There are few actors I admire more than Martha Plimpton. I’ve been lucky enough to see her on the Broadway stage in plays such as Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. She’s equally at home in quality television shows such as Raising Hope, The Real O’Neals, and the recent HBO series, Generation. And I’ve admired Martha’s work in the movies since she was a young teen in films such as Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast, Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, and Ron Howard’s Parenthood. This woman has it all — amazing comedy timing, incredible dramatic acting chops, and even a great singing voice. If you ever get a chance to hear Plimpton sing in her cabaret act, do not miss it. She’s also a hard-working activist for abortion rights, the co-founder of A Is For…, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing reproductive rights, and a strong advocate for the LBGTQ community. 

But nothing I’ve known about Martha prepared me for the brilliance of her new film, MASS, which opens in theaters on October 8. Years after an unspeakable tragedy tore their lives apart, two sets of parents (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as Linda and Richard, and Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs as Gail and Jay) agree to talk privately in an attempt to move forward. In actor Fran Kranz’s writing and directing debut, he thoughtfully examines their journey of grief, anger, and acceptance by coming face-to-face with the ones who have been left behind. You’ll never see four better performances in a film, it’s astonishing. Though the subject matter is quite heavy, I’ve already seen the film twice and hope to again, it’s just that thrilling to watch. I talked to Martha Plimpton about the film. 

Danny Miller: Martha, watching the four of you in this film is like an acting master class. Fran Kranz’s script was wonderful, but there were so many amazing choices you all made for every look, gesture, and line reading. Did you “get” your character Gail right away or was it more of an unfolding over time?

Martha Plimpton: I think I actually did kind of get her right away but that’s largely because the script was so great — really organic and authentic — none of it felt contrived in the least. Fran had worked for about three years to get this script to a place where he was satisfied with it, and it showed in every line — very little had to be changed. The way I describe it is that the script itself is kind of like a slow-moving avalanche. Like one pebble falls and then one rock falls, then a bigger chunk comes off, and then it just overtakes you, you know? It just had this momentum that felt very real and very authentic. And so, yes, it’s true that there were a million ways each of us could have done everything, but there was only one way that sort of felt right, if that makes any sense.

Not a false note to be found. And at different times I could relate to each one of them. Martha, you don’t strike me as the kind of “method” actor who stays in your role all of the time, but I still wonder what kind of impact it has on you as a human being to play these kinds of very heavy emotions. Does your body know the difference that it’s not really your own feelings that you’re portraying?  

It’s interesting. I think it’s different for every actor how they experience that and what their process is. I tend to be a very pragmatic person when it comes to my work, I don’t tend to be consumed like that. It doesn’t mean that I’m detached in any way, but I don’t believe that any of us were particularly precious or maudlin about this process. First of all, we didn’t have the time to be, we shot the entire film in 14 days on location. We were in sort of our own little bubble right before the pandemic, and I’ll say that one of the good things about having such a tiny budget was that we were very light dependent. We needed the daylight so we basically started at 9 am and had a hard out at 5 pm when the sun would start to go down. That meant we had all of our evenings to decompress and work through the script for the next day’s work with each other. We’d also go out to dinner and talk about other things. We spent so much time together, the four of us, and there was a lot of laughter. I don’t remember anyone ever going off into a corner and saying, “I need a moment,” it was a very unpretentious experience. Despite the difficult subject matter, I found it to be a very fluid, very easy way of working. I loved it. 

Even though there are zero flashbacks in the film, the two couples give us so much in their performances that I practically felt like I was in their houses watching their relationships for the six years between the big event and this meeting. God, what actors the four of you are! I’m sure it’s not every project you’re involved with where you have actors that bring as much as Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, and Jason Isaacs. 

Danny, it was a total dream. And a dream to have a writer and director like Fran who trusts his actors so implicitly and is able to hand these characters over to them. It’s truly the kind of experience you dream of having. As Reed said, the reason he became an actor was to be able to have experiences like this. But it’s rare, extremely rare that a filmmaker will trust that the actors can hold the story, and that they don’t need flashbacks or music or anything like that to propel it along. We’re in one room for most of the film and yet the story is dynamic and some wonderful, subtle things are done with the camera. It never feels static which is an incredible accomplishment. Of course, I can’t say enough about Reed’s performance, it’s such a difficult one but in my view he’s one of the main things that prevents the film from going off into any kind of sentimentality. It was an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to Fran and all of these actors. 

Sometimes I hate when people say that a film is very “theatrical” even though I think this story could also be a great stage play, because I worry that they mean there’s some kind of artifice to it which I never feel here. And I worry when people stress the very heavy subject matter because I don’t want that to discourage anyone from seeing it. I saw the film twice and I was so riveted each time that I couldn’t believe hours had gone by, it seemed like 10 minutes. 

Yes, you make an excellent point. A lot of people do seem to think that this could be a stage play and for a minute in Fran’s eyes, it was. But I think what Fran realized, and what really makes this film so powerful, is that if it had had been a stage play you would have needed these people to get up from that table way more often and to break the tension that was building. But with a film you can really get in there and see those faces, look at someone responding to a sentence rather than looking at the person who is speaking it. You can use the camera to create tension and to create an intimacy that I don’t think would be possible on stage with this particular material. I think it’s one of the most cinematic movies I’ve ever seen.

Martha, would you say that the film changed the way that you look at forgiveness in your own life?

Yeah, I think it has. I think it changed my perception of what forgiveness really means. That it’s not something you just “do” one day and then it’s a done deal, it’s much more of a daily process, something that goes back and forth. I think that’s part of our culture’s difficulty with the subject of forgiveness because we tend to think of it as an act rather than as a process. 

Definitely. Gail has this amazing moment in the film but when she leaves there that day, I never felt that it’s really “over” for her, the work will continue.

Absolutely. There’s a crack, a fissure that she can work through, but there are so many feelings that she still has to deal with.  

MASS opens in theaters on October 8, 2021.