“I know that is important for me to actively listen and to let the information be new and hearing it for the first time… but that’s really the job, to find a way to hear it for the first time.” – Reed Birney
There are a handful of actors I’ve had a chance to talk to over the years where the amount of time you’re allotted just isn’t enough. There are so many things you want to talk about that you’re scrambling to get in all your questions. Case in point: Reed Birney. He’s a fantastic character actor who’s been working in film, television and theater for years, even winning a Tony Award for his work in Stephen Karam‘s play, The Humans.
He’s now starring in actor Fran Kranz‘s directorial debut, Mass, about two sets of parents (Birney and Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) who have agreed to finally talk after experiencing a terrible tragedy. The film, also written by Kranz, is flat out terrific and features a masterclass in acting from each actor.
In this interview, Birney chats about the film and his role (which Kranz wrote specifically for him), the importance of listening, preparation and bad auditions. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
I can’t say enough good things about this film. It was just wonderful.
Reed Birney: It’s really something isn’t it? I knew when I read the script that it was thrilling, but I don’t think any of us ever anticipated that it would turn out to be such a profound experience for an audience. And it’s incredibly gratifying. Honestly.
I saw that the part was actually written for you.
Reed Birney: The part was written for me. I’m incredibly proud of that. I got an email from Fran in October of 18 saying, “I’ve written this thing. I don’t know if it’s any good. I’m embarrassed to show it to you, but I’d be thrilled if you would take a look at it.” Fran, he’s so sweet and shy. And I opened it instantly and read it and it was like reading Death of Salesman. It was already perfect. I thought, ‘look at you been through, I’ve never written anything before.’ It was still a play then and it was slightly different, there were some changes, but it was basically the same.
It was incredibly moving on that first read and then it just became this thing and he stuck with me and I told him the next day that I would go anywhere to do it as a play or whatever we wanted.
That’s gotta be incredibly flattering that he thought of you for the role.
Reed Birney: Oh boy, can you imagine? I mean, I never had that happen before in my life. I’ve had people write things with me in mind and then you read them and you’re like, ‘there’s no way in the world I’m going to do this terrible play.’
He had trouble getting people to take as seriously as a play, just because, you know, he’s not right out of the Yale school of Drama. And I said to him and Casey Mott, our producer, “Why don’t you make into a movie?” Casey said, “It’s too intimate for a play.” Which I thought was very insightful because I think that’s absolutely right. And you know, if it were a play, you’ve done plays, we’d have to find reasons to get up from the table and wander around and make sure that people face front at some point or another and people changing chairs. And that just wasn’t what Fran wrote.
And as it was, as he was getting it all put together as a movie, he had people saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t have people sit at a table for 95 minutes. You’ve got to have them go outside and you’ve got to have flashbacks and you’ve got to have them wander around the church.” And Fran was incredibly brave and confident and said, “That’s not the show. It’s not what I wrote. These people are at this table for a reason, and they have to stay there.” And we do have to stay there. It’s absolutely right.
I’ve gotten some parts before where I think, “How the heck am I going to do this?” Do you still get like that with everything that you’ve done?
Reed Birney: I haven’t felt that thing, which I know exactly what you’re talking about, in quite a while. The last time I really felt that was… well, I felt it a little bit with The Humans because it was a janitor from Scranton, and I thought I would never cast me as a janitor from Scranton. I think janitors from like Fred Flintstone and then I realized that was really stupid of me. Janitors are people, they look a whole lot of ways, but I had never played a truly, you know, lower middle class or blue-collar character before I’m always in a coat and tie.
Well, that turned out well, I think.
Reed Birney: It turned out pretty well. It turned out pretty well.
But I think since then, really since Blasted, the Sarah Kane play I did in 2008 where I literally had that thing that you’re saying. When they offered it to me, I read it and I said, “I can’t do this. It scares me way too much.” And then I thought, well, that’s the reason I have to do it because it’s so scary. If it scares me this much, there’s something there I need to look at it.
And once I did it, I had to take my clothes off and on the third page of the play, and I did that the third day of rehearsal, I thought I’m not going to have this thing hanging over my head all the rehearsal process. So, I took off all my clothes and I didn’t die. I thought, “Oh, oh, okay. Let’s go.” And that was incredibly empowering. And really, since that, I have not had that feeling.
