Thirty years ago, Frances McDormand, the adopted daughter of a traveling Disciples of Christ minister who spent her formative years in the small Rust Belt city of Monessen, Pennsylvania, made her film debut in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. The role of Abby, a two-timing Texan wife who becomes embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot gone awry, was originally offered to her Yale School of Drama classmate, Holly Hunter. But since she was busy on another project, Hunter suggested McDormand for the part, and the rest is history. The actress met her husband, the film’s director Joel Coen, on Blood Simple, and the pair have since collaborated on seven films, included her iconic turn as pregnant Oh Ya-ing sheriff Marge Gunderson in the crime classic Fargo, which earned her the Best Actress Oscar.
McDormand has also received three Best Supporting Actress Oscar nods for playing an abused wife in Mississippi Burning, a comically overbearing mother to a budding rock journalist in Almost Famous, and a miner with ALS in North Country. She’s also appeared in a bevy of other fascinating films, from Robert Atlman’s Short Cuts to Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys to Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, and won a Tony Award for 2011’s Good People.
On Monday evening at the Venice Film Festival, the 57-year-old actress was honored with the Persol Tribute to Visionary Talent Award, with fest director Alberto Barbera praising McDormand for her steadfast portrayal of heady, courageous women which “stands in contrast to today’s dominant system of values.”
The glamorous fete was followed by the premiere of the 4-hour miniseries Olive Kitteridge, which will premiere on HBO Nov. 2. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, the film centers on Olive (McDormand), a prickly Maine math teacher who marches to the beat of her own drummer, and her strained relationships with her husband (Richard Jenkins) and son (John Gallagher Jr.) over the course of 25 years. Directed by Cholodenko and executive-produced by McDormand, the riveting character study boasts the actress’s finest turn since Fargo.
I sat down with McDormand over coffee in Venice for a long conversation about her fraught upbringing, storied film career, experimentation with drugs, and much more.
Did you always conceive of Kitteredge as a TV miniseries?
Always. Think about it… 90 minutes? It would have never worked. Originally, we were signed to the ongoing series department at HBO, so the first assignment Jane Anderson, who wrote the screenplay, was given was to build a bible like David Simon does with The Wire or Treme.
It’s rare to see a big project like this written, produced, directed by, and starring women. It’s really a breath of fresh air, in that respect.
It wasn’t the intention, or like we were trying to make some feminist statement. In this case, it turns out that we were all just the best ones for the job. But it’s very sweet. Politically? Come on. I love it. I started to be asked when I was 38, “Do you think there are roles for women after 40?” and I said, “Yes, but they’re always in the support of male protagonists.” I’ve always known that I’ll have a career for the rest of my life because they’ll always make movies about men, and men need women in their lives. But, when it comes to telling a woman’s story, they’re complex, circular, and not genre-driven. We wrote Olive Kitteridge as six hours and they asked us to make it in four. I have a project I’m working on that follow a woman’s life from 15 to her death. Stay tuned.
Who’s directing that one? The hubby?
Nobody yet! But with that, I believe I have a part in their next film and I’m very excited about it. It’s called Hail, Caesar!
Olive must have been tough to portray, because she’s a very thorny mother and wife, but you feel compassion for her because she’s in a precarious situation. Did she remind you of your own mother?
I can quote my husband on this. He said, “She’s an emotional Dirty Harry.” She takes no prisoners, and lets no one off. But she reminded me very much of my mother. It goes with the job, man. In most cases, the Dad comes out smelling like the rose—unless they’re some horrible fuck—but with mothers, it’s just this fuckin’ thing and you cannot escape it. There’s a biological imperative. I’m adopted, as is my son, and the minute you smell them there’s a pheromonal reaction between the parent and their child. My son smelled like a cinnamon bun, and that smell entered into my biological being, and it became an imperative that I keep him alive at all costs, so then there’s this monster—this tiger, or lion—that comes forward in you to protect them. And it doesn’t stop. It doesn’t matter if they become men or women. The whole point of a teenager driving you insane is because they’re supposed to wear you down so you can fuckin’ die sooner and get out of the way, because it’s their place.
Were your parents very strict? I read that your father was a Disciples of Christ pastor.
It’s hard to measure to today because very few people are connected to that kind of life. I don’t know too many people today who go to church, the mosque, or temple every week. My father was a minister, and it was more my mother that had the responsibility of making sure the family put out an outward of appearance of living what he was preaching. She was the PR. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t working at home; when we showed up, we had to be clean and courteous. It’s a show. My Dad was not good at family problems, but he was really good with other people who came to him with their needs.
Did you rebel?
I did. Thankfully for them, it happened after I left home. When I left home at 17 for college, I had a list: Virginity? Check it off, and get rid of it as quickly as possible. Every drug that didn’t involve a needle? I wanted to try it. And I systematically went about doing that in the comfort of a four-year liberal arts education, and it was heaven. And I never really looked back.
Which one was the most fun to check off?
[Laughs] Well, unfortunately virginity wasn’t the best one! It progressed, and got much better in the practice.
What about the drug experimentation? Did you have any profound drug experiences?
It was always recreational, and it never became a part of my daily existence. But I really, really enjoyed LSD. And I really enjoyed mushrooms very much. It’s unfortunate, I think, that drugs were not handled properly. Politically, they’ve been used to separate the economic classes. Thankfully, it’s all getting fixed now with the marijuana laws. But with LSD, because it was countercultural, and because it was used as an experimental drug, it was not marketed properly. It if had been marketed properly, we would have it.
They needed your mom out there doing PR for it.
