As we get nearer to our 25th anniversary this July, we're bringing some of our favorite BUST stories out of the archives and onto the internet. Way back in 2003, Frances McDormand—then 45—was our cover star for our Spring 2003 "Age Issue." Now, at 60, she's as much of an inspiration as she was 15 years ago, recently calling for Hollywood to adopt inclusion riders as a way to increasing diversity on set.
Most of us fell in love with her as Marge Gunderson—the most likable deputy ever to solve a multiple homicide during her third trimester—in Fargo. Since that Oscar-winning turn, Frances McDormand has played just about every role for a broad imaginable—a tough-edged, self-involved, cheatin’ single mom in Shortcuts; Oenone in the Wooster Group’s production of Phédre; a noir-ish, hard-drinking accountant who ends up in prison in The Man Who Wasn’t There; and an uptight-but-endeaaring ’70s mom doing her best to deny the very existence of counterculture in Almost Famous. In the upcoming Laurel Canyon, she portrays a woman who takes the cliché out of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. She’s been everything but a boring old ingénue. Frances is just too interesting for that.
When I met her outside her Upper West Side apartment building recently, she was wearing a big navy puffer and a flowered orange ski cap pulled down over her ears. She made this look very stylish, trust me. In the elevator, she apologized for being late, explaining that she had just had a mammogram. “I don’t have a lot up on top and so they had to pull and then they said, ‘We’ll just do it a couple more times.’ It was really cold. I think they should give you a nice cozy cashmere sheet to help you get through it,” she said to me (and inadvertently, the elevator operator). That kind of gives you a sense of Frances McDormand: she has really good manners, which doesn’t stop her from being outrageous and strange, in a good way. Upstairs, we talked about everything, including her upcoming movie, Botox, Big Bird, and dressing like a man.
My toddler loves Sesame Street, and the other day, there you were on a Sesame Street video, Big Bird Gets Lost…
Oh, one of my finest movies. I loved that! It helped Pedro [her son, who’s now eight] learn our phone number!
How did you get involved with Sesame Street?
I had two major perks after the Academy Award. One was being asked to do a Sesame Street video, and the other was going to Dublin and playing Blanche in Streetcar. And let me tell you something. To work across from Big Bird…I couldn’t remember my lines! He was so patient with me. I was like [looking starstruck and terrified] ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Big Bird.’ Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, OK. But Big Bird threw me into a panic…
I just saw Laurel Canyon…
[Opening her eyes really wide and raising her eyebrows to the ceiling] And?! What did you think?
You were amazing.
Thank you very much! I loved her! I loved Jane [her character in the movie].
You play a record producer who’s very rock ‘n’ roll. She smokes pot, she has a much younger boyfriend. What drew you to that role?
[Laughs] Do you even need to ask? Je-sus, it was heaven! I’m 45. I’ve never been asked to do something like that. The closest I’ve ever gotten was the character in Shortcuts. I think [Laurel Canyon and High Art director] Lisa Cholodenko was really in love with that part of the story. Her voice as a writer really suits Jane. And also, politically, where’s the story [of women like Jane]? Lisa’s interested in telling those kinds of stories, and that’s clear with High Art, and it’s clear with this script.
Also, I had an agenda. I wanted to do nudity. I felt like, all right, I’m 45, I’ve got cellulite, I’ve got stretch marks. I’m feeling really good about myself. Let’s stick it out there. Lisa and I met and it was like, come on, let’s go. I wanna do it.
Even though there was sex and nudity in the movie, the sex scenes weren’t like what you usually get in mainstream movies: a spectacle where the camera is slowly, fetishistically moving over this idealized female body. You really get the sense with this movie that the sex is about explaining who Jane and these other characters are.
Right, and it was! The overall theme, from Jane’s character’s point of view, was betrayal. And as a 45-year-old woman who’s been in a relationship for 20 years, betrayal means something different to me than it does to a 25-year-old who’s been in a relationship for a couple of years. Unkindness, I think, is the deepest betrayal.
