Frances McDormand Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Interview
This Exclusive Frances McDormand Interview Explains Why She Was the Best Woman For Her Oscar-Nominated Role
It's up for seven trophies at the 90th Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Original Screenplay for Martin McDonagh and two Best Supporting Actor nominations for both Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson) so if you haven't already seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, now's the time before Sunday's 2018 Oscars.
If you thought Frances McDormand's character inspired you to be a go-getter and stand up for what you believe, just wait until you read POPSUGAR Middle East's exclusive interview with the star. Carried out by film critic Margaret Pomeranz at the Danieli Hotel in Venice, the 60-year-old explains why she doesn't like playing victimized characters, what she tells fans who want pictures with her and why good writing is like enjoying a delicious meal.
Q.I love the way you touted for a job with Martin McDonagh.
FM. I know, how naughty of me. Now he claims he was thinking about it anyway which was probably true. But my mythology is that I asked him to do it so we both have our own stories. We met after The Pillowman in New York after the Broadway premiere at a party which I never go to - I'm really glad I went to that one. I introduced myself and I'd just read an article that he was going to try his hand at film. He said, 'I know your work, I love your work, you should consider doing one of my earlier plays because they're such great female characters. I said 'Yes, good idea, although I hear you're making film, perhaps you'll write a part for me.' The minute it was out of my mouth I was 'Oh my god, I can't believe I said that.' because I've watched so many actors struggle with that around Joel and Ethan, and trying not to say it, and almost saying it and swallowing it and being embarrassed. But I did it and thankfully I did because he said 'Good idea.' I think that if he was already thinking about me for Mildred, it confirmed that I was ready.
Q.You hadn't been involved in the development of it….?
FM. No, not at all…
Q.I wonder what you would have done if you read it and hadn't liked it?
FM. Well, there's no way I wouldn't have liked it because where are roles like that for female actors? They're not happening. I did take great pause because he gave it to me three years ago and I was 57, I come from a working class background, I don't believe that women generally in that socio- economic strata of America at least, wait until they're 38 to have their first child. Most women of my generation had their children really young, 17, 18, 19, so I said I love it, I love her. I'm not interested in pretending that I'm any younger than I am, so let's make her a grandmother, let's make her Angela's grandmother. That way I won't have to pretend. I'm not going to be trying to pass myself off as any younger. And I believe a grandmother would, if she had failed her child, and was raising her grandchildren, and yet failed so dramatically again, her sense of remorse and guilt and desire to redeem herself would be even greater. He didn't agree. We went back and forth for about a year and up until right before we started I was still not sure that I could do it. And then my husband said 'Shut up and do it. If he thinks you're right, if he wrote it for you and he thinks you're right, then he's right.' And from that minute I said 'forget about the grandmother. I never thought about it again.'
Q.This role matches your fierceness, your determination. Thinking about it I can't remember you in a wimpy role.
FM. I'm trying to think back. It's not because I decide to be fierce or not wimpy. It's more about vulnerability. There was a certain time in my career where - it's not that I was cast to be wimpy - but I had a certain emotional facility as an actor - technically - I was able to bring that to roles because of my work in the theatre. Because technically I knew how to reach a certain vulnerability and be able to portray it truthfully from my work on stage. So, for instance, where I think I developed it was doing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and then, right after, being cast in Mississippi Burning. I realised that I had been able, because the characters were so similar in their vulnerability, to access it on film, but also be able to control it because I had had to do it repeatedly for the performance of Stella in the play. And then I started getting a lot of roles that asked for that, asked for me to access a certain vulnerability and it just became boring to me to always do that, so I looked for things that were opposite, women who weren't vulnerable. So it wasn't necessarily a political statement, or feminist statement, it was just pure, I don't want to do that any more and I don't want to only be asked to do that. To the point where I've started to be able to mine a lot of other emotional truths in women's lives that weren't just vulnerable and weren't just victimised - I didn't enjoy playing victims.
Q.How did you approach Mildred?
FM. Well, it was there. I think because Martin…. He didn't know me so it wasn't that he was writing Mildred because he knew me, as maybe in the same way he wrote Dixon for Sam (Rockwell) because he'd worked with Sam. In a very similar way I understand that Joel and Ethan Coen write parts for actors they've worked with - me in particular - and others. It's not just using an actor's strength; it's also giving them a challenge. In their imagination I think Martin thought 'What would I like to see Sam do? I'd like to see Sam do this.' I think Martin only knew me from my work; not just my film work but also my stage work, so it was that that gave him the foundation for Mildred, thankfully, because it just cracked open another aspect of what I could do as a professional actor. But I think what the key was for me was the jumpsuit. Once she made a decision to take action and not die from guilt and grief, she became - I talked about it as being radicalized. She became radicalized. She buzzed the back of her head, she put on the jumpsuit, she put on the bandana and then she went out and she was armed. She put on her gun, no weapon, but that was her weapon, that was her armor. So it wasn't about weapons to hurt people but armor to protect herself from whatever came her way.
Q.Apparently you didn't want to rehearse for this when the other cast did. What was the reason for that?
