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Dreama Walker made a big impression on audiences this year in ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B---- In Apt. 23” as the fresh-faced ingénue new to the big city, bedeviled by her hedonistic, morals-free roommate (Krysten Ritter). But just before her big comedic break, the 26-year-old took on a harrowing role in writer-director Craig Zobel’s film “Compliance.”
Inspired by the disturbing real-life psychological hoaxes that plagued fast food chain restaurants and grocery stores in 2004, “Compliance” depicts a fictionalized but intensely realistic version of the chilling tableau that played out each time: a caller claiming to be a police detective calls the business and tells the supervisor that one of the female employees is suspected of theft and needs to be detained until the authorities arrive, instructing the manager and others present to perform a humiliating strip search that ultimately leads to even darker instruction.
Walker plays the teenage server targeted in the film’s increasingly harrowing scenario. It was a demanding role that required her to push herself in ways she never had before.
How did you get your head in the place it needed to be for this dark and taxing material?
Being there everyday in the small confines of this set that was constructed to look like an office and being in an apron and being naked every day and raising those stakes to myself. Allowing myself to really be frightened and to really be afraid for my freedom and life, essentially, was very taxing – every day. Coming home and decompressing and kind of letting all that out was a lot more difficult than it normally is.
You have to go from playing someone who's traumatized by these humiliating, exploitative circumstances and at the same time allow for you, Dreama, to find a comfort zone to be able to be physically vulnerable perform at your own workplace. Was that really weird – exhaling all of that anxiety for yourself, but also hold onto it for her? It had to be a tricky performance.
It was, but I was in it. It really meant a lot to me to go through, basically, the emotional roller coaster that I thought the character would experience, which would start off being defiant and to kind of get to this place where you're a little hesitant and unsure. And then ultimately becoming compliant and then resigning and just kind of having an out-of-body experience, sort of where your body goes into shock and your emotions shut down. Everything shuts down.
Had you been familiar with the real-life story, and did you dig in to the research more once this script came your way?
Yes. In 2004 I was a senior in high school and that's when it kind of came out into the public and this whole thing was released, and I had a lot of discussions about it. And of course my mom had that discussion with me where she was like, 'Remember how I told you to listen to adults? Not always.' It really kind of reworked my framework of how something so innocuous can really go so horribly awry. It's just such a knee jerk, very typical reaction from most people to see the movie and go 'Those people were so stupid – I would never do that.' I think the important thing that I really wanted to get across in this film is that you don't know until you're put into a situation like that how you'll react.
Had you ever had that kind of a fast food or waitressing job?
I worked in the restaurant business for four years, and I also worked in retail in high school. So yeah. I'd had jobs where my entire life and my ability to keep my head above water and feed myself was dependent upon my work. It was very scary when I was fired over and over again.
Those service jobs can be weird microcosms of society, people power-playing over minimum wage positions. What was your experience with that kind of environments?
Absolutely! There were a lot of power trips. I worked in a restaurant. I guess I started working there when I was 18 and I remember the manager at the restaurant was this very sort of…like, he was an ex-actor and he was jealous and kind of mean to me all the time. I never understood why, and then eventually he fired me one day because I asked him to let me out of work early, when no one was there, to go and audition. I remember being so horrified. Anyway – sorry, that's a sob story – but it was really scary because I was trying to explain to him and begging him not to fire me, like, 'I don't know how I'm going to pay my bills. I don't know how I'm going to feed myself. I'm 18 years old. This is my job.' I was absolutely paralyzed with fear.
Do you really understand that confusion about authority figures and wanting to listen to them and be compliant?
Yes. Craig [Zobel, the director] and I also explored the idea of how psychologically when someone you know and have a relationship with, like Sandra, accuses you of something over and over again that you kind of start to believe it yourself. I was really interested in the idea where they may have been a point where Becky second-guessed herself and thought, 'Crap – Did I actually steal this money? Is this something that I did? Have they gone into the deepest, darkest forests of my psyche and do they know that in second grade I broke the teacher's pencil and didn't give it back to her? Does everyone now realize that I'm a bad person?' I think that's a very primal thing, and I think that everyone's worst fear is to be naked and to have everyone telling you that you're a bad person or a thief or a liar, or this or that. All of Becky's fears were realized.
How was the working relationship with your costars in that confined space and in those tense scenes? Did you do a lot of goofing around to relieve the pressure?
A lot. This was one of the most happy, wonderful, spectacular ensembles that I've ever had the pleasure of working with. For whatever reason everyone affiliated with this project happened to be an incredible human being and was just genuine and in it for the right reasons, and we all wanted to make this movie for the right reasons. So this experience, despite the content, was a really important one in my life.
The nudity in this film was handled very carefully. But as an actress, were you already pretty free about that sort of thing, being willing to do that in a roll if it came your way, or did you have to make a leap?
I really had to make a leap. In my opinion I never wanted to do something that was unnecessary, like, when they put a pair of boobs in the movie just to have a pair of boobs. Obviously, in this film I felt like it was essential to the story and essential to the idea and the whole concept. Craig and I had a lot of conversations about we didn't want it to be gratuitous. We didn't want it to be…I was very, very strict about not showing anything but the waist up because I didn't want this to be too sexual. We had a lot of conversations about that.
Hollywood is also a place with its share of psychological games. Have you had to deal with anyone messing with your head in your job as an actress?
Oh, absolutely. There are a lot of stereotypes and all sorts of thing that come into play when you think about it: a young actress in Hollywood and sorts of ways that people bully you or make you think something that has been their strategy all along is your idea. It's definitely dark waters sometimes. You really have to kind of take a step back and try to figure out what people's motivations are.