High Times Greats: Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand discusses her exceptional acting career in a 2003 interview.
High Times Greats: Frances McDormand
Frances McDormand by Duke Lobos.

Steve Bloom interviews Frances McDormand for the May, 2003 issue of High Times. In honor of McDormand’s birthday June 23, we’re republishing it below.

“Crank it!” Frances McDormand demands. She’s posing for photos as Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” blasts out of the studio’s speakers. She motions to increase the volume. Instead, it gets quieter. “Crank it!” she yells.

“Woody Harrelson has a political agenda,” McDormand says. “I’m here because I think it’s a lot of fun!”

McDormand is fairly mild-mannered when she’s not acting like a rock star. “The last big concert I went to was U2 in L.A.,” she says, rocking to the Hendrix beat. “I got to meet Bono and the Edge after the show. It was just fabulous.”

Frances McDormand and Bono—who would’ve thunk it? Though she’s played a number of oddball characters over the years—from Marge Gunderson, the homespun cop in Fargo, for which she won the 1996 Academy Award, to the overbearing mom in Almost Famous—nothing has quite prepared moviegoers for her star turn in Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon.

At 45, McDormand has decided to show the public her nude body, to smoke pot on screen, and to share a kiss with none other than Kate Beckinsale, who plays her daughter-in-law-to-be in the Sony Pictures Classics release. “I had this general idea that I wanted to do nudity,” she says. “I’m 45 years old. A couple of years ago I decided, ‘All right, it’s time.’ I wasn’t really interested in that when I was 25. But now that I’m 45,” she adds, pointing at her fit figure, “I’m kind of pleased with myself.”

She describes her Laurel Canyon record-producer character Jane as someone who “definitely lives through her crotch—in a great way. What’s really great about the character is that you can’t really make a moral judgment of her. I mean, people will certainly be allowed to do that, and they’ll probably have opinions about the character. But what I love about how Lisa wrote it, and especially how she directed me, was that it wasn’t a question of her [Jane’s] morality. It’s just the way she is. She’s always been like that. She came into adulthood during a time of sexual exploration and freedom, and she’s never really stopped doing that. What’s also great about the story is that she doesn’t end up being sad. She’s not a sad character stuck in the ’70s.”

Laurel Canyon is set in the present, though it does have a throwback-to-the-’70s kind of feel. McDormand’s Jane is a partier who’s having problems communicating with her very straight, fresh-out-of-med-school son, Sam (Christian Bale). “It’s the flip on the generation gap,” she says. “I think it’s really specific to Christian’s character, too, that he feels alone. It isn’t so much that she’s so wild—it’s just that he didn’t feel like he had any adult role models. They were all rock ’n’ rollers and potheads. The only way he could identify himself was by going in the completely opposite direction.”

When Sam arrives with Alex (Beckinsale) at Jane’s studio complex in Laurel Canyon, he expects to find an empty house. Instead, a rock band (played by Lou Barlow and the Folk Implosion) is sitting around the studio doing bong hits. Jane rolls a joint and offers it to Sam, who declines. He whisks Alex away to the guesthouse and implores her not to get close to his mother. But Alex is curious, and when Sam’s away at work, she visits the studio and gets high with Jane and the boys. This leads to a three-way nude encounter in the pool with Jane and her rock-star boyfriend of the moment, Ian (Alessandro Nivola).

“There’s nothing wrong with middle-aged people expressing their sexuality on film,” McDormand says about her fleshy scenes. “Lisa wrote a great part for a 45-year-old woman. It’s a great part, not because I get to be nude in a swimming pool, but, because she’s an interesting person. Lisa was really conscientious in making her three-dimensional.”

While the threesome experiment with sexual identities, Sam is flirting big-time at work with Sara (Natasha McElhone). Hoping to break the ice with her son, Jane offers him tickets to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. “We’ll get some wine, some weed, and some chicken,” she says. “It’ll be fun.” But Sam’s too self-absorbed to accept the offer. He senses something is going on with Alex, but is too conflicted about his feelings for Sara to say anything to Alex until it’s almost too late.

When the band finally completes their album, they take a room at the Chateau Marmont for a bacchanalian celebration. Jane, Ian, and Alex all end up in bed together, at which point Jane blows the whistle. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life,” she scolds Ian, “but I’m not going to sit here and watch you fuck my son’s girlfriend.” McDormand agrees with her character’s decision: “I decide not to continue further in the seduction.”

After rejecting Sara’s advances, Sam races to the hotel, where he finds his confused fiancee in tears. This only confirms his worst fears about his mother: That she can’t be trusted—even around his own fiancee.

The unsentimental ending does little to repair the damage done. “You can’t control your heart,” Jane tells Sam, who then dives into the pool. The last frame dissolves in a rush of bubbles.