FM. I've never liked to rehearse because I think film has an immediacy to it that rehearsal tends to break down. I think often, not Martin, but often I've worked with directors who need rehearsal for their own (purposes) - just to do their preparation - and I'm not interested in helping them with that, unless it's for a very specific reason. I've been in auditions with directors who will remain unnamed, over and over and over again and they're basically re-writing the scripts and then don't cast me in the part. And there was one director in particular and the second film he started bringing me in over and over again and at one point I said 'Sit down. I'll keep doing this but only if I get a writing credit on the film.' Because I think that's what happens, often directors, maybe unknowingly, but sometimes very knowingly, they get you in a kind of unpaid position and they're rehearsing and re-writing their scripts during the audition process which I think is unfair to actors.
But I think rehearsal with crew, with a DP (Director of Photography) and a director on the day of shooting, or, if you need to prepare, the day before because it's such an elaborate shoot, you're doing something in an exterior, you're doing something with multiple technical difficulties, then I'm completely there, in fact I stand in for myself, I don't like having stand-ins on the set, I like to be there when the lights are being set up, I like to see what's happening, I like to be inside that technically because I believe that I'm a part of the technical world of it. But rehearsing of scenes, for me it just takes away the spontaneity.
Q.Are you tough? Intimidating?
FM. I don't try to be but I don't suffer fools. I met my match with Martin. I believe there's a certain point where the actor becomes the expert at the character, even though he's the writer and creator of Mildred. At some point I wanted him to trust me with her more than he trusted himself. And that's when I believe it goes to the next dimension of creativity. And so I would say that almost every single scene that we shot I had questions for him about lines, I challenged him on a lot, and he was capable of creating that dialogue. I have a wonderful series of photographs that a friend of mine took, who worked on the film, of us on the first day of shooting and I was trying to articulate my point of view about this monologue which was the one before the TV cameras. And there were a couple of lines that I felt stopped the flow, because clearly she wrote it and she knew what she was going to say, and it sounded a little bit too much like Martin and not enough like Mildred. So we had this whole great series (of photographs) of me trying to explain it. I'm not sure how it ended up. I don't know if he cut anything or not, but we did have a lot of that. So no, I don't think I'm tough and intimidating unless someone is easily intimidated.
Q.The thing I love about Three Billboards is the compassion in it…. It's there in the work of both
Martin and his brother John Michael…
FM. I think they were raised well. I'm the mother of just one person, I've only watched one person grow up but that goes for a lot, says a lot about someone's humanity. You can be born an empath, but if you're guided towards understanding that that's your strength, and they clearly were, they were not coddled, or, as I think so many young people are now, told that they're geniuses from the moment they start playing with their crown. I think their strengths were recognized and supported. I don't know anything about their parents, but from their work, that's what I feel. But I also think they have a classical background, they have a foundation in classical literature that a lot of Irish have.
Q.I don't understand this magical process of acting…
FM. I don't think anyone does, and thankfully so. I think magic's the word. I was saying to Martin and Woody, when a culture breaks down to its most elemental forms you still need a clown.
You might not need a movie theatre, you might not be able to find a place to put on a show but you can stand on the street and reflect humanity's worst and best. And for me that's what a true clown is. So you don't have to worry about our jobs because the world always needs a good clown.
Q.Balancing the blackness with the humor of Mildred….
FM. She's not a funny ha-ha woman. She's witty, she has a natural wit. And I think that Martin is really adept, as are some other writers I've worked with, at finding the wit and intelligence in uneducated people, or not widely educated people. And I think that's what he found with Mildred. She has a natural intellect and wit that comes through her ignorance and for me that was so delicious. I've had enough technical experience with comedy, and specifically in theatrical comedy, to know the beats of a scene and he writes them, so all I had to do was learn them.
Q.It's almost like you're gobbling those words in the film…
FM. It's the most delicious meal. I'm a glutton for good writing. And that monologue with the priest. I've given that monologue to young actors who need monologues for auditions. I said 'Here you go.' It's cross gender, it's cross politics, it's everything, it's a beautifully written monologue, it's a piece of great writing, it's a great piece of literature. And it stands outside, out of the context of the film, it stands on its own and has a perfect arc of philosophy. And I posit, and I don't necessarily want to say this, that a lot of journalists, a lot of people, are going to make a lot of topical references to the film - are you talking about racism in America, are you talking about this, are you talking about that. I believe that monologue is the foundation of it. Why aren't the black characters more a part of the main arc of the film and I think that's the point of that monologue is that, yes, in our culture too often minorities are peripheral characters and this is why, this is how we have to look at it, we are morally culpable for that.
Q.The moral ambiguity in the film, the moral ambiguity in the character of Mildred herself, her reactions to the news that Willoughby has cancer for example…
FM. Yes, it's good. It's really important. I mean Martin and John, the editor, allows that moment after Willoughby leaves and she realizes that maybe she's stepped a little too far. Did I go too far? Well, too late now. But I think that her post-radicalization, she was a badass before Angela's death, then I think for seven months she was nothing, and then from the moment she decides to take action and shave the back of her head and put on the jumpsuit and arm herself to go and force the issue, she knows that there'll be collateral damage, the most important of which is Robbie (her son). But she believes he can survive it because he's a strong character. Her only concern is Robbie, everyone else be damned.
