She landed the juiciest movie role of her life in Craig Zobel's 2012 Sundance hit "Compliance." And she nabbed some terrific reviews for her performance as a restaurant manager who allows a phantom cop on the telephone to force her to strip, search and harrass a comely teenage girl employee who is accused of stealing. The manager does what she is told without questioning the "cop"'s authority. Her character is horrifyingly believable. She thinks she's doing the right thing.
Now Dowd's running with the ball. She has little extra cash, but a pal in New York, Stephen Holt, connected her with a publicist who was willing to help her out. Indie distributor Magnolia sent out screeners for the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy--paid for by Dowd to the tune of $13,000. Magnolia didn't put up the cash, they said, because the movie grossed just $319,285.
So far Dowd has landed a supporting actress win from the National Board of Review and nominations from the Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Awards. That put her on the awards radar, at least. From Sally Kirkland ("Anna") to Melissa Leo ("The Fighter"), actors have sometimes been rewarded for pushing themselves.
"I don't know what will happen with the Academy," Dowd says. "My goal is to keep a light spirit about it and enjoy it. Because it's just a lovely thing, what I always hoped would happen. I had nervous breakdowns in the first 20 years of my career, with age comes a little perspective: relax, enjoy, work and keep your focus where it belongs and the rest will take care of itself."
Right from the start "Compliance" ignited controversy at the packed Sundance premiere. As the film ended, a woman started to scream: "Sundance is better than this, violence against women is not entertainment." And two more people yelled at Zobel and his cast as they stood like deer in the headlights.
The movie, which is based on real events about police cons, gets audiences riled up, Dowd admits. They identify and then they don't know how to feel. "People will say 'Sandra is dumb, it has to do with IQ, no way any person with half an IQ would ever do that.' This has happened 70 times in this country, in 35 states!"
Dowd usually works in the theater, which is "thrilling and terrifying," she says."After a rehearsal period I have to get it up there each and every night. That begs for courage and stepping up." She always saw herself as a lead: "I always have, I mean that with no arrogance. The great thing about the theater is you can play ingenue roles." There are brilliant parts to play in Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Shaw. "You don't have to be the knockout, you can be good actress, have passable looks." When she was 30 she played 17-year-old Abigail in "The Crucible" at the Long Wharf.
Her favorite part? Sister Aloysious in "Doubt." "Patrick Shanley did it at the Royal George Theater, it was among the most wonderful experiences in my life by far. 'The Woolgatherer' by Mastrosimone at Joe Brancato's theater in Rockland County: an incredible experience. I did the play 'Paper Gramophone' with a Russian director, my first job in New York, when I moved from Chicago. The director spoke no English, but he gets the theater. 'It's not part of the day you work on, it's the whole of your life,' he'd say. I will never get over that experience. Work came first, full immersion. That's where I got my sea legs."
She also loved working on TV's "Law and Order," and "Nothing Sacred" marked her first time as a series regular. "Great roles, being part of a family on TV is a great thing. I loved 'Freaks and Geeks,' I wore a short skirt, it was so smart and funny, just heaven: Judd Apatow, Mike White, we all looked like ten years old."
She's also had plenty of humbling experiences over time: "Hey, you just do your work."
How did she get "Compliance"? Director David Gordon Green saw her on Broadway in "Blood from a Stone" opposite Ethan Hawke, a play about a dysfunctional family that was "heavy lifting from day one, every performance seven times a week. Ethan and I put everything in it every single night." Green told Zobel to have her come in. "The first time I read, I thought, 'this role is too good, it has to be cast, I don't get in the door for a large role, nothing of this size.'"
But she played some scenes with Zobel and told him and the producers, "'If you're interested in me I'm interested in you.' I loved them, the role, the project was written impeccably, it was due to start." But her agent told her they had moved on to someone else. Then backstage, resting between scenes, Dowd picked up the phone--which she never did--and her agent told her she landed the movie. She finished the play, got home on a Saturday night at midnight and left at 5 am to shoot "Compliance."
The process on an indie picture is tough. "You have a lot to cover," she says. After a few days of rehearsal they had to make their time. "We had to keep racing, on a pace, all of the scenes in the New Jersey restaurant had to be done after they closed down from 6 in the evening to 9 in the morning. You can't ever prepare for that sort of shoot. My hotel was packed with three children and a husband so I got no daytime sleep."
Dowd doesn't care what she looks like in a role. "Not remotely. What I thought about her when I read it? I liked her and understood her and felt sorry for her. I didn't have to spend time letting go of judgement, I didn't have any questions, I got it. She's an ashamed woman, she was probably told as a kid to shut up and sit in corner. She's in her 40s or 50s, lives with her father, she has to get her boyfriend to ask her father's permission to marry her. Something's wrong there, her father told her, 'listen Fatty, take this marriage proposal, no one is going to be asking.' She lives externally, she pleases others, that compass that was hers was abandoned years ago."
The biggest challenge: "making sure because we could not always shoot in sequence to chart it so that that journey was legitimate and believable from start to finish, done in increments, not huge leaps that would challenge the audience's ability to believe it. Craig was collaborative, right there in that tiny space, we'd bounce off the ideas, we were by the third day very in sync. We changed it right there on the floor, we were usually in agreement where the right balance was."
Next up is a scene in Steven Soderbegh's film "Side Effects" playing Rooney Mara's mother-in-law; she's married to Channing Tatum. (Dowd also appeared in Soderbergh's "The Informant.") "On these films there's no first team and second team," she says. "The actors step in, he lights on the spot and stands there with soldier-perfect posture as he lets his colleagues do the work, quiet and focused, not rushing around. He's ready, a very strong presence, hugely trusting of actors. He shoots it. It's an impressive set to be on, an inspiring one."
We'll be seeing more of Dowd for some time to come.