What Frances McDormand Would (and Wouldn’t) Give to ‘Nomadland’
The acclaimed film required her to draw from a life she prefers to keep private. So when the director asked to cast her family, too, the star pondered whether to cross a personal line.
- Feb. 22, 2021
It was a February day so overcast that noon looked like dusk, and Frances McDormand felt a little rattled. She told me this as we ambled down the main street of the small coastal town where she lives, a modest, hidden place so far from Hollywood that studio searchlights would have a hard time finding it. Still, someone had managed.
Earlier that day, the phone rang at McDormand’s house, and while she didn’t recognize the man on the other end, he certainly knew who she was. When the caller told her he was watching “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the 2017 movie in which she plays an avenging mother named Mildred, McDormand realized she was on the phone with a fan who had tracked down her unlisted landline.
“It was the first creepy call I’ve gotten in 16 years here,” she told me. Though she hung up right away, McDormand now wondered what she might have asked him: “OK, what part were you watching? The scene where I threw the Molotov cocktail at the police station?”
Maybe the fan had hoped to speak with righteous Mildred, who harangues priests and cops and hurls fire bombs in the pursuit of justice. Instead, he reached Frances McDormand, a 63-year-old woman who chats up everybody she comes across in her small town, doesn’t like to think of herself as famous, and has won two Oscars.
This is the tricky thing about how persuasively McDormand embodies her characters: You think you know her because you’re certain you know them. Whether it’s kindhearted Marge from “Fargo,” tetchy Olive from “Olive Kitteridge,” or bohemian Jane in “Laurel Canyon,” McDormand specializes in playing women with worldviews. You can tell right away what they like and don’t like, who they would be friendly with and who they can’t stand.
Since she rarely grants interviews, most people only see the real McDormand blazing an iconoclastic streak through televised awards shows, where she is barefaced instead of Botoxed and once wore her own jean jacket in lieu of borrowed couture. (In Hollywood, this mild noncompliance is tantamount to a declaration of war.) McDormand is highly skeptical of any ceremony where actors are done up like glamorous gladiators, and when her husband, the filmmaker Joel Coen, was once asked to produce the Oscars alongside his brother, Ethan, McDormand suggested they set the telecast at Coney Island, which would have forced Hollywood glitterati to mingle with the freak show.
That irreverence is McDormand’s most endearing trait: On the day we met, she ducked into a liquor store to satisfy her craving for Fritos — “You know they’re gooood, right?” she teased — and before we sat together on a concrete wall by the coastline, McDormand clambered on top of it and used the length of her splayed body to measure a pandemic-appropriate distance between us. She makes a concerted effort not to treat herself like a precious movie star in the hopes that you won’t, either.
That’s why she lives where she lives and why, as she perched on the wall opposite me in an olive puffer jacket, she asked me not to divulge the name of her town. That morning’s phone call aside, “I get to live my more authentic self here,” she said, “and I don’t have to pretend to be anybody else.”
She nodded toward the beach, where a handful of people cavorted with their dogs and surfboards. “I don’t mind being their movie star,” she said. “I’m just not going to be yours.”
STILL, THE LINE BETWEEN McDORMAND and her characters will only grow blurrier with the release of her intimate new film, “Nomadland.” In this sunset-dappled drama from the director Chloé Zhao, McDormand plays Fern, a widow who packs her things into a van and joins up with a tribe of older itinerant workers to spend their golden years working odd jobs all across the American West.
“Nomadland” would eventually require more from this private star than she is used to giving, but when McDormand first met with Zhao in early 2018, she was mostly curious what the up-and-coming director would think of her: “I was like, ‘Man, I just want to be relevant. Do you think I’m relevant?’”
Perhaps that’s a surprising admission for a woman who was then on the verge of winning her second Oscar, for “Three Billboards,” but McDormand had just entered her 60s and worried that good opportunities could prove harder to find. Even before that, most of her best-known roles had required some hustle to obtain, which is part of the reason McDormand has lately become a producer, too.
“Our industry is such an ageist industry,” Zhao told me by phone. “Someone like Frances McDormand who is just so authentically herself, who has not tried to erase those lines on her face or cover that up to fit into the industry — to me, she’ll be relevant forever.”
And it was exactly that authentic self that intrigued Zhao. In her previous films, “The Rider” and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” Zhao had cast nonprofessionals and built character arcs for them that were inspired by their actual experiences. “Nomadland,” based on a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, would offer her the same opportunity: Real nomads from Bruder’s book, like Linda May and Swankie, were enticed to play pivotal supporting roles in the film.
But since Zhao wanted those women to simply be themselves in front of the camera, she decided that for the sake of coherence, McDormand would need to play a version of herself, too. “It’s very interesting, the layers of it,” Zhao said. “Fran is playing Fern, but even the name ‘Fern’ came from herself and who she thinks she might be if she hit the road.”
In fact, McDormand had long harbored a fantasy of turning her back on Hollywood, changing her name, and setting off in an R.V. upon reaching her 60s. “Chloé tapped into the truth of it,” McDormand said, “which was at different points of my life, I’ve said to my husband, ‘I can’t take this anymore, I’m dropping out.’”
