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The ability to find the middle ground

The 63-year-old, who hails from rural Illinois, underpins her talent by inviting in a richness and an intensity to every role. You’ll rarely find a film of hers decorated in special effects, graphics and explosions. Instead, the investment is all her own.

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“When you strip it all back, at the heart of anything is the story - be that a movie, a book or our own lives,” she says. “You can add all the extras you like, but if you forget to respect the fact the story is the epicentre of what we do and who we are, you are never going to come away with anything worthwhile from the experience.”

That kind of deep thinking epitomises why McDormand has spent a career embracing characters who find themselves on some sort of journey. She will tell you that voyage is her own too, and who would we be to dispute such a fact.

The acclaimed actress offers a uniqueness that’s incredibly sought after at the moment in an industry seemingly obsessed with replication and lazy reinvention. What’s more, she approaches the art of cinema almost with a sense of irreverence… always present yet never prevalent.

The sense of comfort she takes from moving along under the radar is exemplified in the fact that, up until a couple of years ago, you would have speculated that her most memorable role came in Fargo, the acclaimed Coen Bros. film made all of 25 years ago. It was certainly the production that etched her into the public imagination and earned a Best Actress Oscar, but McDormand has never wanted to follow it up for the sake of it. She is someone who respects the barrier between movie star and citizen.

Even married to one of the most exposed movie directors in the business, Joel Coen, hasn’t led her to engage in projects unless they are right – in character and in convenience – in their totality. “I just feel in this industry, in life, you must always retain the focus on who you are. There will always be others painting you, presenting you in different ways. It’s dangerous, and that’s why I need to step back.”

Yet despite all best intentions, McDormand’s resurgence over recent years has been spectacular. She helped to continue bucking the trend of older actresses not earning award-worthy roles when excelling in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in 2017. The film immediately gleaned Oscar and Golden Globe plaudits.

And of course, her recent Oscar for Nomadland proves a further acceleration; another burst of energy and creative freedom that perhaps was aided by adopted son Pedro leaving home.

McDormand’s often inscrutable expression in movies is in marked contrast to her far livelier and unfiltered personality in real life. In conversation, the actress is witty, ironic, and strikingly candid, often flashing a wry smile when making a pointed remark. Other times she is sombre, philosophical and even emotional. She is a chameleon not for the occasion, but for her own sanity – she bends and sways depending on where her soul and her sensibilities take her; and she has an honesty that seems increasingly bereft in Tinseltown.

What comes next and what this actress is truly capable of we await expectantly to discover - from the acclaimed 2014 TV series Olive Kitteridge to delighting audiences in the Coen Bros. 2016 satire Hail Caesar!, to the revelatory and insightfulness that accompanied her latest gong, the industry needs Frances McDormand like never before.

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Q: You are constantly under the scrutiny of the media and public opinion. Do you feel we have a true image, a true reflection of who you are, or is there something that’s been missed along the way?

FRANCES: I can only answer that in the context of telling you how I see myself. If it so happens that someone views me differently then I cannot change that because everything is subjective. In fact, I would go as far as to say everything is more subjective now than at any time in the past. We have created a culture where opinion is a trend in itself, and not having an opinion means you are perhaps putting yourself out there to be goaded or called out.

Q: That’s a sad state of affairs.

FRANCES: It is. It’s also something that Nomadland taught me – that there are these hidden voices out there. They are living and breathing and going about their daily chores like the rest of us. Some are happy living that way, others are less happy, but at the heart of it is the fact that by living in a different way to the rest of us they are, in effect having their voices taken away, and that’s really worrying for me.

Q: Is it better to have no voice though, or a voice that is distorted, or one that speaks not what the person truly believes in?

FRANCES: Possibly. Possibly silence is regarded as a better option sometimes.

Q: So what does your voice tell us about who you really are?

FRANCES: I think for the most part people have a fair impression of who I am – whether they care is a different matter. The fact is I see myself as a small-town person who enjoys the feeling that comes from being in those surroundings. I spent my childhood living in small towns and as a result I feel I am able to relate to moods and pauses – I am able to process them in a way I’m not sure I would be able to if I had grown up in an apartment 100 yards from Central Park.

I don’t regard myself as complicated, which is different to saying I don’t regard myself as being complex. I think we are all complex, highly complex; but for the most part I am clear in my ideas, my ambitions, my perspective on the world.

I am willing to have that changed at any turn and am always open to renewing my ideas, but I’ve spent enough years here to know, for the most part, how the world works, and what my responsibilities are within that framework, both as regards my contribution to society and, just as importantly, the duties and responsibilities that I put forward to myself and my family.

Q: Have you had periods of feeling troubled or unbalanced?

FRANCES: Of course. Considering what most can take you out of your natural rhythm, I would speculate that grief will unbalance you more than anything else in your life. Proper, true, real, debilitating grief.

When it arrives it’s a devastating experience and hard for people to truly grasp. When you lose a spouse you're a widow or widower, when you lose your parents you're an orphan. I’ve said it before, but there is no word that exists for someone who has lost a child – no-one has ever thought of it; and that leads me to the idea that, biologically, it shouldn’t happen. It’s just not intended.

