Interview: Jason Isaacs on his new film 'Mass' | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, October 26th, 2021  

Jason Isaacs on the powerful new drama “Mass”

Trying to Be Real

Oct 06, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Though Jason Isaacs and his castmates—Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd—are earning some of the strongest reviews of their careers for Mass, the British character actor once doubted the movie would ever be successful. That’s because writer-director Fran Kranz not only presented them with a dauntingly intense plot, about two pairs of parents discussing how one of their sons killed the other. On top of that, the first-time director’s technique was so subtle on a bare bones set housing a dark, dialogue-driven story.

Isaacs remembers thinking, “I doubt that’s ever going to make any kind of movie. I doubt anyone watching will go through what Martha, Reed, Ann and I went through.” He experienced visceral catharsis anew at a recent screening of the film, which had earned prior raves at Sundance and is majorly buzzed ahead of its Oct. 8 theatrical release.

During a recent phone interview, Isaacs told us more about the merits of watching intimate dramas like this in a cinema, despite dominant blockbusters too often banishing small movies to the margins; the challenges and rewards of Mass’ intense subject matter; how working on this small but powerful film compared to roles in major franchise fare like Harry Potter and Star Trek; and more.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): Watching Mass last night made me think of how varied your career has been— from roles in big budget franchises like Harry Potter and Star Trek, to this new minimalist character-driven drama. Do you feel grateful or excited to enjoy such contrasts?

Jason Isaacs: There are times I feel grateful and there are times I don’t in life, about all kinds of things. In some ways that’s what the film is about. But as long as my kids are fed and clothed, I don’t really care whether a project is giant or tiny. I just think, “What’s the story I’m telling? Who’s the person whose shoes am I walking in? And what’s the audience going to get from it?”

And I read this thing, then thought, “God, this is a story about people’s lives that are destroyed by hate and blame. And how they’re crippling themselves with resentments, against people they don’t even know.”

I knew these meetings really happen — that restorative justice meetings really happen, that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings happened in South Africa, and I was dying to know this story. As an audience member, I wanted to know what goes on behind those closed doors. So I knew that was what it was about, and when I read the script I quickly realized how Fran dealt with it in such a complex, human, raw way.

You’re right that it’s a small budget film, set mostly in one room with a few people. But it feels like one of the biggest films I’ve ever made. It feels like the emotional landscape, and the journey the audience goes through watching it, is enormous. And when it’s over you feel exhausted, in a great way, like you’re just spent, just like the characters as they walk out of the room. That’s such a rare thing to get from a movie.

In terms of the emotional landscape— you and your costars had such visceral facial expressions during the most dramatic scenes. In your process, how deliberate is that? Can an actor’s facial expression be like an instrument that a musician plays? Or are you not thinking about that, and it’s just a byproduct of you authentically tapping into the character’s emotions?

Acting is a weird job, and hard to describe in some ways. It’s easy in concept, but it’s just hard to do. You have to be another person. And at no point were me or anybody else thinking about what we were doing with our faces, or whether we were crying or shouting. We were just trying to be real. This film required us to be as naturalistic as we could. To be present. So there was nothing going on with me that I was conscious of.

In fact: it felt like I was in a blackout. The director would cut and say “Let’s do another one like that.” And I’d think: “What does he mean? I don’t know what just happened.” So we definitely weren’t pulling faces on purpose.

After those “blackouts,” it must’ve been fascinating to go back and watch the film.

I saw it at home, with family members. Then I saw it for the first time in public a few nights ago at a screening, and I was blown away by it again, because it’s such a different animal when you see it with other people. Some stories are made to be told to a group, ever since human beings gathered around fires to tell stories. This is a film, in some ways, about human connection, and us seeing each other and hearing each other, and recognizing each other as human.

My character, and in particular Martha’s, arrive so full of blame and hatred. That’s just poisoning us, and no one else—not the people it’s aimed at. So when I saw it with an audience, I was reminded what it was designed for. Anyone who’s thinking of seeing it: please, go see it in a cinema, because it makes you feel less alone in the world, and it makes you feel hopeful. Because it’s a very, very intense film. But when there’s some conflict resolution for some of the characters, you just feel the light breaking through the clouds. And you leave the cinema feel like you’ve had an enormous experience. Which is ironic, considering the budget of the film.

