Frances McDormand plays it cool in the Coen brothers' northern noir
Credit: Michael Tackett

Say ”movie star” and chances are, your first association isn’t Frances McDormand. Sure, she’s had an Oscar nomination, for 1988’s Mississippi Burning, and a Tony nomination, too, for 1988’s A Streetcar Named Desire. She has the connections: Her husband is director Joel Coen; friends include Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter. But McDormand doesn’t want to do the celeb thing, and between her offbeat looks, which can range from haunting to homespun, and her preference for low-profile parts, no one’s asked her to.

Until now. With her starring role as unshakable Minnesota police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ latest film, Fargo, McDormand, 38, is getting the kind of critical and popular attention that could earn her a table at the Ivy. But first, she has to learn a few more lessons:

— Movie stars must act the part. Demi Moore would not conduct an interview with a vomiting 17-month-old child on her lap. But Pedro, whom McDormand and Coen adopted in Paraguay last year, is sick, so McDormand’s plans for an afternoon beer at the neighborhood Pulp Fiction-esque bar on New York’s Upper West Side are out. ”You just go ahead in,” she says cheerfully, opening the door to their cozy two-bedroom apartment. ”It’ll be kind of in and out.” The apartment, heavy with dark wood furniture, better befits a professor than a couple whose work suggests an allergy to conformity. But, explains brother-in-law Ethan Coen, ”she’s square.”

”She’s got square characteristics,” Joel corrects.

”Oh, f— them,” McDormand responds when she hears this, settling on the floor with Pedro and a stuffed octopus. ”I’m not square. They’re square.” She pauses. ”You know, we’re all pretty square, with round edges.”

— When movie stars sleep with directors, they get the part. McDormand escaped her conventional roots — her father, a preacher, moved the family through the Bible Belt — when she went to Yale drama school and got an audition for the Coens’ first film, 1984’s Blood Simple. ”I read, and they asked me to come back. My roommate had gotten his first job on a soap opera, and I said, ‘I can’t come, I’ve got to watch my friend.”’

McDormand got the role anyway and moved in with Joel after they wrapped. But except for a supporting part in his Raising Arizona, she was on her own thereafter: as the wife of a racist deputy in Mississippi Burning, a civil rights activist in Hidden Agenda, and a philandering spouse in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. ”I read the script [of the Coens’ 1990 gangster drama, Miller’s Crossing], and I said to Joel, ‘God, this is a really great role.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to start casting for it.”’ She takes a deep breath at the memory of her companion not considering her for the part, which went to Marcia Gay Harden. ”Well, we had to work it out at some point.” Now she’s the one to insist on separation: While filming Fargo for two and a half months in Minnesota, the two occupied different hotel rooms. ”He doesn’t do his laundry for, like, weeks, and it’s all over the room,” says McDormand. ”I like to dress up my room a bit.”

— Movie stars are vain. As Fargo‘s pregnant Marge, McDormand tracks down killers while swathed in a brown uniform that would make Pamela Anderson Lee look dumpy. “I looked like a huge turd out there in the snow, waddling around. Joel said, ‘You know, the character does not have to be as unattractive as you’re making her.’ But I love the way I look as Marge.”

“I remember her saying she’d come to Hollywood and tried to make it,” says director Gregory Hoblit, who talked her into accepting the tiny part of a psychiatrist in the new thriller Primal Fear. “She would walk into a room with girls all done up with miniskirts, and she said, ‘I can’t do it.’ She’s just removed herself from competing with the superficial stuff.”

— Movie stars act helpless. “I can be counted on,” McDormand says. “When I’m here, I’m here.” John Sayles, who wrote the role of a rabid football fan for her in his new film, Lone Star, agrees. “There are actors you couldn’t ask to make a phone call or to get their own driver’s licenses,” he says. “Fran is so good because she can play competence. In fact, she doesn’t have to play it.”

“I have friends who are movie stars, and I think it’s just as hard a job as being a working actor,” she says diplomatically as she dashes to get a towel for Pedro. “But it’s a different job, and it’s not the one I want.”

Fargo (Movie)
  • Movie
  • 98 minutes