How did you get into Jane’s character? You’ve said that of all the characters you’ve played, Jane’s skin was closest to your own.
So much was about the timing. When I met Lisa I just had been working with the Wooster Group for two years. That was a real watershedfor me as a performer, and personally, too; I never thought I could pull it off. The first day of rehearsal I sprained my ankle because I was trying to keep up. Everyone my age in the group had been physically disciplined for the last 20, 25 years of their life and everybody else was in their 20s and early 30s. They all do yoga or they’re dancers. So those two years were like going to boot camp. I felt really confident about what I could do. And I was looking to translate that into film. And that’s when Laurel Canyon came around. And also, I basically wore all my own clothes [in Laurel Canyon].
Was that your AC/DC T-shirt?
It was not my AC/DC T-shirt, but it was my Kiss T-shirt.
Speaking of which, what music do you listen to?
Well, I have to say a lot of the music that I’m listening to now came out of that job. I really love Folk Implosion’s music; a few of the guys in the band have this new album [as] alaska! that I think is really great. Uh, Coldplay, Pulp…I got Leonard Cohen’s recent CD when I was doing the job and that became really really influential in a lot of the scenes for me. Serge Gainsbourg I started listening to. My two favorite CDs now are Jack Johnson, which I love, and Norah Jones, of course. And the last couple of years I’ve listened to the Gorillaz a lot. Until Pedro started singing along to “I’m happy, I’m feeling glad/I’ve got sunshine in a bag, I’m useless, but not for long.” And I was like, “Sunshine in a bag,” I’m not sure my seven-year-old should be singing that in public. I was like, OK, we’ll break that down later. But it was a pretty catchy tune.
In a way, Jane is very macho, but very womanly.
The machismo of the character was really great. I really latched onto hanging out with the guys in the band; I adopted their physicality. My legs were open a lot. I had my hands down my pants a lot. And that made me feel really sexy because—my theory is—I’m heterosexual, and what I find attractive is male sexuality. And that made me feel attractive, adopting those postures.
So you sort of dressed the same as yourself for Jane, you got into Jane’s music…
I’m not bullshitting, there was a true collaboration in the character of Jane, because it was Lisa’s writing, it was Lisa’s direction, it was me, but it was everybody, everybody on the movie was really into Jane. Everybody in makeup and hair was over 40. They were really interested in promoting the idea of this woman, and what her message was.
One of my favorite scenes is in the bathroom. A couple days before we shot it, I had lunch with Wally [Pfister, the director of photography] and I said, “I’ve seen Polaroids for makeup and hair. I love the way I look. But I want her to look bad in that scene. She’s got to look bad. It’s three in the morning. She’s really at a point of questioning the last 45 years. I want…her [to] look that way.” And he said, “I’ve never had an actor come to me and say, ‘I wanna look bad.’”
But you didn’t look bad! Tired, maybe.
That yellow harsh overhead bathroom light! I love the way I look in that scene. I think I look great. In other movies, when they’re trying to make me look great, I think I look really bad. They’re trying to make me look pretty and glamorous, and it doesn’t work. Willem Defoe and I—we’ve been friends for a long time and we talk about this stuff—our faces are similar, a lot of angles and cheekbones. We call it gothic Midwestern. And as we age, I think we get better-looking. And I said to him once, I’m starting to think you’ve gotta light me like a man. You can’t light me like a woman, because what they generally do with a woman is wash her face out and make it flat and then they try to enhance it through makeup. But with men, they don’t put makeup on unless it’s for special effects. What they do is through lighting. They let the shadows show and they let the crevices happen and it makes for character. And that’s what I’ve got. That’s what I think my face has become. The wrinkles and the crevices and the broken blood vessels—I don’t need blush! The blood vessels have broken out in the exact right place.
It’s interesting because Jane’s sexiness comes from really not giving a shit if people think she’s pretty. That’s so attractive.
