Woman of Substance (Part 1)

 

Ask most actors who have won an Oscar what the award has meant to them and they will talk about getting bigger and better roles, greater choice and control, and higher fees. Ask Frances McDormand, who received the best actress Oscar for Fargo last year, and she replies: "The best things that happened to me, and I mean this most sincerely - one was doing this Sesame Street video, Big Bird Gets Lost, which helps kids if they get lost, and the other was getting to do this."

"This" is working in Dublin on the Gate Theatre production of the Tennessee Williams's classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Frances McDormand will play the neurotic and vulnerable Blanche DuBois. Just over a year ago, after she won her Oscar, Gate director Michael Colgan asked to meet her in New York. "He said, `Isn't it about time you played Blanche?'," she recalls. "I said it was and he said, `Why don't you come over and do it?' So I said, `Yes, great.' He gave me a slot in the calendar and I just kept it open." When we met in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin, Frances McDormand was in sparkling form at the end of a day's rehearsal for the play, full of enthusiasm for her director, Robin Lefevre, and her fellow cast members who include Donna Dent as Blanche's sister, Stella; Liam Cunningham as Stella's brutish husband, Stanley Kowalski; and as Mitch, Stanley's friend. Thirsty after a full day in the rehearsal room, she asks for a lager.

"I'm really interested in the idea of Blanche as this woman whose only tools to get through life are feminine wiles," she says, "how limiting those tools end up being and how in the end, just as Stanley pushes her to the edge, she ends up destroying herself. Just technically, I have to deal with the fact that I'm not a moth, I'm not a butterfly and that physically I'm not easy to lift and swing around the stage. So I think that this Blanche is going to be more of a survivor and you can see how, if given a chance, she would be the right match for Mitch. She would give him a good life but she just misses by a hair."

This is McDormand's second Street- car on stage. Ten years ago she played Stella, earning a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway production which featured Blythe Danner as Blanche and Aidan Quinn as Stanley. "No production is perfect, but that one wasn't completely successful in different ways for a lot of different reasons," she says. "But it's just a gorgeous play. It's like a train. You get on and ride it. Watching Blythe do Blanche was awe-inspiring. It made me really want to that role someday."

Elia Kazan's much-admired 1951 cinema treatment of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando and Kim Stanley, suffered because of the conservative attitudes of the time, she believes: "Even though it had the power of Kim Stanley and Brando's performances from the original stage production, it didn't have the balls the original play had. They had to censor the film version so much, even more so than the play. It's amazing the subterfuge Tennessee Williams had to use to get around subjects like rape and homosexuality.

"The play is very specific in that you just can't tamper with it. It's like little crystal gems all the way and it's very operatic, very theatrical. It's really refreshing for an actor - and for an audience member. I'm really tired of going to new plays that are like television - not just in the limits of their scope but in their structure. You have a scene and a blackout, a scene and a blackout, like they're waiting for commercial breaks."

Her passion for the play builds and builds the more she talks about it.

"Whereas Streetcar sweeps through and is grand and has arias," she says. "That's really satisfying. The film is really good because of the performances, but it's really meant for the stage. To Robin's Lefevre's credit, he knows a modern audience doesn't go to see it in the same way now because of our exposure to television and film. Visual images mean so much now in the play. We're really working a lot with pace, keeping up a really ferocious pace with the whole thing."

She pauses for a well-deserved sip of her lager before recalls her first day in the Gate's rehearsal room: "There was all this tension of new people being in the room together and having to read the play for the first time aloud as a group - it was great," she says. "It's interesting because I didn't know the Irish actors' work. But, although they know my work from film, none of them has ever seen me on stage. So it was really interesting to go into that rehearsal room. I was just aching to do that.

"I recently went to see The Beauty Queen Of Leenane in New York with a friend who had a friend in the cast. We met them all in a bar after the show and I was so delighted to be in a theatrical community again - people talking about the theatre and that kind of adrenalin rush that happens after the show. It was so familiar. That's where I come from."

Frances McDormand was born in Illinois in 1958 and grew up with her older brother and sister in Pennsylvania. Her father, a preacher with the Disciples of Christ, moved the family around from one small town to another. "He wasn't The Apostle," she says, referring to Robert Duvall's wholly consumed preacher in a recent movie. "That's a popular perception of preachers. But my father's denomination was really mild. It wasn't like I grew up in a strict religious background - definitely not as strict as an Irish Catholic background. We were the preacher's kids, so wherever we lived my mother felt we just had to keep up appearances a little but more.

"We moved around the south, through these rural towns where the church was the social club. My father was really good at his job in that he's a really nice guy, very social and very good at bringing people together and at rejuvenating. I think that's why we moved around so much. What he was good at was going into a church that was kind of floundering, that didn't have a lot of young people, and he would get, say, someone who had just been to Jerusalem to come in and show us their slides, and he'd organise a spaghetti dinner. My mother was always in the choir and still is, and she's the secretary of the church now."

Her parents are very proud of her work as an actor she says, "in the way all good parents would be". Having mostly lived in towns with no immediate access to cinemas, they first became aware of her work on television which, she says, made them feel she was doing alright for herself. They have been to see every play she has been in, and they are coming to Dublin next month to see her at the Gate.

She became interested in acting when she was 14, influenced by her English teacher who organised afternoons where the pupils memorised and acted out scenes from Shakespeare. The first role for the young Frances was playing Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene. Seven years later, she had no doubt what she wanted to do and she went to study at Yale Drama School.

"I had no choice," she says. "I literally couldn't do anything else. I went to Yale when I was 21, which was good because I would have died if I'd gone to New York first. I'd always lived in small rural towns, so going to New Haven, Connecticut was a really big transition for me."

From Yale she took the plunge to New York, very quickly learning how difficult it is to support oneself in classical theatre, and she made extra money as a waitress and sought out work in commercials and episodic television.

One of her early roommates was another actress, Holly Hunter, and it was through her that she heard about Blood Simple, the darkly humorous, eerily atmospheric and highly imaginative 1984 thriller which introduced cinemas audiences to the

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