In Select Theatres May 25, 2012

In Depth

People In Film | Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand | An Inspiration and a Colleague

In Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND, a small American town finds its values challenged when a natural gas company sends a team out to buy up drilling rights from the locals. Matt Damon plays the corporate rep leading the team, with Frances McDormand playing Sue Thomason, his loyal assistant. As she has done so many times before, McDormand takes a simple role and transforms it into a complex character that embodies many of the drama's themes and issues. For Damon, "her performance as Sue is so layered and nuanced. The character is a single mother who is on the road a lot. After several years together as a team, she and Steve relate to each other like siblings; there's a competitive element there, but you also see the affection and the fondness." While John Krasinski and Matt Damon spearheaded the project, writing the script together, McDormand quickly became an essential member of the team. "We had sent Fran the earliest draft of the script when it was still a windmill movie," Damon recalls. "She committed to it then. Aside from John and me, she's been with the project the longest." Producer Chris Moore added, "Through all of the ups and downs, she remained loyal to us." In addition to her loyalty, McDormand's talent naturally inspired, as well as transfixed, her fellow cast members. "Many times, I would be playing a scene with Fran and sense something strong happening," recalls Damon. "Then, watching the dailies, I could take the opportunity to see the distinctions in every single take she did." For Krasinski, McDormand provided a true role model on set: "If I were as good as she is, I'd point at myself and say so, yet she's self-deprecating and shrugs off compliments. But, Fran shines." In many ways, her collaborators on PROMISED LAND are echoing what other actors and filmmakers have been saying about McDormand for nearly three decades.

Frances McDormand | Lady Macbeth Goes to Yale

Raised by her mother, a nurse, and her preacher father, Frances McDormand moved around a lot as a child, living in Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. Finally, when she was eight, her family put down roots in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McDormand fell in love with acting after playing Lady Macbeth in a school production of “the Scottish play,” but didn't know where her passion for performing would take her. "I was completely naive about the business of being an actor,” she told the New York Times in a rare interview. “My family didn't go to the theater or to the movies. We watched television, like every 1960's small-town American family, and I certainly never thought about being on TV. I thought I was going to be a classical actor in the grand tradition." After high school, McDormand studied Theater at Bethany College in West Virginia, and then attended Yale Drama School on a scholarship. There she met fellow actress Holly Hunter, who would become a close friend and, later, a crucial professional ally. “Frances always had wonderful instincts,” recalls Hunter. "Even when I first knew her I felt she had a real strong sense of who she was. Some actors say they don't know themselves at all and that's why they act, because they can disappear into other people. But with Frances I think it comes from a sense of self."

Frances McDormand: A Simple Route to Fargo

Frances McDormand in Fargo

After graduating from Yale, Frances McDormand and her friend and fellow Yale graduate Holly Hunter roomed together in New York City. There McDormand's life and career found direction through an audition that would give her only her second ever professional acting gig. (Her first had been performing a play by Nobel prize winner Derek Walcott in Trinidad.) In 1983, Hunter got an audition for the lead role in a debut movie by two independent filmmaker brothers, and afterward told the pair they should take a look at her roommate too. When the sibs called her in, McDormand recalls thinking that Joel and Ethan Coen were “geeky”; their first impression of her was good enough to earn McDormand the role of Abby, the adulterous wife in the neo-noir Blood Simple. “Most of the people on that set can point to it as one of the most exciting things they had ever done,” McDormand recalled to the BBC in 2001. “It was the beginning of so many people's careers.” Not only was McDormand's professional chemistry good in Blood Simple, she clicked with Joel Coen, whom she married in 1984, the year of the movie's release. Since then, McDormand has acted in many of the Coen brothers' films. Sometimes, in films like Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, McDormand has pitched in as part of the acting ensemble. In other films, she has been cast as a major player. In the Coen brothers' 2001 noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There, McDormand plays the unfaithful wife, and more recently in BURN AFTER READING, she hilariously plays the espionage pawn willing to trade info for plastic-surgery. But her most critically acclaimed collaboration with the brothers happened early on when she was cast as über-nice pregnant Minnesota sheriff Marge Gunderson in their Midwestern noir, Fargo. Ironically, McDormand was initially underwhelmed by her career-defining character, especially written for her by the Coens. “When I first read the script, it was kind of beyond me why I had to be Marge,” she once confessed. “Because of my background –– I'm from the Midwest, I've waddled all my life –– I wanted to do something the farthest from me, not something that was maybe a part of my existence. I wanted to play a psycho killer, a prostitute – 'Gimme something meaty!' So when I saw Marge, I was like, 'Why, guys? Why is this the challenge?' And then when I started working on it I realized it was one of the best gifts that I've ever been given, and the only two people who knew I could do it were them.” Indeed the role paid off with McDormand winning numerous awards, including the Best Actress Oscar.

Frances McDormand | Transformative Actor

Though Blood Simple kickstarted Frances McDormand's film career in 1984, it was in 1988 that she truly arrived, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for her moving portrayal of a Southern deputy sheriff's wife who is the victim of spousal abuse in the 1960s civil rights drama Mississippi Burning. McDormand got another supporting nod in 2000 for playing an overly protective mother in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, and earned a third Oscar nomination in the same category in 2005 for her portrayal of a female mine worker in Niki Caro's North Country, starring Charlize Theron. She has also turned in indelible performances as a football-obsessed ex-wife in Lone Star, the mistress of Michael Douglas' creative writing professor in Wonder Boys, a sexually liberated music producer in Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, and a human rights activist investigating the death of her boyfriend in Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda, and the beleaguered, bewildered title character of Bharat Nalluri’s charming comedy MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY. In Salon, Stephanie Zacharek wrote about her performance in MISS PETTIGREW: “Watching McDormand navigate that transformation is the kind of thing that can keep your hope in movies, and in actors, alive.” Indeed her role in that film, as well as in others, illustrates the transformative, even magical, potential of great acting. "After Blood Simple, everybody thought I was from Texas," she said in a 1996 New York Times interview. "After Mississippi Burning, everybody thought I was from Mississippi and uneducated. After Fargo, everybody's going to think I'm from Minnesota, pregnant and have blond hair. I don't think you can ever completely transform yourself on film, but if you do your job well, you can make people believe that you're the character you're trying to be."

Frances McDormand | A Newcomer in Wes Anderson’s Kingdom

Wes Anderson is famous for working regularly with the same ensemble of gifted and versatile performers, such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and Jason Schwartzman. However, MOONRISE KINGDOM features a number of very familiar faces who are nevertheless newcomers to Anderson's special cinematic realm, one of whom is Frances McDormand, the estimable Oscar-winning actress. McDormand plays Mrs. Bishop, the mother of the film's young heroine Suzy Bishop, portrayed by newcomer Kara Hayward –– and she took Hayward under her wing not only in the film but also in real life, providing her with a true acting role model. “Fran is amazing,” Hayward enthuses, recalling her time working with McDormand. “My favorite scene is probably the one where Suzy is in the bathtub and talking with her mother. It’s very tender and loving, and emotional; it shows how Suzy is feeling. Seeing Fran become a different person, and me having to do the same, was awesome. I loved being able to be so different from who I normally am.” McDormand also familiarized Hayward with certain “historical” aspects of the film mid-20th century setting, such as that outmoded contraption the typewriter, which Hayward confessed to McDormand she'd never seen before “in real life.” Recalling the incident, Hayward says, “Fran thought that was so funny. She showed me how it worked, typing out our names. The props helped me feel like I was in the 1960s.”


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