'That's my job, Bob!': Frances McDormand says her 'Nomadland' co-stars had no idea she's an actress
Frances McDormand has always had a wandering spirit.
In her 40s, the "Nomadland" star made a promise to her husband, filmmaker Joel Coen (of the Coen Brothers): When she turned 65, she was going to change her name to Fern, set out in an RV, and start smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking Wild Turkey.
Now, at 63, her plans look a little different, although the open road still beckons.
"I will not drink Wild Turkey – I'm much more sophisticated in my tastes now. It's Casamigos tequila all the way," McDormand says. "But I have invested in a camper van and intend to drive across country in March to go visit my friends on the East Coast," en route to Canada, where she'll shoot another project this summer.
As for Fern, McDormand's restless alter ego is now the namesake for her character in "Nomadland" (on IMAX screens now, in theaters and streaming Friday on Hulu), Chloé Zhao's quietly profound exploration of life on the margins. The film follows a recent widow named Fern (McDormand) who loses her factory job during an economic downturn and starts living in her van. She embarks on a journey through the American West, picking up odd jobs and staying at campgrounds, where she meets fellow nomads.
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Nominated for four Golden Globes, including best drama, "Nomadland" has emerged as an early best picture Oscar front-runner, having swept nearly every major critics' and festival award since premiering at Venice Film Festival last September.
McDormand bristles at the so-called "A-word" (awards), but says she's "bursting with pride" over the film. Although less flashy and more meditative than other contenders this season, she believes it's tapped into a newfound empathy brought on by the pandemic.
"One of the most gratifying things is that we're offering an audience catharsis," McDormand says. "People are not just looking down at their own navels, but they're actually looking outside their small little lives and wondering how they can make a difference in the larger world."
Adds Zhao: "You don't have to pack up everything and hit the road like Fern. But this pandemic has forced us to slow down and look at some of the bigger things we've been chasing. Are these really the things that matter?"
Actual nomads 'didn't know I was an actor'
"Nomadland" is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction bookabout van life, which was given to McDormand by her producing partner, Peter Spears. The actress has long been drawn to contemporary American stories – winning Oscars for 1996's "Fargo" and 2017's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – but says she "wanted to take risks" with "Nomadland," which finds her acting and working alongside real-life nomads.
McDormand reached out to Zhao about collaborating in fall 2017, days after seeing the Toronto Film Festival debut of the filmmaker's "The Rider," a modern Western that also features non-professional actors.
"I geeked out for a moment that there was this email from Frances McDormand in my inbox," says Zhao, who rewatched "Fargo" immediately before reading Bruder's book. "I've always been drawn to the road from a young person's perspective, but to be able to step into the shoes of people who are rediscovering themselves on the road in the twilight of their years was a very interesting experience I wanted to have."
The duo shot "Nomadland" over four months in late2018 with a bare-bones crew: traveling in vans, staying in motels and chasing sunsets for the film's breathtaking "magic hour" scenes. McDormand had no trouble blending in with the nomads, partly because Zhao had already gotten to know them before filming.
"The groundwork had been laid," McDormand says. "Most people love telling you their stories, if you're willing to listen."
It helped that many of McDormand's co-stars had no idea she's a Hollywood star: Swankie, one of the film's most endearing nomads, "didn't know I was an actor. She just thought I was another woman on the road, so she trusted me as another van dweller."
Bob Wells, another nomad, was similarly unfamiliar with McDormand before they shot an emotional scene in which Fern remembers her late husband, Bo.
Afterward, "he said to me privately that it meant a lot for me to tell him that story and that everything was going to be OK," McDormand says. "And I said, 'Bob, I just want you to know that my husband's name is Joel, he's alive and well, he makes movies, and I'm going home to him after this.' Bob was like, 'Oh. How did you do that? I really believed you.' And I said, 'That's my job, Bob! That's what I do for a living! Isn't that weird?' "
There was one job she 'did not enjoy at all'
Fern takes on many temporary gigs throughout the film – cleaning toilets at a South Dakota national park, working a sugar beet harvest in North Dakota – some of which were more enjoyable to shoot than others.
"I'm a really, really good cleaner – I always have been, ask anybody in my life – so that was easy," McDormand says. "Harvesting beets I did not enjoy because it's really back-breaking work." She also relished packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada: "I love repetitive work like that. Would I want to do it all the time? No."
McDormand, who lives in a secluded beach town in California, says she's always subscribed to a "less is more" philosophy when it comes to possessions. The experience of making "Nomadland" only underscored those beliefs
"I'm trying to practice being less attracted to bright shiny things," she says. "I have enough to last the rest of my life and don't need a single other one. We’ve always lived small and kept overhead low, so I’m practicing that as much as possible and trying to spread the word."
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