Actor Pat Healy doesn’t have an easy role in Craig Zobel‘s Compliance. In the controversial Sundance hit, Healy is mostly seen alone in his scenes, doing one of the most dull cinematic acts around: talking on the phone. Not only that, the character’s reasoning is all a mystery, motivations which Healy has to completely internalize. Those feelings he has to capture aren’t the most pleasant ones as well.
“Officer Daniels” (as he likes to go by) is a self-loathing emasculated man who revels in power, or at least that’s how Healy sees him. Zobel doesn’t give plain answers for the many of the characters’ bone-headed and disturbing actions. Compliance could be about how far misogyny can drive an emasculated dweeb or, as our Kate Erbland put it, an “exceedingly well-made interpersonal drama that hinges on the limits (and, oftentimes, depths) of human nature and people’s response to certain carefully calibrated psychological tricks.”
Here’s what actor Pat Healy had to say about having to carry around feelings of self-loathing, why he couldn’t do his scenes in his pajamas, and the childlike wonder of Werner Herzog:
I imagine it’s pretty easy to distance yourself from a character like this.
I mean, yes and no. It’s, like, yes, in the sense I began this process curious and disturbed. I couldn’t believe this actually happened, that someone could be the perpetrator of it. Craig’s goal was: Okay, well, how and why? It was about exploring all these characters to see why this happened. What became as a distance from the character became becoming the character. I don’t literally think I’m him or have to have people call me his name on the set, but it’s portraying a lot of the feelings I portray: a lot of hatred for humanity, which comes from a deep loathing and insecurity. You got to live in those feelings when you’re doing these scenes everyday.
Even if the phone calls are live, I’m largely alone in a room with a couple of camera operators with those feelings. That’s for about 12 hours a day for three weeks, so I don’t have any distance from it. Now, having put the film behind me and revisit it and talk about it, I really don’t recognize myself. I know there are certain behaviors and things, but I’m so distanced from it, that it is uncomfortable for me watching it.
That must be a satisfying discomfort, in an odd way, getting that distance from a film and character.
Yeah, yeah, very much so. You always want to do the work as an actor, but there’s always questions of career, screen time, and vanity. Vanity always plays a part. This is really the first time vanity didn’t play a part. I wanted to be as real as possible and explore my feelings and darkest parts of myself, which are nowhere near as dark as compared to what this guy does, did, thinks, and feels. Nevertheless, you can certainly relate to those feelings: self-loathing or a certain contempt for humanity. I think it’s great to watch the film and see what a great piece of work it is, and not have to relive those feelings, you know?
The film never mentions self-loathing feelings or why he does what he does specifically. Was that an interpretation you came to from the script or through research?
It was something that was discovered. There were all these different cases of this happening and I didn’t do a tremendous amount of research. I learned a little bit about the cases, though. It was just something I came up with on my own and talking with Craig. There’s actually a really telling incident the first day: there was a relative amount of ease doing those conversations, but one day the phone broke and I had to go set doing those conversations, and it made me sick to my stomach. Then I knew his motivation was getting a sense of power he doesn’t have in his life, without any regard for the consequences of that. It’s just a prank call for him, where he can have a laugh and eat a sandwich. Going on set really told me a lot about the character – that he couldn’t say this stuff to their faces.
There also seems to be a misogynistic angel: putting men in power, and then having them degrade the women he’s going after.
Sure. It certainly is sexist and it is hard talking about this movie without discussing gender. I don’t think there’s a sexual component there, at least I didn’t approach it that way. What’s interesting, to me, is the power dynamic: pitting women against women. He uses women at different ages who may be competing over something, which is insidious our culture and what this character does.
You mentioned how at ease you would when you were filming alone. Was it perhaps stressful in another way, not having another actor to bounce off of?
I was at ease at first, but I could never be at ease after that first day. When I got on set with the actors, then I felt awful all the time [Laughs]. It was three weeks of that, day and night. The camera was always on me, so it wasn’t like I could show up in my pajamas and just read the lines. I enjoyed that, because it kept me on my toes and made me learn a lot about the character. I owe a lot of that to the other actors, though.
There’s always a calmness to your character throughout the film, which makes him all the more frightening. Were there a lot of discussions over his tone of voice and mannerisms, to the point where you’d do different takes with another way of speaking?
We always talked about that, and always made sure that was there. We’d try it half a dozen different ways: the sweet version, the stern version, and mix it up. Craig would always decide in the editing room. I had done my homework, so when I got on the set I’d be able to go off into different directions. That’s always the way Craig and I like to work, getting to have different options and have fun. Whatever works at the end of the day works.
One of my favorite people to interview is Werner Herzog. When he’s on set for a movie as serious as Rescue Dawn, does he still maintain that sense of joy he has?
He’s like a big kid playing, you know? To me, that’s the best part of this job: playing make believe. Paul Newman once said, when he was offered Superman, “They’re playing Monopoly with real money!” When he has these bigger budgets, he’s able to maintain that sense of joy in everything he does, from the way he communicates to the actors to setting up the camera to shooting. We did a thing on a battleship, after Christian Bale was rescued, and Werner shook all 300 extras’ hands. If any of the extras wanted to talk to him, he’d talk to them. He loves his job.
Compliance is now in theaters.