Ann Dowd (‘Mass’): ‘Can I drop to that level of grief and stay there in a truthful way?’

Over the past weekend at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia, Gold Derby chatted with actress Ann Dowd, who currently is our projected Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress in the latest combined odds. SPOILERS AHEAD: She has a heartbreaking role as a mother whose son shot down 10 fellow students in his high school and then took his own life in “Mass.” Six years after that tragic day, Linda and her ex-husband (Reed Birney) meet with the parents (Martha Plimpton as Gail and Jason Isaacs as Jay) of a son who was one of the victims. Their encounter is in a room in an Episcopalian church in scenic rural Idaho as they hash out their differences, tell stories about their mutual sons, and eventually engage in what could kindly be called speaking the unspeakable.

This sympathetic and empathetic role is a far cry from her Emmy-winning role as the sadistic Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The festival bestowed her with their Agnes Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award – possibly the first of many during this award season.

Q: With so many shootings like that, we forget the truth and the cost of it. Everything gets devoured by the media of it. It is cast in terms of politics instead of people. What about the script and the subject matter drew you the most?

A: The filmmaker Fran (Kranz, in his feature debut), beautiful Fran was making a story about healing, connection and forgiveness. He was deeply affected by reconciliation process in South Africa. He learned about in college and wondered if he ever could do that. Could he ever drop the blame, the anger, could he ever do it? It haunted him. He had a young child at the time, a daughter who is five now, and he was driving at the time and listening to a mother from the Parkland shooting. And he had to pull over. So the circumstances do involve a mass shooting and the issue of forgiveness and healing is universal to all of us and to all circumstances of grief. What drew me was the beauty of the writing. The character, I loved her. I very much wanted to know her. Can I drop to that level of grief and stay there in a truthful way? But there was an added responsibility because of the amount of grief people suffer.

Q: The movie just came out this past weekend. Have you or the filmmakers heard from parents who lost children in such horrific incidents?

A: Fran and I met in New York a mother who lost her daughter, 6-years-old, in a mass shooting. She had come through the other side of forgiveness. And Fran and I just wept. In front of us was the real thing. A real human being who suffered that tragedy. She lost her marriage and found her way to forgiveness. And doing positive things in memory of her daughter. It reminds me the privilege actors have, because for us, it is make-believe.

Q: I don’t think Linda’s husband Richard ever cries. Everybody else does at multiple points. He isn’t a bad guy, but he doesn’t seem to carry the same amount of burden for what transpired.

A: We know people like this. His need and ability to keep the world out. It doesn’t mean he didn’t really love his son. Linda is a different kind of person. I imagined that she was the peacekeeper.

Q: It says something that she brought a flower arrangement she made for the other couple. I think she wanted to have something of beauty to take the edge off and show that she cares.

A: And of life. And, too, because her life shatters entirely. And with it, all the level of defense and expectation. What she did before this? The peace-keeping between her husband and son. “Dad didn’t mean it that way.” He didn’t mean it that way. You’re too sensitive.” Just imagine keeping the harmony in her family. Once the unimaginable happens, she lives in a reality and accepts the reality of her life. Martha and Jason spoke a lot about what their marriage was like. They did a lot of back work together. We hardly discussed it. We were free to come up with it in our own minds. If he was ever to drop the armor, he would need to be helped and held.

Q: When your characters first walked into the room at the church, you could feel all that history. So it is interesting to hear you didn’t talk about it.

A: I think they made their peace, Richard and Linda. I think Reed thought it was hard on him, the end of the marriage. But I think it was hard on her, too. The beautiful woman, Jennifer, who lost her daughter, her marriage ended because you have to grieve and she said it was hard on her but also hard on him.

Q: Did you have any qualms about what the script was about before you actually read it?

A: I thought it was brilliant. Wow, this is where we are going. It was clearly and intentionally written. We had only two and half days of rehearsal, but we came very quickly to trust one another.

Q. Any last thoughts about has these all too common massacres have become a regular occurrence in our society?

A: You have to talk about this. What we learned by doing the film, you have to be ready to talk. That means you have to lay down – the blame, the guilt, the rage. You just have to listen. I don’t understand anti-vaxers.I don’t understand what’s so hard about a mask. I do not understand people who support Trump. I don’t understand the need for guns. I am not the one coming to the table because I’m not ready.

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