Frances McDormand  by Willem Dafoe

BOMB 55 Spring 1996
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996
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Frances McDormand. Photo by Susan Shacter.

I first saw Frances McDormand in Blood Simple—an eye opening film and a “where did they get that woman” performance. Next I saw her in Raising Arizona (a film I had been eager to see since I had badly wanted the Nicolas Cage role). Finally, I met her on the set of Mississippi Burning, where she played a battered southern housewife, and I played an FBI investigator. For her performance, she was nominated for an Academy Award.

In Mississippi, Fran struck me as down to earth, direct, and funny. Very serious and great at what she does, but I swear sometimes when I’d be with her I’d almost forget that we were actors. That’s why it was strange to do this interview because I feel we have talked each other’s ears off many times since we’ve met, yet we never talked about performing.

I’m a Coen Brothers fan—I’ve seen all of their films of which Fran has done four or five and I’ve seen many of her other films, each one wildly different from the rest. Among them: Sam Raimi’s Darkman, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon. Strong directors and not a formula picture in the lot.

On stage Fran has played Masha in Three Sisters, appeared in The Sisters Rosenzweig at Lincoln Center, The Swan at The Public Theater, and was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

We began this interview over lunch at a noisy restaurant, and I was nervous the whole time about whether the tape was picking up the conversation. We eventually went to her and Joel Coen’s place—but then her infant son Pedro woke up from a nap and we just couldn’t continue. Fran went away to LA for a week of publicity, and when she returned we talked over the phone about her role as Detective Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo.

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Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by Michael Tackett. All photos courtesy of Gramercy Pictures.

Frances McDormand So I was wearing my fake breasts.

Willem Dafoe Fake breasts?

FM Yeah! Have I told you about my fake breasts? I originally got them for Raising Arizona because the character had five kids. That’s a part of my process, my breasts.

WD Your character is pregnant in Fargo. How did you arrive at this … Did Joel and Ethan (Coen) talk with you while they were writing the script?

FM No, they never do. I mean, I’m around when they’re writing all the time, but they don’t talk to me. I’m not a writer, I wouldn’t presume to say anything. Now when it comes to casting, and choices as an actor, then I’ll say a lot, whether they want to hear it or not. But Joel and I talked about the script after I read it, and really there were only two things: one, that they incorporated the morning sickness thing, and two, the Mike Yanagita thing. They told me they wanted to develop Marge’s character in a different context, other than with her husband, or with the murder case. Any character development—that’s good. So when they come up with this Mike Yanagita scene—I didn’t really get it until I saw the finished movie.

WD What did you think your job was in that scene?

FM Steve (Park), who was playing Mike Yanagita. I wanted to show how uncomfortable Marge was when he broke down. She is a cop, she can handle a lot of stuff, but when it comes to public displays of emotion, she was very uncomfortable. She had to leave. I liked that it showed she is fallible. And also, that just because she’s pregnant, she’s not this mother-image. That was the last thing I wanted. If she was too sweet and understanding with Mike Yanagita, then it was gonna become this whole “mama” thing. That would have been too easy. And I wasn’t interested in playing a “mother-nature” type either.

WD When they give you a script, what’s the first thing that you do with it? Is there a working pattern that you tend to cling to? Do you go to external details of the character? Do you look for a model?

FM I don’t do a lot of research. And I never have, in film or in theater. I do all my work in rehearsal. Granted, it hasn’t always succeeded. Do you know in a month of rehearsal exactly what’s going to work? I don’t sit at home and learn lines, although I have learned to go back to the script a lot more than I used to. One of the problems I had when I was younger was that I had no idea what the arc of the character was, I had no idea how the character’s story told the story of the play. I was just going scene to scene to scene. If I was lucky, it came out okay through the rehearsals. But then I started working in film, and everything would be shot out of sequence. I had to have a much better idea of how it was plotted.

WD It’s funny, my impulse is just the opposite. You can’t know how it’s going to be plotted, it has yet to be edited, so in fact, you’ve just got to be present, and intuitively find a way to play each scene.

FM Definitely. To me, it doesn’t make any difference how much I know, or how much I’ve thought about it in my head. When it comes to playing emotionally tough scenes, I’m not going to sit at home and think, okay, this is where the tension builds because it all depends on exactly where you are when you’re doing it. The whole emotional-recall thing can be very good for another actor, but it doesn’t work for me. For me, it’s all about emotional catharsis. All I have to do is stand right in the middle of a group of people pulling cables, doing the lights—I just stand there, and the isolation of being alone in the middle of a group of people can get me to a vulnerable place. For the majority of the human race, joy or pain or emotion gets put in a very safe place. That’s the healing process. But actors don’t let the scar tissue completely heal over, and since it never completely heals, it’s not about manipulating a memory or an emotion as much as it is not having to dig too far—not having to pick off the scab as much. You don’t have to spend all your acting time making it bleed. It’s just there, you’re carrying it around.

