Saturday, December 24, 2005
From the Vault: Frances McDormand
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 22, 1996
One of the most important relationships in actress Frances McDormand's life — on screen and off — concerns filmmaker Joel Coen.
She made her debut in his directing debut, Blood Simple, and the two went on to become husband and wife soon after filming that Texas-set film noir thriller.
Since then, McDormand has earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in another director's film, Mississippi Burning, and now she finds herself with one of the best roles of her career in her husband's new film Fargo.
Fargo is the latest collaboration of Joel Coen and his brother Ethan. The Coens take separate credits on their films — Joel is listed as director, Ethan as producer and both as writers — but the relationship is a complete partnership. The relationship between the Coens and McDormand has been present on every one of the brothers' films, though Fargo marks the first time since Blood Simple that McDormand's part has been much more than an extended cameo.
McDormand stars in Fargo as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of a small Minnesota town who is drawn into a complicated kidnapping plot gone awry. Though Fargo is clearly McDormand's film, she doesn't actually appear until more than 30 minutes into the movie.
While some performers work methodically and research their characters, McDormand doesn't choose that approach, save for making sure she handles her gun like a real law enforcement pro.
"I met this woman, Officer Nancy, in the St. Paul police force. I wanted to get together with someone and go to the shooting range and the local casting woman hooked me up with Officer Nancy who was 7 months pregnant. She took me to the shooting range — she was still working; she was on the vice squad, doing search and seizure."
The lesson was not lost on McDormand, who found the working mother-to-be a true inspiration for the character.
"It's amazing what pregnancy does to people who have never been pregnant or to the outside world. They think of pregnant women as delicate or ill or maybe contagious. ... People do have to be more careful in their condition, but they work."
Marge comes off as a character as placid as the snow-covered Minnesota countryside seems to be, which comes as a bit of a change from the emotionally churning characters McDormand has often played.
"It's not like I really sat down and made a list of Marge's attributes; I learned my lines, I learned the accent. I think Marge is actually at a very, kind of, tumultuous point in her life. She deals with what is right in front of her at the time; that's the best thing about Marge. What I loved about Marge being pregnant, dramaturgically it's interesting for the story because it's about this expectancy and this hope that goes beyond the gruesome events of the film."
However, knowing the Coens as well as she does, she doesn't see Marge's pregnancy as a political point.
"Joel and Ethan are not interested in making political points. (Marge being pregnant) was much more about a visual image."
The working relationship between McDormand and her husband and brother in-law ran as smooth as always on Fargo, except for one scene where the actress was having trouble.
"I had one hard time in the second interrogation scene with Jerry Lundegaard where she comes back asking him for help and then halfway through the interview realizes his behavior is suspicious and she needs to focus on him more as a possible suspect."
McDormand credits the success of her screen work with the Coens, specifically Joel, with the beginnings of their romance.
"Our relationship developed first as an actor-director collaboration. We didn't really hook up romantically until six or seven months after. That's always been a basis of our relationship and I must say it's gotten us through a lot of things."