Jason Isaacs finds hope, heartbreak, and a career-best performance in Sundance drama Mass
See the exclusive poster for Fran Kranz's directorial debut, premiering this weekend.
Regarding Mass, a drama about the parents of two teenagers who were involved in a school shooting, Jason Isaacs would like to make one thing perfectly clear: "This is a film that's got nothing to do with school shootings," the actor tells EW. "It's about finding a way to talk to other people, and see them as human — which has never been more current."
Taking place over a short period and almost entirely in one room, the film portrays the carefully arranged meeting of two couples (played by Isaacs and Martha Plimpton opposite Ann Dowd and Reed Birney), whose sons were the victim and the perpetrator of a tragic shooting years prior. Sitting in a cheerfully decorated church meeting room, the four adults have a painful, honest, revelatory, seemingly unfathomable conversation.
The drama (for which EW can exclusively reveal the poster, below) will premiere as part of 2021's (virtual) Sundance Film Festival and marks the directorial debut of Dollhouse star Fran Kranz, who also wrote the script. "I was terrified," Isaacs said of delving into Kranz's dense, emotionally complex screenplay, pointing out that "there's nothing to hide behind" when a movie is just four people in a room, laying bare their broken hearts. "Something very powerful happened on the page. So if it didn't happen for the audience, it will be [the fault of] the actors."
Luckily, Kranz chose a quartet more than up to the challenge. "When we were shooting, it felt like — myself excluded — I was watching an acting master class," says Isaacs, being needlessly modest, considering his performance is no less astonishing than the rest of them. "I'd look over at Ann Dowd, for instance, who would do a scene more devastating, more powerful, more haunting than I'd ever seen, then she'd go, 'That was bulls---, let me do that again.' And she'd do it a completely different way. And that continued to happen all around me. It was a chance to jump in the ring with some top boxers."
All four characters enter the conversation wanting different things from it, each with a different perspective on the tragedy, the aftermath, themselves, and the other people in the room. "A great piece of screen work is when a character says or does something, they mean something else entirely, [and] the audience knows that they're actually driven by a third thing they don't understand about themselves," says Isaacs. "That's the holy trifecta." Mass delivered that for its actors, who constantly found themselves having different perspectives on the piece even as they openly dissected it. "That's what gave it its texture. I'm not generally used to writing that could sustain that kind of analysis. Like studying a great classic or something, the more layers peeled back, the more we found."
It's a testament to Kranz's script that his actors could mine so much insight and authentic detail from this one conversation, and as a director, "he would pretend that we had found themes or echoes that he never intended in the first place, and made us feel clever for discovering them," Isaacs says. "He let us find our versions of everything. When we said, 'Well, what does this mean, exactly?' he pretended he didn't know, which is a very generous and creative thing to do — because of course he knew the answer to everything."
Working through such heavy material "was like going to rehab, or going to therapy," Isaacs says, and the four stars developed a great intimacy over the course of the shoot. They had to; the production was a typically inconvenient indie — limited time, limited budget — so the cast had to dive in deep from day one, working through big chunks of the emotionally raw script and "shooting as much as you would on a daytime soap" every day. He and Plimpton discussed and refined their dynamic to the point where their process of finding it, arguing about arguments their characters might have had, resembled the couple's fraught relationship itself. It worked, though, and they built a complicated history in extreme detail: "We needed to build a world so that it could fall apart in the room."
He remembers the cast spending every night in their hotel rooms, "just going through [the script] like archaeologists with a tiny brush," as he describes it, "trying to find any of the echoes across time, or any nuances that might be referring to things that had happened in our life, or things we had argued about, or things we'd felt." After nights of scouring the text, they worked out all the hidden tensions they had found through the long days of production. "The rehearsal process was on film," Isaacs says, which added to the pressure on the actors — but also to their honesty and spontaneity in the intense, almost disorienting shoot, throughout which they all traversed some of the darkest emotional territory imaginable.
"We all of us transported ourselves for a couple of weeks into this place of grief and rage and pain and hope and resolution and all the other colors in between," the actor recalls. "Then we came out of it — like blinking into the sunlight."
Check out the exclusive poster above. Mass will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.