“Nomadland” let McDormand play out that dream and a few others. Many of the people McDormand interacts with in the film had no idea she was a famous actress — they figured she was just another nomad, and spoke to her like a normal person in exactly the way that she craves.
In some ways, all that verisimilitude could be grueling, too — McDormand was surprised at how exhausted she would feel after long days of simply being present in front of the camera, reacting to the stories real people unspooled. Zhao also asked McDormand to put in actual hours at Fern’s odd jobs, like harvesting beets in Nebraska or working at a warehouse in California.
But the result is a performance that McDormand has never given before, one that has less to do with acting and more to do with simply being. As the Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wrote in his “Nomadland” review, “McDormand doesn’t disappear into Fern; she’s revealed by Fern, and Fern is revealed by her.”
That sort of ineffable, hard-to-pin-down portrait was exactly Zhao’s intention. “I like to think that we have captured a great performance,” she said, “but also, an essence of Fran as well.”
Still, the director and her star sometimes disagreed on just how much of that essence to use. Details both large and small have been pulled directly from McDormand’s real life: Fern proudly shows off a set of plates that McDormand’s father bought her as a college graduation gift, and Zhao cast one of the actress’s oldest friends as Fern’s sister so the recriminations they air in the film could have a real weight.
But when Zhao floated the idea of finding a role in the film for McDormand’s son, Pedro, or suggested that Fern’s dead spouse, glimpsed only in a photograph, should be played by McDormand’s actual husband, Joel Coen, her lead drew a line in the sand. “I have to believe that it’s not just a documentary of me,” McDormand said. “I did create a character, just like I’ve created myself in 63 years, too.”
FOR MOST OF HER LIFE, McDormand has been fascinated by the formula through which one concocts a self-image. How much does it have to do with authenticity, and to what extent is it constructed by playing pretend?
“I would say probably fifth grade is the first time I can remember, ‘Oh, I know what they think I am, and I’m going to subvert it,’” she told me.
What they knew about McDormand then was that she was the adopted daughter of Vernon McDormand, a minister for the Disciples of Christ. That sort of role in that sort of family required a certain amount of public respectability, but as she got older, and an English teacher at McDormand’s school in Monessen, Pa., asked her to read the role of Lady Macbeth in a workshop, she found herself thrilled to leave propriety at the door.
“That was the hook,” McDormand said. “It was the power of being a really shy, slightly suspect seventh-grader who could stand in front of a group of people and keep their attention.” She loved, too, that Shakespeare’s female characters were as power-hungry as the men: “It’s like I used to say to Joel, ‘Why don’t you guys write better roles for women? In fact, why don’t you just write a role for men and then let me play it?’”
She had married Coen not long after making her screen debut in the 1984 noir “Blood Simple,” which he directed with Ethan. Twelve years later, the Coen brothers would give McDormand her signature role, one that could only be played by a woman: Marge, the chirpy, pregnant police chief in “Fargo.”
That film made her famous, a condition that McDormand considered a fire to be stomped out: After hiring a publicist, she almost immediately instructed him to turn down most requests.
“I made a very conscious effort not to do press and publicity for 10 years in what other people would think would be a very dangerous moment in a female actor’s career, but it paid off for exactly the reasons I wanted it to,” she said. “It gave me a mystery back to who I was, and then in the roles I performed, I could take an audience to a place where someone who sold watches or perfume and magazines couldn’t.”
To her, “Nomadland” is the culmination of that effort to keep herself unspoiled in the public eye. “That’s why it works,” she said. “That’s why Chloé could bear to even think of doing this with me, because of what I’ve created for years not just as an actor, but in my personal life.”
We traipsed back through town, and as we walked up a hill covered in overgrowth and eucalyptus trees, McDormand drew one final line: “So I’m going to pass my house, and then I’m going to leave you,” she said. She asked if I had dinner plans, and directed me to a farm stand I could stop by on the way home. “They’ve got gorgeous little gems and some good old arugula,” she said, “but no eggs right now because the chickens are all cold.”
As McDormand offered me kindly advice while standing in front of a felled eucalyptus trunk, I could have sworn I was talking to Fern, who is so practical and self-reliant. It reminded me of a story she had told me earlier: Not long ago, for the drive-in premiere of “Nomadland” in Pasadena, Calif., McDormand had decided to pull the van from the film out of storage. She thought it would be fun to sit in during the screening, but when she came face to face with the car she had lovingly named “Vanguard,” McDormand found herself overcome.
She had considered that van “the interior life of Fern, and therefore me,” she said, and to see Vanguard dirty and filled with junk after two years apart was almost too much to bear. An hour and a half into their reunion, Coen found McDormand still scrubbing the car, dripping sweat, insisting that she needed just a little more time with Vanguard. “I’m cleaning her,” McDormand told him. “I can’t let her go!”
It isn’t easy to move on when you’ve made something that requires so much of you. Before we parted ways, I asked McDormand how she felt after making “Nomadland.” I thought she scoffed at me, but she was laughing at the very idea.
“Well, at what point?” she said. “Is it afterwards? I don’t know!” Then she shoved her hands into the pockets of her puffer jacket and disappeared into the eucalyptus grove, taking Fern with her.