Q. How has being married to a consummate filmmaker affected your career, and I don't mean just in the roles he's written for you…
FM. Nepotism! I believe in it! It was difficult at first but not any more. I can't wait for another job.
Q.… but not just through the roles, you're a unit and you're a creative unit together…
FM. … well that's why I started producing. I know I'm not a director. I know what a good one is and you only need one in the family. I think what often happens, especially in a female actor's life, if you reach a certain age and have a certain experience people have started offering me opportunities to direct. And I'm not capable of it, I'm not good at it, I'm not a filmmaker nor a theatre director. I don't have the attention span. But I am a good producer. I haven't always been successful, but the successes I've had, like Olive Kitteridge, are really successful because, and it comes off sounding like a joke, what I have also practiced at the same amount of time for 35 years as I have acting is being a housewife. And housewifery is a very complicated role, especially if you also have a profession.
There are so many skills, a skillset and resume I have as a housewife that I can transfer to being a producer. I can put together the right group of people, prepare a really interesting meal, present it, forget about it, they enjoy it or they don't, but there's a completion to that process as a housewife that is very much like a film. And that's what I've learned from watching Joel and Ethan, because they don't just direct films. They do everything. They write them. They produce them. They direct them, they edit them, they promote them, they start again. So there's been a process to our lives together. But the only thing I get paid to do is act! (She laughs). But I'm a part of that process and I've absorbed the worst and the best of it. It was, I have to say, there's first our son and the collaboration that we've had in watching him become a full human being which is the greatest success and greatest fulfillment that either of us have had, then second would be after the screening of Olive Kitteridge at the Venice Film Festival where we showed it in completion, two hours, a dinner break, and two more hours. When it was complete Joel turned to me and said 'You did good Francie.' And that dropped down in my core in a way that nothing else could, nothing! Because I knew I believed it, I believed it! Because if you trust somebody enough, it's like, superficially, if I say 'Does my ass look big in these pants?' and he goes 'Yeah'. But if he doesn't go yeah, he goes 'well you might want to think about trying something… what else do you have?' and he says 'You want me to tell the truth, right? Because if I don't tell the truth, then what good am I?' And so when he said, 'You did good', I knew I had.
Q.Are you happy with that? (On being recognized on the street)
FM. I had to learn how to manipulate it to my own ends. When it started becoming uncomfortable, when my son was very young and I was being stalked and I didn't like how he saw me in that situation because I wasn't always nice. And he would say 'Momma why aren't you being nice to those people?' Because it would mostly be 'Stop. Don't come, I'm here, you can't enter this.' (She gestures to her immediate body space). So I didn't do personal publicity for ten years specifically so I could take control of it, so I could have the option of saying no to people, I don't do that. And then I learned to say 'I've retired from that part of the business, I only act now, I hope you enjoy my work, hi, what's your name.' And now in the world of iPhones it's 'Can I take my picture with you?' and I say 'No, thank you. What's your name, I'm Fran.' And if they say to me 'My boyfriend won't believe me that I met you.' And I say 'You're with the wrong man.'
Q.What's the best part of your life?
FM. I hope it's still to come. I have a friend who recently said that there's this saying that there are three phases to a woman's life - maiden, mother and crone, even though perhaps you don't raise children, there's still that middle ground of where you're in that voluptuous mother place. And then crone was once a very respected place in many cultures, still is, that matriarchal centre when you're post-menopausal, when you're no longer on the reproductive track or you're not leading with your sexuality but you have a deep well of experience that can be beneficial to a community, to the collective whole. You're sought for it, not … shunted, not sidelined. And you don't have to proclaim that in any way, you just are that. And I think it's being whittled at because of marketing, because of ageism and because you're really not supposed to go past 45, because none of the marketing is geared towards anything past that.
FM. Yes, but being invisible can also be very powerful. Part of post-menopausal women's power is that we do become invisible so we need to be sought, but we have to be recognizable. And so my platform is, it's not completely right, Joel's challenged me on this analogy, but if there was a fire, most of us know that that small red canister that usually sits in a corner somewhere can put out that fire, if there's danger, if there's an emergency. If we cannot identify our elders fast, if young people can't identify us and say there's someone who I think looks like they should have the answer to something I need. If we look like them, then they're going to keep looking and they might be in grave danger. So they have to be able to identify us. They used to be able to identify us because we had white hair, we had wrinkles, we were slower, we were patient, we sat in one place long enough for them to find us. We've got to maintain that core of our culture, and we have to take it back from the people who are trying to steal it from us. Not go their way, but bring them to ours. It was not easy to wake up the morning I turned sixty, I wasn't as joyful as when I turned fifty. There's challenges ahead, the physical challenges of ageing I don't have a lot of patience with.
But I don't regret things, it's not a part of my nature. So when you say, what's the best time, that means there's been a worse time, so I'm going to see what's up ahead.