According to the Merriam-Webster® dictionary, one definition for the noun “compliance” is, “the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen or to coercion.”
The word couldn’t be more properly used as the title of a new movie where a man posing as a police officer calls an unsuspecting, unquestioning fast food restaurant manager, convinces her than one of her employees has stolen from a customer and then coerces her into actions that make victims of everyone involved, especially the young employee, played by Dreama Walked (“Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.”)
Ann Dowd stars as that manager, Sandra, in Compliance, opening this weekend in Los Angeles after earning more than $16,000 in just one New York City theatre last weekend (with more cities to follow). Having made a career so far from playing great supporting characters in both movies (Philadelphia, Marley & Me) and TV (“NYPD Blue,” the late-’90s ABC series “Nothing Sacred”) as well as being a respected theatre actress, Dowd takes center stage in a movie that explores the lengths people go to obey authority.
Sandra’s decisions trickle down onto her employees, even her soon-to-be fiancé, with devastating consequences. Yet, with Dowd’s informed, layered performance, it’s easy to see how this woman ends up in the compromising situation, also thanks in part to director Craig Zobel, who also wrote the screenplay.
Premiering earlier this year to mixed emotional reaction at Sundance, Dowd looks back on the movie’s debut on the spirited comments from audience members in a very candid interview with The Seven Sees. She also examines how playing this character made her look differently at similar headline-making events that made her realize Sandra’s situation isn’t all that uncommon, and she reflects on her time spent with Walker and Pat Healy, who portrays the officer on the other end of a sick phone call.
You can read excerpts from our interview following this featurette in which Zobel explains his interest in making the film and its events.
Gerrad Hall: This is one of those movies where you’re wondering where the action is going to take you. I slowly felt my eyes getting bigger in shock as more happened, my body started leaning into the screen. It’s so compelling – on one hand, I understand how it could’ve happened, and yet, on the other, I wonder, ‘How the hell could this have happened?’
Ann Dowd: Exactly. That’s perfectly put. I couldn’t agree more. I saw it first on the computer so I would have a sense of what I was heading into [watching it] on the big screen [at Sundance], and my husband was watching, and I could see his whole body trying to get out of the room, but his eyes never left the screen – he didn’t leave the room. It’s the two sides of it; You’re thinking, “This can’t be true,” but it’s impossible not to follow it its end, I’m afraid.
GH: Sandra seems like a very nice woman, a hard worker, probably easy to get along with, yet put in such a strange situation. What was your take on her?
AD: Well, when I first read the script, on a gut level I bought it, I bought her completely and what happened there. I actually could see and I could feel, even more frightening, how it could happen. It made sense to me, and I had tremendous sympathy for her.
I think if you take someone who really wants to please – that’s how she finds who she is, by pleasing other people – a very earnest person, lives externally – meaning needs the approval of others to make choices. [This takes place] on a very bad Friday night when she’s already made a very big mistake; somehow on her watch the refrigerator didn’t get shut and a lot of meat spoils [and it] cost a lot of money – she’s going into the busiest night of the week short certain ingredients that make a fast food restaurant run, and in the middle of this she gets a phone call. She is not a woman who challenges authority, it would never occur to her. Step by step by step, she has a man who completely pushes buttons for her, gets her in about ten seconds – “Oh, I see who she is.” – praises her – “Wow, you are something. Are you sure you don’t do this kind of work? I’m not sure I could do this without you helping me. I’ve got your boss on the other line; he assures me you’ll step in and help out.” – she’s all about that.
This notion of deferring to authority, we start that very young. We’re told, ‘Do what you’re told. – Why? – Because I said so.” That’s not unfamiliar to any parent. And unfortunately, every time I look around now that I have this different take on it, I’m more aware of it obviously having played the role … [Jerry] Sandusky and Penn State. How in the world could that have happened? The priests – how is that covered up? Because you were told to? You’re here to spread good in the world, and yet that is allowed to happen because someone said it was on their watch.
GH: Did you approach Sandra purely from what was in the script or did you watch the interviews with her that exist?
AD: Well, I watched an interview on “20/20,” and after watching just the one thing, I decided I wasn’t going to pursue that because the job in any role I suppose is the personal connection. I understood how she got into that, I understood that course of action she took; the farther she went, the worse it got. It’s a step-by-step process; she didn’t make one decision that night, she made many decisions. And the farther along she got, the less easy it was for her to gain any [awareness that] this isn’t right.
So the good news in working on this role for me was that I understood her, and I had tremendous sympathy for her. So there was no judgment, or at least not very much. I didn’t sit there and say, “This woman is stupid! She is so dumb! And how am I going to dumb down to do this?” That’s just not how she landed on me. I got that combination of who that woman is under those circumstances, [how it] could produce some pretty disastrous results. That’s how I approached her – what do I understand about her and what would I do in that circumstance? And it wasn’t so easy to say, “Well, not that!”
