The actress Ann Dowd stood straight-backed on the helm, fingers gripping the wheel, eyes fastened on the green-gray-blue river unfold before her like a rumpled blanket. The Statue of Liberty beckoned simply past.
“Everyone looks awesome behind the wheel of a sailboat,” Jonathan Horvath, the captain, said. “But some people look more awesome than others.”
Ms. Dowd, 65, maybe best known for taking part in Aunt Lydia, a brutal enforcer of the theocracy on “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 still collect there on weekends, although she insists that her siblings are all higher sailors.
“This sister,” Ms. Dowd said, pointing to herself. “I don’t know what happened there.”
Ms. Dowd, who lives in an house in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, thought it was time to enhance, so on a recent Thursday morning, she ventured down to TriBeCa for a lesson with Mr. Horvath and Eric Emerick, instructors at Atlantic Yachting.
She had dressed for a calmer day, in a nautically striped, white-and-navy-blue costume with sequin particulars. But that morning, winds whipped down Pier 25 and thunderstorms threatened.
Mr. Horvath and Mr. Emerick led Ms. Dowd to the boat, a 38-foot single-mast sloop named the Vitamin Sea. Used largely for pleasure-cruising the Bahamas, it sleeps 4 — six in the event you put some cushions on the eating desk. The dock rocked within the wind. The boat, as Ms. Dowd clambered on, rocked, too.
Mr. Emerick loosened the strict line and the bowline, then leapt aboard as Mr. Horvath steered into the river. Military helicopters churned overhead, most likely as a result of the United Nations General Assembly was in session upriver.
Under Mr. Horvath’s path, Ms. Dowd raised the luffing sail, utilizing a winch to tug the road tight after which safe it. “Beautiful,” Mr. Horvath said, encouraging her. “Well done.” She requested why they hadn’t raised the sail all of the way. It was as a result of the wind, which typically gusted to 30 knots, was too sturdy. But if there’s a girl who can stare down a storm, it’s Ms. Dowd.
A longtime veteran of the Chicago stage, Ms. Dowd started reserving bigger roles in her 50s, as a credulous quick meals supervisor in “Compliance,” as a cult chief in “The Leftovers,” and as Aunt Lydia, the position which brought Ms. Dowd her first Emmy.
A compulsively type ladies, she makes a speciality of characters who do merciless and terrible things — terrorizing ladies with cattle prods (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), conjuring demons (“Hereditary”). She doesn’t perceive why casting administrators call on her to play these terrifying ladies, why they never see her for good mothers, enjoyable grandmas, expert surgeons.
“But I know I enjoy playing them,” she said of her depraved characters. “It is make-believe, and I can’t get to it fast enough.”
Her latest tortured position is in “Mass,” an unbiased film that premieres on Oct. 8, in which she plays a gentler character, Linda, a church mouse of a girl reckoning with the hurt her son has triggered and what duty she bears. She spends the movie largely listening, eyes sunken, mouth a wound.
As quickly as she read the script, she knew she needed to play the position. But she hesitated, which was unusual for her. “How will I live in this level of grief?” she wondered.
So she did what she usually does: she supplied a sort of prayer to the character. And Linda answered. “It was as though she had said to me, I got this,” Ms. Dowd said. “There’s something about that experience that was sacred.”
Winning the Emmy 4 years in the past has modified the arc of her profession considerably. She is now supplied roles, like the one in “Mass,” somewhat than having to audition. But she still lives within the same Chelsea house where she raised her children, and her concern is still for the work somewhat than the trimmings of celebrity.
“My desire is to keep it very simple. Because the work is always the work,” she said. “And that’s where the focus should be.”
As the boat handed the Financial District, Mr. Horvath invited her up to the helm where she spun the wheel with a practiced hand. With the motor switched off, the boat cruised at 7 or 8 knots, heading out into the bay and towards the Statue of Liberty. But as soon as the boat cleared Manhattan’s southern tip, the wind became stronger and the boat listed to a startling diploma. “Well, I’m going to make someone seasick,” she said.
The sailors ready Ms. Dowd to vary course. “Do you remember the name for turning into the wind?” Mr. Horvath requested her.
“No, honey,” she said.
It was tacking, he told her. Hand over hand she turned the wheel and the boat tacked, straightening within the water. Ms. Dowd sailed for the subsequent hour, backwards and forwards, carving a wake by New York Harbor, the downtown skyline behind her. The water made her really feel, she said, “Entirely relaxed and interested.”
Still the wind stored gusting, rising every time the boat handed Manhattan and navigated the more open waters of the Upper Bay.
“Yeah, there she is,” Mr. Horvath said as a powerful breeze slammed into the strict.
“There she is,” Mr. Emerick agreed.
“Why is it always she?” Ms. Dowd requested.
“Because of the patriarchy, I’m sure,” Mr. Horvath said. “Sailors talk about the wind as she. They talk about the boats as she, almost like romantic relationships.”
The gusts never rattled Ms. Dowd, although she did fear when the occasional water taxi neared her. But she held her course, even by what Mr. Horvath called “varsity-level wind,” which despatched her skirt flapping like a second sail.
When it was time to head again for the dock, Mr. Horvath had her steer behind a rubbish barge, zigzagging backwards and forwards till she returned the boat to its moorings.
“Prepare to tack,” Ms. Dowd said as if she’d been saying all of it of her life. “We’re now tacking.” She had embraced the position of sailor totally. “Someone takes direction really well,” Mr. Horvath said.