Inside ‘Olive Kitteridge’ with Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and Lisa Cholodenko

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins Olive Kitteridge Interview
Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star in ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (Photo: Jojo Whilden / HBO)
Frances McDormand not only stars in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge but also executive produced the four hour drama adapted by Jane Anderson from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. McDormand optioned Strout’s book and has been actively involved in an adaptation of the bestselling book for the past five years. On November 2 and 3, 2014, her hard work – along with the hard work of director Lisa Cholodenko, writer Jane Anderson, and McDormand’s co-stars including Richard Jenkins – pays off with the premiere of the miniseries.

The Plot: “Olive Kitteridge tells the poignantly sweet, acerbically funny and devastatingly tragic story of a seemingly placid New England town wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, told through the lens of a woman whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and a staunch moral center.”

Together to discuss the project at the 2014 summer TCAs, the Olive Kitteridge cast and filmmaker discussed why a miniseries was the perfect means of approaching Strout’s book.

Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Director Lisa Cholodenko and Writer Jane Anderson Press Conference

Frances, it’s hard to imagine other actors playing characters you play after seeing you inhabit the roles. Do you feel an ownership of a role when you first read a script? Do you trust that the projects that are meant for you will come to you, or do you fight really hard to get certain roles?

Frances McDormand: “What I do is what I am, and I am what I do. So, if I inhabit the characters, I’m really glad that it’s coming across that way, and in turn in the case of Olive, it’s something I’ve been working on for five years. So I just kind of assumed that I could use my instincts for her, and any instincts of Fran at 57 could go into Olive between 45 to 70. So, yeah, I do. I don’t have a possessiveness because I’ve played roles that other actors have gone on to play in various ways, but I like the idea of ownership. Yeah, I’ll own them, gladly.”

Tell us about that five year thing. How did you first discover it? What did it take over the five years to get it made? What drew you to playing her particularly?

Frances McDormand: “I’m 57, so, again, limited space. So, about six years ago, a friend of mine gave me the novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a great novel. If you haven’t read it, read it. I promptly put it aside, loved it. I love to read. I don’t read novels looking for material to make into movies, and that certainly was not a novel that needed to be made into a movie. I think often with movies about female protagonists, or not about but that have female protagonists, a 90 minute time frame is not long enough to tell a good female story. That’s why long format television has become so great for female storytelling and for female performers and directors and writers.

When I read it, I started passing it around to other friends to read. Another friend of mine, who is also an actress, called me two days later and said, ‘You want to play that part.’ And I said, ‘No. It’s not a movie. I don’t want to.  I don’t want it to be a movie. 90 minutes will diminish it too much.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but you want to play that part,’ which got me thinking, along with the fact that I was 56, 55… No, at that time I was 52 and I wanted to start generating my own work. I wanted to see what that was like. So I optioned it the week before it was nominated for a Pulitzer. Ms. Strout graciously remembered that after she won the Pulitzer for the novel and accepted my offer. So I had the option and then went about starting to meet writers. I soon met HBO after that.

But Jane and I met even after that and through other circumstances that were very serendipitous that I won’t go into, but  someday we’ll tell that story and we started working on it, on the adaptation. HBO helped facilitate that for over about a three year period. So that’s how that part started, and then we all met after that.”

Do you tend to have Olive’s nature of being downbeat or are you the opposite? Are you an upbeat person?

Frances McDormand: “I will never shoot myself in the head. I hope I never get to that point. I hope there’s enough people in my life that need me enough that I won’t feel like she did, that there was nothing left for her to do. I’m not a depressive, but I certainly have mood swings. It’s an occupational hazard, I would say, and I’m glad I’m in the occupation I’m in. I think  you know, if Lisa was going out to cast it, she would probably have me in to meet for the part, wouldn’t you say? If I hadn’t already been in the room.”

Lisa Cholodenko: “Probably, I would have called you.”

How do you imagine Henry deals with being the spouse of someone who’s depressed? Was there anything in the book that gave you insight into how he developed his perspective?

Richard Jenkins: “It’s interesting you say that because I don’t think he’s aware of it and he, within that scene, says, ‘You are not depressed, Olive.’ When I saw the completed version of it, depression is a huge part of it but Henry is not aware of it so he really  he isn’t dealing with it at all.

It’s interesting because I was saying the fourth episode, which I’m not in, so I paid no attention to…it’s like my line, my line, the rest, the rest…but it’s like I was dead. But to see that and see where and see how she has been dealing with this her whole life and how she deals with it without his inclusion, without him really understanding what it is she has.”

