The mother of all roles

Special to The Times

"Wait a minute," says Frances McDormand, thrusting her hand forward in a "halt" signal to stop the tape recorder from being switched on. "First let's talk about this fat thing."

It's a Marge Gunderson moment. That's her Oscar-winning role from "Fargo," in which McDormand assumed the persona of a determined, no-nonsense small-town Minnesota police chief on the trail of two ruthless kidnappers. Marge had a dazzlingly offbeat charm, being very dry, very observant and very pregnant as she investigated.

McDormand isn't pregnant, but she has that same lookie-here admonishment in her tone. A moment ago, she had explained that she had chosen this little Italian hangout on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for its delectable thin-crusted pizza, and then promptly ordered one with sausage topping, no apologies, to go with her beer. The interviewer made the mistake of saying she loved pizza, "but it's fattening."

So now she begins her lecture, "Now women just tend to put on a little weight in certain places, especially as we get to be women of a certain age. There's nothing wrong with that. We shouldn't be knocking ourselves out about that, we should celebrate it, got that?"

The interviewer nods, sheepishly. Lecture over.

But in fact, this was merely a preamble to the topic of the evening -- McDormand's deliciously freewheeling portrayal of Jane, a successful fortysomething rock music producer in her new Sony Classics film "Laurel Canyon," which opens Friday. This time the chameleon-like actress gets to play someone who is glamorous and, as director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art") puts it, "flamboyant, charismatic and unconventionally sexy." Sexy and attractive enough to snag a twentysomething British rocker, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), who's her latest client and her lover. After all, it's a world in which the borders between work and play are often blurred, and people slip from one to the other with hedonistic ease.

Enter Jane's grown-up son from a previous entanglement, Sam (Christian Bale), an uptight fellow with a residency at a neuropsychiatric institute in Los Angeles. He's brought along his fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale), a medical researcher whose borders turn out to be more porous. They had planned to stay in Jane's house -- in Laurel Canyon, natch -- not expecting to find Jane and boyfriend still there. Thus the inevitable clash of cultures; Sam finds Jane's modus operandi careless and reprehensible; Jane and Ian just want to enjoy a live-and-let's-party lifestyle, while trying to cut a troublesome song at the on-site recording studio.

For McDormand, it was the right role at the right time of life.

"I felt like I could walk into it," says the New York actress, her lank blond tresses trailing down either side of her long face. At 45, she exudes the unmistakable glow of inner and outer health. Wearing no noticeable makeup, she seems as at ease in her jeans having an interview with a stranger in a pizza joint as she would sitting in the living room of her own home. As co-star Nivola notes, "Fran is completely unself-conscious about the way she looks."

"It was an interesting convergence of events," she says about the role. "About a year before I'd already told journalists I wanted to do nudity. It was a seemingly facetious response to the question [of what I wanted to do next] but a very studied one as well because.... " Here she drops her gravelly voice yet another register and slows down to emphasize each and every word. "I - feel - really - gooood - about - myself. I - love - being - 45."

No apologies

Indeed, "Laurel Canyon" gave McDormand several chances to disrobe in bedroom and swimming pool romps, revealing her athletic body. Nudity aside, there was also the complexity of Jane's character that appealed to her. She's a woman in a tough profession, she's somebody's lover, and she's somebody's mother -- and far from perfect at each.

"Yet she doesn't apologize," says McDormand. "She admits it, but doesn't apologize, which is probably one of the biggest struggles for me as a woman."

There was also a certain wish fulfillment that came with Jane. In "Almost Famous" (2000), McDormand played Elaine, a matronly mother to starry-eyed Patrick Fugit, who goes on the road to cover the tour of his favorite rock band. "I adored Elaine," McDormand says. "It was one of the most well-written mother roles, but part of me wished I could be in the road movie with the band. With Jane I got that. It was like a bookend."

While some may find the distance between those roles to be light-years, that has proved to be McDormand's singular talent: to inhabit her roles, from the nagging mother in "Almost Famous" to girlfriends of the protagonists in "Wonder Boys" (2000) and "City by the Sea" (2002), from the '40s-style femme fatale in "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001) to the rock 'n' roll mom in "Laurel Canyon."