[Laughs] We needed a PR person for that LSD! It was very profound. Very profound. I liked LSD.
You mentioned that you were adopted as a child. Did you ever meet your biological parents?
I was given the opportunity to—I corresponded with my birth mother—but I chose to not pursue a relationship. It’s subjective, and every adopted person comes to it differently. I was 18 when I was given the opportunity. Every adopted person has to deal with the fact of abandonment, and what that has done to them. No matter how old you are when it takes place, there’s always some place—physically, I feel—where you hold on to that sense of loss. For me, it’s in the base of my skull. Whenever I go to the chiropractor and they give me a good adjustment to the neck, I just know: That’s where that little backpack goes. And I didn’t want to fuck with it. I needed it. By that time, I based so much of my being on whatever that was, and the anger that I held to my birth mother, that I needed her to stay in that villain place. So, for better or worse, I kept her there. I had to. I think it’s great that the options are so much broader now for birth mothers and adoptees, but that’s how I dealt with it. And my son will deal with it in his own way.
I wanted to talk about your career as well, since you were honored here with the Persol Tribute to Visionary Talent Award.
It’s nice. It’s nice because it makes you stop and think, “What are they talkin’ about?” And then you realize, “Oh, I know what they’re talking about. Thirty fuckin’ years is what they’re talkin’ about!” But with Olive, I realized that I’m a filmmaker—not just an actor. I’ve absorbed a lot of shit over the last 30 years working with a lot of extraordinary filmmakers, and I put that all into play when making Olive Kitteridge, as well as 30 years of housewifery, since I really devoted myself to that when I wasn’t working.
It does seem like television is the medium for very rich, well-rounded female characters—as opposed to film.
It’s because of the time. You’ve got to have the time. If you look at genres of film, they’re all male protagonist-generated—the buddy film, the epic, the action film, the rom com, film noir—and then you can insert a female character in as needed. Thelma and Louise was a buddy movie, and then they had to die in the end. Salt was a great action film, but Angelina is one of the only women that can get cast in this.
But younger actresses like Jennifer Lawrence are really shifting the paradigm, since they’re fronting these large, cash cow blockbusters.
Oh yeah, they’re changing it up completely. It’s like, “Yes, girls!”
So, I read that there was a time back in 1984 when you, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi, and Holly Hunter all shared an apartment in the Bronx? I need details.
Well, Holly and I were roommates and met at Yale School of Drama because her boyfriend at the time and my boyfriend at the time were friends from Cicero, Illinois. So when I moved to New York, the four of us had separate apartments in the Bronx. Eventually, I moved in with Holly, and then we moved from the Bronx down to Greenwich Village, but the house that we all passed through was on Westerly Terrace in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, between 1984-86. I joined Joel and Ethan, who were selling Blood Simple out in L.A. I drove cross-country from Minnesota, where I was working, and we lived with Sam Raimi. Then, I took it on to find a bigger place because we were all living in a 1-bedroom apartment, and it was really gross. So I found this great 3-bedroom house. In that house lived Joel, Ethan, Sam Raimi, and myself, and then Holly came through, and then at one point Kathy Bates and her boyfriend, Tony, lived there. Ivan Raimi and Scott Spiegel, who were collaborators with Sam, lived there. Sam Raimi kept the lease on the house for a long time.
Did you fall for Joel Coen while making Blood Simple? And do you remember the moment when you fell for one another?
Yes, I do. I don’t think he’d mind me sharing it. I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend. He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, “Which one should I start with?” And he said, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” I read it, and it was one of the sexiest fuckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, “Would you like to come over and discuss the book?” That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was fuckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.
Have you seen the FX miniseries Fargo?
I have not. I’ve got no interest right now. I’m so happy for them and think it’s fabulous what’s going on. But I have to say: I have a little grudge. Nobody asked me. They asked Joel and Ethan—rightfully so—but Joel and Ethan don’t own the property in any way, since it’s owned by the studio that created the film. There can’t be another Marge. She’s somethin’ else. I do feel like, more than anything else I’ve done—besides Olive—she’s as much mine as theirs, because nobody knew the place she’d have in the cultural zeitgeist. It was this complete convergence of events and really kismet, what happened to Marge Gunderson. It was also this arc of Scandinavian storytelling. Look at The Killing, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, all of these Scandinavian things with female investigators. It seems like it’s so embedded in this iconic consciousness.
On the subject of Fargo, I read that you filled your fake belly with birdseed, and that you wore prosthetic C-cup breasts for the part—and that you used to bring these prosthetic breasts to your auditions?
Yes. I first started using them as a tool—like a prop, the breasts—for Raising Arizona, because the character for Raising Arizona had five kids, and I’m naturally flat chested, so the costumer decided that she should be pretty big. I got them for that, and because of that, I started getting scripts that would say, “full-breasted” or “large-breasted.” I didn’t want to wear them to auditions. I never dressed the part, like a lot of people dress the part when they go to auditions, but I always thought the best way to show them what you could do is to go as yourself and transform in the room. So, I would take them rather than wear them because I wanted to be truthful to my own body. The best vindication of that was in a movie I did called Chattahoochee, because there’s a very specific scene in that movie where Gary Oldman’s character is having a nightmare of his wife’s breasts smothering him when they’re having sex, so I went in and said to the director, “Look—I don’t have them, but I brought them. So, you can get somebody else’s breasts, but I can wear these.” And I got the role.
You did show them for the first time though in the last project you did with Lisa, the excellent—and very underrated—Laurel Canyon.
Oh, but those were my real ones! In Chattahoochee, I couldn’t really smother him with mine. [Laughs]