Frances McDormand: “I think it’s interesting that you brought up depression so quickly. […]I think, for me, just as important as that arc in our four hours is, for me, it’s about a marriage and how a marriage survives depression and not just one woman’s depression, but generations of depression and also how a small town survives it, survives generations and different ways that people in those generations handle mental illness, not just depression, but all kinds.”

Richard Jenkins: “But it doesn’t mean that Henry does not deal with it, because he deals with Olive every day and he deals successfully with her. I mean, the relationship is complicated but they need each other. They both have something that the other one needs, and it’s fascinating because it’s so human. There’s so many things going on with Jane’s writing that, when I watched it, there were things that surprised me that I hadn’t realized we’d even done.”

How did Bill Murray get involved and what was it like to work with him?

Lisa Cholodenko: “How did he get involved? Well, it’s a little Byzantine sometimes getting to Bill Murray, but once I decided he was the guy for the job, I just full court-pressed to track him down. Fran had just worked with him on a Wes Anderson movie, so they had a relationship. We just pulled out all of the stops, and he finally read the material and loved it and wanted to work with Fran. He never said he wanted to work with me, so I have no idea he even knew who I was. But he did show up, and he was ready to roll up his sleeves and jump in.

I loved him. He’s a kook. What’s not to love about Bill Murray? And, really, what I love – I’ll tell you the truth. One thing that just dazzled me about him is that he has just this innate ability to move between drama, sadness, and this comedic brilliance, and it’s on razor’s edge. He just does it so masterfully in this fourth episode of the miniseries. It was astonishing to direct him and witness it up close and personal, but I think it just translates beautifully in the film.”

Frances McDormand: “We did a scene in Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s film, where we were married. We were a married couple in that, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop. We still call each other Mr. and Mrs. Bishop or Mr. B. He knows that my character is being unfaithful to him and we have a scene where we are lying in bed, the camera is above us, and we have a marital love scene in separate twin beds. We loved doing that scene so much. I knew that all I had to say was, ‘There’s more of that in this.’ And that was one of the reasons I think [he did it] and when he read the material, he realized what he was going to get to do.”

We haven’t seen a bad performance from Frances and Richard so what is it like to direct them? Is it collaborative? Do you just point the camera at them and get out of their way?

Lisa Cholodenko: “I mean, it’s great because I got to sleep in every day. They just did it themselves.

[Laughing] No, no. Actually, what you are saying is really the truth of it when you are working with people at this level of professional experience and just innate giftedness and sensitivity. I found very early on my job as the director was to be observant, to be quiet, to give very modest and succinct adjustments and to get out of their way. We had a brilliant script. It was all there. Nobody needed psychoanalysis about what this was about, and there just wasn’t a need to fill in that many blanks. We all, I think, left the station on the same train. You know, you get in there and we are all kind of humming to the same vibration. They went about their business and I was there if they needed me.”

Richard and Frances, do you prefer feedback or do you like someone to get out of the way?

Richard Jenkins: “Positive feedback, I would say.”

Lisa Cholodenko: “I did give that, lots of that.”

Richard Jenkins: “Lisa said it. She watches. She watches and that’s what you ask a director to do is just watch what you are doing. If you are stinking up the place, it’s nice that somebody lets you know it, but no. I mean, it was an amazing… How long did it go on? It went on for a long time.”

Frances McDormand: “Three months, we shot. But a really important thing to remember, too, is the difference between working with young actors and working with we are not even middle-aged, we are past middle-aged.”

Richard Jenkins: “And I’m 10 years past it.”

Frances McDormand: “I’m just saying, from an actor’s point of view, the experience that you have, there’s stuff that you can count on. That being said, I needed a lot of supervision. I’ve never done anything this large. I really needed to know that Lisa had my back as I needed to know that Richard had it, and Jane, because it was a huge undertaking. In these situations you hear a lot about how wonderful it was to work with each other, and that is true. But, most importantly, there’s also the sparring necessary for a good collaboration, and we all had that. We went at it. We looked at it closely sometimes and said, ‘A little bit of this, a little bit more of that, a little bit less than that.’ And that has to go on, especially in a project this size. It has to.”

Lisa Cholodenko: “You know, I have to say one more thing about it. Part of what attracted me to this script and the project was this tone that you so rarely see. I don’t know if I’d ever seen something or read something that I felt like had this tone, which is sometimes it’s really funny, and then it can just shapeshift on you and become incredibly heartbreaking and traumatic. I mean, I kind of call this like a dramedy in a way. And I felt like that tone, that’s really what I was there to hold and observe and guide, to make sure that we were all in that tonal space. So sometimes there was a little fisticuffs, but Fran is pretty good at it. So we just went in the back of the bar, had a few rounds, and then we’d come back and do the work. I think it worked out pretty well.” 

