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Frances McDormand reflects on playing Fern in ‘Nomadland’

She made you look. Once. Twice. Frances McDormand is good at that kind of thing.

Just when you’re convinced she’s a pregnant police officer from Minnesota, she becomes a grief-stricken mother pouring out her rage on billboards.

The seven-time Oscar nominee says it’s all in a day’s work. “I’ve practiced pretending for 38 years or more now. Or maybe it’s 63 years. I really don’t know,” the 63-year-old says in a Zoom interview.

She’s funny without meaning to be that way. “Let’s say 63 years,” she insists.

“The point is there is a core in me that I share with all of my characters. It’s in Mildred Hayes (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and Marge Gunderson (“Fargo”), too. Now it’s deeply embedded in Fern (“Nomadland”).

The role might earn McDormand her third gold statuette at Sunday’s Academy Awards. This from someone who once opined, “Don’t give me any more attention. It will just go to my head.”

That’s not really the case for the private actress who shares her life with husband Joel Coen.

Her bigger goal: “I want to start conversations that lead to real change.”

“Nomadland” can fuel such discussions. It’s an intimate portrait of Fern (McDormand), a widow who has taken to living on the road in a van after a personal tragedy. It’s also an eye-opening look at the growing tribe of people who embrace nomadic life in contemporary America.

Review-Journal: Who is Fern in “Nomadland” to you?

Frances McDormand: She’s a woman on a journey amid of group of elder people who are seekers of life. These are seasoned people, but I approached her with a real childlike quality. She had a prescribed set of rules most of her life as a married woman. Once she hits the road, the possibilities are open and her sense of self-sufficiency is tested. I was hoping the audience doesn’t worry about her but will only be excited by what is around the next corner.

What response have you had to this character?

A friend of mine actually interviewed me after seeing “Nomadland” for the first time, and it was fantastic. He just turned on a tape recorder and started asking questions. We were having a great conversation about my character, Fern, when he told me, “She’s a docent (voluntary guide).” She’s not just a guide, but a docent who is trained in the same way as someone who would take another person through a museum. It’s like I’m saying, “Here are the facts you need to know about this nomad world.” I’m leading them, guiding them and pushing them into a new perspective.

Wasn’t there a point where you were just going to produce the film but not be in it?

Yes, I read this beautiful book and wanted to produce it. There was a point where Linda May was going to be the protagonist. I was going to play a Linda May character. Then it became clear that it would develop into a separate narrative than the book. I decided to be in the film at that point.

Was Fern pushed off the middle-class merry-go-round? Do you remember leaving home?

She made life choices. The difference between me and Fern is I left an American working-class background at 17 and never really went back. Fern made one major choice, which was aligning herself with a man named Bo. She fell in love and it determined the next 45 years of her life. The thread of her life and my life didn’t intersect until she was 61 and hit the road. I did that at 17.

Tell us about the shoot.

It wasn’t a traditional two- or three-month shoot. We shot over five months over five states with downtime in between to wait for the seasons to change. … It was a great set. Most of my costumes were bought on location at different Salvation Army stores.

What did the film say to you about aging?

When I did “Three Billboards,” someone said, “A close-up of Frances McDormand’s face is like visiting a national park.” I really loved that comment! There is something about unaltered aging that gives perspective. In the film, we’re all mature people. Personally, as I get older, one of the most important things to me is I’ve got to be in the environment that my cellular structure will go back in and feed. That’s not concrete and brick. That’s dirt. I love to be out in nature, which is where we shot “Nomadland.”

What is your favorite way to spend a Sunday?

A good Sunday is a walk. I see some dogs. I find the beach.

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