By Anthony Breznican
December 28, 2012 at 08:30 PM EST
Michel Spingler/AP
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  • Movie
Ann Dowd in 'Compliance'

I feel bad because I gave up on Ann Dowd.

Early in the Oscar season, when the field is so open and many films are still unseen, it’s easier to get behind an underdog. There’s more room to suggest a longshot for consideration’s sake, which to me feels a bit more interesting than just trying to “guess right” for … what exactly? A pat on the head for correctly predicting who might get a trophy?

That’s why I wish I’d had the nerve to give Dowd more of a push for her truly devastating performance in Compliance as a fast food manager who is manipulated into doing terrible things by a man who calls her restaurant and says he is a cop investigating one of her young employees.

As EW’s new Oscar writer, I’ve highlighted a number of wildcard “Consider This” suggestions, most of whom were far darker horses than Dowd. She’s one of those longtime working actors whose face you know even if her name isn’t a household one. She was Tom Hanks’ sister in Philadelphia, the veterinarian in Marley & Me, and Natalie Portman’s mom in Garden State – among dozens of others. Her performance in Compliance as the subservient manager who allows terrible things to happen to her teenage co-worker (Don’t Trust the B’s Dreama Walker) shows how a longtime character actress can also be a star — when given the chance.

I listed her work in Compliance (which was written and directed by Craig Zobel) among the supporting actress longshots in EW’s early November look at the race – but as I look back at my picks for MovieCityNews.com’s Gurus o’ Gold, I never ranked Dowd as one of my favorites. I suppose I was trying to “guess right,” and — for better or worse — prioritized that above advocacy.

There are arguments to be made for playing it safe: On one hand, it’s important to reflect what voters are saying, and this little indie thriller – with its shocking story that divides audiences — never had the money to make a strong campaign push, so it was never fully on Academy voters’ radars.

But there’s also a case to be made that doing that is part of the job of Oscar writers such as myself. We have a platform that can serve a purpose beyond just, “Look at me, I’m a good guesser!” There’s value in pushing for what you think is right – or at least worthwhile (which, ironically, is the central theme of Compliance, too.)

When Dowd won best supporting actress from the National Board of Review, all this nebulous goodwill toward her work seemed to coalesce. Though still a longshot, awards possibilities began to seem more legit. Eight film critics groups nominated her for the role, and she’s a supporting actress contender at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards.

Though the distributor wasn’t interested in spending the money, the mom of three and her husband put together $13,000 to have screeners of Compliance sent out to the Hollywood awards community – an admirable act of faith, first reported by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?

Dowd is still only a remote possibility for that elusive supporting actress Oscar nomination, but I’ve started to believe in her, too. Why not push back against the pack, even if it’s late in the game?

Entertainment Weekly: Ann, I love the work you did in Compliance, and thought you had an early shot – but I feel terrible for abandoning ship. I’m back on board. I’m rooting for you.

I love that … When you make a movie you do the best you can, and then let go. Whenever I saw something that said Oscar worthy performance, I almost fainted. I thought, ‘This is just heaven! My life’s going to change, career-wise, and so on.’  Then everything went silent and I thought, ‘Oh … but I thought that was going to happen.’

There’s a lot of campaigning that goes into it. But the National Board of Review award really rejuvenated things.

And suddenly it rose up again! It was very exciting, I’ll tell you. Very exciting.

CONTINUE THE INTERVIEW: Dowd on the shocked responses from ‘Compliance’ audiences…

Michel Spingler/AP

Compliance 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

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National Board of Review highlights ‘Compliance’ actress Ann Dowd

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