With over a hundred credits, Ann Dowd has been a working actor in Hollywood in both TV and film for over 30 years. She’s a performer many recognize from films like Captain Fantastic, Collateral Beauty, and the recent Hereditary, and from tv shows ranging from small roles like those in The X-Files and Freaks and Geeks, to featured performances on Law and Order, Olive Kitteridge, Masters of Sex and The Leftovers. It was 2012’s Compliance that brought her wider recognition, a film for which she was nominated by The AWFJ for Best Breakthrough Performance, but with her Emmy-winning portrayal of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, Ann Dowd became a household name.
Now Dowd is one of four in the ensemble cast of the new film Mass, written and directed by Fran Kranz. In it, two couples, Gail and Jay (played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) meet with Linda and Richard (Dowd and renowned stage actor Reed Birney) and talk about their sons, both of whom died as the result a school shooting. Linda and Richard’s son was the shooter. Their meeting, which in Mass unfolds in real time, reveals their shared grief and complicated emotions. As parents, guilt looms large, and forgiveness, of each other and of themselves, may or may not happen as part of the proceedings.
I spoke to Ann Dowd about her character Linda, who is beautifully written as someone with an immense amount of humility. As Linda, Ann plays the most compassionate and open of the four people in the story.
Leslie Combemale: Linda strikes me as one of the more if not the most compassionate and empathetic characters you’ve ever played. One can’t have forgiveness without empathy, and forgiveness is what the story is all about. So can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the character, and how you dug into that?
Ann Dowd: The notion of forgiveness? I think, if I were to imagine what this tragedy did to her, I would say, I think the enormity of what happened, for lack of a better word, entirely broke her, I believe, as it might any parent. Not just the grief of losing one’s child, but also then the child being responsible for the death of others. Being the mother, what did I miss? How did I miss it? It’s it’s almost incomprehensible. So I think, life surely shattered entirely for her, and with that, all defenses or everything in the way of protection. I think, to her credit, she accepted it. I accepted it. I mean, there is no going back. There is no life as it was. I think clearly her life, her way of living her life, including the end of her marriage, everything has changed. Knowing she could only do one step at a time, and there was no need for protection, no need for defense, those protections, those boundaries, they no longer exist for her. So I think under those circumstances, as I would say, with most human beings, if you do let go of all of that, there is empathy and compassion, because you’re not hiding behind anything. Because there is no way to take away their pain, or the loss of their child. There is a way however, to understand one another, and therefore find a way to move forward in the life we’re now in and letting go of blame, guilt, and rage.
LC: Compassion and empathy are traits traditionally perceived as feminine. How did thoughts about the feminine aspect, about feminine archetypes like motherhood come into play in terms of crafting and building the character?
AD: Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t give that thought, the feminine. I know how I, as a mother, and I know understood how Linda, probably, as the peacekeeper, probably was the one who made the adjustments for the way Richard behaved, or the way Richard responded to our kids growing up. I think she is the caretaker, the one that will intercede. This is my imagination. Now, I certainly think that men and women are different in their approaches to life. But I really step away from when they categorize it, because it feels like judgment, you know?
AD: People behave in ways that are intuitive to them, and the degree to which you can trust that, the degree to which you can know that that’s the voice to listen to, not the voice that says “protect yourself, defend yourself, push back, and blame.” That is not her way. And also, after this experience that shattered her life everything changed, in terms of what she used to do to get through. And now there is only the truth of what occurred, and where it has landed in her.
I tend to be, myself, a worrier about my children. My husband’s much more able to let go. I can’t let those things go, which is not a healthy thing. But if something’s gone off, that’s all I think about with the kids. Now my husband’s just able to let things go. He loves them, surely as much as I do, but for me, the worry is the way of experiencing: the need to care for, the need to know where they are, the need to know ‘Are they okay’? I can’t imagine the torment that Linda went through, knowing what she knew about her son. And you know, as a parent, you just hope to God you don’t miss anything. Because how do you not feel responsible in the end?
LC: When a child dies, the roles of the people in the family change. So when you’re the peacekeeper when the whole family is together, and then there’s someone that gets pulled out of the family, everybody’s roles have to shift. And so it’s interesting that you would talk about that.
AD: In terms of peacekeeping, I meant she gave up the need to speak for her husband, to be the peacekeeper to fix the problem, right? Because you can’t, really. So what she gave up is the identity of, ‘Okay, no. He didn’t mean that.; or ‘Okay, why don’t you take a break now, Richard?’ Because everything shattered, and the need to do the work of another person, it all became irrelevant to life. And just to know the truth of suffering, the truth of grief, being able to sit in the room and not try to defend or protect, just hold what is there in the suffering of the people in front of me… And the suffering I feel. She has sorted those things out, you know what I mean? It’s just, the truth of who she is now is what leads the way for her, without a need to cover it, or hide, or pretend otherwise.
LC: And I feel like because she was like that, that’s what brought on the forgiveness amongst the four people suffering in that room there with her. Something about the way Linda is open allows them to can get to that place.
AD: When Linda is able to share with her the thing that haunts Linda, I don’t mean to suggest she lives a peaceful life. Not at all. It’s just she can’t go back to old ways. They don’t exist anymore. She is just seeking some kind of permission to continue to love her son, and to continue to be the mother of that boy, right? Do you have children?
LC: I do.
AD: You understand, then.
LC: You’ve always been a researcher. Did you talk to any people involved in violence? What inspired you, and what did you learn that was most instructive in portraying the character?
AD: I read one book only. And that is Sue Klebold’s book about Columbine, “A Mother’s Reckoning”. Because I needed a friend who understood Linda, and she lives it, so reading that and knowing that for a parent, yes, that does exist, where you don’t see this disasater, this tragedy coming. Other than that, it was more of, ‘Who who are we as human beings? Who are we as mothers, you and I?’ Thinking about my own children, whom I love more than anything. What if they were ever in harm’s way? What if they were ever hurting? You sit with what is personal and real. Of course, it begins with the text, doesn’t it? The story that Fran so brilliantly wrote, and from there, go to what is inside, and trust.
LC: That sounds like challenging work.
AD: It’s a lot of that sitting, and thinking, and not running away. You know how it is. It’s hard to tell our children, even though we try, don’t we, that the truth comes in the silence. The answers come in the silence. And that means you have to be able to sit with it. It’s hard for all of us, but for kids, who don’t realize there’s something other than noise coming at you at all times, it’s really hard. That’s really the way I moved forward with it. I thought very quietly, alone. Because how alone is Linda? I thought about my children, and my love for them, and my feelings of profound responsibility for their well being.
LC: Was there anything that occurred to you from your experience as a mother that helped center you in your portrayal?
AD: I remember one time in particular. My boy, my eldest, is on the spectrum. I remember when he was a child, and he couldn’t play with children. He didn’t know how, and so when he felt uncomfortable, he would lash out, and he had a very strong vocabulary. On the playground, normally I’d be right close by so that I could always intercede if anything happened. I don’t mean physically, it was never physical. But he apparently berated this young kid. I came over, I saw something, and I had a feeling that something wasn’t right. I went over and the grandmother said, ‘That is the meanest child I have ever heard speak.’ For some reason, I wasn’t defensive at all. I was in that space of ‘she needs to understand my boy’. So I said, ‘I understand. Let me tell you about him.’ I explained that he has no way of understanding. She was extraordinary. And she just dropped it all. She said, ‘Oh. God bless him.’ There was nothing but love between us. It changes everything, doesn’t it?
LC: It does.
AD: just to understand one another, or try for a moment to walk into the life of another person. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, what was I thinking? Why did I assume? What did I say?’ It changes everything.