WD Do you choose a project because of the role or the director … ?

FM With Fargo, I hadn’t read the script, or prepared for an audition. I got the part because I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers, they’ve known my work for 12 years. They were offering me a challenge. It’s interesting, because I’m not sure how I would have felt about that character if I had just read the script. I took it for granted with them. I wanted to work with Joel and Ethan.

WD It’s a great role. But she’s one of those characters who doesn’t go through a transformation.

FM She is what she is. In that scene with Mike Yanagita, she realized he was lying. That’s the biggest thing she has to accept, because at the end when she talks about greed and not understanding why these guys did what they did, that’s just Marge’s general condition. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if other actresses had read the script and wanted to audition. I never heard about who else they were considering, or who else was fighting for the role. I don’t know how many people would have wanted to do Marge.

WD Are you conscious of that competition normally?

FM I’m often interested in the casting process because it puts what you do in perspective.

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Frances McDormand in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by Michael Tackett.

WD In performing for film, how much technique do you think there is? It’s easy to recognize in theater, but in film, it’s so much about trying to catch these intuitive moments. And what you do in film is so mediated. Do you think it’s really about being present and being receptive?

FM It changes. Working with Joel and Ethan is a lot more like theater than other films I’ve done. Their movies are theatrical. They’re very stylized, in a way that a company of actors has to be. The screenplay’s like a play script. You’re not trying to fix the holes in the script with improvisation or character development. It’s given to you, it’s there.

WD Do you get a clear idea of their world before you shoot?

FM When you read the screenplay, and then you see the movie, there’s no alteration of the original idea. Joel and Ethan start making it when they write it. They don’t write screenplays for somebody else to direct, and somebody else to edit. From the minute they get the idea, they’re talking about the dialogue, writing the script, thinking about camera movements and locations. Everything starts at the same time. It’s a really good example of feeling the difference, because for a long time, I was flying by the seat of my pants.

WD In what respect?

FM I never had any training in film. I studied the classics, but never had any work on camera.

WD Had you worked much in theater before your first movie?

FM No, Blood Simple was my second job out of Yale Graduate School. The first was a play I did right before that, in Trinidad. The Jamaican poet, Derek Walcott, had just received a MacArthur grant, and took some money to produce a play with Trinidadian actors and two American actors. Some nights we didn’t perform because nobody showed up, but it was great to be down there. And it was interesting because he was a poet first, and a playwright second. When he did re-writes on the play, he would come in with a poem first. And we’d say, “Well, Derek, it’s not very realistic to start speaking in poetry.” He’d say, “I’m gonna work on that,” and it would gradually become dialogue, the poem then the syntax. In (the Coen Brothers’s) Blood Simple the only choice I made was not to be theatrical. I never moved my face and my mouth’s always open like I’m terrified—I was a lot of the time. I just did whatever they told me to do, which was perfect for the character, but it’s not like I made that decision as a character choice. It was from not knowing what to do.

WD What’s changed?

FM Exactly. What’s changed? Well, it depends on who’s doing the film.

WD When you start something what are your expectations, or obligations? What do you find pleasurable in your approach to a project? Is there any pattern?

FM Yes. It’s character work, although I didn’t choose Beyond Rangoon because of the character I played. It was the classic supporting role, she had no other life other than the support she gave to Patricia Arquette’s lead character. But I got to work with Boorman, whose movies I love, and I got to go to Malaysia. But I choose characters in theater and film that I know are gonna get me somewhere as an actor.

WD You mean challenge you?

FM Yes, that will take me to the next place. If I waited for those characters only, I would still be playing battered Southern women with less than a high school education. But I go back to the theater, I do Irma in Three Sisters and I also do Masha. I bust my butt. They kill me, they knock me flat. I see how I let my theater muscles atrophy. I get them built back up and then I go—see, the timing is really specific. For three months I was working onstage, doing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, then I got to do that kind of character on film, and I had to clamp down the volume and play on screen. It was great. I really found out what the different muscles were. You don’t work with the bottom of the feet in movies. It’s focusing it all on your face, and your ears, listening. For example, in Mississippi Burning, I didn’t do research. All I did was listen to Gene (Hackman). He had an amazing capacity for not giving away any part of himself (in read-throughs). But the minute we got on the set, little blinds on his eyes flipped up and everything was available. It was mesmerizing. He’s really believable, and it was like a basic acting lesson. I think that’s the thing I do most in film, I listen. Which is hard if you don’t believe the person talking to you. But if you truly listen to the other characters, then something happens to your face. Enough happens to your face, and you don’t have to project in any way, you can just let it happen. What was different with Fargo was that we never saw the rushes with an audience. The first time I saw the film with an audience, my jaw was shaking because I was so tense. I was amazed, I’d never done a character that caused such hilarity. And it’s not like I was playing her as comedic, but the audience laughed, not only at her, but constantly.

