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Interview: Ann Dowd on "Compliance" and Oscar Buzz

Ann Dowd loves the word "delicious". She describes her children this way and actors she admires, too ("Annette Bening! She's delicious and such a good actress"). And what word could possibly be a better fit to fully convey the joy of this moment in her career?

When the tiny indie Compliance debuted to surprisingly robust critical conversation this past August, Ann Dowd won the kind of reviews that Oscar dreams are made of... even from critics who didn't like the film. Her superbly layered work as "Sandra", the prickly overwhelmed fast food manager at the center of the ethically disturbing drama lingers in the memory. Proof of that is a recent well deserved nomination at the Spirit Awards. I spoke to her a few hours after the announcement of her biggest prize yet, The Best Supporting Actress Award from the National Board of Review.

NATHANIEL: Congratulations on winning the NBR Prize!

ANN DOWD: Thank you so much. I have to say I'm beside myself. Really happy.

Have you seen Ann Dowd's riveting work in Compliance yet?

NATHANIEL: Does all of this attention feel like "It's about time!"?

[Oscar buzz, Freaks and Geeks, and red carpet panic after the jump...]

ANN DOWD: No, it feels just quite blissful. I'm way past 'it's about time.' What I mean by that is that you figure out (Thank God!), you know, however many years in: just relax, do your work, do the roles you love, keep your spirits sharp, keep your focus on the work and it will work itself out. When you make that shift it's never about 'it's about time'. You're just too happy to be working. And this  is too good a thing to have any other feeling than 'Hey, I'm thrilled.' That's honestly how I feel.

NATHANIEL: Are you already panicking about red carpets you'll have to walk.

ANN DOWD: No darling. Not panicking but I am considering a diet and the issue of what to wear. But hey you know what? I'm still a mother of three children. The day is full of real tasks to complete. I tell myself if that's my worst problem  --oh my gosh, you mean I have to go and shop?! --  I shall survive.

You have to give an acceptance speech at the NBR dinner, don't you?

I heard that. What will I say? You have tons of things you'd want to say but you have to keep it brief. The phone rang and Adam Kersh - love him - called and "oh you got..." and I thought 'Are you are kidding me?' It's been a lovely lovely afternoon. Honestly, it's heaven.

Since this role, Sandra, is so meaty for an actor and generally in film you've played much smaller roles. Did this feel more like what you've experienced in the theater?

In the end the larger roles are easier in a sense than the smaller. Someone said there are no small roles and I'm not sure I totally agree. When you have more time with a character you know more about her so connecting the dots is a much easier thing. To see her under that many circumstances -- trying to get her troops together when she's overmatched to begin with. It's not the job for her for heaven's sake. I don't think Sandra was born to manage young people in a fast food restaurant.

The great thing about film -- especially an independent picture -- is that there's no time to overthink anything. It's a long day, you have lines, and then you hope you understood it and you got it right. And then you move on to what's ready for tomorrow. It's an amazing thing; you put one foot in front of the other.

We had a great writer and director, Craig Zobel, and what a dream that is to begin with. He's a very smart man and also hugely collaborative. You're right there in the room with him back and forth as though you're both doing it together. It's one day at a time quite literally. In the theater you have a role staring you down and you think 'sometime soon I'm going to be doing this all in one night.'  That's terrifying. This you really can do one day at a time. 

Dowd and Zobel at the Deauville film festival in France

Compliance is limited in scope in terms of sets and production schedule. So were you able to shoot in sequence?

Whatever we could we shot in sequence. Everything in the restaurant we did during the night hours, sundown to sun up, because the restaurant was closed. We did that in the first three long nights of shooting. Once we went into the inner office, and the hallways we did on a built set in sequence which was hugely helpful.

I was going to say ...this performance -- I don't mean to gush as it might be embarrassing for you...

Honey are you kidding? I try to keep it in perspective but it's so lovely.

One things that shocked me about the performance is how much of it hits you cumulatively. You just kept giving more and more. I can't even express how perfect I think your line readings are in that great epilogue interview sequence. It's one of the most layered performances I've seen in years. 

Thank you.

I did feel I understood her. I was having flashbacks to my middle management days. People don't realize how little autonomy you can have in terms of thinking.