How do you even go about preparing for this? Did you prepare for it like you would do a play? Did you have everything memorized, all the beats and all that?
Reed Birney: No, we had two and a half days of rehearsal, three weeks before we went out to Sun Valley, which was really table work. I don’t think we ever made it through the whole script.
But we did all the things like, “Why would I ask that question? Don’t I already know that? How would you feel if I said this, instead of that?” That kind of stuff.
And I read Adam Lanza’s father’s essay about being the father of a school shooter, which is beautiful and needless to say heartbreaking, but that’s the only research I did.
And then I just felt like the script was plenty. The script was enough. And I worked on it, and I think I knew the lines pretty well, but we would get together the night before each day and run lines together and, you know, really get it in there.
But I think I thought, Lance, my job really is to get out of the way and let Richard come through because it was all right there on the page. And it was clear to me who he was. I think he’s an ultra-wasp, which I for better, for worse am. And I grew up in that world. And so, in having me play Richard, he becomes that guy. And I think that’s probably why Fran thought of me in writing it. You know, Fran’s from a pretty waspy family and I think he recognized Richard in me.
A lot of the film you and the cast are listening to somebody else. Actively listening. Like when the cameras on you, we can almost see the thoughts racing through your heads. And I feel like that’s so hard to convey on screen.
Reed Birney: Don’t you think listening is the best part of acting? I think I can remember four or five moments in my theater going career of moments when I watched someone listening, they weren’t talking, they were listening and they’re listening took my breath away. And so I remember getting very early the importance of listening.
I know that is important for me to actively listen and to let the information be new and hearing it for the first time. You know, when you’ve done a play for 600 times, that can be the first thing that goes, but that’s really the job is to find a way to hear it for the first time.
I think one of the things about it is the material is so… what’s being said is so astonishing that it’s hard not to listen, especially if you’re this group of actors who was operating in a really sort of high, vibrating level.
Speaking of the cast, obviously they’re fantastic, but like sitting around that table for hours and days, are you learning anything from?
Reed Birney: Well, it became very clear, even in those two days in the little rehearsal room in Times Square that we were all bringing our ‘A’ game. It was like the best boxing match in the world. We really all were just like, “Oh, this is going to be really fun.” So, yeah, I think, I learned things.
I have watched the movie many, many times. I won’t watch it all every time, but lots of times I’ll drop into it for five minutes and pick different sections and I am still astonished by it. Just like an audience is looking at it. It’s like, “Holy cow, this is so much more than the sum of its parts.” To watch how Fran put it together, the editing cinematography, none of which I was aware of when we were doing it, to see how he crafted this thing. I’m so proud to be in it.
But I will tell you, Lance, we laughed our heads off making this movie. It was falling out of our chairs laughing hard between takes because it’s a really funny, smart group of people. And we played tricks and we pranked, and we made jokes and quips.
And I think at one point I sort of thought, “I wonder if this is disrespectful of the material and the subject matter?” And then I thought, “I think this is actually a perfect coping mechanism to relieve the tension of the staff and of the material.” And happily, none of us was the kind of actor who had to be called by their characters name or says, ‘give me five minutes to prepare.’ There was none of that. We would be laughing and telling jokes as we walked in to sit down at the table and he’d say, “action,” and we’d go right into it. It was really something to see.
What’s been your worst audition ever?
Reed Birney: I auditioned for a Dr. Pepper commercial back when they were doing those singing and dancing Dr. Pepper commercials. It was like A Chorus Line before A Chorus Line.
They called us all in to dance and I was a cute 22-year-old or something. I’m not a dancer and the choreographer kept me way longer. I should have been cut after the very first step, but I was back for round two and three and four, I think. And humiliated so much, I’m blushing right now because I was surrounded by these incredible gorgeous dancers.
And then another one, I went in for a Law and Order to play a longshoreman. And I said to my manager, “This is a bad idea.” “Oh no, no. They asked for you.” So, I went in and did my best attempt at a longshoreman, and they said, “Thank you. Thank you, Reed. Thank you.” And as I was closing the door behind me, I heard the room burst into laughter. It was horrible.