The Coen connection

McDormand's career got started almost by accident. Her first film was "Blood Simple" (1984), also the filmmaking debut of Joel (whom she later married) and Ethan Coen, and she landed the role of the wayward wife after Holly Hunter begged off due to a theatrical commitment. The film proved a runaway indie success. Not a bad break for an actress who had just moved to New York and had only one previous acting job.

Since then McDormand has continued to work with the Coen brothers, sometimes in leads such as in "The Man Who Wasn't There," sometimes in cameos as in "Raising Arizona" (1987) and "Miller's Crossing" (1990). But the role that got her the Academy Award, for "Fargo" (1996), was not one she initially leaped at.

"I'd always want to work with them," she says. "After you've worked with them awhile, there's this feeling, oh what's next? What little present are they going to give me now? Could I have a bit like a psycho killer or a prostitute? But it had to be Marge! I didn't really appreciate her till we started filming." However, the clincher, she says, was "when I saw it with an audience. I saw what Joel and Ethan intended, and I saw how nobody else but me could do it."

McDormand transformed unglamorous Marge Gunderson into such a memorable character that it won her the most glamorous prize of all, best actress in the 1996 Oscar race. The win was not expected -- having made a career in independent film and the New York theater, she was a Hollywood outsider -- but, by critical accounts, well-deserved.

So was her door battered down with offers?

McDormand takes a long pause. "No, no," she finally says, "because the basic fact of females in film is that there's not that much opportunity anyway. I was 36 by then, and I'd been to that ceremony before with 'Mississippi Burning' [the 1988 film in which she was nominated for best supporting actress]. It was more of a confirmation than a transformation -- that's what they marketed that year, independent film. The film business is really behind the curve of the culture, it always has been."

Although McDormand is known mainly for films, she likes to keep her hand in the theater. Late last year she starred in the off-Broadway play "Far Away" by Caryl Churchill. It was a difficult, abstract meditation on a future world gone awry, where not only humans but also objects and elements are at war. The New York Times wrote of her work in "Far Away" that "McDormand's brilliant, fractionally precise timing turns the everyday into a brush with the apocalypse."

She read "Far Away" early last summer, then nothing that interested her for three months. The play stuck in her mind and the part was still open, so she took it on, with the caveat that she would work on it for only three months because of her family life.

Since she and Joel Coen adopted their son, Pedro, who's now 8, both have arranged their schedules to spend as much time with him as possible while still carrying on their careers. "On one hand it's easier to do theater when my son's in school through the fall and winter," says McDormand. "On the other hand it's hard because it's a night job, and I don't get to put him to bed, which is one of the best parts of parenting."

Meanwhile, Coen's strategy is to shoot his films only in summer, then to carry on a regular work schedule the rest of the year, meaning he's home in the evenings during the school year.

She fit in "Laurel Canyon," even though it was shot in L.A., because she knew the part was right for her. Cholodenko wasn't sure until meeting her over lunch.

"She walked in, looking like she does in the movie," says the director. "It was a moment of kismet, you get what you need. She has the kind of self-possession you get from maturity."

On the set, Cholodenko found her "one of the most unpretentious, most unfussy people I've ever met." Co-star Nivola recalls that the first scene they shot together hours was a bedroom scene in which the two tumble into bed and he performs a tongue-in-cheek spanking. He felt relaxed because she did. "Because she was so unprecious it really couldn't have unfolded more gracefully."

He has a theory about that. "She deals with her fear or self-consciousness by just plowing through it, like a bull in a china shop," he says. "That's the source of her humor and the source of her charm."

"What I love about film is the spontaneity of it," says McDormand, who is now shooting a new Nancy Meyers comedy that also stars Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. "I don't prepare. I learn my lines the night before a scene, because I trust my intuition about a woman's behavior. I love that."

All of which she was able to exercise in spades during the filming of "Laurel Canyon," of course. "Look, look, look, that's me too," she says. "That's what I'm capable of. It answers so many of my feminist beliefs, that's part of it. Jane's not a perfect anything, as we are not -- we're not perfect, but we're complex and really fascinating, and it's not only attractive, it's compelling."

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