Jane, can you talk about adaptation versus original screenwriting and if you are exercising different writing muscles there?

Jane Anderson: “Oh, yes. You know, when Lisa was talking about what it is to direct great actors that you watch and you observe and you get the hell out of their way, it’s the same thing when you are handed a great piece of literature. My job was to look at the essence of this fabulous book that had no dramatic narrative whatsoever. It was the hardest assignment I’ve ever had because I think there’s the rule of the greater the piece of literature, the harder it is to adapt to television. And what I find remarkable about working for HBO […] is for a network that gives you things like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos and these very large, giant pieces of television where you have a lot of killing and f**king and all of that, this could be one of the bravest things that HBO has allowed a team of artists to do, because it is so quiet and so deceptively ordinary and so infinitely impossible to pitch. Kary [Antholis] and HBO handed it over to Fran and I and to Lisa and Richard and said, ‘Go make this incredibly fragile, subtle piece of work.’ And just as a writer, I’m so grateful for them. I think we all are. It’s not even ‘chick’ filmmaking. It’s humanity filmmaking, you know.”

Frances McDorman Stars in Olive Kitteridge
Frances McDormand (Photo: Jojo Whilden)

Frances McDormand: “Yeah. It’s interesting because the novel is broken into 13 short stories and we actually were first brought into the HBO – what should we call it? Corral of thoroughbreds, I like to think – not in the miniseries department, but in the ongoing series department because there was a thought that perhaps those 13 stories could create a longer series of some kind and kind of open up the Town of Crosby for many different episodes. And, then, it was later kind of distilled down to six hours and now four of different short stories that Jane adapted. And like I keep telling Kary, we’ve got a few more stories to tell. So, we’ll see what happens. Maybe we can do them on YouTube.”

Jane, did you actually pick out just four of the 13 chapters or is your script elements from all of them?

Jane Anderson: “Olive Kitteridge, our main character, kind of slips in and out of the novel through the various chapters. So what I did was I wanted to make her the main character even though Fran said to me, ‘Don’t you know I want to be a side character?’ And that’s what’s so astounding about Frances McDormand because she doesn’t want to be the star of her own series.”

Frances McDormand: “We’ll get back to that.”

Jane Anderson: “It’s quite brilliant. So my job was to take Olive and follow her through the stages of her life. I think all of you, when you finally see the series, either you’ll recognize your parents or your grandparents, because they are of a generation where you fall in love and you make it work. Even if your heart goes to someone else, you make it work. And Olive is that horrible math teacher you had in school. She’s the neighbor who was cranky and wouldn’t talk to you over the fence. She’s the lady on the street who has that look on her face, but she’s infinitely decent and brave and noble and that’s what’s so brilliant about the character that Elizabeth Strout created.”

Frances McDormand: “And in the novel Olive Kitteridge, what’s really interesting technically about what Strout did was that she called the novel Olive Kitteridge. It’s 13 short stories. Olive Kitteridge isn’t even in most of them. She’s peripheral in some of them. In fact, the first short story, it’s called ‘Pharmacy.’ It’s what we based our first hour of the film on. It’s about Henry, and Olive is his wife and the mother of his son.

One of the things that I was really concerned about in the adaptation of the novel to cinema was in a novel, it’s easy to take a peripheral character and over the span of the literary medium, allow her to form in a reader’s mind. How do you do that cinematically without telling a woman’s story chronologically, which I was really concerned about. I go back to the usual film form that you have of 90 minutes to two hours, it never is enough time to really tell a woman’s story as far as I’m concerned unless that woman is peripheral to a male protagonist and then she can be more interesting. I know that from experience because that’s most of the roles I’ve played throughout my film career. I’ve been in supporting characters to male protagonists, and no matter what the success of the film is, I often have a certain success as an actor because they want to know, Okay. That character doesn’t have a last name. She doesn’t have an apartment even, but she’s really interesting. Who is she?’ I think that often happens in women’s lives. We play a supporting role to – whether it be our husbands, our sons, our bosses – male protagonists in our life, and we not quietly necessarily, but we systematically go about making sure you don’t forget us even on the peripheral edge. So I think that that’s part of what our story is about is a woman who, under a lot of circumstances, is invisible, but she makes sure she’s not.”

Lisa Cholodenko: “Oh, she’s visible.”

– By Fred Topel

Follow Us On: