Bostonia feature: In His New Film, Reed Birney Finds the Role of a Lifetime

Reed Birney (right) and Ann Dowd play a divorced couple whose son killed 10 high school students before taking his own life, in the new film Mass. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Films

This article was first published in BU Today/Bostonia on October 8, 2021. By John O’Rourke. 


Veteran actor Reed Birney finally has the big-screen role he’s waited for his entire career. His new film, Mass, is a wrenching chamber piece about two couples who come together six years after the death of their sons in a mass shooting at the local high school. The film, which opens today, October 8, in Los Angeles and New York before being released nationwide, is a meditation on grief, loss, and forgiveness.

Birney, who studied at BU’s College of Fine Arts in the 1970s, plays Richard, a man in late middle age, who has traveled from his home in Baltimore to join his ex-wife, Linda (Ann Dowd), for a carefully arranged meeting with husband and wife Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) in a church hall in the town where they raised their families. The two couples are devastated by the tragedy, but in different ways: Jay and Gail have come looking for answers, for something that will take away the anger and grief they’ve struggled with since their son’s death. Richard and Linda bear the devastating burden of being the parents of the killer, who took 10 lives before turning his gun on himself. Their pain is compounded by guilt and the fact that they were forced to hold the funeral service for their son in secret, because no church would memorialize him.

In many ways, Birney has the most difficult role: a man struggling with regret, but determined not to show his emotions. He is defensive, prickly, and haunted by the turn of events in his life.

“I think Richard is a guy who’s trapped,” Birney says. “I think he doesn’t have the tools to help himself or others with the issue at hand. And so he’s holding on so hard to try and make it through. He’s one of those guys who’s really determined to hang on to who he is and to the life he had, even though nothing around him supports that… He is one of those guys who says, ‘My pain is none of your business.’”

The movie, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Fran Kranz, opened at Sundance last January to rave critical reviews—The Hollywood Reporter called it “a drama of searing intimacy” and The Guardian “an impressively bracing debut…anchored by four never-better actors”—and is generating lots of awards buzz for Kranz and his actors.

Birney says he’s thrilled by the response.

“I don’t think I expected that it would hit people as profoundly as it has,” he says, “but that, of course, was our hope. In show business, more often than not, you’re like, ‘I’m in this great play and nobody likes it, or nobody’s coming to see it.’ And so, for people to be getting it exactly the way we intended them to get it, is incredibly gratifying and thrilling.

“I’m so proud of it,” he adds. “I feel like if I never make another movie again, I’ve satisfied my movie-bug itch, because that’s as good a part and as good a project as I think I could ever hope to be in.”

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