Compliance, one of the most controversial and criminally under-seen movies of the year seems, at times, so unbelievable that you’d struggle to comprehend how the events in the film could actually happen were it not for the fact that the story it is based on is not only true, but similar events have actually happened over 70 times in the U.S. Featuring extremely brave performances by character actress Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker as two fast-food restaurant employees convinced to do unspeakable things by a man posing as a police officer on the phone, the film will challenge your sensibilities, patience and willingness to comprehend just how this could actually happen.
We talked to actress Ann Dowd about her decision to self-finance her own Oscar campaign, her career-defining performance, and the controversial subject matter of Compliance (out on Blu-ray and DVD on January 8).
Movies.com: You’ve been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the Critics Choice Award, the Independent Spirit Award, and you won in that category from the National Board of Review, yet The Hollywood Reporter recently broke the story that you had to spend $13,000 of your own money to buy awards screeners for an Oscar campaign. You only made $1,600 on this movie. There are two ways this could go: first, you get nominated and win. Do you already know who you’re going to thank and does it include Magnolia Pictures?
Ann Dowd: I would imagine you’d thank the world, but then you’d have to get more specific. [Laughs] It’s not hard to come up with the people who have been there, though. It’s not hard to come up with how fortunate one feels to have, first of all, gotten the role, and then to have a director and writer like Craig and a cast like we had. The only problem is, where do you stop?
Movies.com: Scenario two is you either don’t win or don’t receive a nomination. In that case, do you have any regrets about your decision to launch this self-financed Oscar campaign?
Dowd: No, not at all. I was thrilled to just say that I’m fortunate to have people that I could actually ask to help out.
Movies.com: Going out and spending the money for these screeners really speaks to how much you believe in your performance and this story.
Dowd: I love the idea that people will see the film because I know it’s not an easy watch, and it’s not the kind of thing you’re going to bring your date to, but I think it’s such a good film and I think Craig did it so beautifully. And I think it’s a very important story. Let’s start to value our own sense of what’s right and wrong and take the responsibility for it. I don’t think that would be a bad thing.
Movies.com: It’s certainly a tough sell, quality of the movie aside.
Dowd: Yeah, it is. Hey, my mother sat through it and she did just fine! [Laughs] I just told her to hang in there. But, I’ve really enjoyed all of it. I have no regrets whatsoever. Extremely grateful is the reigning emotion.
Movies.com: How did you end up landing the role of Sandra, the ChickWich manager?
Dowd: I was in a play in New York City called Blood from a Stone and David Gordon Green [executive producer of Compliance] saw it and called Craig [Zobel] to have me come in. I read the script and thought it was really well written. I loved the role right off the bat and I thought I understood her. On some level I connected. I went into the audience and had a great time with Craig. We worked the scene several ways and then there was a conflict with the dates. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen, but then the dates shifted and that’s how I got [it].
Movies.com: The film tells a story that’s so tough for any rational person to believe, if it didn’t happen in real life. How did you approach the real life of the story? Did you know about the real crimes and research them for the role?
Dowd: No, not really. I knew about them because Craig forwarded some articles about the Milgram experiment and so on, but I knew exactly why she did it so I didn’t hook into too much research of the real people because I wasn’t being asked to play the real person. I didn’t have that pressure.
I think that, to be honest, when you were raised in such a way that the focus is on doing what you’re told and deferring to the authority in your life – whether it be the church or your parents or the teachers – depending on your constitution it’s going to silence your own compass early on. If you’re someone like Sandra who has a self-esteem issue she probably feels she’s lucky to have the job. The little clues the writer gives us are so great. For instance, Van [Sandra's fiance] asking her father for permission to marry her. You know, the woman is in her late 40s or early 50s. Why does her father need to give his permission to marry her? What’s going on there? I think she probably lives with him and does all the cooking and cleaning and I’m sure he’s probably not great to her. She never really separated from that. I mean, this is the backstory that one does as an actor.
Maybe someone else would approach it differently, but I felt like that night was a kind of perfect storm for her because she’d already blown it with the freezer and she has so much shame. She hasn’t learned how to deal with that shame as an adult. She’s heading into the day limping already. She doesn’t have support and she’s out of her element among the young people working there who couldn’t care less about ChickWich. When she gets that call from the “detective” she never looks back. I don’t think it ever occurred to her for one second that it wasn’t a detective. I think her whole focus in life is pleasing others and that’s how she defines herself as the good person who does what she’s told as fast as possible. I think the caller is so savvy about human nature and who he’s speaking to as well. He just knows exactly what to say to her at all times.
Movies.com: She so desperately wants to fit in and be liked by everyone. There’s the scene in the beginning where she talks about sexting before she walks away and overhears Dreama’s character making fun of her. That spoke volumes about the kind of person she is.
Dowd: I think about that moment as well. That was hard to shoot because she’s so awkward trying to tell that little story about her fiancé. Can you imagine saying that? How much do you want to fit in to be able to say something like that? There was no end to it. I would say it and think, “I don’t know what to say now.” I just had to walk away. It brings me back to adolescence and those awkward moments when you’re trying to fit in, but you’re just a loser and you’re not going to do it. Then when you hear them make fun of you, there’s that same shame. I don’t know if it’s women more than men, but there’s that shame moment where you suddenly lose your bearings and you’re not operating with a full deck. You’re just kind of bumbling around and hoping the night gets better and you don’t mess up anymore.
Movies.com: It is like when people ask someone, “Have you seen this movie?” And nine times out of 10 the answer is, “Oh, yeah!” even when the person usually hasn’t. They just want to fit in and be a part of the conversation.
