," was everywhere, stealing scenes and owning Sunday-night television.

In July, Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson tweeted: "In a just world, Ann Dowd would win an Emmy for what she did on The Leftovers tonight." Buzzfeed's Louis Peitzman quipped that his review of most TV had become: "Needs more Ann Dowd." By late August, Entertainment Weekly's Marc Snetiker posted: "Ann Dowd was the song of summer."

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Dowd has become the coolest thing on television, an unusual turn of events for an actress who is 58 years old. But for Dowd, life is unfolding just as she expected.

The Holyoke native says that she has long thought — known, really — that she would peak in her 50s. It came to her as a premonition when she was in her 30s and facing career stops and starts. It was, she explains, the only logical way to think about her future.

"It does not make sense to me that you would work all of your young years and get better at what you do — and then it would be the end," said Dowd, who also appears in the new film "The Drop," which opened Friday.

Dowd, one of seven children, was pre-med at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, but tried theater in school. She had lost her father in high school and found joy in acting. Later, her acting teacher and roommate encouraged her to pursue the craft as a career. It had not dawned on her that such a thing was possible, but she went on to study at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago.

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Screen success built slowly, but her resume grew long over the years with parts on "Louie," "Freaks and Geeks," and "House," and in films such as "Marley & Me," "Side Effects," and 2012's "Compliance," an indie that earned her the National Board of Review Award for best supporting actress.

Today, Dowd and her husband, Larry Arancio, who chairs the acting program at the CAP (Collaborative Arts Project) 21, live in New York City with their three children — 22-year-old Liam, 16-year-old Emily, and 9-year-old Trust, whom the couple adopted last year after being his foster parents.

Dowd was at her family's home on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire last month along with her mother, Dolores, 84, who said she just got a subscription to HBO at her lake cottage so she can finally see what everyone's buzzing about. She knows that Dowd's part on "The Leftovers" has earned her a cult following, somewhat literally.

The show, which is based on the book by Massachusetts author Tom Perrotta and was just picked up for a second season, is about how a small town copes after a rapture-like event evaporates 2 percent of the world's population. Dowd plays Patti Levin, the boss of a cult that forms after the mass disappearance. The group calls itself the Guilty Remnant and refuses to speak. Members of the "GR" wear all white, smoke cigarettes all day, and hover around their neighbors, silently bullying them to join the group.

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Most of Dowd's scenes as Patti show her stone-faced as she takes drags from cigarettes, occasionally writing messages on a notepad. She admits that when she was developing Patti's cold, intense demeanor, she looked to another famous local, Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"After about the third episode or so, Patti kept reminding me of someone and I couldn't figure out who it was," Dowd explained, in an e-mail. "Finally it dawned on me that it was Bill Belichick, whom I watched countless times during Patriot games and always liked. And for these reasons: his stoicism, that he seems full of secrets, that he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him."

The Patti Levin character on “The Leftovers” (left) is reminiscent of Bill Belichick (right), says Ann Dowd.
The Patti Levin character on “The Leftovers” (left) is reminiscent of Bill Belichick (right), says Ann Dowd.Paul Schiraldi (left); Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Dowd's steely demeanor won over "Leftovers" showrunner Damon Lindelof, of "Lost" fame, who said it took him a while to realize she was the same actress who had wowed him in "Compliance."

"From the moment that I saw Ann on camera, she had the cigarette dangling out of her mouth in that kind of Clint Eastwood way, and I just kind of got chills," said Lindelof. (He added, referring to the last few episodes, that he "can't imagine 'The Leftovers' without Ann Dowd.")

She admits that when her agent and manager brought her the role, she was not sure it was right for her. She was not interested in a story that might be supernatural, and it seemed strange to play a woman who rarely spoke.

"Talking is only one thing you do in a room – but it's a big one," she said.

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But after Dowd accepted the part and got a feel for Patti, the character got under her skin. She describes Patti as a woman with nothing to lose. She is a living reminder of all that is lost.

Actor Justin Theroux, who stars as the town's police chief in "The Leftovers," said watching Dowd is like taking a master class.

"We jokingly refer to her as Brando. She's so powerful. In the best sense, the way she works and operates is not from a place of ego," he said, adding, of her expertise, "She's like the greatest mechanic in the world."

Theroux was quick to point out that Dowd's character on "The Leftovers" is nothing like her off-camera personality. In real life, Theroux said, Dowd is "wonderful and compassionate. On set she becomes sort of this beloved person."

But when the camera rolls, she is quick to become a cult martyr, Michael Sheen's domineering mother on "Masters of Sex," or, in this weekend's release "The Drop," the sister of a mobster played by James Gandolfini.

As Lindelof puts it, "The fact that she's able to move from 'Masters of Sex' to 'The Leftovers' on the same Sunday night — it's incredible."

Dowd will take his word for it. She said she does not watch her own performances. She does not see the need.

"At some point I stopped. The experience of doing it was so profound for me. That's enough for me. That's what I love – the doing."

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Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.