In her wildest dreams, Charlene Swankie never imagined that Hollywood would come calling — or even know how to find her.
At age 64, struggling to make her rent, Swankie had moved into her van and joined a growing nomadic tribe of largely older Americans who, finding themselves adrift from the American economy, have taken to the road and move from place to place seeking seasonal work for generally low wages. Despite the hardships of living off the grid — from mechanical problems with her van to health issues — Swankie, a loner by nature, found the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle suited her.
So when director Chloé Zhao approached her in 2018 about playing herself in a movie she was making called “Nomadland,” Swankie was deeply skeptical. “I had been on the road living in the boonies for over 10 years,” Swankie says, “and movies were not high on my list.” She told Zhao the only thing she could focus on at the moment was the shoulder replacement surgery she desperately needed: “I had a lot on my mind and just wanted her to go away.” Anyway, she’d never heard of the actress who was set to star in the movie, Frances McDormand, and figured it would be “some little camcorder-type homemade film.”
Three years later, Swankie, along with two other real-life nomads — Bob Wells and Linda May — find themselves the unlikely stars of one of the year’s most acclaimed films. “Nomadland,” now playing in select theaters and streaming on Hulu, earned four Golden Globe nominations and is considered a leading Oscar contender. While two-time Oscar winner McDormand has drawn raves for her performance as a fictional woman named Fern who is drawn to the road in search of work, the real-life nomads have been credited with lending the film much of its emotional punch and feeling of authenticity.
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No one felt that more than McDormand, who optioned journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and produced the film.
“Linda May and Swankie and Bob were already kind of the iconic figures in my mind before I actually met them,” McDormand says. “I think what I was most intimidated by and impressed with was the commitment that people like them made to the life they live, and the joy that they find in gathering together and sharing their experiences and how much they enjoy being on their own. ... I think Swankie was just under the impression that I was another woman on the road. She was really mentoring me in a certain way.”
Chinese-born Zhao, whose 2015 debut feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” and 2017 breakout drama, “The Rider,” also earned praise for the use of nonprofessional actors, was drawn to the project by her fascination with the nomadic community.
“Making my first two films, I definitely lived a quite nomadic lifestyle, a lot of times out of my car,” she says. “When I read Jessica’s book, I was so impressed by her research and her sensitivity to these really interesting characters. I just loved the world and I wanted to enter into it.”
Bruder herself spent three years traveling on and off among the nomads to better understand this itinerant subculture and why it has been growing, largely invisibly, on the periphery of the wealthiest country on the planet.
“Are people running from something or running to something? I think it’s both,” Bruder says. “A lot of people have been squeezed in the divide between flat wages and rising housing costs for a long time — you’ve seen that crescendo in California. Now with COVID, there are a whole new set of variables that may be accelerating some trends we’d already been seeing. You have tons of people who are out of work and can’t pay the rent and these bills are stacking up. So I think we’re already seeing people move into vehicles who might not have expected to do that.”
Linda May, who befriends the lonely, widowed Fern in the film and shows her the ropes of “workamping,” has seen the nomadic community expand dramatically since she first found herself living on the road as a grandmother in her 10-foot trailer, which she calls the Squeeze Inn.
“The first Rubber Tramp Rendezvous I went to was about 250 people,” she says of the regular gathering of nomads held in Quartzsite, Ariz. “The last one I went to, there were over 5,000 people. There’s always been a community of every walk of life. We have business executives, people with PhDs, scientists and artists and photographers and writers. We have quite an eclectic group that come together and bond, and we have each other’s back.”
Wells has become a leader within the nomadic community, with a popular YouTube channel called CheapRVliving and a nonprofit organization called Home on Wheels Alliance to help newcomers to the road survive and thrive. With a younger cohort of millennials now adopting what has been dubbed the #vanlife, Wells says the nomadic movement is rapidly becoming mainstream, driven by climate change and continued economic dislocation, as well as a uniquely American frontier spirit.
