Frances McDormand is a terrific actress. Her body of work encompasses both comedy and drama, both stage and film. Recently, she has been garnering awards for her work in Martin McDonagh’s searing film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her “in-your-face” portrayal of a mother who stirs the fire under the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to get them to investigate her daughter’s brutal murder is both memorable and humorous. Indeed, in a matrix of powerful characters, who seek redemption and justice, the film is a tour de force between Mildred Hayes (McDormand), Sheriff Willoboughy (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. As Willogoughy and Dixon fight for the police department’s integrity and Mildred Hayes’ struggles to bring them to task for not effectively investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, the action deepens into a profound personal drama about redemption, love and solace of shared humanity and grace.
On Monday, April 23, 2012, The League of Professional Theatre Woman hosted an evening with Frances McDormand. Produced by Cheryl D. Raymond and funded by a grant from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the evening was presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women as part of their Oral History Series with the Public Library for the Performing Arts. Kudos went to Betty Corwin for producing the program. Mari Lyn Henry, a member of the League who was present at the time transcribed the interview that appears below between Frances McDormand and interviewer Sarah Ruhl. The interview took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium to an enthusiastic audience. Salient excerpts appear below and give one an understanding of how the amazing McDormand evolved along her journey. We see the tip of the iceberg into how she was able to mine her empathy and emotions to evoke the self-torment and desperate love that Mildred Hayes has for her daughter in her award-winning, intensely human portrayal in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Sarah Ruhl: Tell us about playing Lady Macbeth in high school.
I was 14, not a particularly good student. But I had a really good English teacher in Monessen, Pennsylvania. She said it was time for us to read Shakespeare and she had us read Macbeth out loud. And then we did a scene after school for family and friends. And so I found myself alone on stage doing the sleepwalking scene. And I think it was the power of the words, the power of being 14, alone on stage, and looking out and seeing a lot of adults quiet and attentive.
Today would you ever want to play Lady Macbeth?
I have not done her. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Right now I am concerned about doing it because I don’t want to do a bad production of Macbeth. Maybe because it is a supporting role. I feel like I have been trained for that. I have been playing wives, girlfriends, mothers for years now. So I don’t want to be in a bad production of Macbeth. I (would) want a good director.
What is a good director?
How do you find one Sarah? It is really difficult. By going to see what is out there. I am looking for a director who can serve the work. It is different in the theater than it is in film. Actors are in a better position in film because eventually we get a lot of power. In the theater you are in charge of it once the production is open. That being said my last work was with Daniel Sullivan. I worked with him years ago in Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center and we had a horrible time together and I didn’t want to work with him again and then we did a reading of a play by David Lindsay Abaire. David and Dan had worked together before. We got into the room and it was magic and I adored working with him and I think perhaps because it was a different play, a different time. I was concerned about working at MTC. I haven’t always worked on Broadway and am not really attracted to working on Broadway. Probably more interesting audiences I have worked for have been Off Broadway. My favorite place to work is at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Brooklyn). They have performance art and a lot of different disciplines have been held in that arena. The audiences don’t have expectations. They could be going to the theater or to the circus. I have been so impressed with them.
Explain the value of the ensemble.
That was what I was led to believe I was going to do. That is what I was trained to do, a reason to go into the theater. I went to four years of college. I went to drama school for three years at Yale and I was trained as a classical theater actress.The only choice was to come to New York and start working in the theater. My goal and assumption was to become a member of a theater company. We were on the dying end of a program that had started in our country where drama schools were made to train actors to go into regional theater companies. When I got out of school you could still be a member of the Guthrie Theatre which I eventually worked at. But people went straight from drama school and that’s why drama schools were invented and were funded like in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. It became like Pillsbury out there. All those companies and sponsors were bringing executives from the west coast and they had to offer them something cultural. So these companies like Seattle Rep, Trinity Playhouse, the theaters in Chicago, all those great repertory theaters had to have cheap labor coming out as trained labor and that is what I chose to do.
I have to say my first job was in Trinidad in a play directed by Liviu Ciulei. Liviu was with the Wooster Group, a theater company which I have been involved in for the past thirty years. We have used the same actors over and over and they also write for us. The Wooster Group has taken me in like a stray little lamb and I now feel like I have a home with them. What is really great about that for me is that Kate Valk, who is the queen of the Wooster Group and premier actress of that company has been honing her craft and working with them for thirty years. We got to work together on To the Birdie, an adaptation of Racine’s Phedre (2002). That was ‘magic’ and what an ensemble should be about.
