From her first appearance in the Coen brothers' 1984 debut Blood Simple, Frances McDormand has fascinated us with her intelligent, fearlessly unglamorous performances, which always crackle with a sly wit and unexpected grace. When we think of Frances, we think of those lucid eyes—wide open and deeply perceptive—staring through the screen at us in The Man Who Wasn't There, or as Dean Sara Gaskell in Wonder Boys, and, of course, as Marge Gunderson in Fargo, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1996. We make no claim to objectivity: Frances McDormand is a national treasure, and she's just one of many reasons to buy a ticket to see David Lindsay-Abaire's very entertaining new play Good People. Set in South Boston and upscale Chestnut Hill, the story follows McDormand's character Margaret as she rediscovers an old boyfriend from the projects who's made good... or so it seems. There is one big spoiler below, which we note IN ALL CAPS, but it spoils nothing to tell you that Good People is pretty much a lock for our top ten list in theater this year.
I saw the play on St. Patty's Day Did you? Yes, it was a raucous crowd, they were ready for fun.
Your fellow actor, Tate Donovan, said during the curtain call that the audience was really "kick-ass." Yeah, well, you know...Tate is out of control.
I bet he says that to all the audiences. No, that was specific to that night. But also, he's got a little Irish in him so he was ready to have some fun. We were just starting to do our Broadway Cares pledge drive and I think that was the first night he did the speech afterward.
I had forgotten it was St. Patty's Day when I scheduled the show and then the day came and I thought, "Oh dear God, I don't want to go to this area on St. Patty's Day!" Yes! Don't want to go anywhere near the streets! I forgot too. I forgot how gross it is. It's a gross thing! It's like some weird excuse for high school kids to vomit. It's not good. It's stupid. I'm sure that's not what St. Patrick's Day is supposed to be about, but who knows.
Yeah it gets crazy in New York but I was really glad that I braved the Times Square area to see Good People. Yeah, me too. So what'd you think?
Tate Donovan and Frances McDormand (Joan Marcus)
I loved it! I was totally engrossed. And the woman I was with really loved it, too. Was it a date?
Uh, no. Do you think it would be a good date?
Yeah! I think...well...It does deal with some tough stuff. Which is good for conversation after. I tell you, it makes me happy. I like going out after and talking about costumes if I have to but it's much more fun to talk about paternity and choices and luck and fortune and intellect.
Is that why you wanted to do the play? No, I wanted to do the play because Maggie Walsh, are you kidding? How old are you?
I'm 35! I'm 53 and trust me, these kind of roles don't come along that often in anybody's career but they certainly don't come along—a new play, with a character written for a 53-year-old woman to play like this is pretty unusual and I feel very lucky that I was in the right place at the right time and had what I needed to do it. You know what I mean? She's heavenly. I told [playwright David Lindsay-Abaire] during rehearsal that she's going to go up in the Pantheon with Hedda and Blanche and Nora and the Three Sisters. It's the kind of role where an actress will have it waiting for her as she comes along in the theater. And I believe this play has that kind of longevity to it. I think it's an American classic. Look, I'm not feeding you bullshit either, because I don't do interviews, so, trust me, this is exactly how I feel. It's going to stand the test of time because it's about a very specific period of our country's cultural history that I think he's representing really beautifully.
Which is what, for those who haven't seen it? There's a reason that there's so many stories being told about South Boston right now, and poverty, and the tight-knit communities that are vanishing from large, industrial cities like Boston. There's always been a class clash in cities like that because of the universities and what that brings to a city. There's a search for authenticity that goes beyond cliches or trite breakdowns like "Red and Blue States" and "fundamentalists and liberals." People are looking for something that they want to believe in. And I believe community is one thing and being steadfastly true to yourself and your community is something. I think it's wonderful that he places the intellectual liberal argument in the black woman's mouth in this play. The young, upper middle class black woman.
What is that argument, specifically? That Margaret's not nice. That she let her daughter suffer because she wasn't willing to go past her own pride. I think that that's a really good argument. I also think that there's a lot more to the argument of what Margaret did choose to do.