WD Did you feel pressure to be “funny” when you were shooting it?

FM There were times on the set when I would crack myself up, or the crew would crack up, but I thought it was just because Marge was that kind of familiar character. And we’d all be like, “Oh God, Marge is eating again.” But I realized that the old standard drama school thing about comedy is accurate: If you’re true to your character and make that character believable, and you’re true to their behavior, then whatever situation you’re in, the comedy will be revealed. On stage, when I’ve tried to do comedy, I’ve always overshot it by trying to be too honest. For instance, when I played Pheni in Sisters Rosenzweig. This character is at a turning point in her life, a really hard point. I always overshot my character because she was unhappy. She had these speeches about refugees and war-torn countries. Now, how can you make that funny? I couldn’t. No matter how true I was to her behavior, I couldn’t find the comedy that was inherent to the character. But with Marge, it was not like there was an audience to help figure out the timing of the comedy. Like you said, it’s gonna happen in the editing process. If Joel cuts from the right or the left of the frame, it’s gonna make the joke or it’s not gonna make the joke. So, there was no point in thinking that Marge was a comedic character.

WD How much has your work changed as a result of natural growth, and how much has it changed by experience of encountering certain things that have made you see yourself differently, or made you realize what was possible or what wasn’t possible. It’s always interesting for me to ask myself what is there that people won’t let me do, that I want to do. Is there such a thing for you?

FM Oh definitely. That’s the whole athletic side of being an actor. The stronger you get and the more powerful you feel, then you know what the next challenge is. You don’t plateau. It’s a seeking profession, not a complacent profession. There has to be a search involved.

WD But there are all kinds of sucker punches along the way. Like the idea of doing a diversity of roles. That’s one thing I find, often actors want to play everything.

FM Yes, definitely. Joel’s taught me some big lessons about that. Countless times he’s had to go through the audition process with me, and you know what that process is to an actor. And even though it still fucks me up sometimes, I really believe now that I’m not in control. There is a nice little tag line he gave me once: The only control actors really have is saying “no.” You have no other control, no matter how big a movie star you are. “No” is about as far as you’re ever gonna get, which is pretty damn powerful. And also, that you cannot play everything. It doesn’t matter what a good actor you are, it can be as stupid as you’re too tall or you’re too short.

We interrupted the interview here and took it up a week later over the phone.

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L to R: Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by James Bridges.

WD This is cool, I feel like a spy tapping the phone. (laughter) So, let’s just launch right into it. Fargo is a reality-based crime drama. Does your character actually exist, did you ever meet her?

FM No, I did not meet her. From what Joel and Ethan told me, she does exist. But I did work with Officer Nancy at the St. Paul Police Department, who was pregnant, and she took me to the shooting range.

WD Oh, cool. How’d you do?

FM I did pretty darn good. (laughter) It was great to talk to her, because she was on the vice squad, and was still working on the street, going into crack houses and stuff, seven months pregnant. She couldn’t afford to stop, she’s a single mom. So it was good talking to her, finding out what the guys she worked with thought about her. They didn’t really seem to be prejudiced in any way. But so, yeah. Never met the woman the character is based on.

WD Marge on paper didn’t look as colorful as she ended up being. What gave you the inkling that playing her was going to be fun. Did this have anything to do with your being from the Midwest; or did you think if your life had been different, this could have been you?

FM No. If it had been anybody else’s script but Joel and Ethan’s, I would have said, “Great script,” but I wouldn’t have been necessarily drawn to Marge. She’s not the kind of woman I thought I wanted to play. But in this case, I didn’t think about it at all because I wanted to work with them again. I figured they had a good reason for wanting me to play Marge. It wasn’t until I started working on her that I realized how much fun she’d be.

WD You said the casting process puts what you do in perspective. What do you mean?

FM It clicks on the part of my brain that’s always reserved for acting problems. Whether I get the job or not, I start working on a character—it’s the process of reading the script, becoming attracted to the character, auditioning, proving that I can do it. So whether I get the job or not, I’ve still been given a shot at it.