It’s interesting to describe the virtues of seeing a drama like this in the cinema, given all the recent hoopla about audiences only going to the movies for superhero tentpoles, while people increasingly stream “films for grownups” at home. You think it’s crucial to be able to see movies like this in the cinema?

Everyone’s gotten so used to watching things at home that breaking that habit and going back to the theaters is tricky. But it’s a bit like thinking a TV dinner in a microwave is as good as a chef’s gourmet dinner with fresh ingredients. Once you taste the difference you think, “Oh wait, that actually isn’t the same.”

When you mentioned Fran a moment ago— it’s amazing that this is his directorial debut, considering how assured the movie is. What was it like to work with him, and how did he impress you?

I actually wasn’t impressed when we first shot, because I had no idea if this was going to make a film or not. What he did was manage to keep himself, and the cameras – which turned out to be doing extraordinary things, calibrated lens shifts and all this stuff we weren’t aware of – he managed to keep them out of our minds.

So when I think back on the experience, the few weeks we spent in this very intense emotional bubble, my memories are of my character Jay’s memories. I remember feeling overwhelming catharsis, and not remembering what Fran did. So when it was all over, I do remember thinking, “I doubt that’s ever going to make any kind of movie. I doubt anyone watching will go through what Martha, Reed, Ann and I went through.”

Then the feedback started to trickle in from people in the industry, and reviews from Sundance started coming in. It became apparent that Fran did something miraculous. Regardless of a director’s experience, anyone making a film about four people in a room dealing with rage and shame, and moving toward things in a surprising way, just delivering this powerful experience for audiences, it’s incredible. And I’ve experienced it as an audience member in the cinema.

So when you ask me what he was like as a director, really the proof is in the pudding. This film really announces the arrival of a major talent in both writing and directing.

The critics not only praised the writing and directing, but also you and your castmates’ performances. What was your dynamic like?

It’s a funny thing when people talk about performances. We got to play these well-drawn, three-dimensional, surprising characters. They have such deep reservoirs of emotion that just erupt. So we the actors get the credit for this layered world Fran built. Maybe it’s because we’re very experienced— I’ve been doing this for over 30 years now, professionally. And all of our experience, everything we’ve ever done, not only came to bear, but was also left at the door. We just wanted to be something truthful, to each other and for each other.

I guess it could’ve gone wrong. But we met and knew we needed to feel really intimate and have enough trust to really push it, and push each other. On one level it’s a performance but on another it’s real. When you’re crying, you’re sad or heartbroken. When you’re furious, you’re dealing with it. We needed to feel like we knew each other enough to go to those places, without any self-consciousness. So we met, and talked about what was going on with us in life, not just with the characters. Stuff that helped peel all the layers back, so that we could see each other.

We also liked working the same way, so once we were off set, we’d laugh our brains out, I think because tears and laughter are so closely linked. And we never fully broke out of character— at the end of the day we’d go back to our hotel, and not talk about what we were going to do onscreen the next day, but things we were referring to and what they must mean. Martha’s character needed to know what she said in her letters to Ann’s. Martha and I needed to know what our characters said to their therapist about the boundaries of this meeting with Reed and Ann’s characters.

So I fell in love with the three of them, my co-stars, as much as we would argue, because emotions were running high. Sometimes we would storm out of each other’s rooms. A bunch of stuff happened. But we became a single unit. And when the movie was done— you know, youngsters often feel sad to say goodbye on wrap days, but I’ve been doing this a long time and can usually quickly move on. But this was different. It was wrenching to leave each other at the end. We’d created this bubble, and kept the rest of the world out. So it was odd and difficult to leave.

Hard as that sounds, it also sounds quite special.

Yes it was. Stories like this, told like this, come along very, very rarely. I’ve never seen a film like this— one that deals with this subject matter at all, where people who hate each other meet like this. And I’ve never seen a movie, that’s just four people in a room, that packs a punch like this one does. So this one was very out of the ordinary.

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