Frances McDormand for Nomadland : Human species is evolving and movement is part of it
Frances McDormand in this exclusive conversation talks about the film’s appeals and her fascination with the protagonist’s nomadic lifestyle
Academy Award-winning Frances McDormand is Fern in the powerful and poignant new film, Nomadland. A woman at a crossroads in her life, she has decided to pack up a van and set off for a new life on the road, with all the challenges that such a decision entails. Nomadland, which tracks Fern’s transformational journey, has been nominated for as many as six awards at the 93rd Academy Awards, including for Best Actress.
Here’s McDormand in this exclusive conversation talking about the film’s appeals and her fascination with the protagonist’s nomadic lifestyle:
What resonated with you about this story?
The story by Jessica Bruder dispelled all my romanticism about hitting the road in a van. It was a slap in the face about the reality of the whole thing and explained exactly why so many people are drawn to that choice economically. I think Jessica’s reporting in her book was extraordinary.
What made you approach Chloé Zhao to direct the film?
I’d just seen Chloé’s film, The Rider, which I loved. I was moved and wondered aloud, ‘Who’s Chloé Zhao?’ As a producer, I was drawn to this woman director who had used classically male, Western genre tropes to tell a universal story of triumph over adversity. You could call it a serendipitous lightning bolt.
Chloé approached Fern and the other main character, David, in much the same way as she did the non-professional actors. She spent time with us in our homes, and our families. She watched us interact and interviewed us, in a way. She crafted our characters and our film friendship from the truth of our lives. This was a challenge because Chloé hadn’t really worked with actors, and David and I hadn’t worked with a mostly non-professional cast. We all had to adjust and find a comfortable balance in our individual methods.
Your portrayal of Fern is so moving and authentic. Could you relate to Fern and her story?
Yes! I come from a working-class American family, and such were the people who raised me. Also, in my forties, I told my husband that after turning 65, I would change my name to Fern, smoke Lucky Strikes, drink Wild Turkey and hit the road in an RV. So, I got to realise a bit of this fantasy, except that I rolled my own and drank tequila!
The relationship between Fern and Dave is quite complex.
Yes, both Chloé and I were not interested in treating it as a conventional, romantic relationship. We liked the idea of walking it up to the edge of sentimentality and then not satisfying the audience with that. I think, actually, because I'm in my 60s and David is in his 70s, it's exciting to see a romantic relationship between two mature adults not go the way of sappy sentimentality.
What were your biggest challenges as an actor?
The hardest task was to sit still, which I am not good at. Also, this film was a lot about listening. It was about hearing the stories of the van dwellers, my colleagues, and not just waiting for an opportunity to tell them mine.
How did you view your work as producer on this film?
Along with my producing partner, Peter Spears, I introduced Chloé to Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland. That was the spark. And then, I became a member of a tightly knit company and travelled with them on the road while making the movie, as their peer. I was not there to teach. I was there to learn and that was the ethos of our journey.
What was it like to be on the road while making the film?
I was the oldest at 61 and I think our youngest was 24. We traveled together over five months across seven states—we became like an organism. Everybody crossed department lines whenever something was needed. So, we were able to move swiftly and improvisationally when necessary and live in the community of van-dwellers in a way that was cohesive.
Do you think the whole idea of nomadic life along with independence is embedded in the American DNA and history?
I think that is true; that is what so many nomads love about this life. It’s why one of these individuals who appears in the film, Bob Wells, created his van-dwellers’ event, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. It goes back to when the trappers would get together after a year of hard work for a community gathering... and get really plastered (laughs)!
How has your experience of making this film altered your perception of people who live this way?
Well, I live in a small town in Northern California and a lot of people live like this in our town. Having made this film, I don't pass by my neighbors who live in their vehicles anymore the way I used to. I am much more curious about how they live and the choices they have made and about acknowledging the privacy that they deserve.
To what extent have communities on the road grown as a result of the current social situation and economic struggle?
It’s a huge part of what's happening all over the world. There's a disparity between the have and have-nots, and how we are taking care of each other and making the world equitable. The choice of the van-dwellers to live a mobile life has a lot to do with economic disparities, but Chloé is not trying to make a political statement with the film. We think of ourselves as docents leading you to a community made up of people who have made some very difficult decisions for themselves. Chloé’s telling their story.
It’s interesting that there are so many people on the road now, and I think that’s partly because of the pandemic due to being locked in and locked down. People are answering their wanderlust and reacting to their feelings of confinement by going on the road, even if it is just for a couple of weeks. Almost all the campgrounds in the parks are full. You see that where I live. I think that the human species is evolving, and movement is part of it. Unfortunately, cars use fossil fuel.
Maybe we need to get our Conestoga (18th century horse-drawn) wagons out again and start using them.
You have played some unforgettable roles during your career. Do you see any connection between Fern in Nomadland and Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missourie?
Well, they are both me, so we can start from there. I think over the last 38 years, I have mostly played American women. I have played a German Jew and an Irish woman, but mostly, I have played American women. Also, both Mildred and Fern are from the same world—the working-class, and I am from there.
Storytelling is a wonderful game of ‘What if?’ What if I hadn't had the opportunity to go to college and graduate school? What if I hadn't had the opportunity to partner with a spouse who believed in my potential? What if I hadn't met my son and had the opportunity to become a fuller human being? What if I had never seen The Rider and met Chloé Zhao? What if I had looked in the mirror and failed to recognise myself as the women who was being represented in fashion magazines and in movies? What if I had not pursued acting?
Thank goodness that you did.
Thank you. I have been doing this for forty years; let’s hope I’m getting better. A journalist recently said that watching my face in closeup on screen is like visiting a national park. I consider that a great compliment and intend to work on retaining that perspective for the rest of my professional life.