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Ann Dowd Says Playing the Mother of a School Shooter in Mass Made Her Less Judgmental of Other Parents

You may know Ann Dowd best as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s TaleThat’s good — that means you know just how capable she is of provoking strong emotion, having created one of the most enduring and viscerally frightening TV villains of the last decade. Or perhaps you know her best as Patty Levin in The Leftovers — even better. That means you know how much she can do with silence.

Silence is one of the many tools that director Fran Kranz uses in 2021’s Mass, starring Dowd, Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton as two sets of parents reeling from a school shooting as they meet up years later for an attempt at some kind of closure. It’s a close, intimate film in which Dowd takes on the role of Linda, the mother to a son who shot ten students and then killed himself, with her typically unflinching grasp on some of life’s most complicated emotions. We spoke with Dowd about how her own experiences as a mom of three affected her ability to embody this role, and how she prepared to go to such a dark place of guilt and grieving to explore this all-too-real phenomenon — and she had a surprising revelation about how playing Linda had changed her as a parent.

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Reed Birney, Ann Dowd © Bleecker Street Media /Courtesy Everett Collection.

Given that the events portrayed in Mass, though not based on any one specific event, are far from fiction, Dowd had a number of real-world examples she could turn to with this performance, telling me she first read Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning, a memoir from the mother of Dylan Klebold, a shooter in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

“I just wanted some — for lack of a better word — friend who knew exactly what Linda was going through,” Dowd tells me of why she picked up the volume to prepare for filming Mass. “Sue’s story is so painful and unimaginable.”

One of the most difficult things about a situation like Linda’s, Dowd explains, is understanding that there can be no forgiveness, no undoing what has happened. The only thing Linda can ever “do” is learn to live with the grief and with what her life has become.

“When she goes into that room, she does not anticipate or expect forgiveness. She does not have any defense because there isn’t any,” Dowd says. “And she’s come to that very wise and painful place where [you] just keep the walls down, no attempt to rebuild them, if you will. Knowing that there’s nothing she can say or do that will return their beautiful son to them; her realization that this is the truth of her life.”

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“I think after every sentence, she utters an implied, ‘I’m so sorry.’ She leads with that,” Dowd adds — and part of what she’s sorry for is that she cannot consider her son as the monster his victim’s families would like her to. “

“Yes, I love my son. I raised a murderer, and maybe the world would have been better without him, but I would not have been,” Dowd says of her character’s attitude, echoing a line from the film.

Dowd and director Kranz had another real-world example to turn to in building the character of Linda, she tells me: “We had the privilege of meeting a mother who lost her daughter in Sandy Hook. It was — I don’t even know what the words are. Fran [Kranz] and I just wept, because here is this extraordinary woman who had in fact found her way through to forgiveness. And she did not carry blame, revenge, any of it. I’m sure it took a while, but she did it.”

Dowd’s Linda doesn’t just borrow from the extraordinary grace she describes here, but also from her insight into why it’s so difficult for marriages to survive losing a child, another factor at play in Mass.

“She was very open about her marriage not surviving and what she said so clearly was: you cannot make the choice not to grieve,” Dowd explains. “You have to do that. And the implication, of course, is that her husband was not able to do so in a way that could move them forward. Grief is a very powerful teacher, isn’t it? For all of us.”

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Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton © Bleecker Street Media /Courtesy Everett Collection.

Finally, it was Dowd’s own experience as a mom that innately guided her understanding of how Linda must have felt.

“As a mother, you always know — or the wish is, help me not to miss anything. I hope to God I’m paying attention, I’m not missing a signal here. It’s the thing that haunts us as mothers,” she says. “You know — let me be in touch with what they’re really feeling. And I think Linda did everything she could, as when I read Sue Klebold’s book and just hearing — she did, they did not see that coming.”

In keeping with that newfound understanding that these mothers, too, were striving to do their best just like she does, Dowd says that playing Linda has opened her mind to how judgmental she can be of other parents, and encouraged her to cut out the habit.

“She made me much more aware of my subtle judgments of others when I see the way people are parenting,” she admits. “I think, ‘oh, what are they thinking?’ And then that little voice now says to me, ‘You don’t know their circumstances, you don’t know what’s going on, so keep your mouth shut.’ Not that I would say anything to these people, but, you know — just check your thoughts at the door because that’s a lot of judgment and you really do not know anything about them. So I just became more aware of my willingness to have a criticism or a judgment of others. Life is much more complicated than that.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for length. 

Mass is out in select theaters across the U.S. now. 


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