She’s not a rebellious kind of person, that’s not her nature – that’s the other thing. Growing in a home that was a very loving home, mine, religion was a very strong component. The Church does not encourage challenge…at all. Even if things don’t make the slightest sense to you, you take it on faith. [If] you challenge the premise that is offered to you, [the response is], “No, no, no, no!” I remember having many conversations with my dad who was a tremendously loving person, a very strong Catholic. I remember saying, “Well that doesn’t even make sense,” [and he would say,] “Now, now. I do appreciate your questioning things, but that’s not the opinion you may have.” That’s encouraged from such an early age, and that’s very costly, I think. It’s very costly to give up that barometer, that compass that says, “No, I don’t think so.” If you teach someone to defer and do as they’re told, there’s going to be a consequence, and it’s going to be a big one I think.
GH: I think audiences really appreciate the direction you took with Ann, reviews have been very good starting with the first screenings at Sundance earlier this year.
AD: It was my first trip to Sundance, and it was the first time I saw the film on the screen…with that cool audience. I don’t remember exactly how long it had been since we shot the film, but I had some objectivity, I had let the character go, so that when I watched it, I was very involved in the story and how it unfolds. You’re in such an intimate place with it when you’re shooting that – you do have a sense of the whole, otherwise you can’t chart it in a believable way; those little tiny steps where she gives it up a little more, a little more, I think it only works if you’re tracking her. So when the film ended and that lady started screaming, I was so taken aback. Her take on it – “Violence against women is not entertainment, Sundance is better than this!” – I just couldn’t really figure out what she was speaking about.
Then we had to get up in front of the audience and people were saying things – [I realized people had] been triggered here, which I totally get. And that woman, it concerned me tremendously because I thought whatever happened there, I don’t know, and I hope to God she has not been through this herself personally, but something has happened and you don’t have the time to process it. The people who were sort of losing it, you could just tell that, had they been given a day to digest [the movie] possibly and then re-frame it for themselves – I don’t even know if that’s true – but my thought at the time was, “Wow, this is very hard for people to take this.”
GH: What was your experience working with Dreama Walker and then watching everything play out in the final product?
AD: Well, first of all, I adored her personally. There were no frills on this set, and there’s something pretty great about that. It’s like doing a play, meaning you’re all in it for the work, there’s no comfort zone to step into to remove yourself from that environment, so we just hung out. She was going to start her new life in Los Angeles soon; directly after filming, she was leaving for Los Angeles starting a new television program. We had a lot of time to time to talk, and getting to know her was such a pleasure. She’s a total sweetheart, and I enjoyed her immensely.
So you feel, not protective, but I was very, very fond of her personally, so that made the work easier, believe it or not, because we worked very well together. She was very open, she was always prepared. We were just in it together. I certainly felt for her in the…really, really horrible scenes between Sandra’s fiancé and Dreama. I wanted to just be there in support. That could not have been easy to shoot. She was brave, she was direct, and she did it. And she was strong, remarkably so, for someone as young as Dreama, beyond her years composed and very able and together.
When we were at Sundance, it was very upsetting, the guy screaming [at Dreama] because he was also going places I’m sure he did not intend to do – he was saying, “she’s really beautiful, too” as though it were some kind of turn-on, which of course is not where the film goes in any way, shape or form. And so [Dreama] is standing there not prepared for that kind of bizarre mis-take on her participation in the film. Ashlie Atkinson, who plays the assistant to Sandra, she just got articulate right away with this guy and said, “Listen, if that’s the kind of thing that takes you in that direction, you’ve got some work to do, you’ve got some problems.”
GH: Pat Healy’s character certainly has some problems. His performance is impressive on many levels here, very effective. What was it like being on the other end of the phone hearing that voice? It must have transported you.
AD: Well, yes, that decision to have [him on the phone] live made the film. First of all, about Pat Healy, he is just a doll. You talk to him for four minutes and you just want to be his friend. I think Craig had given some thought to us not meeting beforehand, but logistically speaking I think there was just no way to pull that off. So meeting him and liking him immediately, he is just a sweetheart.
But to have him on the phone going right into that character, Pat very simply was utterly believable and all the more powerful because you look at him and talk to him and see what his life is and then you realize, “Oh, my God, what life is this guy living?” He pulled that off in an amazing, amazing way.
GH: Everyone does such a wonderful job. Your name has started popping up on potential awards contender lists.
AD: Oh, it’s so thrilling, the whole thing. It’s just been pretty extraordinary just to work on a film of that caliber with that script and those people. It’s a dream come true.
Compliance is rated R and runs 90 minutes. Ann Dowd can next be seen as Rebel Wilson’s mother in Bachelorette and Gimme Shelter with Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, James Earl Jones and Brendan Fraser.