Popping the Pot Question

“I’m a recreational pot-smoker,” McDormand reveals without hesitation. “Because it’s not a constant in my life, I don’t say it should be made legal so that it’s more available. But from a medical point of view… I have friends who need to use it. Why should they have to look too hard for the thing that makes them better? So from that point of view, it’s like, ‘Please, what is the problem?”’

During the High Times photo shoot, McDormand wears a green pot-leaf T-shirt and poses with a joint. She suggests a shot with the joint dangling from her lips and four hands with lighters all aflame. She graciously accepts a gift pack that includes a joint, grinder, rolling papers, and a top-quality bud. “This will last me about four months,” she says.

The major problem with pot, as McDormand sees it, “is there has never been enough of a distinction between marijuana and other drugs. In the classic weird hygiene movies from high school, everything led to depravity—marijuana, sex, coffee! There was no distinction made between the effects of one thing and another. So it’s always been lumped in with drugs in general.

“It’s a human rights issue, a censorship issue, and a choice issue,” she continues. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people’s first experiences with marijuana and other drugs happen in a time of their lives that involves a lot of peer pressure.”

McDormand first smoked pot when she was a 17-year-old freshman at Bethany College in West Virginia. Though she describes herself as a nerd in high school, her fellow students thought otherwise. “After I had been in college for a couple of years, I went back to the town where I went to high school,” she recalls. “I ran into one of the popular girls who asked me, ‘So, you were like high all the time in high school, right?’ I said, ‘Noooo.”’

Why did the popular girl say that then?

“I was vague and I wore pink glasses and the same pair of overalls for two years,” McDormand replies.

Were you a hippie?

“No, but I dressed like one. It was the 1970s. You couldn’t really be a hippie—the whole lovechild thing—anymore.”

Critiquing the Coen Brothers

Born on June 27, 1957, in rural Illinois, Frances McDormand attended Yale Drama School before moving to New York in 1982. After doing a few beer commercials to pay the rent, she won an audition for the role of Abby in Joel and Ethan Coen’s first movie, Blood Simple. A romance blossomed between her and Joel Coen. They were married in 1994 and now are the parents of eight-year-old Pedro.

Including Laurel Canyon, McDormand has appeared in 27 movies since 1984. Five of those films were directed and produced by the now legendary Coen brothers, who won their only Oscar (Best Original Screenplay) for Fargo. Looking back at the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, McDormand starts with one of her favorites, Blood Simple, which, she says, “really holds up. There are technical things in that movie that have been copied so much—like that whole shaky-cam shot up over the drunk at the bar. That’s been used so many times now that it feels anachronistic and kind of old-fashioned.”

Seventeen years later, The Man Who Wasn’t There reprised a similar theme—a man who takes extreme measures after being jilted by his wife. In this case, McDormand’s Doris character two-times Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed. “What I love about The Man Who Wasn’t There—which is not one of my favorite movies of theirs—is that they went all the way,” she explains. “They told the whole story of the movie in his head.”

Miller’s Crossing and Fargo are her Coen brothers’ favorites. “I just happened to be in them,” she smiles. “I think they’re really, really good movies. Miller’s Crossing is just extraordinarily beautiful.”

Now that she’s a mom, McDormand has problems with the raucous 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. “It does not hold up that well,” she admits. “It’s kind of really naive. The naivete, in fact, is what saves part of it. I mean, the things that they did to this poor toddler! Moments that were hilariously funny when we were in our twenties are not funny at all now.”

Her take on the Coens’ stoner comedy, The Big Lebowski, is refreshing. “I really like so much of it, but that’s a boy’s movie,” McDormand says. “It’s a middle-aged boy’s movie. Middle-aged guys have seen it over and over and over again.”

When I inquire about Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (the soundtrack for which won a Grammy for Best Album last year) she shouts loud enough for everyone in the studio—the photographer, the make-up artist, the publicist, the High Times photo-shoot team—to hear: “Why are we talking about Joel and Ethan?”

Because it’s interesting to listen to your opinions of your husband and brother-in-law’s work?

“OK,” she laughs, and then gladly rattles on about Oh Brother Where Art Thou? “That movie became a whole different thing for me, because I watched it as an audience member when it was done,” she says. “The music resonated in a completely different way, which is what they always intended. They always talked about it being a musical. They’ve always loved that music. It wasn’t just for that movie. So far, that’s one of the major things in their professional life that meant something to them.”

Clearly, Laurel Canyon, which opened on March 7, means a lot to Frances McDormand. Among other things, it’s the first time one of her characters gets to smoke out. “If you look at the majority of my work, they wouldn’t be ladies that had the opportunity to get high,” McDormand says. Then she has a bright thought.

“Marge Gunderson might have gotten high during her college days,” she winks. “She seems like an adventurous sort.”

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