Oscar Wildcard: Why I wish I'd pushed harder for Ann Dowd of 'Compliance'


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prize_fighter1_bannerCompliance is based on a true story, and even the most unsettling things in it really happened. But that has really disturbed for some moviegoers. What kind of reactions have you gotten?

People are triggered. And probably a lot of them hadn’t thought it through, so they were angry. The hope is that it doesn’t require having to repeat several times that this is in fact a true story. You hope people get the connection that, slow but sure, this is how it happened. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but to some degree we are all capable of deferring, and dropping our own compass.

You play a woman who does what she is told to do without questioning it. It’s very easy to sit in the audience and say, ‘I would behave differently.’

There was a premiere that Psychology Today hosted for us and that was bizarre. You can imagine a roomful of psychoanalysts looking at it. One woman in the back said, ‘It’s simply an IQ issue. That woman has to be so stupid, because we would not do that in this room.’ And somebody raised their hand and said ‘Well, I’m highly educated and I’m here to tell you that to some degree we would all comply. We’re all capable of it.’

This film is about that authoritarian impulse happening on a small scale, but of course it happens on grand historical scales, too. It’s a part of who we are, and that’s not a comfortable thing to live with. We all follow the pack, sometimes against our own judgment.

Another person said, ‘Do you think of this as an American phenomenon?’ I thought, ‘Uh, I beg your pardon?’ I mean, where do you go with that except Nazi Germany?

Human beings have a long history of obeying, even if it is something abhorrent to us. And it happens because the change comes in degree. Pat Healy [who plays the caller pretending to be a police detective] doesn’t start out by telling you to strip-search Dreama’s character. He starts small. And inch by inch, much more terrible things start to happen.

What we learn is to defer to authority. Do as your told. Speak when you’re spoken to. You’re short-circuited from a very early age to abandon your compass. I hope I would have said, ‘That is just bullsh-t.’ But not this woman. She was not wired that way.

How did it feel playing Sandra, since we all would like to think: I’m not her.

Someone asked, what was your first response when you read the script? I said, ‘Shame. I am ashamed.’  That was the central character of Sandra. At a very early age she was told her opinion did not matter, that she was not smart enough to choose on her own.

She strikes me as very lonely.

Isolated. Exactly. She’s very accustomed to being humiliated. She lives with her father. She’s going to marry this guy she can barely stand, just so she can be a married person. I can imagine her father saying, ‘Listen, fatty, you better grab this guy because nobody else will be asking.’

And that’s the catalysts for everything that happens, isn’t it? If the manager who took that call had had more confidence, or been a stronger person, she might have resisted this random person on the phone – or at least demanded some verification.

She lives externally, for sure, to please. Imagine this is a police officer and he’s saying, ‘Are you sure you didn’t do this work before? You’re like a deputy!’ And to her it’s just like, ‘Ah, say more!’ She’s thinking, ‘See, I always knew I was smart. Nobody else did. But he gets it – he sees that in me!’

Despite her flaws, did you find yourself liking Sandra at all – or was she someone you were glad to get some distance on when it was over?

I came to understand and really love this woman. I had deep sympathy for her. I can’t even imagine what her life is.

Whatever happens with the Oscars, I hope you enjoy this experience and that more people discover this movie because of it.

That’s the thing. You feel fortunate to have gotten the part. Craig Zobel is great as a writer and director, and he’s the nicest guy who walks, let me tell you. Talk about no ego, very collaborative, the whole thing. When I came in, I thought: ‘They must have already cast this part,’ because of the size of it and how great it was. I thought I was a safety. That happens. You’re called in to audition, and realize something else is at going on.

Yeah, sometimes filmmakers just want a read to hear how the role sounds as they refine the script.

But then I realized: This is for real. We’re really working on these scenes. And the next thing I knew I had it! I was like, What? Pinch me please!

Compliance debuts on DVD and VOD Jan. 8.

For more on Oscar season

Read More:
National Board of Review highlights ‘Compliance’ actress Ann Dowd

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