Interview: Martha Plimpton on Making Mass, the Rhythm of the Script, and Midwestern Pragmatism

We continue a series of interviews for one of the most talked about films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival: the writing/directing debut of actor Fran Kranz, Mass.  The film 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.

It’s no coincidence that Kranz cast four stage veterans as the leads in this story, since the entire sequence in the room—roughly 75 minutes of the total running time—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
Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in Mass. Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Much like her Mass counterpart Dowd, Plimpton has deep roots in Chicago theater. Until recently, Plimpton was an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, while Dowd was a staple during the 1980s. I was just discovering the joys of Chicago theater when I saw Plimpton in her Steppenwolf debut, the 1996 production The Libertine, opposite John Malkovich. She also had critically lauded performances in The Glass Menagerie and Hedda Gabler at Steppenwolf; she became an ensemble member in 1998

The daughter of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, Martha earned a Tony-nomination and won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Award for her performance in Lincoln Center’s Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. She was only a teenager when she appeared in the 1980s films The River Rat, The Goonies, Parenthood, The Mosquito Coast, and Running on Empty. And my adoration of her series “Raising Hope” (for which she was nominated for an Emmy) knows no bounds.

I spoke with Plimpton recently about her work on the film and how her character in particular has the toughest time getting to a place of forgiveness and moving on. The film is playing in select theaters and will likely be available digitally soon; keep an eye out for it. Enjoy my conversation with Martha Plimpton…

As a theater veteran, when you first read this, did you see it as a type of theater piece? And what do you remember reacting to the strongest about the screenplay?

I didn’t see it as a theater piece and I don’t think it is. It wasn’t intended to be. I think it’s very specifically a film, but I felt that it needed to be rehearsed as though it were a theater piece. I spoke to Fran and said, “I think this will only work if we’re sitting around the table, and we actually rehearse this for a week.” And it turned out we didn’t have the time or money to get everybody together and make everyone’s schedules to work, as well as our budget. We ended up having a little bit more than two days, but it actually ended up being perfect and working really well for us. Because we all had a theater background and we’re all used to the experience of being part of an ensemble and building that intimacy rather quickly, we were able to do that. But I knew it wasn’t a theater piece because if it had been, we would have had to get up from the table more often [laughs].

In the rehearsals, since it was such a short time together, what were the things that were emphasized?

We told a lot of stories. I think we only got through the script once, because we shared a lot. Fran told stories, Ann told stories, and then we all just built trust instantaneously, which was really important. And we also talked a bit about what brought [the characters] here, what was our life like at home, where were we coming from. Jason and I, what was out relationship like? What state was our marriage in? Were we even sharing a bed anymore? We all felt that was really necessary. And of course, Jason and I, being very different people, disagreed on a lot of it but that actually turned out to be great too, because it was illustrative of where Gail and Jay were as a couple. He comes to this meeting really feeling like Gail is the one who needs it most, but he comes to discover that he needs it just as much.

The film reminds us that not only does everybody grieve differently, but also part of getting through grief is figuring out what comes next. And that’s what’s happening here; everybody is mapping out where they go from here. Without giving away anything, your character ends up in a different place than the others by the end.

She’s very tightly wound and balled up. She knows what has to happen and that she’s supposed to do something, do these things, say these words, but as she says in the film “I just don’t know if I can say it.” She’s in a battle with herself, and when it pours forth from her, it surprises her as much as anyone else. I don’t think she can even envisage saying the words until they are actually coming out of her mouth. And I think that’s the nature of that kind of experience, although I certainly never had anything near the experience that Gail is having. That’s what so hard for us as human beings, because we think of forgiveness or redemption or grace as some sort of achievement that we come to after doing all of this hard work, when actually it’s a process, and there’s an ebb and flow to it. It’s the opening of the door rather than the closing of it. That’s why I think “closure” is such a silly concept.

I had assumed that the entire meeting sequence was shot chronologically—I don’t know how else you could do it. What were the benefits for you to doing that?

