‘Good People”s Frances McDormand on Truth, Trust, & ‘Transformers’

Few actors have had as rich and varied a career as Frances McDormand, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1996 for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson, a very pregnant, very accented North Dakota police officer. (Never again will an on-screen puke be carried out with such gravitas.) In addition to that win, the 53-year-old Chicago native has been nominated for three additional Oscars, four Golden Globes, an Emmy, and two Tony Awards, most recently for her work in Pulitzer Prize-winner playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, currently being staged in New York.

In the Broadway play, one of the best original dramas in recent Great White Way memory, McDormand plays Margie, a working-class South Boston resident who gets fired from her job at the dollar store. Desperate to provide for her handicapped daughter, Margie goes looking help (in the form of work, not a handout) from Mikey (Tate Donovan), a teenage flame of hers who returns to Southie after many years as a successful doctor. The majority of the characters in Good People don’t appear to be all that good, but as the play’s emotional core, McDormand forces audiences to look deeper than appearances, and to consider what the word might really mean.

What was it about playing Margie that appealed to you? She’s a working-class woman in her early 50s, and that type of person doesn’t typically get a voice—in the theater or elsewhere. They’re more prevalent in television, I think. There have certainly been some great characters on HBO, like on The Wire and Edie [Falco]’s character on The Sopranos.

Estelle Parsons is also in the production. She played a pretty great working-class woman on Roseanne. Yeah, although there was no tragic element to that show, and I think, although it was very interesting, it also had to answer to many conventions of television. I told David [Lindsay-Abaire] that Margie, the character I play in Good People, was going to go in the pantheon alongside Hedda [Gabler], Blanche [DuBois], and [Anton Chekhov’s] title characters in The Three Sisters.

That’s some serious company. You can’t really know because, number one, you’re male and, number two, I’m presuming you’re not an actor, but for a middle-aged woman, these parts don’t come along that often and when they do, you recognize them.

Not everyone can play a Bostonian in a natural, restrained way, in which the performance doesn’t devolve into caricature. It’s true, but to be honest, I never worried about that because I understand this story—it’s where I’m from.

How do you mean? I come from a working-class background. My father was a minister and he served mostly small, rural churches in small, industrial cities or in farming communities. That’s where I grew up.

You were often traveling as a child, no? Well, we didn’t travel. We moved every three years.

Was there one place you most considered home? The longest time we spent was in a steel mining town called Monessen, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. I was there from 7th until 12th grade so I have a certain allegiance to that place. I’m a New Yorker now, but I feel like I’m from small-town America.

In the play, Tate Donovan’s character, Mikey Dillon, returns home to South Boston after having acquired a certain amount of success and prestige as a doctor. Is that something to which you can relate? Yes, very much so. I recently returned to the small town where my parents had been living for many years after I’d left home. I went back for my father’s funeral, where I felt like Mikey Dillon for the 48 hours I was there, I have to say. I was grateful for having had all the opportunities I’ve had, and I was also snobbish about some of the people I was with during that time. I think it made me very aware of the way I wanted to tell the story to my son—I want him to see the difference between the way he’s being raised and the way I’d been raised, and to understand how many opportunities he’s had that others in his family haven’t had.

Did you feel any guilt during that trip? Definitely. I often feel guilty for not being as gracious as I could about my family. It wasn’t guilt so much about the fact that I’d had opportunities that other people didn’t have, but that I realized I need to be more gracious in the way I deal with members of my family who haven’t had as much privilege as I have.

Margie never seems to have enough of anything—love or money or time. Can you relate to that feeling, perhaps when you first started acting? I recall it from my childhood. It’s not necessarily that I ever went without things—we didn’t have a lot but it never felt that way because we were really well provided for by the community. My mother made all of my clothes, and I didn’t have the things other kids had, things I dreamed of having. In my early days as an actor, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, not knowing if I was going to be able to pay my rent, but I was fortunate in that I started being able to support myself as an actor right after drama school. I was able to comfortably support myself, which meant being able to pay my rent on time.

Did you already have an agent when you graduated from Yale? Yes, I did. I met my first agent when I was in my last year of drama school because I did a production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Since that was considered a professional job I was able to join equity and meet an agent that way. My first job was in Trinidad.

In a Derek Walcott production, no less. Oh, it was great! And to be in Trinidad? That was amazing. My second job was Blood Simple.