WD Ethan and Joel know you, but do you see a tendency in other filmmakers to label you?

FM Yes.

WD Probably has most to do with what they’ve seen you in last.

FM Yes.

WD What do you do in that process you just described to shatter their preconceptions?

FM It’s always flattering to be offered a part, because you think, Oh they’ve seen my work, they think I’m good. But, I will always read. I’m able to show a lot more in an audition situation if I do read, than if I just chat with somebody. Especially if it’s a character part. Actors shoot themselves in the foot if they’re trying to do something different and they refuse to read for a director.

WD When they get to a certain level, they don’t want to deal with the anxiety and rejection of auditioning. Don’t you think?

FM Yeah, I think so. The rejection is never fun. But I’ve also found that recently—maybe because playing Marge was leaving something behind, leaving the vulnerable “victim” roles behind—I’ve been having trouble showing the characters’ vulnerability. I’m feelin’ a little confident these days. (laughter) You know? They know I can do the classic vulnerable role because I’ve done it so much. So then I try to show something different, and the feedback I get is, “Well, she just doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the vulnerability of the character.” It’s like, Oh my God, I’m trying to show you I can do other things. I’m actually more anxious about the chatting than the audition. I feel if I get a chance to read I can prove myself.

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A scene from the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by James Bridges.

WD Do you have a preference between doing comedy or drama? When you go to the movie, and you see it all said and done, do you get more satisfaction out of hearing people laugh in the audience? Or having people be moved to tears?

FM There’s no preference. What was great about working on Marge … I really enjoyed the fact that I was never obligated to some emotional catharsis. The working process was satisfying because I got to explore other things. I’ve been in other comedies, but this is the first time I’ve ever sat in an audience and felt that there’s this large group of people who come from different places and who get to laugh at the same thing. That was really satisfying. But I think probably, my strength is drama.

WD Sometimes in drama you feel like you gotta beat yourself up a little bit. It must be nice to have your Minnesota cop who plugs along without too much trouble.

FM Oh, definitely. It’s also great from a feminist perspective to be able to play somebody like that. I don’t think all the characters I’ve played have been victims, but there’s been a certain requirement of vulnerability to tell the story of whatever lead character I’m supporting. And usually the character I’m supporting is a man. But in Fargo, the only story I was telling was Marge’s. The audience feels really connected to her, and emotionally involved with her, but she never has to bring them into that by showing her own emotional vulnerability. That was really exciting.

WD She’s also not defined by her relationship to a man.

FM The men in her life are defined by her. And in a very kind of, seemingly conventional marriage, they’re both doing exactly what they want to do, and taking care of what needs to be done. There’s an equality there.

WD How do you think Fargo‘s going to do in the Midwest? Do you think people are going to recognize Marge? Or do you think they’re gonna think it’s too heightened?

FM It really remains to be seen. We shot the film in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which is close to the border of Canada, a small community, not a lot of exposure to big-city life or whatever. Steve Buscemi, who played Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs is in Fargo and people were yelling at him from across the street, “Hey, Mr. Pink!” They were buying him meals in the diner … . Clearly, their imaginations were captured by a movie like Reservoir Dogs. And because Marge is built around so many iconic characters from television series, Cagney and LaceyColumbo, all those things that are really familiar to an audience through television, I think there’s enough there. The one thing that will throw them is the whole true story thing. But then again, America’s Most Wanted gets big ratings. The movie taps into American culture in a way that just might hook a smaller town audience. But it really remains to be seen. There is a certain, not a satire or parody, but it is a heightened reality. And then there’s the Minnesota accent which is a score to the movie as well as the music.

WD I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, but the accent, since I come from Wisconsin, was an absolute hook into the movie. My sisters sound like that. It gave the film a specific place, set it very specifically in my life, so that I wanted to come along for the ride.

FM If you’ve never been there, or spent time there, it seems foreign—you haven’t heard the Minnesota/Wisconsin accent used that way in a movie.

WD What did you mean, referring to the scene in Fargo when you said, “the Mike Yanagita thing”?

FM Mike Yanagita breaks down at the end of that scene—and Marge can’t handle this emotional display in public. She’s very uncomfortable and wants to be out of the situation. But also, dramaturgically, it is very emotional. And the audience in fact feels bad for Mike Yanagita, they’re moved. Which does not happen that often in a Joel and Ethan movie. You don’t get these emotional, cathartic moments. But the fact is, you find out very soon after that that it’s a complete lie. So they put the cathartic moment in, but they still have to pull it out. What they do let ride is the end of the movie, with Marge and Norm. It’s very sweet and tender. And they let it go, they don’t pull out with a joke on that one.

