Martha Plimpton Says Fran Kranz's Drama Mass Is The Kind Of Movie Every Actor Hopes To Make [Interview]

The new Sundance selected drama "Mass" is playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will soon be expanding to more theaters across the United States. Ahead of the film's release, we were lucky enough to speak with star Martha Plimpton about the making of this harrowing drama that finds two sets of parents sharing a raw, heart-wrenching conversation about a tragedy they both endured in two very different ways. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Plimpton) lost their son in a school shooting. Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) lost their son in the same school shooting, but unfortunately, their son was also the shooter. 

Trust me when I tell you, even before 2021 is over, this film will be one of the best of the year, and it contains four award-worthy performances from the small ensemble cast, too. We were fortunate enough to speak with Plimpton to discuss the process of making such an emotionally exhausting movie. 

"It's one of the most cinematic films I've ever seen."

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

All right, so I first saw "Mass" back at Sundance in January as part of the virtual festival, and it absolutely floored me. I couldn't wait to watch it again just to have that experience again before speaking with you. To start with, I just wanted to find out how you cam to be involved with the movie.

Martha Plimpton: Well, my agent is friends with Fran, although he doesn't represent him. He had this script, and he said, "Take a look at the script and tell me what you think, if you'd like to be a part of it. It's got no budget, and it's going to shoot for two weeks.

I didn't know Fran as an actor, I'm ashamed to say. I didn't know his work. So I had no expectations either way. But when I read it, I read it all the way through, which is pretty unusual for me. I was just really taken aback by it, and it really knocked my socks off. So when I met Fran, it was just a conversation to meet him and talk with one another, and I liked him immediately. I was really taken with his sincerity and his kindness, and I could see that he knew exactly what he wanted to do with this film. I didn't feel at all that he was vague or in any way confused. He was very sure-footed about what he wanted to do. So I thought, "Well, yeah. Let's do this." That's how I came to be part of it.

Being unfamiliar with Fran's work as an actor and knowing that he was a first time writer/director, was there any hesitation or concern, especially with such heavy material as a subject matter?

I'll tell you why there wasn't. Because the script was so damn good. There was nothing in the script that I felt hit a wrong note or felt out of place. As I say, I read it all in one sitting. The reason why that's rare for me is because that's just not often the case. There's usually something in there that needs to be worked out or rearranged or somehow made clearer. That's natural. There's nothing wrong with that. But in this case, it just felt utterly there. All there. I felt that, obviously, since Fran had written it, he clearly had this mind that could produce this screenplay. I didn't see how he could possibly screw it up, you know?

When I came to understand that Reed was already going to do it — it had always been intended for Reed to play that role, it was written for him, I believe. Reed is just a brilliant, incredible actor. So I knew that Fran had good taste. When I spoke with him, he just seemed to really understand what he wanted and how he wanted to do it. I had said to him, when we met, that I felt that the only way to do this would be to rehearse it like a play. Not that it is like a play. I don't feel it is like a play at all. I think that does it a disservice. I think that the film is really cinematic. In fact, it's one of the most cinematic films I've ever seen. It has a momentum and an innate, organic momentum to it that I think it's really quite impressive. So I wasn't worried. I knew that he was going to put together a cast of people who would come up to the mark for him.

"This is the work we've always wanted to do."

Speaking of the cast, I spoke to Jason Isaacs a little bit about this, and I wanted to get your perspective on the preparation that you and the rest of the cast did. How did that help you prepare for the movie as far as fleshing out your character and making it such an authentic performance?

It's true that Jason and I did talk among the four of us. We never had separate conversations, but we did talk among the four of us about where we had been, what brought us here, what brought us to this conversation to this point in our marriage. Did we still share a bedroom? Did we speak? Did we argue? It was interesting that Jason and I rarely agreed on the circumstances of that past, but that ended up being very much to our benefit, because it illustrated the chasm between Jay and Gail.

Other than that, I can't say that I did any specific work or preparation or research. It didn't seem right to me. I didn't feel that I would be able to approximate any one person's true experience. I felt that it would be wrong of me to attempt to do that. So I just chose to deal with Gail's reality, with Gail's story. I found that to be, for me, more than adequate. It was all there in the script. All I felt I needed to do was to just be faithful to the script.

When you're shooting a movie like this, and there's so much focus on you as the characters, you're in this one room, the camera is always on one of you and focusing intently, how challenging is it to stay keyed in through multiple takes, especially with a script that is so raw with emotion and tension?

It's not too difficult at all. First of all, you've got three other actors there who are formidable and utterly present. At the end of the day, you might be a little exhausted, but you're all in that bubble together. Pre-pandemic, on location, staying in the same hotel, eating dinner together at night, working on the script the next days words together in your hotel room. You're on this train. And nobody gets on, nobody gets off. You're on this train, and you're going to be on it till the end.

So it's not too terribly difficult at all, really. In fact, it's a very lucky privilege. It's very few films that will allow the actors to maintain central focus. It's a very brave thing that Fran has done to choose not to use music, not to use flashbacks, not to cut away to inserts. There are none of those formulaic things that filmmakers tend to rely on in this film. It's a very unflinching and brave dome. I think all of us feel, in our own ways, that this is the work we've always wanted to do. This is the kind of thing that never comes around. And that's when we just feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to be a part of it.

"Mass" is playing in New York and Los Angeles right now and will soon be expanding to more theaters across the United States. Be sure to check out our interview with Fran Kranz over here.