Three years ago on HBO’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge, Frances McDormand reminded everyone that she’s one of the smartest, toughest, no-nonsense actors in the world. There’s connective tissue between that performance and the profane, provocative new comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film premieres Sept. 4 in competition at the Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters on Nov. 10. McDormand stars as Mildred, a furious mother avenging her daughter’s murder by taunting the town sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and a bigoted cop (Sam Rockwell) with inflammatory messages on billboards near her home. The movie marks the third directorial effort by famed Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, after In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
McDormand, who won an Oscar 20 years ago for Fargo, joined EW for an unfiltered chat about working and cursing. The extremely bold first trailer for the film had recently debuted on the internet — and that’s where the conversation with McDormand began.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new movie has an amazing trailer.
FRANCES McDORMAND: Yes, yes. They call it “red.”
We can definitely tell that you’re playing another quite unapologetic character.
Let me tell you something. I got a real taste for it after Olive Kitteridge. And also from playing Lady Macbeth onstage in the past year [at Berkeley Repertory Theatre]. There’s a quote by Red Auerbach, the basketball coach of the Boston Celtics: “The only correct actions are those that demand no explanation and no apology.” That’s a motto for me.
Ah, that definitely seems to click with your choices.
Yes, but with correct actions being the operative word. And also, you know, it’s perfect for me to do about one or two projects a year. Now that I’m 60 it’s a lot easier for me not to work than it was when I was younger. Because I have a lot of other things I like to do, like take cross-country road trips and work on local politics in the town I live in. I’m not really that interested in going back to playing small supporting roles. Unless it a f—ing good one and filming on a great location. So you can please publish that, because I’d like people to know.
Absolutely, will do.
If you wouldn’t mind. But no, I will say there’s a lot of waiting for the good ones to come along, like Mildred.
Director Martin McDonagh wrote Mildred especially for you?
He wrote it for me, yep. I met him about 15 years ago, when I saw his play The Pillowman on Broadway. I said, “Hey, maybe you should write me a part.” And that’s something I don’t normally say because I’ve watched actors struggle while saying that to Joel [McDormand’s husband] and Ethan [Coen] for 35 years. So it’s slightly despicable. But it worked.
And what did you think when you read the script?
Well, I wasn’t sure about the script but I loved the character. But I also felt that, at 59, I was too old for the part. So I told Martin that he should make Mildred a grandmother of a teenage girl who was killed, not a mother. I’m from working-class, blue-collar America, and I don’t believe that people in that socioeconomic strata wait until they’re 40 to have children. We argued for three months. Martin’s idea, as a male writer, was that a grandmother wouldn’t fight that hard for her grandchild as a mother would for her child. I told him, “Well, isn’t that idiotic?”
How did you compromise?
Well, finally I was advised by someone very close to me to just shut up and do the movie. So I did. And once I did, we never talked about it again. I just wasn’t interested in making people believe I’m any younger than I am. I have no interest in playing anything younger than 59, which is how old I was when we shot it.
Did you sense that there was political resonance in the film while you were filming it? I think that will be commented upon a lot once people see it in 2017 America.
No, that would be me appropriating a very serious conversation that’s happening between the black community and the police force. Privately, I have my own politics about that. But that did not enter into my professional life. Maybe those conversations are going to happen around Three Billboards. But Martin wrote it three years ago. That’s not what explicitly he intended.
Is he a polemicist?
No, he’s not. He’s an anarchist and I think he believes in anarchy. But I don’t think that’s what he’s promoting. I don’t think he’s that irresponsible.
How did you two get along?
He’s a true a true blue playwright in the old fashioned, delicious sense of just full-blown complex characters and themes. What’s interesting is that his plays are all informed by cinema and now the cinema he’s doing is informed by his theatrical writing. Not unlike Joel and Ethan, in that their scripts are fully formed. They don’t need actors’ improvisation. Or blueprints for some visual idea. You can read their scripts like a play and you can publish them as a screenplay. That’s so delicious for actors, especially ones like myself and Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who all do theater.
Do you think McDonagh was drawn to you because of your affinity for the stage?
Possibly. It behooves Martin, like Joel and Ethan, to cast theatrically trained actors because we understand dramaturgically where we fit in the script. I also think that Martin’s not a filmmaker — he’s a great student of film and he surrounds himself with great filmmakers. The crew on Three Bilboards, by the way, is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. And that’s not hyperbole. I’ll totally tell you if I don’t like a crew.
I believe you.
Also, on Three Billboards, there were also some personal bests going on. For instance, I think it’s the best thing that Sam Rockwell has ever done on film. Extraordinary work by Ben Davis, the cinematographer. What can I say? Amazing props.
What kind of props?
Well, the Molotov cocktail, for example. We were blowing up real Molotov cocktails. And there’s a beetle in the beginning of the film, who unfortunately had a broken leg. But Romain Gateau, who worked in the props department, stood there and worked out how to act with the beetle. I had to flip it over and that’s not easy to do because it clings to your fingers. So we worked it out and did not waste valuable time.
Tell me about the dialogue in the film. It really pops and it’s so alive.
Profanity helps with that. But well-chosen, rhythmic profanity. Martin and I would say, “Well, does she need to say ‘motherf—er” or should it just be “f—er”? Or “mother-motherf—er.” It’s kind of like the “Ya, ya, ya” scene in Fargo. Every one of the “yas” were scripted. It’s like a musical score. That’s why I mean it’s more theatrical. I think in some places it might be a little too American Gothic, which maybe he didn’t always intend it to be. But it’s magical realism.
Did you disagree about some of the dialogue?
Sure, we’d often debate lines and profanity. Yes, almost every single day. I would say, “I don’t think this sounds like a person speaking.” Or “I want to flip these two sentences.” Or “I want to take out this verb.” Martin was open to the conversation, usually. I would say three-quarters of the time he would just shut it down and say, “Do it the way it’s written.” Then some of the time he saw the benefits of trying it my way. And then in other circumstances, we’d shoot it his way and he’d edit it the way I had suggested. So, you know, there you go. Collaboration.
What’s your favorite curse word?
Hmm, well. I swear a lot, I always have. So does my husband. Our son, surprisingly, does not swear much at all. I say “Jesus tits” a lot.
I’ve never heard that one.
Yeah, I like it. It works. It’s also a rhythmic thing.
Rhythm is important in profanity, right?
Yeah, yeah. If you take, for example, that bit at the end of the red band trailer. I’m driving by and yelling out the window of the car at the reporter. That’s a perfect example of how Martin uses profanity. It’s a beautiful sequence of words strung together and it was really timed to the second. I was driving and I was talking and synching it up with the camera. The words help me with the beats of the physical action. That was really fun.