I was watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the other night and they have this wonderful dream sequence with Liv Tyler and the warrior. It’s beautiful. It’s romantic. It’s so wonderful that the ephemeral spiritual world and the world of death and destruction are in love. But it’s like, this is our problem here! No wonder we can’t pull it off. It’s either slut or elf faerie. What’s in between? How do you walk down the street and take care of business and still keep some kind of idea of yourself as an active sexual being?
I want to get back to this idea of not aring how you look, or sometimes wanting to look bad.
It’s important, for me, professionally, to figure it out. I did not have a lot of self-esteem when I was younger. And especially as an actor, I couldn’t ever meet the requirements set in the ’80s: big hair and makeup. And it’s always been about a certain idea of cinematic femininity. I didn’t cut it. My butt was too big, my boobs were too little, I had a chipped tooth, I was funny looking, I was a little off-center. The list just kept growing and growing of what I wasn’t.
Did you hear that a lot in auditions?
Yeah, the feedback would be: off-center, quirky. And I think all those things added up to just reinforce my already kind of shaky self-image. I was a plump kid. I never felt like I added up to what boys considered cute or attractive. So it started becoming more about trying to define it for myself. And then, because I was often playing supportive characters, I began making choices for the character that were—well, like Joel [Coen, one half of the Coen brothers and Frances’ husband] really early on said to me, “I don’t think she has to be as frumpy as you think she has to be. It’s a movie.” And then gradually I started latching onto this idea of, OK, maybe…
I never felt like I added up to what boys considered cute or attractive. So it started becoming more about trying to define it for myself.
Recently you said in an interview, “I feel better about myself and my body and my face now that I’m 45 than I ever have before.”
Oh, so much more.
How did you do that?
It’s about time. And it’s also about defining myself for myself and not defining myself for anybody else. I dress either like an eight-year-old boy or a 21-year-old man. That’s what I’m comfortable in and I think that’s what I look good in. And different variations of that, whether it be dress-up or in regular clothes. I know that’s my uniform and within that I feel feminine and attractive. And it’s a question of practice, of learning what works for you and what doesn’t. Like, I do not wear high heels. I can’t. There’s not even any point in me choosing something where I’m supposed to wear high heels, because it’s not gonna happen. It’s not an option. Bras. Girdles. Any kind of foundation garment—it’s just not gonna work.
OK, what do you mean by the eight-year-old boy/21-year-old-man thing?
I think the eight-year-old boy thing because I have an eight-year-old boy, and I want to live in his world. I wear clogs most of the time, and even that’s a problem sometimes because I can’t run down the street to the park. And I can’t play monster. Sometimes one is required to play monster and you better have the right shoe for it. For the 21-year-old man—I don’t dress like a 21-year-old girl because that’s inappropriate, but for me, [the clothes of a] 21-year-old man work. So I’m not dressing my age, but I’m not dressing my gender either.
Not to be too shallow, but where do you shop?
Well, I love to shop. Though I’ve been really fortunate in having clothes offered to me. That’s one of the perks of being an actor.
You mean when somebody says, “If you wear this dress to the Oscars…”
Yeah, or they say, “Come over and pick out some stuff.” Presents.
And I still have some great T-shirts from that. But generally speaking, it’s just not a practical thing. And also, politically, I don’t like being beholden to people. I like certain people’s clothes, but I don’t wear designer clothes. I’d much rather shop, because I like to go to a store, I like to try on [an item of clothing] and leave with it in my bag, and have to go to work to pay for it. I like that.
You prefer that to havaing somebody sending you the clothes and you have to wear them?
Yeah. I like to go to Baraney’s. In my neighborhood there’s a little store called CPW that I get all my jeans from because she gets good jeans. And there’s a skateboarding store on 72nd Street that has good stuff. This bag is from thata store called A Détacher on Mott Street. Oh! And H&M. I love to go there; I buy stuff in the men’s department at H&M.
Well, thanks for going to that shallow place about style with me. I just want to circle back to the body/nudity thing. You did a nude scene in Shortcuts. Were you more comfortable doing nude scenes with a female director than you were with Altman?