There is a tremendous humility when you talk about your work and working with other actors and I find that very rare. I have seen your work and it wasn’t the role that attracted me but your interpretation and what you brought to it. Tell us about your process and how you create a character.
When I came to New York, I was fortunate, coming out of a major drama school. I remember a casting agency experience. An older woman said to me, ‘Frances you would be a perfect pioneer woman. Unfortunately they are not making one. Okay, okay, okay,okay! Finding my type I realized at first, I was not very castable. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t want to do anything else. I had jobs like cashier or at restaurants, but I was really bad at all of them. I had to figure out how to make money. So there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, regional theater jobs and so on, all the things that young actors have to do, but then I started thinking about this.
I was always getting feedback like ‘You’re too this, you’re not enough that. You’re not enough his. You’re not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, old enough. I started putting all of this together and decided I am going to be the one that is not pretty enough and I worked hard at that. In most storytelling, not as much in the theater, but in film, the theater is the only place for women of all ages and types. But to support myself outside the theater I took on some supporting roles in films and realized that all genres of films are male protagonist-based. Put a woman or women in these roles but (like Thelma and Louise) they die in the end. That film is ground breaking with two women. But all those male protagonist driven stories need women in supporting roles so I found I was good at that. I did girlfriends to some of the best leading male stars out there. Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman. I’ve kissed them all but more importantly I made their characters more interesting. I was the off center, not very pretty, a little touchy—you know, mousy-brown-hair-uh-girlfriend. From a business angle, that is what I became.
In the theater I was very fortunate. My husband, Joel Coen, could afford to support me and believed in the theater. I could do theater whenever I could make that choice and not worry about the mortgage payment. It is not about the part, it is about the play.
What about achieving a balance between personal and professional lives? Can one lead a normal life?
One of my accomplishments was adopting a son and introducing my son to his father and my husband to his son. Your universe goes from being self-centered and self-absorbed. We wanted to rear a child our way. That meant living together and working together, avoiding publicity and keeping our private life private. No scandal.That is my life. I learned this from my mother.
Any roles you regret not playing?
Well if I didn’t do them, I didn’t do them. But there are a couple of roles. Orlando is one, Doubt is another. Well I have plenty of time to do Doubt but Cherry Jones was the actress for that role. So I didn’t give up anything.
You have played all the female characters in both Streetcar named Desire and Three Sisters. How did that come about?
With Three Sisters I wanted to be in a play by Chekhov. First time I played Olga when I was the youngest. My fourth job was playing Irina at the Guthrie directed by Liviu Ciulei. I was more suited to playing Irina at that time of my life and I was working with a wonderful cast. I played Masha at the McCarter for Emily Mann. It was an interesting treatment. I was Masha, Linda Hunt was Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson was Irina. And now I want to play Anfisa someday while I direct the play. Anfisa and the servants get what they want in that play. They know what they want, the sisters don’t.
I’m a transformative actor. I want to go inside a character and come out on the other side. Some actors are better at interpreting certain plays. I believe that I am a good interpreter (maybe not of Chekhov) but definitely of Tennessee Williams. I need a play that has a woman of my age and the parts that are my age are the parts that every actress is supposed to do. I never planned to do Blanche. I felt very successful as Stella, one of the best things I was able to work on as a young actor. I was given the opportunity by Michael Colgan who runs the Gate Theater to do Blanche in Dublin to an audience of extraordinary performers (you know every Irish man or woman can tell a great story) so when they come to the theater they are tough (Fran makes a face like them) and to feel the temperature of that audience every second is exciting. I had the opportunity to play Blanche which I am not suited for but the director wanted to do it against the traditional type. She was delicate but she was also a caretaker for the death of the plantation and the family who she had watched die in the family home. It was an interesting production. Everyone gets a role like this but you shouldn’t do more than one. That’s my opinion.
Sarah What do you think about plastic surgery?
