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.
“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.