Q: The sense is you are one of the more balanced people in the movie world.

FRANCES: I just don’t like fuss or commotion, and I don’t want to live my life in the lens or beholden to my job. That’s always been the way for me.

Q: You seem a calm parent.

FRANCES: Yes and no. As a parent, you often find yourself having to deal with the anxiety and worry that comes with your desire to protect your child.

I didn't give birth to my son. I met him when he was six months old, but from the first moment I held him in my arms and smelled him I understood that my job was to look after him and keep him alive... it's a feeling that never goes away. As adults they don't need you anymore, but that doesn't stop you from caring and loving your child any less or any differently.

Your perspective and balance, as a person and as a mother, adjusts over time, but it never goes away. It can’t.

Q: How much does your relationship change when you son leaves home?

FRANCES: Well straight up, It’s fair to say I do miss not having my son Pedro in the house – even now it throws me out of kilter. As much as we seek out our own strength, we must all be brave and honest enough to admit we request it and require it in others so much of the time.

For instance, I was so glad that I was so busy working on Olive Kitteridge around the time Pedro was moving out because I didn't have the time to wallow in my grief over that!  But he only lives a few blocks away from us in New York, so that makes it a lot easier to get to see him.

Q: We rarely hear about you when you're not promoting a film. Do you lead a quiet life?

FRANCES: I've been acting for 35 years but for much of that time my main job has been looking after our house and our son. I've also developed some good skills during that time - travelling, finding the right schools for my son, organising dinners and parties, furnishing houses, and helping my husband on some of his projects.

Is it quiet? No. Is it unspectacular? I guess some might suppose it is.

Q: What do you think are the morals and messages that have come out of Nomadland?

FRANCES: Nomadland was a venture into a place I was nervous to go to. It highlighted the disconnect not only we have with other people in society, but also with ourselves.

I had hoped all along the film would open up our own understanding of what it is to be someone in society, but also what it means to be true to ourselves. so much of what came through in the film is that there are people in and around us who never stopped to think and consider who they are or what they're doing or where they're going; yet there is another portion of society he lived every single day on that journey, to the absolute extremities.

It's interesting to wonder who is the happier person - is it that person with a house and a home and a family and a settled job and a routine, but who never steps outside of themselves? Or is it that person on the road, always moving from one place to another, never totally sure of where they are or indeed where they will end up, yet who lives life with a feeling of freedom?

Q: What was biggest thing you took out of the project?

FRANCES: Temperance, I think. The ability to find that middle ground; that sane place where we, as humans, are at our most reliable and functional. I think what really struck me was the terrifying reality that literally anyone can fall off that equilibrium; can find themselves totally overrun by thought and philosophy without ever tending to what's right in front of them every single day.

Then you have those who are so conditioned and run over with everything that's in the present, they never really have time to step back and look around.

I don't think any of us want to be styled in these ways, to these extremities.

Q: Is it different depending on whether you’re a man or a woman? Is there a different point at which we balance and are satisfied with the lives we have created around us?

FRANCES: What I am glad of is the fact I am a woman, because without wishing to sound outrageously sexist or unfair or just ignorant, I feel women are much more in touch with that side; or rather both sexes can access both sides to their lives – work and rest – and be able to keep them separate. In fact, I think it’s more than that – we crave the ability and desire to keep them separate.

My own husband will admit to being able to do that to a lesser extent, so I’m not just coming at this from a position of women’s rights and placards and feminism! I’ve researched it a lot [laughs].

I’m serious though – we have the ability to split the pack; we have the ability to draw a line and not stray beyond it. Of course I do also know men who can do the same, but in the image of what it is to be the man, the provider, I think there is a right to get back to the hunt. For women, the right is to balance everything and everyone around them – in fact it’s not just a right, it’s a talent.

Q: Do you feel you have enough access to creatively express that in the movies you take on?

FRANCES: I think so - it's very satisfying to be able to portray women in movies. They all mean something to me and they all connect me to people or experiences in my own past. For instance, in some ways Olive Kitteridge was the culmination of everything that I had learnt during the course of my career.  I had to bring all my knowledge from every role that I had previously played to play Olive; and most of what I take on follows that format.

Like my character, I feel I am a woman who faced life and its difficulties with stoicism, lucidity, honesty, and had my own way of being direct, even if this led me to say the wrong words at the wrong time. And then, when I have realised I am offending others' feelings, it's too late. Oh well!

Q: Is the balance you have between working and relaxing something you have had to work on?

FRANCES: My relationship when I'm working on a film with them is identical. They are not completely interchangeable on set, and certainly not in life, but I know that if I have a question it's simply a case of who I first find on the set who is going to answer it.

With Ethan [Coen} I have a relationship like the one you have with a normal brother-in-law. He and Joel work together all day, but then Ethan returns home to his family in the evening and so I don't see him that much. We only really meet at festivals or when we all go on vacation.

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