Finding Frances McDormand: The Actress Proves That Age is No Match for Talent

Along with two feature film projects that will see release this year, actor Frances McDormand also appears as an interview subject in the new documentary Searching for Debra Winger, actor-turned-director Rosanna Arquette’s investigation of the difficulties encountered by over-40 actresses in today’s youth-obsessed film industry.

Arquette’s observations are undeniably valid, but the career of Frances McDormand also stands as a bold exception to the rule (perhaps another reason why McDormand was a somewhat reluctant participant in that film, but more on that later). Over the past two decades, McDormand has developed a richly varied body of work that has allowed her to become one of American cinema’s most versatile and gifted character actors, and her career only seems to strengthen and diversify as she grows older.

Since her debut in the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple(1984), McDormand is perhaps best known for her association with the Coens, from supporting roles in Raising Arizona (1987) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), to her Oscar-winning star turn as pregnant cop Marge in the masterful Fargo (1996) (McDormand is also married to Joel Coen).

Yet McDormand’s work for other moviemakers is no less remarkable, most notably in her chameleon-like ability to merge so fully with her characters, and in her skill at constructing a complex, distinct inner emotional life for supporting characters which other actors of lesser ability might have approached in more predictable, one-dimensional ways. Although her comedic turns as the conservative mother in Almost Famous (2000) and the football-obsessed ex-wife of Lone Star (1996) are undeniably funny, McDormand makes those roles indelible by conveying empathy and tenderness for these eccentric souls-and the same holds true for her portrayal of potentially unsympathetic figures (the adulterous wife in The Man Who Wasn’t There or the vengeful former spouse in Short Cuts) or superficially secondary “wife/girlfriend” roles (Michael Douglas’ pregnant mistress in Wonder Boys, and-of course-her powerful turn as the abused wife in Mississippi Burning).

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Almost Famous (2000)

McDormand’s character in the new cop thriller City by the Sea falls into this latter category, though she lends a combative edge to her role as the girlfriend of Robert De Niro’s tormented NYC homicide detective on the trail of his own son. Based on an actual case, City is often little more than a pedestrian and heavy-handed pre-9/11 true-crime neo-noir, but it contains incidental pleasures: director Michael Caton-Jones surveys the decaying wasteland of Long Beach as if it were an alien landscape, and De Niro delivers his most relaxed, least mannered performance in years, sharing a genuine rapport with McDormand.

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Laurel Canyon (2002)

McDormand’s character in Laurel Canyon is anything but traditional. As the promiscuous pothead LA record-producer mom of visiting bourgeois Harvard med student son Christian Bale, McDormand savors her meatiest role since Fargo, though the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar. Laurel‘s comedy of manners, moral ambiguity and family values provides McDormand with an opportunity to shine, and proves a worthy sophomore effort for its director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art).

MM sat down with McDormand in a NYC cafe just after she returned from the Cannes Film Festival to promote the premiere of Laurel Canyon.

Travis Crawford (MM): So what was the Cannes experience like this year?

Frances McDormand (FM): It was the perfect place to go with Laurel Canyon. High Art had been there years ago, and did really well, so we went back to the Directors’ Fortnight where Lisa had been before, and it was great because the other forums in Cannes are more about movies in the long run, and the audience was great. And the first time I had seen the film was just with a couple friends and family, which I will never do again-it’s just too hard to sit through a first screening with my family.

But I’ve been to Cannes so many times, often as Joel’s spouse, and only once with a movie I’ve worked on alone, which was Hidden Agenda. And then I just wasn’t prepared for it. It was the first time I experienced the “in your face” publicity thing, and my reaction to publicity at that point was “Get the fuck out of my face and don’t come near me.” I ended up in tears. But now I know: for 24 hours you’re it, and then the next day, you’re yesterday’s news. So I could prepare myself.

MM: Tell me about your character in Laurel Canyon, and what it was like making that film.