In Good People, Margie isn’t going anywhere. As an audience member you realize she’s never leaving Southie, which is at once depressing and comforting. I’d be curious to know if you think she’s a woman devoid of hope. No, I think the hope lies in [her former boss and benefactor] Stevie. I asked David once in rehearsal what the arc of the character was and if Margie learns anything. He said, “I don’t know.” So I went into production really not knowing what it was. I sensed that there was some kind of completion for her but I didn’t know how to articulate it until once in a talk-back with the audience a woman asked me, “What do you think Margie learns in the course of the play? I think she learns to be less hard on herself.” And I said, Thank you, that’s it. It taught me how to play the last scene.

What about the audience? What are we meant to take from Margie’s story? Never judge a book by its cover. Also, it raised questions about what it means to be good.

Have you learned anything about yourself in the process? Sure, but I’m 53, so I know most of it already.

People don’t stop learning about themselves. Of course not, and I don’t mean to be flip. What’s great about this play for me is that it was a learning experience, to be sure, but even more it was the completion of a journey of learning. It vindicated and signified a certain passage that I’ve been on instead of opening my eyes to something new. I think that’s why I was able to serve David so well, because he and I come from a certain place, have taken a certain journey, and were in this very similar place when it comes to telling the story of that journey.

Is it difficult to continue to find parts that challenge you? Never. There’s always a way to fall on your face. That’s the great thing about our job. That’s actually what it requires: a constant willingness to hang over the edge of a cliff. I’ve also never been involved in anything that was the same twice. Certainly I’ve done things that are similar because I’m a human being, so I can’t morph or transform—though I just did Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I’ve never done a franchise film before so that was really fun to do.

Transformers couldn’t be further in tone and scope from Good People. Is it difficult to reconcile such disparate projects? Not at all. The best thing is that Michael Bay [the director of Transformers] is a serious filmmaker, and so I knew exactly what I was serving. I’ve seen the first two because I have a son, so in his youth those were the movies we were going to. In that way, it actually made more sense than me doing a Nancy Meyers movie. But I did that, too. When it comes to film, it’s not an actor’s medium—it’s an editor’s medium—so to me it’s much more about who the filmmaker is. It’s not necessarily interesting to me to work with film directors whose reputation is that they’re “good with actors” because that doesn’t really make a lot of sense in a movie, to me.

But in a stage production that would probably be quite helpful. In the theater, actors have more control once we get to the final product. And it’s about the process of developing a character through rehearsals, so you depend much more on a director in the theater—but not in film, not when it comes to the process of acting. How your performance is edited later is more interesting than the performance itself.

I’m sure your son is excited that you’re in a film like Transformers. Well, that’s the problem. He’s 16 now. He used to be interested in Transformers movies because of the toys. Then he got interested because of the cars. Now he’s interested because of the Victoria’s Secret model. Rosie is her name. I’m sure she’d rather be called Rosie than Victoria’s Secret model. She’s going to be interesting to him. I’m not going to be interesting to him. But I have to say; it was really satisfying for me to have him see this play, and for him to bring his friends to see this play. That was one of the highlights of my life, doing Good People for my 16-year-old son.

How so? Because he understands what I do now, because it’s a story I wanted him to hear, and because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had. I believe that I’ve embodied it in a way that I’ve done other parts in the past, for which he’s heard other people praise me, but when he said he thought I was good in this I knew it was true.

He’s probably one of your harshest critics. And not just about my acting!

What’s the greatest compliment you’ve received for your work? It’s most definitely from my son, when I heard his laughter out in the audience. That thrilled me more than any… well, I was able to pick him out of 650 people and it was heaven. It wasn’t just because I was making him laugh; it was because he was experiencing the story with me. He was there in the room with me doing it.

Do you still feel a rush of performance when you take the stage? Yeah, but it’s different every time. Patrick [Carroll, her Good People costar] and I stand in the stairwell right before each show starts and we have a routine that we go through every night.

What do you do? That’s not for you to know! But it’s very specific and it’s really great—it’s kind of superstitious. I’m always in the same place at the same spot, almost every night for different parts of the play and it means something. I can’t really explain it.

Have you had a routine for each production you’ve been in? They always change, but yes. It goes back to when I was 14, and in my first high school play. I was waiting backstage to go on and I was sitting in a chair, being quiet, waiting for my cue. The other kids were making a lot of noise and so I shushed them, and a popular girl—which I was certainly not—came over to me and said, “You really take this seriously, don’t you?” And when she said that, I realized I did.

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