Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Frances McDormand: I Got Really Good at Playing the 'Other'

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Usually when I read celebrity profiles of people who are crawling in their skin at the idea of appearing in a magazine, or talk at length at how little they want to be interviewed or photographed, I roll my eyes. But not with Frances McDormand, whose recent profile in the New York Times Magazine is a revealing study of an aging actress who would rather remain invisible beyond the outgoing roles she often plays on screen.

Throughout the profile, written by Jordan Kisner and published ahead of the actress’s new movie Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand emits a kind of self-consciousness that I wouldn’t necessarily expect from her, even if she’s a notably private person. She, of course, doesn’t do autographs (“I say: ‘No, I’ve retired from that part of the business. I just act now’”), she’ll tell you her weight but won’t look at the monitor while filming (“I’d much rather not be aware of how fat my ass looks”), and is quick to say she’s not a “cover-type person.” After expressing some reluctance about being photographed for the magazine, she reportedly send along these excellent selections I will personally replicate immediately:

Shortly after returning from Paris, I received an email from her with the subject line “My head shot.” It contained a photograph of her floating naked in a lake. She doesn’t like having her picture taken, she wrote, but this might suit the magazine’s purposes. Two months after that, she sent me a picture of herself at the dinner table with a head of cauliflower perched atop her like a crown.

Because even for someone as talented as McDormand, who has carved out a space for herself in film playing strong, loudmouth characters, the pressures of fitting a certain Hollywood ideal image have still affected her. She talks about how she had to adapt to the demands of Hollywood directors, who would disqualify her from leading lady roles because she didn’t look the part. “I was too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too blond, too dark — but at some point they’re going to need the other,” she says. “So I’d get really good at being the other.”

When Kisner asks her why she plays the kind of women she plays, the profane, the violent characters, she says:

“I mean, I know I’m profane. And outspoken. But I don’t know, they’re fun!” She chewed and thought. “It’s not just that they’re angry. It’s more—” She paused. “My politics are private, but many of my feminist politics cross over into my professional life. Because I portray female characters, so I have the opportunity to change the way people look at them. Even if I wasn’t consciously doing that, it would happen anyway, just because of how I present as a woman, or as a person. I present in a way that’s not stereotypical, even if I’m playing a stereotypical role.” She shrugged. “I can’t subtract that from myself anymore. I could when I was younger.”

“Why?” I asked. “Is that just what happens with age?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding seriously, and took a bite of Pink Pearl. “That’s another great thing about getting older. Your life is written on your face.”