Dowd: I remember early on in my life wanting to be in that group. I went to an all-girls Catholic school and, right there, shame is the operating factor. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and so on. You just feel like you’re being watched at all times. Anything sexual, you just went straight to that confessional. You know, you try a cigarette when you’re in ninth grade and it tastes so terrible but you smoke it anyway just to fit in.
Movies.com: Do you think there was any time in her dealing with the caller that she just knew it was complete bullshit, but in her mind she wanted so badly to believe it that she created this fantasy world? Or do you think it was really all real for her?
Dowd: I would say, without hesitation, that it was completely real to her. She’s not capable of that kind of creation. She’s not that kind of person. She just can’t do it. I think she’s humorless because she keeps everything so close to her, and people who do that don’t often have the strength to say, “You know what, this is bullshit, but hey, she has it coming to her, that little tramp.” I just don’t.
Movies.com: There’s this scene when your character first starts being really manipulated by the caller and the look on her face and her emotions is just terrifying. It’s almost as if this caller is perpetrating some sort of assault or, for lack of a better word, rape over the phone. Did going through the tough emotional scenes like that leave you with scars when you went home at night?
Dowd: Well, we got up and went to work and the first three nights were all-night shoots because we shot in a restaurant that was only available to us at night. We, literally, were home, went to sleep, woke up, got in the car, went to the set. That’s the kind of work mode we had. It was a good one in the sense that we were all very comfortable with each other. The reason I didn’t carry scars from it was that I understood it. I felt very privileged to experience this woman’s life and quite happy to walk away too.
Movies.com: Compliance could almost be categorized as a simple mystery, thriller, or whodunit, but it’s also kind of a twisted and difficult horror film. How would you categorize it?
Dowd: I agree that it’s a kind of psychological thriller – that’s how people experience it – but my take on it is so different because I had so little objectivity. The first time I saw it on a screen was at Sundance and it was a great crowd, but as you know it got completely crazy at the end. I was very drawn to the story. I think Craig directed it and paced it in such a way that it’s very compelling. My uncle is a pretty conservative guy and he read about it before it came out and he said to me, “No, no. I’m sorry, but she’s got to be the stupidest person alive.” But the women in the room (my aunt and me) got it in two seconds because you’re just not raised (depending on your home, of course) to think for yourself, value your opinion, and be unafraid to say, “I’m so very sorry. If you have an issue here, you better come down with your badge and do your work because I’m running a restaurant here so I can’t help you out.” We’d all like to think we’d do that, but you really don’t know until you’re in that situation.
Movies.com: Dreama goes through this amazing transformation during the film. She goes from playful, cute and fun in the beginning to just pitch-black darkness after having her soul ripped out over 90 minutes. Most people only know her from her sitcom. How was it working alongside her?
Dowd: She’s a doll. She is the loveliest person. I just adore her and I hope we’ll stay in touch. She didn’t make any song and dance about what she had to do. She’s a young, beautiful actress that just did her work. I have such respect for her and she’s a real friend. We got through it together. Of course, she had the harder job with the more vulnerable, physical experience, but we all made sure she knew she was supported by us.
Movies.com: She deserves all the critical acclaim as well. The two of you together is really powerful.
Dowd: I hadn’t done a role of this size and have not gotten this kind of attention in film, so it’s been a blast. It’s been really exciting.
Movies.com: Having kids of your own, did that moment near the end of the film when we meet the daughter just tear you to shreds?
Dowd: I have a foster son whom I love deeply. I’ve had him since he’s nine months old (he’s now eight) and he’s been in six homes in his first seven years of his life. I have seen the suffering of children the likes of which you can’t even imagine. So, yes, that moment definitely affected me. I’ve had to increase my tolerance for being able to watch that type of thing because I live with it, to a degree. It just opens your eyes to what we expect our children to be able to cope with.
Movies.com: How do you think your character’s actions might have been different if she had children of her own?
Dowd: This character that I play in Compliance as well, she’s never had children and she’s never felt that parental need to protect. Her antenna is not up, or it’s very broken. When you have a child, you’re ready to jump up and protect them in two seconds. We can’t sit by and just watch.
Movies.com: If she had a child and been a mother, would she have done what she did?
Dowd: Exactly. She might have known to question it and understand that something just wasn’t right. As a parent, it’s one of those things where you just want to protect people like this waitress like she’s one of your kids.
Movies.com: By the end of the film, it’s clear that she’s broken emotionally and has been for most of the film. There is a little bit of nervous laughter and small talk with the man who’s interviewing her. Her need for acceptance is so great that even when she knows it’s all over and her back is against the wall, the only thing she wants is to not be awkward. The moment seems so organic on-screen. Was that scripted or was that you?
Dowd: It’s a little bit of both. Craig is very smart and intuitive. At the end, he just left that camera running and you’re done when he says, “Cut.” I don’t remember exactly how it came to be, but by that time I already felt like we did the part together. By day two, we were completely in sync. I would just look over at him and know what we had to do. That was my last scene to shoot and we were just very in sync by then. It just made total sense. Sometimes silence is the hardest thing to maintain. It’s so hard to just sit there with the discomfort and not talk. She wanted to answer all his questions because she wanted to please the interviewer, but what was she even going to say? She just can’t possibly take responsibility for it. She still feels like she’s the victim. She has no skills for taking a good, hard look at herself.
You can see Ann Dowd in Compliance when it hits Blu-ray and DVD on Jan 8.