One of the most notable actresses working today, Ann Dowd has become a household name, having played everything from a deranged cult leader in HBO series The Leftovers to the chilling Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale—performances that got her an Emmy nomination and a win, respectively. And now, there’s much Oscar buzz around her stunning performance in Fran Krantz’s film Mass, in which she plays a grieving mother on the other side of a school shooting, alongside her onscreen husband Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs. Here, Dowd discusses Mass and what she hopes audiences will take from it.
DEADLINE: Given the subject matter, making this film had to be extremely emotional.
ANN DOWD: Well, Fran thought everything out carefully, given the money and the time we had. The shooting schedule was interesting as the beginning and ending were the only thing shot out of sequence, but everything that took place in that room was shot sequentially. Fran was not in the room shooting, he was outside as they kept the video village away from the actual set. The experience was intensely private and that doesn’t happen often.
We shot 12 pages of dialogue a day. Normally, If I heard this on any other set I’d say, “On what planet?” However, due to the nature of the material it had to be done and I didn’t mind. We had the two-and-a-half days of rehearsal three weeks prior, which isn’t a lot, but it established clarity of text. We all knew what we were talking about, but we also came to trust each other tremendously and we knew we were safe with one another.
DEADLINE: What is it about this role and the script that made you say, “Yes, this is for me.”
DOWD: The script is extremely well written, clear and intentional. It’s very carefully thought and felt through, by Fran. Being an actor turned director, he knows what it is to drop into each human being and give them their own story. He did that remarkably well, so I knew right away I would do it. But also, I really admired Linda as a character. She’s an extraordinary and strong individual, so I was drawn to her. At the same time, I was properly scared because I wondered If I could drop into this level of grief for the time necessary, while showing respect to this character and story.
The added thing here was the responsibility as an actor of showing respect to the experience because this is a real thing in the world and you’re dropping into a place where I don’t know what that experience is like. But I thought to myself “I’m going to do the best I can.”
DEADLINE: You talk about responsibility and another one of your films come to mind: Craig Zobel’s Compliance. In the film, a normal day at a fast food chain turns into a day of horror for one female employee, and the character you play, Sandra, is the ringleader and the one who believes in authority. The character feels similar to Linda (Mass) in that the character holds a similar level of grief although the scenarios are different. Can you chat a little about that?
DOWD: Being able to hold a level of grief is a comfortable place for me. I don’t know why. I think it is for actors in general because we know we’re safe. As for Compliance, people have asked a lot of questions about how a situation like this can manifest, and I answered that for any woman in the world certain influences can cloud your judgement. For example, I was raised in a very loving family and strong tenants were deferred to authority and deferred to the church. Now, if you’ve been shamed early on in life and told that your opinion is worthless, that voice says, “My opinion, my conscience is what leads the way. Not what someone else tells me is important, if that is a possible thing.” Well, that character in Compliance didn’t have that. What Linda and Sandra share is that what we see is that everything isn’t in black and white. Those gray areas are where the intrigue happens.
DEADLINE: Do you have a personal method of decompressing such emotionally charged material that the characters deal with in Mass?
DOWD: I would say the reason actors can do the deep dive is that we don’t take the consequences home with us. I’m afraid to use this phrase because it doesn’t sound proper but It’s make believe for us. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t challenging, but there is a difference between personal suffering and the suffering of character–and that balance is hugely important. And when you feel it start to shift to self, then a red flag goes up. If it ever becomes about personal suffering then I can’t come back to set every day, and the story becomes about me, not about the character. Setting those boundaries over time becomes essential. With the four of us (Jason Issacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney), no one was precious about it. Between takes, you can’t imagine the laughter. Shooting was dependent upon the natural light of the day and when the sun went down, so did we, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of talk about awards, and Oscars, and Golden Globes and all that. Is that something that you care about?
DOWD: I’ll never forget the feeling of winning an Emmy. I didn’t think it was going to happen, and when it did, I was stunned and grateful. It was such a lovely moment. I tell myself, as you get drawn into these hopes and wishes, it’s good to keep a balance. I just remind myself, just stick to the work, focus there, and everything will sort itself out. Awards are lovely, however if you overly focus on them, it’s possible to lose your way.
DEADLINE: What do you want audiences to take away from watching Mass?
DOWD: The takeaway would be, when you are ready, a way through is always possible. If we can put aside those voices that scream at us when we feel so unsettled. If we can lay them down, and step in, and listen to others, the walls drop, and it is an extraordinary experience. I’ve had it a few times in my life when I’m sure I’m the one who’s right, and somehow the person in front of me shares their grief, and their tears, and it’s all over. All you want is to hold them, and vice versa. There is always a way through. Just don’t leave the room.
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