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Steve Buscemi in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by Michael Tackett.

WD People, when they speak to artists, talk about intent. But as an actor, we’re often serving someone else’s construct. To what degree do you find that frustrating, and to what degree do you find that liberating? I know there’s always collaboration, but basically, in the imagining, in the being, in the pretending, you are directed—someone else frames you. You don’t make the frame.

FM Yeah, actors are in a service industry. I mean, I’ve directed a couple of things in the theater.

WD You gonna direct some more?

FM I’d like to, yeah. In the theater definitely.

WD Not film.

FM No. Because … no.

WD Because you’re very close with a very good director.

FM Right, yeah. I don’t think I can tell a story with movies, as a director.

WD Do you feel the need?

FM No, I don’t. But in the theater, I do. I’ve lived there longer, and I’ve lived there more. I feel like I know what I have to offer in the theater as a director. But it does get frustrating in film, because I don’t necessarily want to work with a director who’s known to be “good with actors.” Sometimes that phrase puts me off. I would rather work with a director who knows how to make a movie.

WD I’m right with you.

FM I don’t mind if they have a respect for the craft of acting, I like that, that’s good, that means they’ll let me do my job. But I would much rather they know what lens to use, how they’re gonna edit it—have that in their head. Because then, everything I bring to it, whether it gets cut or not, is going to be able to be used.

WD I know exactly what you mean. Well said.

FM In the theater, I like to do new plays, to explore new languages and new styles that haven’t really been set yet. I like doing classical theater with directors that need to do the play. The first time I did Three Sisters, I did it with Liviu Ciulei who was 65 years old at the time. He hadn’t done that play yet, though he had done a lot of other Chekhov, because he wanted to wait until he was old enough. The second time I did it was with Emily Mann when she was in her late 30s. It was a completely different production. She needed to do it, but for a different reason. They both needed to do the play. And so, whatever journey I went on as an actor, however I served their production, it was for a really good reason. Whereas, I was in another play that was very hard to do, and a bitch of a role to create, and in the end, I realized the production wasn’t successful because the director had chosen it for other reasons than having to realize that play in his own terms. So then it becomes like, who are you gonna serve? Who’s the best boss?

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Steve Buscemi and Michelle Hutchinson in the Coen Brothers’s Fargo. Photo by Michael Tackett.

WD What are you thinking about doing next?

FM Ever since we talked, that was the one question that I’ve gone back to over and over in talking to friends in the last week … you asked me that question, and I went blank. (laughter) And it was the first time in 15 years that that ever happened.

WD Well, that’s probably good.

FM I think it’s really good. I’m waiting to be surprised. I’m really content to wait until I know exactly what’s right. It’s not a career move. It’s not like I’m waiting for the leading role in a blockbuster Hollywood movie, or the lead in some play on Broadway.

WD It’s just your life.

FM It’s gotta be something that I can commit to in the same way. That’s what’s so fucking hard about working with Joel and Ethan. It’s so satisfying, it’s so complete, it’s really hard not to judge whatever you do after in the same way. Same thing after doing Three Sisters. I usually have some idea as an actor of what I want to try. It’s either something in complete contrast to what I’ve done, most recently, or it’s a movie versus a play, or a play versus a movie. But right now, I have no idea. The one constant now, is that I’ve got something really fun to do when I’m at home. (laughter)

WD Yeah.

FM Whereas before, I’d say yes every time they’d call me to do a reading because it was work, it was exercise. Now, it’s like, do I want to go do a reading? I think maybe I’d rather go to Circus Gym today.

Nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Platoon, Willem Dafoe has played a wide variety of film roles including: Wim Wenders’s Far Away, So Close, Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Tom and Viv with Miranda Richardson. His upcoming films include Victory, based on the Joseph Conrad novel, and The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. Dafoe has been a company member of New York’s internationally acclaimed theater company, The Wooster Group, since 1977, and recently completed a run of the Group’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.

Willem Dafoe by Louis Morra
Dafoe 01
Olivier Assayas by Alex Zafiris
Olivier Assayas 1

Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.

Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
Lawrence Levine 1

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant
Reichardt 01 Body

Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Originally published in

BOMB 55, Spring 1996

Featuring interviews with Frances McDormand, A.M. Homes, Padgett Powell, Tina Girouard, William Pope. L, Butch Morris, Malcolm Morley, Jafar Panahi, and John Elderfield.

Read the issue
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996