Frances McDormand is much more than the role in Fargo that made her famous

Studio 360
Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand stars as Olive Kitteridge in the new HBO miniseries.

HBO

For more than 30 years, Frances McDormand has made a career playing quirky and complex characters in movies like Fargo, Raising Arizona and Wonder Boys. Now she is producing and starring in Olive Kitteridge, a mini-series based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout.

The four-part, four-hour film, airing on HBO, is about as “un-Hollywood” as it gets: It's about people in a small town on the coast of Maine; the main characters are middle-aged or older; and no one seems particularly happy.

McDormand plays Olive, a wife, mother and math teacher who ages from 45 to 70 over the course of the series. She's not the easiest woman to live with.

“Olive is too smart for her own good, in a small town,” McDormand says. “Elizabeth Strout didn't make Olive Kitteridge a home economics teacher, or even an English literature teacher — she made her a math teacher. ... In the film we see her math mind at odds with the rest of her life.”

Olive Kitteridge’s character resonated with McDormand as a woman and a feminist who has observed the huge changes to a “woman’s place in society and in marriage since her mother’s generation.” In her younger years, McDormand says, when she first came to New York, a well-known casting agent told her, " 'You would be a great pioneer woman. Unfortunately, no one's making Westerns anymore.' But I think that, in fact, Olive is my pioneer woman," she says.

McDormand credits HBO, and specifically David Simon’s The Wire, with inspiring her and screenwriter Jane Anderson with the idea that Strout's novel could work well as a long-format TV series. “HBO has kind of cornered the market on creative adult entertainment, and the idea that cinematic storytelling can be longer than two hours...I never believed that the format of films, the genre of films, offered female stories enough breadth and complexity,” she says.

McDormand believes Olive and Henry Kitteridge have “one of the great love stories in literature. It's true. It's complex. [It's] about marriage and how it survives depression — and generational depression. How a family survives ... Elizabeth Strout did a great service to marriage by telling the story," McDormand says.

Portraying that type of union was made easier by the fact that she, her co-star Richard Jenkins and Jane Anderson have all known their respective partners for more than 30 years. McDormand is married to Joel Coen, who with his brother Ethan Coen, co-directed her — and their — first film, Blood Simple. She had never been trained in film. In fact, it was only her second job after graduating from Yale Drama School, where she had trained to become a classical actor.

She has since been in five Coen brothers films, but unfortunately, she says, she doesn’t get to be in all of them. “I often think I'm very right for roles they've written and I have to swallow my pride and realize I'm not,” she says.

McDormand is best known, of course, for playing Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant cop, in the Coens’ film, Fargo, for which she won an Academy Award.

“At least three times a week I'm approached by someone who says something about Fargo. Or, I'll pass someone on the street in New York and someone will throw a line at me. People love to drop in ‘you betcha’ often as they can,” she says.

Some days she chafes against being so closely associated with one role, but mostly she appreciates the impact her character had, and her role in a national conversation about pregnancy in the workplace. “If when I leave this earth I’m remembered for Fargo, so be it. But I think old Marge Gunderson is gonna get a run for her money with Olive Kittredge.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen

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