What do you think that is? [SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] I can't really do that... I can't be that... objective, because I'm inside her right now. But I believe her argument is true, I believe that she had this opportunity to perform a noble act once in her life and that's when she not only let Mike Dillon leave the community thinking he wasn't the father of her child but also leaving the community without exposing him as the creep that beat up the little black kid. I think probably other guys got blamed for that. I doubt they were ever prosecuted because it was a black kid and the cops probably didn't do anything about it but I think that we all let him go. She believes that she let him go for a good reason because he was the one that deserved to get out and to find out that he isn't the person she believed he was...that's what has kept her going for 30 years. That she made the right decision. That it wasn't just pride—yes, pride—but connected to the one chance she believed she had for nobility.
Was this a particularly challenging role for you? No. So easy. For two reasons: one, the major reason is that the play is so well-written. It's certainly difficult, from a stamina point of view, to do eight performances a week for any actor in the theater. But when a play is well-written and has, built into it, a cathartic arc, which this does, I don't have to go home—and also, the production, [Daniel Sullivan] has directed the production in such a way that he left us a very clear road map of our journey through the play, so we're not trying to fill up any holes. We're all really well cast. I've got a cathartic journey with Maggie that doesn't leave me depleted at the end of the day, it leaves me fulfilled and satisfied so I look forward to coming back to do it again and to tell the story again. It's not difficult.
And also, I've been preparing for it for 30 years. Most of the roles I've played in my professional life have been working class American women, some British and Irish. Generally, working class women of a certain class so I kind of feel like she's one of the best. She's certainly up there with Marge Gunderson and Miss Pettigrew and Stella. Though Stella was from an upper middle class background, she was living a lower, working class lifestyle. I feel like I'm suited to her. Mrs. Pell in Mississippi Burning, you know, it's what I've been doing. It's the voice I've been representing and I think that Maggie Walsh's voice is one that is very rarely heard and I love giving her voice.
How would you describe that voice? Single mother, living poverty-level, dependent on her very small community of friends. Someone who had to make a really difficult choice at an early age and then live by it.
I really appreciated how the play showed this desperation and grinding, near-poverty, and the psychological suffering that comes with that. Is that something you related to from personal experience? That kind of "edge" existence? Well, I've never suffered it the way that Maggie Walsh did. The background that I come from is working class, though my father was a minister in the Disciples of Christ ministry. He served working class and rural farming communities. So I lived in those neighborhoods but it wasn't to say that my father made any more than the people he served. We were, because of his position in the community, we never went without, as often happens in people in his position—the doctors, the dentists, the ministers, the teachers—they might not make a great salary but the community makes sure they don't go without, if you know what I mean.
In one community we lived in there were twin girls that were a year old than me and very often I got hand-me-down clothes from the kids in the churches that my father served. The twin's mother dressed them identically so I would get a garbage bag full of two of everything. So if I found something I liked I was so very happy because I had a back up. My mother made my other clothes. If you wanted something trendy you got it for Christmas, maybe one thing for your birthday. It was not the poverty that you see, say, in this play or in Winter's Bone but it was certainly those communities.
Did you do any research? Did you go to this part of Boston? I did not. I'm pretending. Estelle [Parsons] and Becky [Ann Baker], who play Jean and Dottie, went up on the Acela train for the day on our first day off. I went to my kid's parent-teacher conference instead. I'm going off the play. You know, I've probably picked up a little bit from The Fighter and The Town and different movies I've seen recently but mostly just the play. I tried to be as truthful to the accent as possible and then...pretend! We got a lot of really great stories from David, who was in rehearsals every day. He told us a lot about his family and growing up there and that was really helpful.
Left to right: Becky Ann Baker, Frances McDormand, Estelle Parsons (Joan Marcus)
Is this a really personal thing for him? Very. He's from there, he grew up in Old Harbor Projects. Well, no, he didn't grew up in the projects...well, that's interesting to say. Did he start there and then move to a house? Did they live in Dorchester maybe? On the border. He got a scholarship through the Boys and Girls Club that was given out every six years, usually to an athlete, but two of the women working in the Boys and Girls Club made sure that he was one of the applicants. He got it out of hundreds and was sent to a boarding school and that's when his chance began. I think this play is a real testament not only to his need to answer the fortune he gained but also the misfortune of so many other people he grew up with. He feels like there are many intellects in his community that didn't have the opportunity he had so I think he knows of what he speaks.