I totally get it. 

How did you add so much depth to her?  

It's an interesting questions because you know, when I read it, I understood her. Because you see, at the core of someone who does not make decisions is a person who has been shamed on some level and probably as a child. You don't abandon your compass without reason.

I grew up in a family that's very loving and Catholic. You're taught -- and I mean early on -- you defer to the church and the teachings of the church. Whatever idea you may have... 'uh huh, that's lovely but now this is what the rule is'.  You learn that your own instinct and opinion about something is really not what's valued. It takes a strong constitution -- you come into the world with one or not -- to be able to say "I'm sorry that just doesn't work for me". Sandra does not have that constitution. I think early on she was told 'sit down and stop talking. As she grew up 'Look at you, you fat thing. If you ever get a marriage proposal you better grab the first one you get.'  I don't think anyone ever said 'You're great just the way you are.' Her whole approach to life is who does it please; her reference is always external not internal.

I understood her therefore I didn't judge her. That's a huge break as an actor. Judgment stops the knowing of a person. No character is going to reveal herself if you are saying "What's the matter with you?"

My only point here is that to hold on to one's compass should be basic to life but you have to encourage it. Sandra had none of that. It was a perfect storm. She feels basically pretty worthless and then there's this Friday night. You couldn't pick better circumstances to have this person derail.

You're in the new Soderbergh Side Effects and we just saw you in Leslye Headland's Bachelorette.

We're going to do an extra scene soon I'm looking forward to that. Soderbergh is pretty great. And Leslye. Don't you love her? My nickname for her is "The Wizard".

Why's that?

First of all the brain and the humor. And the way she would just know what's next. She kind of floored me. I loved her to pieces on the set and then I would see her in ADR and think to myself "that child is a wizard." Nothing floored her. I like her very much.

Are you considering theater projects?

No but I better get myself in there fast. It's the great leveler, you know? The ingredient that you can't do without is basic courage, to step out there and put it on the line. I think it's time to get myself back to business and keep my feet firmly on the ground.

You've had a long steady career but you are a relatively new name for people in terms of this level of discussion. What three past performances are you really proud of that people could rent?

Ann Dowd in "Garden State"

Oh, I loved doing Garden State. Zach Braff was just great. I loved doing Freaks and Geeks.

I love that show so much.

Honestly, how that disappeared is completely beyond me. The cast -- they're all so smart and funny. Mike White. I don't know if you saw those episodes but I could never look back at the couch because it would send me into fits of laughter. I loved doing that. Law and Order an episode called "Compassion" Those are three that come to mind. I happened to watch Philadelphia the other day. What a good film that was. 

What actors or directors would you love to work with?

I always have an answer until this very moment. The list goes long you know. Steven Spielberg -- I think the world of him. Kathryn Bigelow -- are you kidding?! Craig Zobel again. I loved being on a Clint Eastwood set. That was a wonderful experience, heaven. Denzel... oh please. 

Did you see Flight?

ANN: [Excited] Oh come on, He's so good, isn't he? I tell you this sincerely: I love watching actors age when they let it alone because it's a beautiful thing. And it's life so you feel so reassured on every level. He's such a wonderful wonderful actor. Meryl Streep I had the great pleasure of very briefly working with her on Manchurian Candidate. Aside from her talent which is there for the world to see and try to comprehend she's just an extraordinary human being. And it was watching her on a set that I realized 'Oh I see.The degree of celebrity that you let change your life is a  matter of choice.' She carries no celebrity with her. She's an actor on a set doing her work. And that was just a revelation. 

A scene from Compliance

NATHANIEL: What do you make of all the Oscar talk?

ANN DOWD: You dream of these things and suddenly there's talk of it and you think "pinch me someone". And then I remind myself. Pick up a script, Get your head out of wherever it is and get down to business.

NATHANIEL: Please tell me you've received a ton of scripts since this movie came out.

ANN DOWD: Darling, I haven't. But I'm hopeful. Let me put it that way. I'm hopeful. What I really feel is hugely fortunate. That's how I feel.