No, I was really comfortable with Bob’s [Robert Altman’s] suggestion. But I an tell that I was holding in my stomach really tight. You an see my ribs sticking out, and I obviously wasn’t as comfortable doing it as I thought I waas. Whereas in Laurel Canyon it was harder for me to do the scene where we were in the pool and I was in a bathing suit, because a bathing suit defines your body in a different way than being nude does. I would muh rather walk around nude than walk around in a bathing suit! Nude it’s like, here’s the total package and it looks pretty damn good. It’s cottage cheese-y, it’s droopy, I’ve got me some cellulite and stretch marks, but that’s part of my body and I know where they came from.
I don’t dress like a 21-year-old girl because that’s inappropriate, but for me, [the clothes of a] 21-year-old man work. So I’m not dressing my age, but I’m not dressing my gender either.
You sure are different from actresses who say, “I haven’t had a carb since the Clinton administration. And I only drink water…”
If I had wanted to stop eating red meat and being better about my diet and my sleep and my habits a long time ago, it might have been different, but it’s not. And I’m really glad that I eat red meat and drink alcohol and do other things. So there you have it. And genetically, you got dealt a certain hand, and regardless of what you do, you’ve got it, and it’s not gonna change that much. And you can manipulate it through exercise and diet, but at the end of the day, if you don’t celebrate it in some way, you just become invisible. Paarts of your body become invisible to you.
So there was no different doing a nude scene with a female director?
It was different with Lisa, but it wasn’t just Lisa. She was very careful that on the set we all felt comfortable—Sandro, Kate, myself—everybody, not just the women. There was a certain level of respect, there was a standard, there was a bar that had to be set, that couldn’t drop. And I think that she was responsible for that. [She would ask,] “Are you sure you want to do that?” [or] “Don’t you want to put on a robe now?” [And I’d say,] “No, I’m OK. I’m not cold, I just have to pee. Also, in working out the choreography of some of the scenes between [Sandro and I], we went into the territory of intimacy. But we really talked about it: what we were comfortable with, what we thought was necessary, what we didn’t think was necessary. It only became an issue in the pool purely from an upstaging point of view, because his penis was bobbing around a lot. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable being in the pool with no underwear on, it was just, “Temper that down a little bit!” It was becoming a fourth character in the scene.
You know, there’s that saying that there are three stages to an actress’s career: babe, district attorney, and Miss Daisy. You really carved out a space for yourself around that. How?
Well, there are several [women] who became character actresses because we were never quite what was expected of the ideal cinematic female. And now, as we get older, we find ourselves in a really good position, in terms of choices. There are still not enough choices for female stories, but there are Lisa [Cholondenko], and Nicole Holofcener and Rebecca Miller. They’re telling those stories, and so there are more options opening up from a storytelling point of view.
Also I made political decisions about myself, and feminist decisions about my life in general. I don’t always have my fist in the air when it comes to feminism. But if I go to work, I have to have something interesting to do. I can’t just be there, sitting across from the male protagonist, going, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” I have to find ways of making it more interesting for myself, and then hopefully that makes it more interesting to an audience.
What are the other feminist decisions that you’ve made about your career and your life?
I think that because I grew up in the ’70s, I’ve always had a really fierce need to feel independent. There have been major times in my life where, financially, Joel has supported us as a family. But then there’ve also been times where we’ve worked it out, like, he’ll support me while I do a play for two years, or for four months. And then I make sure that I take a job that is—it’s never a compromise—but is actually more for a paycheck than [for] what I’m actually gonna get to accomplish.
Because you want that feeling?
I need it. I need to know that I’m putting back in. And that Pedro sees that both Mom and Dad are contributing to his well-being. And that I have a job that I love and that I hate being away from him or not getting to spend as much time with him, but that I love what I do and that he’s better off for me having that.
You said one time that you didn’t feel like you’re cut out for housewifery.
