Any nerves of excitement or apprehension I may have before diving into an interview with great actors, writers, or directors soon vanishes when you speak to someone so warm, and humble as award-winning actress Ann Dowd. Our pleasant conversation started with discussing our respective children, showing an encouraging enthusiasm for my little newcomers, and wishing me luck with them. And then I got to ask her about her terrific body of work on TV, film, and in the theater. Dowd’s scene-stealing role as Patti Levin in HBO’s The Leftovers was a delight to watch, even in her most sinister moments. Her crowning achievement may well be the assured performance in the movie Compliance. The grounded, grateful actress is still learning, simply happy to be here, and enjoying the challenges of her work. This would be a walk in the park.
Robin Write: What are your earliest memories and aspirations about being an actress?
Ann Dowd: I loved it in high school, doing plays, and loved thinking that I could not do this for a living – you don’t get to do the things you love. I went to college, and I was pre-med and had been doing plays in school. Also my organic chemistry teacher said to me, “This is great, but is it what you love?” I said “Well, not as much as acting.” She answered with “Well, that is the direction to go in.” And so I had some real encouragement. So instead of medical school, I auditioned for a conservatory and never looked back basically.
RW: You have a pretty heft theater background.
AD: Yes, fortunately.
RW: I know you played Sister Aloysius in Doubt on the stage. No offense to that “nobody” Meryl Streep, but would you have liked to have done the film?
AD: Well, you know I would love to have done the film. And who better than Meryl Streep. I think you have to have been raised in catholic school, it really helps. I have two aunts who are catholic nuns. [Sister Aloysius] is not mean like she is in the film. She is duty bound and feels that is her job, follows a very righteous path. To her it is all about doing what is right and what is expected of you, doing your job without complaint – that I thought was an important distinction. The thing is, who am I? The playwright directed it. He must have felt pretty good about it.
RW: Yes, but you don’t know what happens in between theater and studios making it a certain way for film.
AD: That’s true. Playing that part was one of the finest experiences I have ever had. She was a stranger to me. She is a loner, given her choice she would have gone in the garden or served to the poor.
RW: What are you passionate about outside of your vast acting work? Anything you are particularly proud of?
AD: I live in New York you see. Space is limited. I have a balcony and have flowers there. I love to paint the walls of my apartment on any given day. A bit of a joke with my family. [Laughs] That is a passion of mine, to change everything as often as I can.
RW: Sounds like my mother. When we were kids, decorating every room in the house, then going back and starting again.
AD: [Laughs] That is adorable. That is funny.
RW: Impressively, you’ve been in films during a time when I was really getting into films, like Green Card and Lorenzo’s Oil.
AD: Oh my gosh. My first film, Green Card.
RW: A lovely film.
AD: Yes, lovely film. And Peter Weir, phenomenal. It was extremely nerve-racking, I was thinking, let me do it right today somehow. A wonderful experience, many years ago.
RW: Plus you’ve worked with directors like Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, and Clint Eastwood. What stands out for you from your film work?
AD: Well, Compliance changed so much for me in terms of being accessible. I don’t know if you saw Compliance.
RW: Oh I did.
AD: It was shot in fourteen, fifteen days, on a very low budget. I love the director Craig Zobel, and he was involved in The Leftovers as well (director). I remember thinking, every now and then when a role just clicks, and we count on that, using our skill to connect with a character. [Compliance‘s Sandra] made perfect sense to me, her choices. I found her very clear and got it. If you are raised in a religious home, as I was, full of love, etcetera, you defer to the church. You defer to authority. And if you are built with a constitution that doesn’t know how to say, “Excuse me, what?” I don’t like that. You don’t have that in this character. You put a few elements together, parts of life, and you have Compliance. It was a role I loved.
RW: So you went to the Sundance Film Festival with Compliance.
AD: Yes. A fascinating experience, my first. We were sitting in the premiere, a nice big room, packed. Sundance I find to be an alternate universe if ever I saw one. I watched the film, and I don’t tend to watch the things I do. Often the experience of doing it is so strange while you’re watching, it changes everything. I watched Compliance on my computer and now on a big screen. A bit of time had gone by, and I was so intrigued by it. As the film was coming to a end, a man was screaming at the back, just criticizing the film, and really screaming. And everybody was joining in. It triggered so many people. It was unbelievable.
RW: I didn’t know that happened.
AD: Yeah. You realize how it affects people. You do a lot of things that don’t see the light of day and that can have an impact on people, which I love.
RW: Yeah, I think some people don’t realize that [the disturbing events in the film] actually happened. The film is very short, but it is the equivalent of someone scraping their fingernails down a blackboard. It is awful to experience, but you have to anyway.
AD: Yeah. There was a woman in the screening who was going to walk out, but said “I have a granddaughter and want to educate her.”
RW: Yeah. It says at the end of the film that this happens to so many Americans.
AD: That’s right.
RW: There was no Oscar nomination for that. I know you were in the running, but a film like that can fall at the last hurdle, which is a shame as it was a perfect supporting role. I think you should have gotten in.
AD: Oh thank you, I appreciate that so much. I have not really been in that arena, in that situation where there is a thought of any nomination of any kind, as all of a sudden you want it, but you keep focused on the work. It took me a fair amount of time to say, “You know awards are wonderful, and I am grateful to be honored, but you must keep your feet on the ground.”