Interview: Martha Plimpton on Her New Film, ‘Mass,’ “This is why we became actors”

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Martha Plimpton Mass Interview

To say that Martha Plimpton is terrific in actor Fran Kranz‘s directorial debut, Mass, is an understatement. “This is why we became actors to get to do something like this,” she said recently.

The film, which was also written by Kranz, is about two sets of parents (Plimpton and Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) who have agreed to finally talk after experiencing a terrible tragedy. It’s a deeply moving experience and features a masterclass in acting from every actor.

In this interview, she talks about her role and why she wanted it, working with the cast and why she tries to block out auditions. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.

I watched the film and want to say it was wonderful, but I feel that’s like the wrong word to describe it, you know? I need a better word to say how much I loved it.

Martha Plimpton: You know, I like wonderful. We’ll do wonderful.

How did you find out about the script?

Martha Plimpton: It was very simple. My agent, who does not represent Fran but who knows him well, had read the script and thought, “Well, this might be something Martha would like.” And he was right.

He sent the script over to me and I read it in one sitting, which as I’ve said, it’s very unusual for me. Usually, scripts are kind of difficult for me to read, I find them kind of tedious. I have a hard time sort of seeing what’s going to happen, you know what I mean? It’s difficult for me.

But this one, I finished in one sitting. I was really blown away and I found it incredibly compelling. And so I wanted to meet Fran and when I did, I was immediately ready to do it. I thought Fran was just instantly likable and smart. And obviously from having read the script I knew that he had an amazing brain and I felt that it was clear what he wanted to do, and I felt like I wanted to try and help him do it.

How do you even go about preparing for this? Do you prepare like you would do a play? Do you have everything memorized? What was your process that you did to get ready for this?

Martha Plimpton: Well, I did say to Fran that I thought that there would be no real way to do this movie without rehearsal. And Fran definitely agreed. The question was, would we have the money, and would we have the time? And would we be able to get everyone in the same room? You know, I envisioned a week of rehearsal around the table. But of course, that was not to be, we just didn’t have the time or the ability to get everybody together.

We ended up having about two full days and one sort of afternoon, and that turned out to be kind of enough. So we had kind of the best of both worlds. We’d gotten together in a rehearsal studio, and I think we got through the script maybe once because we mostly talked. And we did table work, where we read and we talk and we read and we talked. And we made a couple of small minor changes.

And Fran was incredibly generous to us as actors. I mean, this was a script that he had been working on single-mindedly or at least three years. And the subject about which he had some very deep feelings.  He was long interested in this subject of restorative justice and now he had this script that he had worked painstakingly to make sure that it did not have a false note in it. And yet he totally gave it over to us actors in a supreme act of generosity. I mean, of course he had boundaries and he knew exactly what he wanted, but he was extremely generous within those boundaries, and he gave us an enormous amount of leeway and freedom and he trusted us.

So, that when we got to Idaho, having been talking in the room and really sort of bonding, we bonded really quickly, we had this extraordinary rapport by the time we got there that really felt strangely indelible and would really help him support us throughout the process.

Throughout the film, I just felt like this emptiness emanating from you. I could just feel it pop out from the screen. How do you maintain that the whole shoot? Are you able to just go in and out of it?

Martha Plimpton: Yes.  No, I don’t mean to be glib. I will explain myself; I promise.

As I mentioned, we had this wonderful trusting relationship that we had forged very quickly among our cast and with Fran. I mean, it was really a company of five. And we were all in Idaho, we were all on location and we were all staying in the same hotel. We basically spent every waking moment together. And we all have history or backgrounds in theater.

So, it was surprisingly comfortable and easy because we didn’t have dressing rooms to go to, you know? We had no time and no money. We were all sort of in this sort of pre-pandemic bubble together for two weeks.

And we laughed a lot. We all knew what we were there to do, and we didn’t have much time in which to do it. So, there wasn’t any rooms for fussing about. We didn’t have time to play or to be difficult or to take up all the oxygen in the room, you know?

And so, because of that, because we took our task seriously, we could relax with one another. Which is, I think, a wonderful thing that should happen on more films, to be honest. Because we were serious, we didn’t have time to be self-serious. So, it made that kind of moving between shooting and then not shooting when we would be laughing, and Reed would be telling hysterical jokes and Ann would be pulling pranks on Reed. There was a levity to it, and we all respected one another, and we all trusted one another. It made it a very almost seamless experience.

A lot of the film you guys are listening to one another, but actively listening. When the cameras on you, I can almost see thoughts racing through your head. At times, you can watch people on screen, and you can tell them not like they’re listening, you know what I mean?

Martha Plimpton: Yeah. I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I think it’s about a few things. It’s about what, as I mentioned before, each of our histories in theater and recognizing that you’re still in it, you’re still in the movie. Even though you’re not talking, you’re still in the play when you’re not talking. Also, the script, it’s very, very specific and very authentic and feels very true.

And everyone there is just a really great actor, and you want to give them what they need. And you want to be there. Every time someone catches your eye, you want to be there for them, you know?

And because of the way it’s shot by Fran and by Ryan Jackson-Healy and subsequently edited by Fran, there some wonderful stuff in there that it’s very brave. You’d be looking at a person who’s silent, in a moment of silence as it were, and then you hear a person start to speak and you’ll stay on the person who’s silent. And that’s really brave. That tells a story too.

It’s not just about seeing who’s talking when they’re talking, it’s about the dynamic in the room. What are people feeling in this room? What are they not saying? What do they wish they could say that they keep themselves from saying, you know? All of these things, they’re very, very brave of Fran.

As well as, for example, the lack of flashbacks, the lack of inserts to photograph, for example. The lack of music. He’s letting the actors tell this story, quite literally.

And that’s just an incredible thing for a director to do. It’s very unusual and it’s one of the things that made all of us, I think, feel like this is why we do this. This is why we became actors to get to do something like this, you know?

And finally, what’s been your worst audition ever?

Martha Plimpton: Oh my gosh, there’s so many. There’ve been so many. I blocked them all out. As soon as they’re over, I walk away, and I don’t think about it again. It’s true. It’s true. Even the good ones. I just forget it. Maybe it’s psychotic of me, but I literally blocked them out. I can’t remember. It’s like a trauma that I can’t recall. I’ve had so many bad auditions. Oh my gosh. Forget it. Forget it.

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