Ann Dowd and Reed Birney on unique experience filming Mass and the future of The Handmaid's Tale
The stars of Fran Kranz school shooter drama Mass speak about the 20-minute takes, how none of them turned to method acting and what it was like working together on The Handmaid's Tale.
It's 2pm on a Monday afternoon in October when I'm waiting in a Zoom meeting room for Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, the stars of Fran Kranz's upcoming drama Mass. Birney, a Tony Award-winning actor best known for his extensive theatre career and roles in House of Cards, The Blacklist and Morning Glory, is the first to arrive.
While Dowd is in London, speaking to press ahead of the film's British Film Institute premiere, Birney is video-ing in from Savannah, Georgia, where he's filming The Menu – a dark comedy starring Rafe Fiennes and Anya Taylor Joy. "It's very Agatha Christie, it's Ten Little Indians.
"So far, it's been a lot of us sitting at a table and my character's name is Richard, so it's the same as Mass. It's Richard sitting at a table," he says, just before Dowd joins the call.
While I don't know much about Birney's character in The Menu, I'd be surprised if that Richard was anything like the Richard we meet in Mass – a raw, intense watch in which the parents of a school shooter meet with the parents of one of his victims.
Birney and Dowd, the star of The Handmaid's Tale, The Leftovers and a variety of other critically-acclaimed titles, play Richard and Linda, a separated couple whose son took a gun into his school and opened fire on his classmates before turning the gun on himself six years prior. As part of an experimental programme, Richard and Linda meet in the basement of a local church with Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son was killed by their's, to talk about their children and collectively reflect on the tragedy.
For Dowd, it was Kranz's emotionally-charged script that drew her to the project. "The beauty of the characters and the story," she continues. "The opportunity to drop into a world that is unimaginable, to be amongst this cast."
"Everything about it was dreamy honestly," Birney adds. "How would you begin to craft a conversation that seems this real and natural given the subject matter. It was a fantastic part. As gruesome and horrible as this situation is, it was thrilling as an actor to play something, as Annie says, is unimaginable. It's almost as if we were asked to do a movie about a trip to the moon it was so out of my can."
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To prepare for the role, Birney read an essay written by the father of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old behind the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, but everything else was in the script. "The circumstances were so complicated and so rich that as an actor it was a supreme challenge, honestly, but thrilling to do."
"It's a mysterious process, isn't it?" Dowd adds. "What we had established in the two and a half days of rehearsal was a very deep trust and an openness with one another which is essential and not always there. But we were comfortable and trusted one another very quickly. The text was full and clear, and deeply considered, nothing careless in it. It was a tremendous experience."
Despite the film's upsetting plot, Birney says that filming was "joyous", with none of the stars adopting a method style of acting outside of scenes.
"We laughed our heads off between takes and would go out to dinner. not to be disrespectful to the subject matter, but actually having that be a release from the intensity and the focus of the work," he says. "Nobody was somebody who said, 'You have to call me by my character's name all the time.' There was none of that. Everybody just dove right in and let it happen and so that was rare."
"To each his own," Ann says. "We were just fortunate that we've been doing it a long time. Reed I think has been acting for 70 years, is it Reed?", to which he responds: "470 years."
While the relationship between Linda and Richard in the film is incredibly frosty but underlined with an unfathomable weight of shared grief, Dowd and Birney's couldn't be more different, with the pair affectionately catching up and joking around. Ahead of shooting the film, which took place over eight days in Idaho, the two stars didn't discuss with each other how their characters' marriage dissolved and why exactly it happened.
"We both knew it didn't work out as a result of the event. Almost like Richard and Linda in a funny way, I think," Reed says. "Unable to talk about what happened to the marriage. It's just like, it's over, I'm leaving, bye."
"Reed and I barely spoke to each other," Dowd jokes. "I think I have to mention that he's the funniest person I've ever met on a set in my life."
Mass takes place almost exclusively in the brightly-lit church basement as the two couples spend nearly the entirety of the film speaking about their sons – conversations made to feel even more uncomfortable at times thanks to Kranz's use of incredibly long takes.
"We don't really remember where the camera were, it was a very private room. Fran was not with us in the room, he was outside the room and came in when he had a note to give," Dowd says, with Birney adding: "It was very intense as you can imagine because we'd do these 20 minutes takes and then we cut and we'd have to change the angle and do another 20 minute take of the same thing.
"It was very focused and it was almost like we were scientists working on something. As an actor, I've never had an experience like this honestly."
While Birney had been able to watch the finished product, Dowd admits that she wasn't ready to visit it just yet. "It's just more that the experience itself was very profound and the connection with the character was just– I've never had such a thing to that extent for that period of time. Every time I try to think of watching, it just pushes back and I want to leave the experience in place. Who knows what will happen in the future and Reed keeps punishing me for not watching it."
"I want her to see it because I'm so proud of it," Birney adds. "I've watched it quite a few times and I've never seen it with an audience which I am desperate to do. Something about this particular project I don't find it difficult to watch. Sometimes I do – sometimes I don't like what I'm doing or the way I'm filmed, but this one I'm so proud of."
Mass turned out to be just the beginning of Birney and Dowd's working relationship, with the stage actor landing a role on The Handmaid's Tale shortly after filming wrapped. Most fans will know Dowd as the terrifying Aunt Lydia, the brutal caretaker of the Handmaids and head teacher when it comes to their sexual re-education – a role which won Dowd, and her co-star Elisabeth Moss, an Emmy back in 2017.
"I was at Sundance and ran into Elisabeth Moss, whom I knew a little bit, and I said I'd just worked with Annie and she said, 'I know,' and thew her arms around me," Birney explains. "She went home from Sundance and the script for that episode was on her desk and she started reading and she said, 'Oh, I think Reed would be great for this.'
Birney, who'd never seen the show before, watched all the existing episodes in a week before making his debut on the show as Lieutenant Stans in season four. "You were wonderful," Dowd says. "Terrific and scary! You brought to it that kind of terrifying quiet."
As for what we can expect from season five, Dowd can't give much away – mainly as she hasn't had the scripts through yet. "The writers are very smart. They don't tell actors anything – I don't have a clue at all about what will be happening.
"I do know that there's a season five and six," she continues, before saying that she's due to return to filming the show at the "end of January".
"I imagine Reed is going to be– I think he should be fully involved," she says, with Birney adding: "There are plenty of people to kill. I would love to do it. But nobody's talking to me about it either so we'll say it's all to be determined."
Should Aunt Lydia and Lieutenant Sands get their own spin-off? "I like that," Dowd says. "I want to get a different costume in that case. I think Lydia needs to flirt a little."
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"Well, I did say I have a little bit of a fantasy that Lieutenant Stans and Lydia maybe went out to dinner a couple of times," Birney laughs.
As our interview comes to an end, I ask whether viewers ever confuse Dowd with the horrific character she plays on the show, and while on the whole most people are lovely, she recalls one instance when the show started when a fan suddenly clocked who she was. "I have had people very early on – a woman finally recognising who I played. She basically turned and not ran but she walked very, very quickly.
"She was travelling backwards down the escalator and I was just like, 'Whoa, everything's OK here.' But it's generally, very sweet people."
Birney chimes in: "And I never get recognised anywhere so it's not a problem."
Mass comes to Sky Cinema and cinemas on 20th January. Check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Film hub for what to watch.
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