Originally posted at Los Angeles Magazine.
Sundance Star: Pat Healy Commands Compliance
Maybe it’s because I saw Craig Zobel’s Compliance around the same time as Eugene Jarecki’s award-winning documentary on the costs of the failed drug war, The House I Live In, that made it especially potent for me. Our acceptance of authority, of the way things are, seems to be butting right up against our desire for personal and economic agency these days. It’s difficult to sustain a sense of empowerment in an economic climate that only keeps squeezing, and that forces us to question everything that we’ve been told to respect. Compliance not only illustrates, but detonates this idea. When I saw it, the woman next to me gathered up her bags more than once, writhed in her seat, and sighed a lot, but didn’t leave. This, I think, is a testament to how well made this brutal but important film is.
In many ways, Compliance is an expansion of the famed Milgram experiment that tested people’s willingness to violate their conscience in obedience to authority. The press notes suggest, “As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: ‘Why don’t they just say no?’ and the more troubling, ‘Am I certain I would?’” Compliance was picked up by Magnolia Pictures by the fest’s end, so you too will have the chance to feel incredibly uncomfortable in an illuminating way.
Pat Healy plays Daniels, who calls the fast food restaurant where the movie is set pretending to be a police officer. His call eventually causes Becky (Dreama Walker of Gossip Girl, in a very brave, very vulnerable performance) to be stripped down and raped by her co-workers and their friends, all on the pretense that she had stolen money from a customer’s purse. Daniels never sees what’s happening at the restaurant. He is not even in the same state. The plot is based on a true story.
Curious why Healy wanted to play this deeply unlikable man and what it was like to be at the vitriolic Q + A that followed the film’s Sundance premiere, I met up with him at the Work Hard/Play Hard lounge where he was wearing his signature black framed glasses looking excited, exhausted, and a little bit buzzed.
What was it like to be at that first Q + A? Did you expect such a strong reaction from the audience?
The woman that was very upset after the first screening, I understood where she was coming from. She said, “Rape is not entertainment, Sundance, shame on you. You should know better. This is the year of the woman. We should make films that empower women.”
Ann Dowd, our lead actress [who turns in a virtuosic performance: maternal, brutal, obedient and unsure, but always relatable], now I don’t speak for her, but to paraphrase, she said, “I think that this film shows how women’s power is taken away.” And there was a woman in the audience who has young daughters who spoke up and said she wants her young daughters to see this movie because if you see how it’s possible, the chances of you getting in that situation are less likely.
I’m not gonna get on a political soapbox saying that I’m out there trying to teach people a lesson. I’m just an actor and an artist and I’m just trying to ask the questions. But I think it can be empowering to see that this is possible, and to see how it did happen.
Compliance is based on a true story. Did you try to reach out to the man your character is based on as you were preparing for the role?
Did you want to?
But you had to have some empathy to play him, right?
No. I think some people legitimately hate themselves. I hear actors always say you need to love the person you’re playing. Something has always struck me as off about that. This is a character who hates humanity, and those people hate themselves. Those are the people that most take it out on the rest of the world.
How did you summon up so much self-loathing?
The thing that informed the character most was a few days into it, the phone broke. And I had to go upstairs and read the lines off camera while I was looking at the other actors. And I was horrified and disgusted. I didn’t have that remove or distance that I had had on the phone. I thought, this must be the reason this guy did things the way that he did. He was on the telephone, he wasn’t watching, he was states away. And that’s the only way he could do it. If you think about it as a game or a prank with no real human consequences…
After your experience of making this film, what do you still obey?
I’m very much a person who thinks that people should follow their dreams and their instincts, but I also believe in civilization and I believe in what we call the social contract. I think the reason certain morals and religion, which I don’t believe in, or the law, exists because there’s an assumption that without some sort of structure, people would fall apart and eat each other. These sort of experiments and these sorts of real life incidents indicate that that may be true. But you know what? It’s 65% of people in the Milgram experiment that did that. It’s shocking because it’s more than half of us. But there’s 35% that didn’t. And there was zero percent compliance when he said, ‘you have no choice.’ Then no one followed.