Interview With Frances McDormand
How did you come to this project? What attracted you?
I learned how to read in second grade, and I entered a summer contest at my local library in Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you read more books than anybody else you got your Polaroid up on the bulletin board, and I did. From that point forward, I've been an avid reader, so I was reading 'Olive Kitteridge' because I love to read. It was a great book. I loved it. It hits every single delicious funny-bone that a good reader loves.
I started passing it along to friends. Kathy Borowitz, an actress who I went to Yale School of Drama with, called me after reading it and said, "Oh my God. Do you want to play this part?" I said, "No. It's not a movie. I don't believe that good novels make good movies. We'd have to tell it chronologically, and that's too conventional for a woman's story. Two hours isn't enough time." She said, "Yes, I know. But you want to play this part." She put a little splinter in my brain.
Around the same time, I watched all five years of David Simon's 'The Wire' in two months. That was my introduction to long-format television. I was turning 52. I knew my son was going to be leaving home for college in the next four or five years, and I really needed to plan ahead so I wouldn't be grief-stricken with his absence. It was like a perfect storm for an actor my age. Then I was serendipitously introduced to [series writer] Jane Anderson soon after optioning the book with [author] Elizabeth [Strout]. We all knew that it could be something tasty -- never as great as the novel, but something inspired by that novel.
Did your impression of Olive shift as the character came to screen?
One of the things that I was always concerned with -- and the difference between a literary and cinematic character -- is that Olive is a peripheral character in other people's lives. That's the brilliance of Elizabeth Strout's novel, which is made up of 13 short stories. Olive isn't even in some of them. I felt really drawn to the character, given that I've made a professional life of playing small, supporting roles to male protagonists in movies. In my theater work, I've had much more three-dimensional, broader-stroke characters. But in film, that's pretty much what I've made a name for myself playing, and that was conscious on my part.
I kept saying to Jane, to Lisa Cholodenko, our director, and to my producing partners, "We have to be careful that we don't make Olive the main character too soon or in a conventional way." I think that was our biggest challenge -- to show that part of Olive's deep, deep resentment that she was placed on the earth in a role that is peripheral to other people's lives.
Does being a mother connect you to Olive's experience with Christopher?
It was perfect for Jane and I. Our sons are both the same age. They're turning 20, so we were going through what Olive was going through in terms of our sons hating our guts in one minute and needing us desperately in the next. Neither Jane nor I are as damaged as Olive. Olive's father's suicide made her incapable of really surrendering her love to Christopher or accepting his, but she did the best she could. I think at the end of this story, maybe Christopher, through [his second wife] Ann, will realize that maybe Olive didn't do so bad.
Do Olive and Christopher have a chance at a real relationship?
When Olive was 13, her father was 45 and committed suicide because he couldn't live with his depression. Jane and I structured the film so that when we meet Olive, she's 45 and her son is 13; she is at a crisis point in her life. She fears that she may abandon her son the way that her father abandoned her. I think that what she finds at her "suicide picnic" is that she's not capable of it. She was never a suicide or a chronically depressed person. There is a new beginning in that she might not have passed on some poison, some horrible future, to her son.
So in your mind, Olive was never serious about committing suicide?
For me, it's more connected to Olive's practical, pragmatic side than it is to her depressed, suicidal side. What I believe as an actor and a storyteller is that Olive means exactly what she says: "I am waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself in the head." Jack [Kennison, played by Bill Murray] thinks that's funny, but it's the truth. She's no longer needed; there's no reason to stay alive, and she'll just get herself out of the way.
Did you do any research on mental illness or depression prior to filming?
No, I didn't do any research on depression. I'm not really interested in promoting 'Olive' as a series about depression or mental illness. That's an interesting aspect that starts a really interesting conversation, but I don?t think that was our, or Elizabeth's, intent.
What's most interesting to me is the generational legacy of depression and how it's dealt with. I think that there's a clinical mental illness called depression, but I believe that post-industrial America has been narcotized by progress. There's a cultural malaise -- mental illness, or no -- that everybody suffers from at some point in their life. The way that Olive's father dealt with it is that he got to a point where he believed the most honorable thing to do was suicide. Then you have Olive, who takes action. She scrubs the sh*t out of sh*t. She works her way through her anger and her feelings of depression. And there's Christopher's generation, who aligns with therapy and pharmaceuticals. You're shown three different possibilities of dealing with something that is kind of inevitable.
Can you speak to Olive's relationship with food?
Almost all the times we see Olive eat or need to eat is when she's crashing. On one hand, her relationship to food is purely physiological; I think her sugar drops, she gets crazy and she crams food in. On the other, she eats when she's anxious, depressed or doesn't know what to do with herself. And, she loves it; it's a part of her central life.
People often say to me, "You're not fat enough to play Olive," because their image of Olive is a larger woman. I've said, "Go back to the book and give me the evidence." What it says is, "She is broad in the beam, like a woman who has eaten anything she damn well pleases all her life." Well guess what? Welcome to Fran McDormand. That's the truth for most women in the world. It's something that I feel really strongly about.
You hand-selected many of the items seen on screen. Was there any object or costume that felt very distinctly Olive to you?
The one thing that [costume designer] Jenny Eagan and I decided was that even though Olive spends a lot of time in the kitchen and is a housewife, we didn't want her in an apron. She was a professional woman who had a uniform for school, but she put on a comfortable uniform for around the house. Jenny came up with this design that was a button shirt with pockets. Throughout the 25 years that we see in the movie, Olive makes the same pattern shirt out of different fabrics, the idea being that they'd wear out. I really loved that, and I think that tells a story of a woman's life.
The first set that we shot was near Lanesville in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where we filmed Penny's rescue. There were the remnants of a factory that had fabricated iron pieces for ships and boats, so there were a lot of rusted pieces of metal amongst the shoreline, and people started collecting them. I found them beautiful and used them in the film. I had a whole line of found objects on the windowsill of the kitchen in front of the sink that I believe Jim and Olive collected in their walks together. We changed them throughout the years, but Olive always had those mementoes of Jim O'Casey. It's so satisfying when you see those on screen and it echoes back to a real time that was created by a community of people.
Was there any item that was very personal to you?
I choose a lot of things that were from my childhood or I remembered from my grandmother's house. There's that flashback where Olive remembers Christopher as a young child being all stuffed up. In the beginning of the scene, Christopher has a rotating lamp of Niagara Falls. I had one. The song that I sang to big Christopher my parents sang to me, and I sang to my son. There's a lot of all of us in Olive.
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