If you’ve ever watched any of the Law and Order series you have seen Ann Dowd. She’s been on them all. She’s a journeywoman actress, one you have seen in many places, whose work you constantly admire but who never plays the lead. In Compliance she takes on the lead of Sandra, the manager of a fast food restaurant who is about to have the worst night of her life.
Women and Hollywood: This is a big role for you in film. Talk about why this part appealed to you.
Ann Dowd: The role right of the bat. I read the script while I was doing a play. It was fantastically written and compelling. I didn’t know the story before hand about what was going on. I knew she was real. I felt for her immediately. I thought all it takes is that perfect storm of low self esteem, a woman who was pleaser who defers to authority, especially men. A woman who’s been probably told you are not worth a whole lot so you had better grab this guy and marry him because you won’t get more opportunities. What she does for others and the approval she gets makes her who she is. Put that with a very busy Friday night when on your watch a lot of food is spoiled. Too few staff and out of two key ingredients. All of those things combined and then you have a detective on the phone. Add that up and you have the potential for a real disaster to occur.
WaH: Did it scare you to play this part in how big it was but also the disturbing nature of the role?
AD: Just recently reading about Penn State makes me think how in the world could that have happened? The priests covering up because the bishops said to. I think it is all around us and we all stare it down in one way of another. Thankfully it all doesn’t take the full course that Sandra’s eveing does. But I think we are all incredibly familiar on a gut level with complying. When I read it what was unnerving was that I knew it could be true of me. I came from a very loving family lots of kids, Irish Catholic, and the lesson there was to defer to the church without question. It does not allow individual thinking so where do you get your skills for standing up and saying wait a minute I have a compass here and this is not working out for me. I don’t believe in what you have asked me to do and I am not doing it. Sandra surely has no skills there. It would never have occurred to her to say no. So yes, it was frightening, but it was frightening because I knew it could be true.
I never went to the place about carrying the film. It is an ensemble and having been in the theatre for a long time that’s the deal it’s all of us together. I knew I had my part to play and so I just took a deep breath. I had use come off a very difficult role in the theatre which was a pound of flesh a day. A play called Blood From a Stone at the New Group with Ethan Hawke and its was just very hard every night. I got home at midnight on Saturday and left the house Sunday morning at 5 – I went straight into it. I had that theatre courage and said if I look ahead to the end of the run I will never make it so I took one day at a time, one scene at a time. Craig is a very good director to work with because he is hugely collaborative. I feel like we did the role together. I could just check in with him and he with me. We got to the point where we would look at each other and go let’s shift that. I never felt alone. It was a wonderful acting experience. We shot all through the night three times and so you really had to hang together because that is brutal.
WaH: Have you been surprised at the reception to the film?
AD: Yes. I didn’t really give it any thought ahead of time. I loved the script when I read it and think he is a wonderful filmmaker but I never thought it would trigger so many responses. I had not seen the film on a screen until the premiere at Sundance. I remember just watching it because it had been so long since we made it so I was really intrigued with the story. As the lights came up a lady started screaming about how violence towards women is not entertainment and Sundance is better than that. And I just thought wait a minute- what? And it was surprising to see. The responses were not all negative. Another woman stood up and said something along the lines of, I wanted to get up and go but I realized I am not leaving but I am bringing my granddaughters. You think how often you teach your children to never open a door to a stranger and someone of authority rings the doorbell and the door opens in 2 seconds flat. I was also really happily surprised at how much conversation the movie has created. Isn’t it great when people start talking?
WaH: I think maybe what the woman at Sundance was saying was that there is an expectation that when there is going to be sexual violence and assault people expect to know that before they walk in so that they can make that decision. Part of the issue with this film is that you don’t know it’s coming and you can’t say it in advance and people are upset about it.
AD: That’s a very interesting point. It makes a lot of sense.
WaH: You’ve been a TV, film and theatre actress and I was wondering if there was any medium you prefer and how do you go from medium to medium?
AD: I have to say my background was mostly theatre, which I love, and it took a long time to feel comfortable there. That’s probably true of anyone’s career. It’s a question of dropping the armor and getting up and doing the work you want to do. And film at first is frightening because you are like what’s that camera doing? But then it becomes family and therefore a really wonderful experience. TV is terrific. It’s really fast paced which I find difficult. There is a lot to get done and I’ve done film a lot lately. I have 3 children and doing a play involves the dinner and bedtime, two very crucial periods, so I try to choose really carefully. I am very much looking forward to doing a play. I don’t have anything yet on the horizon. I’m going to go to Alaska to shoot a film for a few days. I am excited about that.
WaH: I feel like you are really hitting a stride now in terms of your work and you are great role model for women. I don’t know how old you are but I know you are not 25 and now you are seeing a whole different level of success as you are getting older.
AD: I couldn’t agree more. I never bought into that. I decided that I will not accept that way of thinking. Life gets more interesting as it goes on. It becomes fuller because there is perspective there. And if I thought you are telling me that it is all behind me I am absolutely not going there. The roles will present themselves. Keep believing, keep working, stay positive, stay focused, stay sharp and do the best work you can do. Live you life in a balanced way and know the roles are out there. I feel really grateful and I try to tell myself I am not dreaming this. I do believe the more work you do the more work you’ll have. There are some brilliant roles for every age group. I do not dwell on it. Sometimes I would think when I read stories about how all the great roles are for younger actresses but I decided not to focus on that at all. Lovely for me I’ve had some wonderful opportunities.
Compliance opens today in NYC and then rolls out across the country.