Film

Interview: Ann Dowd on Making Mass and What She Learned from Years Working in Chicago Theater

One of the most talked-about films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the writing/directing debut of actor Fran Kranz, Mass, which thoughtfully examines the journey of two sets of parents whose children were directly involved in a high school shooting. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd play the parents of the young shooter, while Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the grieving parents of one of the boy’s victims. Feeling a great deal like a stage play—four characters spending almost the entire film in a single room—Mass takes place years after the tragedy tore all of their lives apart, but they have agreed to meet face-to-face as part of their journey of grief, anger, and acceptance, hoping to put at least a part of this incident behind them once and for all. Some of the characters are more successful at this than others.

It’s no coincidence that Kranz cast four stage veterans as the leads in this story, since the entire sequence in the room was shot chronologically over the course of several days, making the sparsely decorated church meeting room feel like it’s getting smaller as the minutes go on. It’s an uncomfortably raw and open conversation that gives each actor several moments to truly shine.

Mass

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney in MASS. Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Both of the female actors in Mass have deep roots in Chicago theater. Until recently, Plimpton was an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, while Dowd was a staple in town during the 1980s, after attending the Goodman School of Drama (now The Theatre School at DePaul University). In fact, she won three Joseph Jefferson Awards in that decade for two productions with the Next Theatre Company and one for Pegasus Players.

Since then, she has been one of the most in-demand character actors on television and film, with credits in such works as Garden State, The Manchurian Candidate, Flags of Our Fathers, The Informant!, Compliance, Hereditary, HBO’s “The Leftovers” and perhaps most famously, her Emmy-winning turn on “The Handmaid’s Tale” (she’s had four nominations overall) as Aunt Lydia. And her work in Mass is perhaps the most difficult of the four players, since she spends a great deal of time trying to convince everyone that she was a good mother who could never have predicted what her son eventually did.

I spoke with Dowd (and several other of her Mass collaborators recently—stay tuned) about her work on the film and how she had to pull from all phases of her acting background to play her character. The film is playing in select theaters and will likely be available digitally soon; keep an eye out for it. Enjoy my conversation with Ann Dowd…

I saw this film at Sundance this year, and it continues a long tradition for you involving yourself in projects that are conversation starters, that are actually about something provocative or uncomfortable but worth the discussion. Are those roles you actively seek out, or have people started seeking you out for these type of roles?

I’ll say it this way: I’m profoundly grateful and fortunate that these roles find their way to me. I don’t know how I became this fortunate, honestly. I have wonderful people I work with who bring these to me, and they deserve all the credit in the world. I’m just an incredibly fortunate actor.

What was your initial reaction to reading Fran’s screenplay for Mass? What do you remember connecting with that first time through it?

I was struck by the beauty of it; it’s incredibly well written and I responded to the truth of it. I knew right away that I would be honored to do it. The question really became, how could you ever turn this down? Followed shortly by the question, how will you be able to do the deep dive that is required and stay in that place in a way that honors the characters, the story, and the human beings in this world who have had the unimaginable happen. So it was two things at once: of course I want to do this and will, and also, okay, and let’s be really clear with ourselves what we’re going to be doing here. I think everybody came with that perspective and awareness of the necessity of being able to go there and stay there as long as we could.

I read a quote from you where you were imagining to your fellow cast-mates what this experience would have been like as a play. You seemed to think you would have been institutionalized by the end of the run. Why did you think that?

[laughs] Eight times a week is a significant commitment. Actors do it all the time. I’m sure you can imagine this, but there are days when you think, “I don’t want to leave this house. I don’t want to go out at all, let alone play the same character going through something like this every single night. The degree of the dive that needs to happen to honor this story. Sure, there’s technique to support you when you emotionally aren’t quite there—that’s what training is about, that’s what a way of working is and it’s important to have a way of working. However, this to me, would require going full throttle every night, and I can’t imagine what it would be like if, as a human being, you weren’t able to on a given night.

I meant it as a joke when I said it, but I worked with a Russian director for the first job I got when I moved to New York, and it was a profound experience. Things I learned from him I hope I have taken with me. First of all, he didn’t speak English; he spoke through a translator. What they do in Russia is repertory—you don’t do the same play every night because emotionally, you need to let go and recover. He was stunned that an actor would do the same show eight times a week. I mean, he knew how we did it here, but he literally asked, “How does one do that?” Actors do it all the time, but because of the nature of this piece, I thought “How in the world could we do it and not go through such anxiety every day because you realize your responsibility.”

Because almost the entire things is set in a single room, were there days that it felt too confining to the point where you had to step out of it? Or would you even let yourself do that because that would break the spell of the moment?

Yeah, Fran planned it very carefully, meaning we shot everything that was outside the room first, in the first four days. The importance of keeping real-time conversation in that room was vital and keeping it fluid as possible. The room was sacred, really, which is not to say…between takes, there was more laughter than I can even describe. Reed Birney is hilarious, and so are Martha and Jason. We’re all just frustrated comedians at times. We would be collapsing in laughter, because we all knew what we were doing there and what our commitment was, because we’d all worked for many many years and we all knew when it was necessary to let out those feelings. It was all a very fluid experience, and there was trust in the experience. We didn’t go out of the room much, outside of the usual breaks or lunch, but once you entered that space, it took on a life of its own. Also, this is a low-budget film; no one is hopping off to their trailer. We all sat together in the vestibule of a small church; we’re all together, and it was fantastic. And it took everybody in it to give everything they had.

I know how movies are usually shot, but I’m assuming everything in that room was shot chronologically. That seems like the only way you could possibly do it.

That is correct. It was about 10 pages a day, which is a vast amount. Honestly, Fran was not in the room, and he’d come in with a note from video village, but I honestly didn’t even know where the cameras were. It was all done to create an atmosphere that felt like we were alone in this room.

You and Martha have at least one thing in common that I’m aware of. You both have fairly deep roots in Chicago theater. What is the most Chicago thing about you?

[laughs] That’s great. What’s the answer? Coming from acting school, when you think you know everything, but you know you don’t know anything, that might be one answer. What you learn in these wonderful, non-equity theaters in Chicago, small venues, is community. Chicago is incredible in that way. The community there is so lovely, and you get your sea legs. There’s nothing like the theater. If someone said to me right out of school “You got a Broadway play,” you’d have to resuscitate me. I had to go very slowly; I needed to start in those beautiful, sweet theaters where intimacy is the goal, real life, real connection, feet on the ground, night after night, you can do this. It builds one’s strength, one’s awareness and gives you the skills you need to do it, the perseverance. It was in Chicago that you learn there are good reviews and bad ones. Good ones are lovely; bad ones crush you. So what’s the deal? We don’t read them; you’re not reading them any more. Wonderful lessons learned in Chicago. Even waiting on tables or whatever you needed to do to pay your bills and working toward what you loved was key.

Ann, thank you so much for talking with me. Best of luck with this.

Thank you so much for the conversation. Have a wonderful day.

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