Ms. Dowd, who has been working steadily on stage, and in film and television since the early 80s, hasn't ever experienced this kind of attention before and though she didn't mask her excitement her head wasn't anywhere near the clouds. She came across nothing like the frazzled incompetent Sandra but as an exceptionally warm mom next door. She offered to loan me DVDs of a series we both loved ("Nothing Sacred"). When we hung up she was planning nothing more glamorous than making dinner for her kids. I bet it was delicious.

Related Posts
Supporting Actress Prediction Chart
Other Articles on Compliance 

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Reader Comments (23)

GREAT interview. She's so good in the movie, and now I know she's a fantastic interview. How can we all not want her making the rounds this year?

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill h

If you read this amazing interview, and you're like, "Who was Ann Dowd on Freaks and Geeks?" It will all come back to you here:
"She's a bum, like all your other friends!"

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Pieces like this are so fascinating. Acting is one of the most interesting parts of film-making to me because the way talented actors/actresses (like Ms. Dowd) can get inside a fictional being and just transform is totally mind-boggling. Watching a great performance is like watching a good magic show--I don't really understand how it's possible, and I kind of hope I never learn.

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe K

She seems really awesome! Really hoping she gets recognised at the Oscars

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJB

I love how she kept calling you "Darling"! How sweet.

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Interviews and actors like this are why I follow the Oscars. Whether or not she gets nominated, I'm now going to check out a small film I wouldn't have otherwise seen (being COMPLIANCE) and will no doubt come to appreciate an actor I wasn't otherwise much conscious of.

Because I'm not just following the Oscars, but following the Oscars *conversation*. Which has very much broadened my filmgoing and appreciation rather than limiting it. And hallelujah for that.

Look forward to reading more of your interviews (15?!) as you find the time to transcribe them.

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Great interview. Loved her bit on Freaks and Geeks - I'd completely forgotten she was on it. "She's a bum! Just like all your other friends!"

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

acceptance speech. Though I think it might be interesting to hear an exception speech.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen

lol. I blame the flu. Shut up.

December 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Excellent. I'm really hoping the Academy gives her the nom. That performance is so deserving.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

Reminds me of Melissa Leo a couple years ago -- a longtime working actor getting some well-deserved notice.

And how great is it that she calls you "darling" and "honey"? Charming!

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Haven't seen the movie but I loved this interview! She seems quite intelligent and thankful to be doing what she loves (as anyone should be).

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I love when actors off the radar get a chance. I really want to see this movie.

PS She was Hanks' sister in Philadelphia wasn't she?

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This years Jacki Weaver hopefully.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

Just perfection, this conversation. You are so great at questions and being specific to each actor's role and career position. Loved this.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

I am in total agreement with Steve G. - I come to this site primarily to hear about movies I would not hear about through the normal "mass media" channels so I do not miss out on films of real quality. I would know nothing of Ann Dowd (or Emmanuelle Riva and "Amour"), for example, if I had not heard about the performances here. Thanks again, Nathaniel, for providing an essential public service !

(And a reminder to those of you who enjoy this service without contributing to its you work for free at your place of business? Consider giving up that cup of coffee and pass a sovereign or two Nathaniel's way, okay?)

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Great interview Nathaniel. She seems so down to Earth and just very humble.

We're going to have her on the Awards Circuit Power Hour this Sunday LIVE at 6pm Eastern time. We welcome you and any of your readers and staff to come on the site at 6pm, where they can send questions via chat or just call into the show and speak with Ann directly.

Looking forward to it.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClayton Davis

Such a great interview, I haven't watched COMPLIANCE and can barely remember Ms. Dowd in any films she is in (shameful on me), but I do wish her best luck in the Oscar champion, there are so many hardworking thespians haven't gotten their time yet, it is a blissful moment when it comes at least once every year, good luck Ann Dowd!

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlasttimeisaw

I don't understand why she's in Supporting Actress, really, but I'm glad she's getting attention.

December 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew r.

Delicious interview! =)

December 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElton Telles

This interview was so much more interesting than reading an interview with say...Helen Hunt or Anne Hathaway.

December 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

EXcellent interview, Nathaniel! You really captured Ann's ambience. Her uber-charming personality. You can also see my interview with her on my You Tube channel. BEFORE all this happened to her! We hoped it was going to, and it did!

December 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Holt

Thank you Stephen!

December 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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