FM: My character is really well written, which is Lisa’s strength. More than her being a female director, it’s all about her being a female writer. She definitely tells not just female stories, but she tells them in a female way, which is more layered and complex and more about behavior. My character is a rock record producer, and the mother of Christian Bale’s character.

She’s never defined herself as a mother, and he’s gone in the opposite direction-a very straight, conservative medical student. Their paths converge one summer when he and his fiance come to live in the mother’s house, thinking she’s going to be gone. But she’s there sleeping with the lead of the band, who’s the son’s age. I read the script right after having a personal agenda of wanting to do nudity in a film. I’m 45; I’m very happy with myself.

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Fargo (1996)

MM: Had you ever done nudity before?

FM: Yeah, I had in Short Cuts. At the end of the day, I spent a lot more time nude on the set [of Laurel Canyon] than I did on film, but it was all about the experience of celebrating a 45-year-old woman’s body and sexuality.

MM: And did doing that with a female director make it easier?

FM: I can’t say it didn’t make it easier. There was still an element of tension because Lisa’s gay, so there’s a certain amount of infatuation and tease, which always makes it interesting. But Lisa was also more modest about situations than I was-and she also literally covered my ass, which is not my most attractive feature. But she made me confident that I was presenting it in a way I would want to look at later.

MM: What clicks with you when you read a script, other than the fulfillment of a specific agenda, like the nudity issue. What do you look for?

FM: There are a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s the character, sometimes it’s the money-those are the two extremes. And sometimes it’s just because I haven’t worked for a while and I need a job-not just for money, but for the work. Sometimes it’s location, and other times it’s directors. I’ll play a movie star’s girlfriend if it means I can work with a good director, regardless of how one-dimensional I think the character is.

It’s not like an actor can necessarily say “Now I want to do this,” but you can have a general idea. Things come at the right time. I’m sure some of the roles I didn’t take over the last couple years would’ve been interesting, but for whatever reason, when I read them, they didn’t click.

MM: What attracted you to City by the Sea?

FM: It’s shot here [in NYC] and my son was in school. I worked for just over a month and got paid a lot of money, and got to work with Mr. De Niro. He’s a master of cinematic improvisation, which I’m not good at at all, so I had some great moments where I got to watch him and learn.

MM: What are your initial steps toward shaping your character, particularly in instances where you’re working with a small role that may not have a great deal of definition in the script? Maybe your role in Lone Star, for example.

FM: Well, I have to disagree with you on Lone Star because John Sayles gave me a three-page short story about my character just for that one scene, so there was something very literary-based about that character for me. And I showed up for that one after I had just met my son (Frances and Joel have an adopted son). He was six months old and had a cough and didn’t sleep the night before. I walked onto the set, John pointed me in the right direction, I t-a-l-k-e-d until lunchtime, fell asleep on the grass, they woke me up and then I t-a-l-k-e-d until he told me it was over. It was the perfect first job after being a mother.

MM: And when the character really isn’t in the script for you?

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Blood Simple (1984)

FM: For me, the character that I played in Wonder Boys, and even Doris in The Man Who Wasn’t There, weren’t real people to me. But with Wonder Boys, the thing that hooked me with that was that she was a 43-year-old woman married to one person and pregnant with someone else’s child. And the film wasn’t about her character, it was about the male protagonist, but that was enough of a conundrum to keep it interesting for me. And to Curtis Hanson’s credit, he shaped a performance out of me. And for Doris, it was about a woman being in a black-and-white movie; it was a style thing.

MM: What was your actor’s inroad into creating Marge in Fargo? I assume the pregnancy element also contributed to that character?

FM: It did. That was a really weird period for me. If I had been offered a script from someplace else where I was a woman seven months pregnant, I wouldn’t have done it at that time because I had been trying to get pregnant for a few years and nature didn’t come through. Joel and I applied for adoption and we knew that our son was born, but we couldn’t meet him until a month and a half after we finished Fargo. So in essence we were not specifically pregnant, but we were expecting.