It is a great hobby. I think that it would make a great vacation. Like a travel agency could give housewife vacations where you get to go to a really great apartment. And in the morning get up—now this has nothing to do with kids, because that’s a whole other story—but you know, you get up, you have a cup of coffee, you look ata the cookbook, you figure out the grocery list, you buy the groceries, you come home, you prepare it. You know, you set the table, you do a little cleaning, in fact, it’s a really great Zen experience. But if you have to do it, if you have to do it on a regular basis, it’s a full-time job. And the micro-managing of it and what I have to do, I mean, ugh! The times that the lady [who] cleans our apartment can’t come, I’m thrown into chaos.
Your father was a minister. What about mom?
She always worked. She was a receptionist—mostly in doctors’ offices. When she was 54, she went back and became a registered nurse in obstetrics. And also, as a minister’s wife, that was also a full-time job. A minister’s wife is an unacknowledged hard job.
Did you rebel?
I did, but we were all really fortunate when I left town. I was well brought up in the sense that I trusted the limitations that my parents gave me, but I was also suspicious that there were other things out there that I could handle that I was interested in. And I had a list that I systematically checked off the minute I left town.
What was the list?
Oh, you know. It all goes under the heading, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ roll.” But because of the way I was brought up, I also knew, even when I was in the scariest parts of what people in college get into, I knew that there were limits. I knew what was too far.
Speaking of adolescence and rebellion, do you feel like a grown-up?
It’s really hard to say. I vacillate. Unfortunately with Pedro, I feel like a toddler. Sometimes I’m just whatever age he is. But generally speaking, yes. I definitely do. That was one of the things that I loved about Jane. I don’t think that she was trying to be younger or anything other than what she was. She wasn’t a child. She wasn’t really concerned whether people thought she was dressing inappropriately or her relationships were inappropriate. She was herself.
I made political decisions about myself, and feminist decisions about my life in general. I don’t always have my fist in the air when it comes to feminism. But if I go to work, I have to have something interesting to do.
She made 45 look very good.
I think 45 is great. Sometimes people say, when I say that I’m 45, “Oh, you don’t look 45.” I say, “Oh, yes I do look 45. This is what 45 looks like.” If you taake it as a compliment that you don’t look your age, then you’re really shooting yourself in the foot…
Constantly thinking, “Oh I wish I didn’t have this, or I didn’t have that…”
It’s not that I don’t think about it. I remember bending over when I was 35, and realizing the skin around my knees, I couldn’t pull it up anymore. There was no flexing of the muscle thata pulled it up. Gravity was only going to keep making it further down. It was a drag, and I was like, “Oh, shit. Never liked my knees anyway and now they’re just getting worse. Well, oh well. Then that’s what they are.” You can’t fight gravity!
Or you can make it a full-time job. any woman can make it their full-time job to fight aging. Eight hours a day. Five days a week.
And it’s futile. The idea of erasing the emblems of what we’ve achieved is blasphemy. It’s self-mutilation to an extraordinary degree, because I know where all these things came from. This one [pointing to a line on the side of her face], this one elapsed over eight years of unadulterated joy and happiness with Pedro. Why would I ever want that to go away? Why would I take it away? It’s mine! It’s my medal. It’s a roadmap of where you’ve been; it’s great.
I take it you’re not going to be getting Botox injections any time soon.
No. Granted, I’ve put some shit into my body when I was younger, but at least there was a recreational factor. I’m not promoting that! I don’t think one needs to put poison in their body just for recreation, but the idea that you’d shoot poison in your face and you just paralyze your muscles…in the end it’s a veil of conceit. It’s a real veil of conceit.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a job with Nancy Meyers on her next movie. I’m playing Diane Keaton’s sister. My character is a small supporting role, but I’m supporting a female, which I’m very happy about. I’m really looking forward to that. And the character’s a professor of feminist studies.
Get out of here.
Yup, and she’s got quite a wonderful speech that Nancy’s written about older men with younger women versus them being with contemporaries their own age.
So you want to keep acting.
I want to act. And I just want to live my life.
Story by Wednesday Martin
Photo by Michael Lavine
Styled by Jenny Lopez
This article first appeared in BUST's Spring 2003 issue. Subscribe now.
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