There is nothing like watching an actor or actress dominate a performance on screen. When they are in complete control of their character, making the audience feel every emotion and decision they make and not letting up till the end credits roll. That is how you can describe the performances in ‘Mass,’ the Sundance hit drama that is now playing in theaters around the country. And while each of the performances by the main cast are exceptional, it is Emmy winner Ann Dowd that steals the show. In our review of Mass, our own Zach Gilbert proclaims Dowd “gives the performance of her career.”
In Mass, Dowd plays Linda, a woman who is dealing with the loss of her son after he committed a mass shooting at his high school, killing several of his class members before turning the gun on himself. She, along with her ex-husband Richard (Reed Birney), have come to a church to speak one on one with the parents (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) of one of the children whose lives were taken by her son. In one of the best performances of the year, Dowd commands Linda with such steadiness till the end where she lets her guard down, and Dowd shows why she is one of the best actresses working today. She is seeking her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress this year, and based on our current predictions, she stands a fighting chance of getting in.
I recently sat down with Ms. Dowd at the Middleburg Film Festival, where she received the Agnès Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award, not only for her work in Mass but her impressive body of work throughout her extraordinary career. We talked about the script, the film’s subject matter, the director of ‘Mass’ Fran Kranz, and her co-stars and how she carries her characters with her. When the interview was over, she asked me where I was from, and I told her I was from San Antonio, TX. We proceeded to talk about the Texas heat, and that while she thought it was unbearable, she loved her time in Texas many years ago. This moment and more showed why Ann Dowd is more than just a gifted actress, but a kind, relatable person who cares about every person she’s speaking to.
Ryan McQuade: How are you?
Ann Dowd: Good. How about you?
RM: I’m very well, thank you. Well, I appreciate you sitting down and chatting with us today. And congratulations on the tribute.
AD: Thank you so much. So lovely. Goodness.
RM: I’ll jump right in. This is the most I’ve seen a film [Mass] this year, I’ve seen this movie three times. And-
AD: (gasps) You have?
AD: Oh my God.
RM: And it’s a beautiful film, and your performance is incredible.
AD: Thank you.
RM: You get this script from your agent and then Franz. And you finish it. Besides saying, obviously, you want to do this. What was the first reaction once you were finished with the script?
AD: Two things at once. First, how could you ever turn this down? The beauty of the script, the characters, everything. Second was, can you… live in this level of grief truthfully with the time it will take to shoot it? Because of course there’s a responsibility to every character, every story, to give it everything you have. And in this, there was the added thought and responsibility of the fact that so many suffer this in their lives.
RM: The film does a great job of stating this movie isn’t about the politics, it’s about these characters.
RM: And I found that to be great though it’s sort of getting mis-messaged out there by some as this is the movie about…
AD: Mass shootings. Yes.
RM: But it’s not about that.
AD: No it isn’t.
RM: And I’d like you to kind of comment on that, the misconceptions of the film. Was that something that enticed you when you were reading it, that it isn’t really about the politics?
AD: I never thought about it one way or the other. I was just very moved by the story. And to give you a little history here, Fran… Was in a college and he was studying the Truth and Reconciliation Project with Desmond Tutu. And he asked himself, “Can I do… Could I be that person?” And he was concerned that he couldn’t. He could not be the one that said, “I forgive you”. And so that thought stayed with him as his life continued and was something that was a present question for him in his life. He read ‘No Future Without Forgiveness,’ a book. And then as a young parent, his daughter was very tiny… one or two perhaps, and he was driving, and he listened to a mother whose child had been killed in the Parkland shooting. And he had to pull over, he was so overcome with emotion. And so from that point on, he just dove in (to the script), which now knowing Fran makes complete sense. And read every single thing he could get his hands on.
People will receive this film in any way they do. That is an audience’s choice. At the end of the day, I know the hope was that this film would make us think about healing, human connection, forgiveness. And what I learned from doing it… was that there is always a way. If we can put aside for a little bit our certainty that we’re right, our blame, our anger, our guilt, whatever it may be.’ Because once a human being connects with another, in terms of putting oneself in the other’s place, whatever it is, boy, do walls start to fall down.
RM: Some of the characters that you’ve chosen in your career… they’re very visceral. There are some roles that you could probably take home with you. And those emotions, the characters’ baggage. And so, and I’ve read that you have not seen the film. Can you speak to sort of those emotions and how long they sort of linger, maybe it’s for this, or for Handmaid’s, or for projects in the past?