Unfortunately, everything we shot outside the room we had to shoot first, over three or four days. So we had to shoot the ending before we shot the stuff in the room, which was quite challenging for Ann, for all of us. Once we did get in that room, it was extremely helpful to shoot in order, because there’s a momentum to this film. It’s one of the most cinematic things I’ve ever been a part of or ever seen, because there’s this momentum to it that you feel when you read the script and when you’re doing it with these other actors. You can feel the pace of it, where it flows, where it gets more urgent. There’s a musicality to it that is only aided by doing it in order, like playing a piece of music.

One of my first notes about the film was that the screenplay has a rhythm.

Yes, exactly. I felt it when I read it and I read it all the way through the first time, which is very rare for me. I usually don’t read scripts all the way through; I either get bored or confused. The format is a complicated one for me to visualize generally, but not so with this screenplay. I read it and I heard the music of it, the rhythm of it, and I think Fran was so exacting in his writing and so very specific in what he chose where and why. He worked on it for quite a few years, it felt totally organic.

Was making this an experience you’re going to carry with you? This seems like it would be an all-timer, in that respect.

Absolutely. And Reed has said that as well. It’s the kind of film you hope for and dream of. It’s why we become actors, in the hope that something like this will come along. It’s so rare that a filmmaker will be brave enough to make a film like this, which has none of the typical trappings of an ordinary film narrative. There are no flashbacks or inserts, there’s very little score, if any. And it’s all about the actors and the script, and to trust us with the responsibility of holding the audience there, that’s what every actor hopes for, to be given that trust by a director. This will stay with me, and these people will. Ann has said it many times: “We’ll never be rid of each other. We’ll be in each other’s lives forever.” We feel very bonded.

Speaking of something that bonds you and Ann, you both have have pretty deep Chicago theater roots. I’m in Chicago now and have been since the mid-1980s, so I got to see you in The Libertine and Hedda Gabler.

Oh my god, really?! That’s great.

What would you say is the most Chicago thing about you?

Gee whiz, I could say something really dangerous right now. I suppose it’s my directness. I think that’s a city thing; it’s a New York thing as well. Also, I think I also have a midwestern pragmatism, a sort of “get on with it” attitude that I think is very Chicago.

One of the things I’ve noticed when I ask Chicago theater people that question is that many of them treat the work like a job, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a profession that you train for and work hard at; it’s less about artistry and more about the work, and the size of the theater or audience doesn’t matter.

Yes, yes. That’s what I mean by pragmatism; it’s a job. I’m a jobbing actor and I’m fortunate to be able to say that. Ensemble is very important to me, and Steppenwolf is where I first experienced that as an ethos, something I thought about rather than just did. Chicago actors, much like London actors, are very no-nonsense, not precious about the work, and that makes it possible to take the work more seriously, if you don’t take yourself so seriously. And you can have more fun doing it.

With Mass, what do you hope people take away from this film? What are the conversations you hope to spark?

This film comes at a very crucial time for our culture, for our society, especially in America, but perhaps here in the UK as well. There’s such a great chasm between us, there’s such anger and recrimination and alienation from each other. It’s really difficult for people to imagine that they could hear or listen to each other, or speak to one another and be heard. There’s such distrust. What I hope is that this film can show that it is possible for people to do this, people do sit across from one another and have these conversations and do find a way forward. It’s not a direct line, it’s not a straight line, but it’s the beginning or opening up of something, and that’s what I hope people feel when they see this film, that they know that it’s possible. We’re not stuck; we can move forward.

Was there anything in particular about Gail that was difficult for you to embrace?

It’s funny to say this, and I don’t mean to be glib. The process of doing the film had its difficulties, but I so loved Fran’s script that I let the script do the work, so I didn’t find myself saying “I’ve got to really concentrate or struggle or white-knuckle this.” I didn’t feel that at all or fight with it. I just let the script do its job, and I tried to serve it as best I could.

Martha, thank you so much.

Thank you so much. It was really nice to talk to you. Take care.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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