That's one of the central issues of the play, what you and Mike go back and forth about, is how much of his success was what he achieved and how much of it was luck. What do you think about that? What role do you think luck plays in our lives? I think a lot. I certainly believe it did with mine from very early in my life. I am guilty of the very same thing that Mike Dillon is guilty of, of believing that I have made my own way. It's the party line of a working class American to believe that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and that was certainly still true in my generation. So even though I had the opportunity to go to college, then I had the opportunity to go to Yale Drama School, so I have a masters in fine arts, I do not believe anybody else got my there but myself.
Now, if I really put it together, it was really only because of the mentors that guided me along the way and the financial aid that was still available when I was going to college and graduate school or it never would have happened. There's still a part of me that goes, "Yeah, fuck you. I did it. I'm the one that did it." But every night on stage I say that here you are patting yourself on the back for all you accomplished and I go, "Mm hmm..."
I was always told that I wasn't a natural at what I wanted to do, that I was going to have to work very hard and so I did. And for me it's always been like a craft, that I had to learn a craft, and that I've apprenticed and I keep up with the new techniques and I study other people that are doing it differently and I try to make my cabinet better every time.
I've seen you in two Wooster Group shows, so you go between film and theater and a very different style of theater. Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby! People just don't... It's very hard to put that across unless you've got somebody following what you do. And that's what I do and I'm so proud. I'm really deeply, deeply gratified by the way that I've been able to lead my professional life. That has a lot to do with the fact that, my family, my husband [filmmaker Joel Coen], has subsidized the American theater with his work in film. I couldn't have the lifestyle that I lived if I only did theater. I have been able to really explore my life in theater; I've worked in Dublin, I've worked in regional theater, I've worked in avant garde theater in New York, I've worked on Broadway, I've worked off Broadway. I've been able to craft it. I haven't had to make my living from being in the theater and therefore I've been able to have a much wider range of opportunities.
I was also willing to put in two years with The Wooster Group to develop the first show that I did with them. Forget about being willing, it was the perfect job, actually, because Liz [LeCompte, Artistic Director of The Wooster Group] is interested in nurturing a company and that means if you have to bring your kid to work, you bring your kid to work. If you can't show up that day, you can't show up that day—not that anybody doesn't. But she makes it possible for people's lives to exist along with their work.
And the results are so rich. I remember seeing To You, The Birdie at St. Ann's Warehouse and it was a feast. Can you articulate how she's influenced you or is it so subtle that...Yes. It's really deep. I bring her up all the time. I reference that work all the time because it's really where I learned discipline because for me, the theater has always been a difficult thing. It's really difficult to go back and forth between film and theater because the muscles are so different. They're really similar because they're both acting but there's the larger theatrical muscle and the smaller. It's kind of like going from running a marathon to doing pilates. Pilates uses really small muscle groups and that's what you have to have honed for the cinema and the most important thing you have to have is the stamina of waiting, to wait until you get to the work.
Whereas in theater you have to have the stamina to do the work over a long period of time and the repetition of it eight times a week for four months. It's a different kind of work. It's about rigor and it's about training for the specific job you do. [Liz LeCompte] uses the Grotowski method. You use your body as an instrument, you tune that instrument to the music it needs to play and you keep it well oiled. I also learned to take away the preciousness of it. I know that every night is going to be different. I can't have one night that feels flat because there is no discovery and then the next night some new part of the text will open up to you because you're seeing it from a different place but it's minute. For an audience's experience it can be an infinitesimal change; for you, it can be a chasm of understanding.
That's what's great about the rigor and the discipline and the machinery of Liz's work; it's so technically repetitive. It's the same, technically, it's the same thing every time but in between the beats, between one technical move to the next technical move, are a myriad of possibilities, emotional and psychological. So it's really great. But if you can't do anything else besides those technical beats you're really putting it across, so an audience isn't losing. You're still getting your story across, you're still getting your message across if you hit those technical beats.
So it was great. It was like doing my doctorate, really. Two years To You, The Birdie or on and off for over two years. Then it was great to go because I was in the development process then but it was great to go into a re-staging of North Atlantic last year because I'd never gone into a play that had already been staged and I didn't know if I could. It was very gratifying to find out that I could do that. Take someone else's originated performance and recreate it.
And what do you have on the horizon after this? I'm going to work on Wes Anderson's next film. Wife of Bill Murray, lover of Bruce Willis, mother of the female protagonist in the story, who I think is yet to be named. Called Moonrise Kingdom, I'm very excited about that. And then...I don't know! Very exciting. That's the best part. I've got to start getting ready for tonight's show now. Get some young people to come see this, John!