AD: Sure. Without over-simplifying, the great privilege of an actor’s work is that, at the end of the day, we do not carry the consequences. I mean, that’s huge. Which is to say, it comes from the imagination. It comes from text first. And to an actor, the reason we can do the deep dive is because this is make-believe to us, if you will. I mean no disrespect there or diminishment of story. Because otherwise, how do you do it? And so the process, and I’ve said this before, acting is not suffering. Sometimes I see young, beautiful actors thinking, “Okay, if this character has a nervous breakdown, I have to have one.” No, honey, you don’t. And you won’t last, as the human psyche cannot take it. And that’s a gift an actor receives, you know what I’m saying?
AD: So, no, I do not carry it home at the end of the day. I’ve learned that over time, because when you’re in acting school, acting as suffering, “yes, it is.” Oh no, no. No. Because once that happens, you’re defining the story. AD: However, this character…has stayed with me in a beautiful way. I’ve learned a lot from her. You don’t learn a lot from every character. This woman has taught me a lot. And actually, the reason for not seeing the film is not about, “I don’t want to watch myself”, all that. Please, if I’m not over that at this point, you know what I’m saying? Go get help. It’s more that the profound experience of shooting that. And I hope to see it one day. But every time I think about it, I just don’t know how.
RM: Yeah. No, and I think that when I was listening to other shows that you were on and I was like, “I totally get it.” “I totally get what she’s saying.” Because I watched it in January, and it took me seven, eight months to watch it again. I totally get what you are saying. Because I watched it in January, and it took me seven, eight months to watch it again.
AD: Oh my goodness. You’re a very sensitive, beautiful soul.
RM: On my third watch, I picked up on new things each go around. And I learned more about the characters, not from what you guys were saying, but from your facial expressions, the responses to the dialogue. And so, can I ask you about the workshopping in your two days of prep and while you were shooting the film, how much of that was you working with the other actors and Fran to sort of create that? And were you guys bouncing stuff off each other?
AD: Oh no, none of that. Well… it’s hard to describe the process, it’s a serious one. But in those two and a half days of rehearsal and you know this, because you’ve done your research… You poor thing, you’re hearing the same thing, I beg your pardon.
RM: No, it’s okay.
AD: I wish I could find different ways to say things. But those two and a half days, we went through text. So it’s important to know exactly what the story is, sort through what needs adjusting. And then there’s very little of that. And then establishing the trust in one another, and the knowledge that you are all in this together, you have the same goal. There’s nothing else that we wanted to do except be together and do this. And we all knew what we were signing up for.
We’ve been around a long time, which is to say experience, kind of helpful. Many hours on a stage, so we knew what endurance is about. We knew what courage is. Because we had our sea legs, so to speak. Then we go away for three weeks, we do our personal work. When we come to shoot, we’re ready, so to speak, and we’re ready to let go of the controls and trust the process that will occur. We know the words, and we’re going to talk to one another. That’s the process of acting that’s… I know sounds very vague. But I imagine you’re familiar with it, and the way you put a story together.
RM: One more question. And is that, I think through a movie like this, the audience is going to learn so much about empathy in various emotions of these characters. But working literally like we’re sitting across from one another at a table, this is how you sort of did the film with your costars. And my question is, what was the thing that you learned from all three of them? What was one thing that you took away that you can maybe carry on with you?
AD: Well…they’re remarkable actors, as you know, right? That’s right there in front of us. They’re gorgeous human beings. Goodness, kindness, humor. Each one of them, I mean, they’re family to me now. And I miss them. Reed’s one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. I love his company. We did something in Handmaid’s together, it was a blast. We just picked up where we left off. And he’s such a fine person and fine actor. And he’s funny. Martha’s a powerhouse. Know what I mean? That girl’s been… Just knows what-
RM : Your scenes together with her are the best in the film.
AD: She’s fantastic. And Jason, beautiful Jason, I love him. I lean on him, do you know what I mean? In our times I’ve seen him recently. I just did the… You see his work, oh my goodness. Just what everyone brought to it, of their own selves, the kindness and the listening. That’s what I learned from them. I mean, I aspire to be that kind of person that they are. And Fran.
Oh my God. What he did, what he wrote, what he created. And then, that he held us in it all through the shooting. I can’t imagine how stressful it was, can’t imagine. His first film. I mean to say, this material. And he was there.
RM: And you all knocked it out of the park.
AD: Thank you.
RM: I thank you. What a pleasure to speak with you.
AD: It’s a pleasure to speak with you as well. Are you going to take the rest of the night off?
RM: No, I’m actually going to run to a couple of screenings myself.
AD: Oh my God. Okay, buddy. Enjoy and be safe.
This interview was conducted at the Middleburg Film Festival. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. Mass is currently in limited release from Bleecker Street and goes nationwide on October 29.