The Profile

Ann Dowd '78

The celebrated actress talks about challenging convention, the definition of bliss and her Oscar buzz-worthy role in Compliance

By M.B. Roberts

It's a crisp September day in the coastal resort town of Deauville, France. The 38th Deauville American Film Festival is under way, and a beaming Ann Dowd '78 moves down the red carpet en route to a screening of Compliance, her latest and most controversial film.

In Compliance, Dowd plays Sandra, a fast-food restaurant manager forced into a morally questionable situation when a police officer calls and accuses Sandra's young co-worker of a crime. The officer orders Sandra to detain the girl, who swears innocence, and a nightmarish scenario unfolds.

After the Deauville screening, a reporter asks Dowd if the notion of bowing to authority was an American problem, the actress answered incredulously, "Nazi Germany?"

"The notion of compliance is as old as time," Dowd says. "When people say, 'I was told to do this,' it relieves them of responsibility to make up their own minds and keep their own standards of right and wrong."

The film has evoked strong emotions and resulted in walkouts by theatergoers in the United States and even in France, where audiences are typically more tolerant.

"The story really triggers people," says Dowd. "They get very angry. But if it gets people thinking, that's a great thing."

Thinking for herself and challenging convention would ultimately define Ann Dowd's life. But before she became an actress with a long list of credits, including roles in plays, movies and TV shows, she was a third-generation Crusader (after her grandfather, James J. Dowd, Class of 1905; uncle James J. Dowd Jr. '45; and father, John E. Dowd '50). Mostly she was just carrying on a family tradition, although a new one for women in her clan (which included her sister, Kate M. Dowd '76, and later, cousins AnnMaura Connolly '86 and Mary Connolly Turner '89).

"My sister was in the first class that admitted women," says Dowd. "She thrived. It was a wonderful experience to have her there when I came along two years later."

But the person who most influenced her college choice was her father.

"He was so proud of Holy Cross," says Dowd. "It meant the world to him. He recruited for Holy Cross, worked in the press box during football games and tailgated all the time. He stayed close with fellow students and priests he met there."

Although she was thrilled to be following in his footsteps, she was heartbroken when her father passed away during her senior year in high school. Freshman year at Holy Cross was definitely bittersweet.

"That first year was laced with sadness," she remembers. "To avoid dealing with it, I dove in and studied constantly. I was premed, so it was a real struggle to find some balance and not study 24 hours a day."

Though her premed coursework was, at times, "terrifying," Dowd found a bright spot with organic chemistry professor Michael G. McGrath, who taught her to trust that she knew what she was doing. Even so, Dowd worried about grades and whether she was on the right path. Relief came in an unexpected place. "What saved me was my acting class and doing plays at Fenwick Theatre," she says.

Soon, others took notice that acting (in plays such as Summertime) was more than Dowd's hobby. It was her passion. "I loved the theatre department," remembers Dowd. "A teacher named Donald Ilko was hugely influential in my decision to become an actress."

Dowd also credits her roommate, Maribeth Wahle '78, with showing her the light.

"She said, 'Do you really want to go to med school? Go down the path that's in front of you that you love.' "

And that's what Dowd did. Post-Holy Cross, she auditioned for and was accepted to The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago.

"I've never looked back," she says. "Dance class, acting class, it was bliss!"

After finishing at DePaul, where she met her husband, fellow actor Larry Arancio, Dowd stayed in Chicago for several years, mostly working in plays and discovering how to apply what she'd learned. She absorbed some practical lessons, getting more comfortable on stage and confident during auditions, but mostly, she learned about herself.

"I'd never processed my father's death," she says. "And life doesn't work that way. As an actress, you're going to walk straight into yourself and everything you've tried to avoid. All the areas I'd shut down were saying, 'We're right here when you're ready.' "

Years later, Dowd, a longtime New Yorker, has piled up a long and meaty list of credits from Broadway performances, including Candida, for which she won the 1993 Clarence Derwent Award, and Blood from a Stone, with Ethan Hawke, to roles on TV (Law & Order, The X-Files, House and the series Nothing Sacred), and movies (Philadelphia, Flags of Our Fathers, Marley & Me).

And now, critics are calling her Compliance performance Oscar-worthy. "I'm pinching myself," she says. "I feel incredibly grateful. As actors, we go to work, come home and see what happens. And when this happens, it's wildly thrilling."  ■


Quick Stats:

Birthplace: Holyoke, Mass.

Residence: New York City

Family: Husband: Larry Arancio; Children: Liam, 20; Emily, 14; and Trust, 7

First on-screen performance: The 1985 movie, First Steps, in which she played Debby                                    

Major: Psychology

Awards: Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Female Performer (1993 Candida) and three Joseph Jefferson Awards for excellence in Chicago theater (The Normal Heart in 1987, Kennedy's Children in 1984 and A Different Moon in 1983)