What society has pressured men and women to do to capture eternal youth! I read an article about so many of these things that are being used—botox, ingesting into the system without any question. It hasn’t been long enough to know what effects it will have and what the emotional repercussions will be. When you are talking to someone who is stressed you feel their stress. If their brow furrows, your brow furrows because your empathetic nature is reaching out to what they need. If you can’t do that you can’t do that. Your neurological response sends a trigger to your brain to care about that other person, to care what they are going through to sit there long enough to read their expression and to find out what else is going on. If you can’t do that, you are not getting that signal. THAT IS PRETTY SCARY.
Literally I will walk down the street sometimes because we are walking around in a society that is absorbing without question people’s fear. One of the reasons that I haven’t done press or publicity for about ten years now in relationship to my work is the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about that. For me it is not the same thing as not talking about someone’s private life. If I have information about someone I have worked with who has a certain amount of celebrity, I would not share that with you. It is none of your business. I started feeling like I need to make a list and I need to start walking around with a sandwich board with a list of all the people I know who have somehow altered themselves for the service of something that they were perpetuating—I think we have to be careful.
Plastic surgery is the Greek mask of our generation.
I think that when someone ages beautifully, it is partly because of an internal condition and it can relate to what they have done from suffering or comes about as a result of suffering and I think that plastic surgery is an erasure of suffering.
What was your road trip like?
We took a road trip last summer and we hadn’t done that in a while. I love road trips and everything that goes along with them. One problem was that we didn’t get our AAA map guide. We could unfold it and figure out what road we wanted to take. Oh let’s go on that road instead. I had my iPAD with the little blue dot. I spent the entire time doing this (shows iPAD to face) watching the blue dot. ‘Oh my god where are we?’ We had to stop and get a map because we were not enjoying the trip. This is my map and I can pick where I want to go, what direction I want to take and it all started when I met my son 17 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Could you speak about Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day?
We made the movie in 2006 which is not as witty or naughty as the book. I wanted to see a project from beginning to end and I really loved the story. In the book, it is about a day in the life of Miss Pettigrew and the friendship she makes with a whore, a woman who is living with three men. But that doesn’t come out like that in the movie. She is simply being kept. The other character is the fashion designer. In the book these three characters form a friendship. We had a lovely director. It was his first feature. He was a lovely man but not a visionary. We connected but he didn’t feel as passionate as I did about this film. As the producer I knew it would be a challenge to sell the film with a middle-aged female. But we were fortunate to have this really wonderful actress (Amy Adams) and she looks great in lingerie. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t great.
Could you tell us about working with Lili Taylor in a play with students
We are both members of a company called the 52nd Street Project. It started 30 years ago near the PALeague across from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Kids in the neighborhood go take boxing lessons at the PAL after school. Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of EST, sent Willie Reale, a young actor/playwright, to teach the kids playwriting. It helped give the kids an honest creative outlet. He founded this program which eventually became a non-profit organization. We have two boards in a newly developed building on the corner of 53rd and Tenth Ave. Kids have to take the playwrights course or write a play they can stage and perform in. They go away for a weekend and have a monitor help them write their plays. When they return, they cast from a group of adult professional actors with a dramaturg and a young director and they get to see their plays performed.
Do you ever get star treatment?
I am getting it right now. I don’t want to be a star or known as a star. That being said if I want to get a table at Cafe Luxembourg, Joel will have me call. I will use shamelessly whatever advantage my name gets for a restaurant reservation.
Could you talk about how we get more roles for women.
I think the most important thing is female writers. I spent years beating my head against the wall and I would say to my husband, “Joel why can’t you write better roles for women?” Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Nicole Holofcener write great films with behavior and character and have a lot of trouble getting their films made. Here is what is going to be good. When the actor who is also on the board of the 52nd St. Project has a company who is going to liaison with the money market world for the goal of making money and to get them to invest in their film and money into female-centric films whether written by women, directed by women with a good business plan—a terrific spreadsheet with what has been made, what needs to be done, how it can be done, take a chance on us. That will help. It is a business. Theater is not it. I can stand up to do a sleepwalking scene right now and that is theater or on a sidewalk, but unfortunately it won’t raise money. I am trying to raise four million dollars for a film which I think is a lot of money. but in terms of films, the last epic film cost producers 300 million dollars so 4 million is nothing. But they won’t give it to you for a nice family-oriented film.