“Our world is changing so rapidly and I think nomadic living is going to be part of that transformation,” Wells says. “After 2009, it became really obvious to the millennial generation that you weren’t going to go to work for one employer the rest of your life who was going to offer you a pension in your golden years. They see the unsteadiness of the present, and they have the good sense to change with it. With climate change, in 50 years there are going to be large swaths of America that are virtually uninhabitable. And the economy — you know, how many 50- and 60-year-old people who were laid off are never going to work again, except at McDonald’s?”
In weaving the real-life nomads into the film as characters alongside fictional ones played by actors McDormand and David Strathairn, Zhao adopted a loose, intimate directing style, allowing the dialogue to flow organically. Her unobtrusive approach allowed the nonactors to avoid becoming overly self-conscious, even when sharing vulnerable moments, as when Wells speaks of the death of his son.
But Zhao did take a few liberties. In the film, Swankie has cancer, an invented plot device. “I myself have never had cancer,” Swankie says. “However, my ex-husband died of brain cancer, so that made me emotional during filming. My character is 99% me. I am fiercely independent and seldom ever ask others to help me, so it was exceedingly difficult to act like I needed Fern’s help. That 1% was acting.”
“It’s not that different than how I worked on my previous films,” Zhao, who will next make the leap to the big-budget Marvel film “The Eternals,” says of her approach with nonprofessional actors. “I spend time with them and I hear their stories, and I find the part of their life stories that I think really show the essence of who they are. Then on the day, they know what blueprints to work within. You build a culture through how you treat people and then you gain their trust that way.”
McDormand poured a lot of herself into the character of Fern, who is forced onto the road following the death of her husband and the economic collapse of the town they called home.
“I was 60 at the time we made it, and one of the most gratifying things for me about the film is the way Chloé has captured the beauty and the depths in the roadmap of people’s lives that are on their faces,” she says. “There’s a lot of me in it, a lot of things from my past and my childhood. I always felt that when I turned 65, I would change my name to Fern and hit the road. It was something that I told Chloé really early on, that there was something very serendipitous about the process for me.”
It was exceedingly difficult to act like I needed Fern’s help. That 1% was acting.
— Charlene Swankie
Still, don’t expect McDormand to become a regular at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Having spent time among the nomads, she has too much respect for the hardships of life on the road.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” McDormand says. “It is not a romantic idea. You have to plan and you have to be very confident that you can be alone. Like Swankie says to Fern, ‘You can die out there.’ I love to camp and I’ve been on the road many times since we made the movie. But I’m definitely a dabbler.”
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Two years ago, May — who was first profiled by Bruder for a 2014 Harper’s Magazine story and really did work as a campground host and Amazon warehouse worker — decided to put down roots in Taos, N.M., while she was still healthy enough to build a home where she could spend her remaining days. “We all think of that: Where is the end of the road and what does that look like for me?” she says. “Bob has a totally different idea: He will drive himself out in the desert and that’s where he’ll be. Me, on the other hand? I don’t think I could do that.”
Wells and Swankie are still out there on the road, with no plans to ever return to their formerly more tethered life.
“Like me, there are many others who have purposely chosen this lifestyle: downsizing, owning nothing but what they have with them and leaving an exceedingly small carbon footprint,” says Swankie. “That does not mean we are suffering, going without, staying dirty, eating badly. For me, I am healthier now at 78 than I was at 40. I am 60-plus pounds lighter, totally off all medications, and have never been happier or financially more secure. ... I am just a lone ol’ granny desert rat, loving my life every day.”
Josh Rottenberg covers the film business for the Los Angeles Times. He was part of the team that was named a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist in breaking news for covering the tragic shooting on the set of the film “Rust.” He co-wrote the 2021 Times investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. that led NBC to pull the Golden Globe Awards off the air while the organization underwent major reforms. A graduate of Harvard University, he has also written about the entertainment industry for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Fast Company and other publications.