It was a strange thing to put on the pregnant pillow. The first time, it was a bit of a mind-fuck. If Joel and Ethan ask me to do something, I’m going to do it. I love working with them and I would be there anyway, so I might as well work. But when I read the script, I was like (groans), “Shit, this is it? This is what you’ve chosen to give me?”

MM: It didn’t connect with you right away?

FM: No, not at all. We all had a blast making that movie, but it wasn’t until I first saw it with an audience that I really got what an offering it was to me as an actor at that time. You know, actors want to play psycho killers and prostitutes, not a normal pregnant cop in Minnesota. But it was so much fun doing it.

MM: And did you have any idea that the film-and your character-would have such a significant cultural impact?

FM: It was some weird cultural convergence, and it found an audience on its own. They never expected it to have an audience; it was one of their “we’re lucky we got the money” movies. And it just happened.

MM: I know people who have probably never seen another Coen Brothers movie, who still talk about how much they loved Fargo.

FM: And it was violent! It’s not like it was a feel-good movie, people died left and right-there was blood on the snow. But for some reason, people liked it.

MM: Does working with Joel and Ethan ever spoil you for other directors?

FM: Yeah, working on their first movie set me up and wrecked me at the same time. Blood Simple was my film school. I had no training in film at all; I had come straight out of YaleDramaSchool and thought I was going to be a classical theater actor. But that was how I learned to read a script, and I was learning the technical aspects of making a film at the same time they were. So I didn’t work with anyone else until Mississippi Burning, which was like a completely different set, but Alan Parker is still a filmmaker. But [Joel and Ethan] are the standard I use to raise the bar every time I work on a movie, because it can be like that.

MM: What’s important to you in the collaborative process with other directors?

FM: I don’t need a director to be “good with actors.” I don’t think film is an actor’s medium. A master manipulator is heaven, but I’d rather them further educate me in the technical aspects. I like to collaborate technically, and be directed technically. If I feel like the person whom I’m serving has a vision that they want; I don’t mind serving it.

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McDormand with Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

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McDormand with Robert De Niro in Michael Caton-Jones’ City by the Sea (2002)

MM: And have you worked for directors where you felt no connection with them at all?

FM: Yes, because they weren’t filmmakers. They were writers, they weren’t filmmakers. It’s about the editing thing: when you have an idea of what it’s going to look like in your head and you’re interested in manipulating the medium technically and telling the story that way, and not as a play or a novel. It’s a really specific field of work and you’re either a filmmaker or you’re not. Now there are different levels of accomplishment in the directors. Some I’ve worked with, I may not think they’re innately filmmakers, but they’re scholars and fans of film, and in those cases, their enthusiasm has turned out some really fascinating work.

MM: You’re interviewed in Searching for Debra Winger, which discusses the problems faced by female actors as they grow older, and I was wondering what that subject means to you at this point in your career?

FM: I must preface this by saying that I didn’t volunteer to be interviewed. It was last year in Cannes, and I went to the bathroom at a restaurant and [Rosanna Arquette] was in the bathroom with a video camera. I was really inebriated, but she started asking me questions and I answered them. Then I get a call asking me to sign a release form for this documentary, and it’s like “What documentary? I’d like to know what it’s about, thank you very much!”

I’m not really sure what her thesis is, since I haven’t seen it. Some people have told me it’s what I feared it might be, which is a whine-fest of women saying there’s no work after 40. And I think that’s really dangerous, because there are not good female stories for any age group, so if you start breaking it down, you start dispersing the tribe a little more than I’d like.

But someone else has told me that her general thesis is more about balancing a professional life as a film actor, with a personal life, and I think that’s more to the point. I was never an ingenue, so I didn’t have as much trouble moving into roles in my 30s and 40s. Getting work is another thing, but being ready to take those roles on? I was already playing them in my 20s, and I just got started in my 30s. I worked when I was 24 until now, but now I’ve really settled in and that started when I was 34 or 35.

But every business that any woman has gone into has the same kind of questions: what’s the glass ceiling and how do you manage to have your professional life and your family?

MM: Are you content with your career right now?

FM: Love it. I’m lucky as hell. MM

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