A middle-aged man surprises his wife with a card for Valentine’s Day: “To My Darling Wife,” it reads. Hours later, he finds it in the garbage beneath a pile of kitchen scraps and, understandably hurt, looks to his wife for explanation.
“I already read it,” she says, turning back to the dishes in the sink.
Meet Olive Kitteridge, the decidedly unsentimental title character of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the HBO miniseries of the same name premiering Sunday. A middle-school math teacher in small-town Maine, she has little tolerance for “saps” and “dopes” — no matter their age or relation to her; to call her “prickly” is to vastly understate the case.
Many actresses would flee from such an abrasive role, but not Frances McDormand, who plays the lead in “Olive Kitteridge” and also shepherded the four-hour project, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, from page to screen as an executive producer.
“There was something about it for me, as a 57-year-old feminist. I wanted to make sure that we were telling the story about a female character and we didn’t compromise or give the audience a break,” said the actress, who over the course of a 30-year film career has gravitated toward no-nonsense but fundamentally decent types — perhaps most famously Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant but formidable police chief in the Coen brothers’ Midwestern noir, “Fargo.” But unlike cheerful, empathetic Marge and despite her own chronic depression, Olive “doesn’t understand emotional vulnerability,” McDormand said. “She only understands stoicism.”
When she first picked up a copy of the novel six years ago, McDormand did so strictly for pleasure, not with the goal of finding a meaty role. As she explained in rather Olive-like tones, “I never read books — and still don’t read books — to develop them. I read books on paper — and I have bookshelves full of them.”
McDormand had just finished watching “The Wire,” an experience that had opened her eyes to the creative possibilities of long-form storytelling on television. Impressed by the novel, she began to recommend it to friends. When one of them assumed that McDormand was interested in playing Olive — a possibility she insists hadn’t occurred to her before that — the seed was planted.
At the time, she had no experience as a producer but plenty of renown as an actress, including an Oscar for “Fargo” and nominations for “Mississippi Burning,” “Almost Famous” and “North Country.” She approached author Strout about optioning the book, and her timing proved fortuitous: A few months later, “Olive Kitteridge” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was suddenly a hot literary commodity.
Despite the acclaim, the novel is not an obvious candidate for adaptation. Consisting of 13 interconnected short stories set in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine, “Olive Kitteridge” spans about 25 years and features older, unglamorous characters of a breed rarely seen on television. Though Olive is the book’s protagonist, she barely figures in many of the stories, which loosely coalesce around themes of marriage, aging, community and mental illness rather than a propulsive narrative.
The low-concept “Olive Kitteridge” proved to be “a holy bitch to adapt,” according to screenwriter Jane Anderson (“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” “How to Make an American Quilt”), who was challenged by the book’s formal complexity and by her fierce admiration for Strout’s writing. “It’s like being handed this beautiful infant somebody else birthed and being asked to raise it. You think, ‘How am I going to do this without screwing this beautiful creature up?’”
The first step was figuring out what form the adaptation should take. Though she hadn’t done television since the early days of her career, McDormand never envisioned “Olive Kitteridge” as a feature film. “It’s not a platform for female stories,” she said of the standard 90- to 120-minute, three-act theatrical release. “Female stories are more circular, protracted and complex and need to be told in a different format.”
The project was first developed as a series at HBO, but Anderson and McDormand eventually determined it would work better as a contained miniseries. The network happily obliged, having had success with “Mildred Pierce,” which like “Olive Kitteridge” featured a challenging female protagonist played by an Oscar winner (Kate Winslet), an indie-darling director (Todd Haynes) and literary roots (a novel by James M. Cain).
The miniseries weaves together part or whole of about half the stories from the novel, with Olive emerging as the central character only gradually. She is a mere supporting player in the first hour of “Olive Kitteridge,” which focuses on the unusually close friendship between her gentle husband, Henry (a heartbreaking Richard Jenkins), the town pharmacist, and Denise (Zoe Kazan), his timid young employee.
Later installments chart the course of the troubled yet enduring Kitteridge marriage over the ensuing decades, while also touching on Olive’s thorny relationship with her grown son (John Gallagher Jr.), her compassionate treatment of a vulnerable former pupil (Cory Michael Smith) and her chance encounter with a local widower (Bill Murray).
For McDormand, who has always considered herself a character actor rather than a leading lady — even in “Fargo,” she doesn’t show up for 33 minutes, a full third of the film’s running time — being an unusually inconspicuous lead was part of the appeal. “Fran kept saying to me, ‘I don’t want to be the star of the series, I want to sneak around the corners,’” Anderson recalled.
The issue of Olive’s likability was a source of continued debate between McDormand and director Cholodenko, who’d previously collaborated on “Laurel Canyon,” in which the actress played somewhat against type as a seductive, hard-partying rock producer. For Cholodenko, “Olive Kitteridge” represented a welcome reprieve from the stylish, sexually adventurous urbanites she has depicted in films including “The Kids Are All Right” and “High Art.”
“I was ready for a vacation from cool people,” she said, though she believes “Olive Kitteridge,” despite its provincial setting and cast of characters decked out in layers of L.L. Bean, may actually be “the hippest thing I’ve ever done.”
“The things they go through in their lives are as extreme and subversive in their own way as what young, hip people go through,” she said. “There are affairs and reckless driving and marital trauma and drinking and suicide.”
Still, Cholodenko leaned toward making Olive more sympathetic. McDormand, on the other hand, was determined not to soften the edges of a character her husband, filmmaker Joel Coen, has described as “an emotional Dirty Harry.”
It was also important to the actress that Olive maintain her “regional machismo,” a stoicism and severity derived from her identity as a New Englander, even in the face of crippling depression and a family history of suicide. Her approach to the illness, and really all of life’s woes is, as McDormand put it, to “get on with it. You either put a bullet in your head or you clean the refrigerator.”
For Strout, who based Olive on her cantankerous neighbors in the small Maine town of Harpswell, watching McDormand on-screen was a revelation. “I thought, ‘Wow, Olive is a tough cookie, and Fran did not shy away from that,’” said the author.
Thankfully, as a producer McDormand proved more tactful than her on-screen counterpart. “It’s always very risky to do a major creative project with a friend,” Anderson said. “But I have to say after having gone through years of development and then having watched Fran on the set and working with her, my respect and love for her has only increased... Fran can be dead honest with you without you feeling like a schmuck.”
Though “Olive Kitteridge” is only McDormand’s second producing credit and will be her first to reach a wide audience (“Every Secret Thing,” a feature she produced, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April), it’s already proving a success. The miniseries, also produced by Tom Hanks’ and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone, received glowing reviews after a premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Surprisingly for such a proud and unapologetic feminist, McDormand attributes her skills as a producer to her experiences in housewifery.
“I’ve given just as much of my life to that, and I practiced it with the same zeal, as I have acting,” she said. “And I think that many of my skill sets from being a housewife I used for producing. Because you don’t stop until it’s done.”
While directing is not in the cards — “one in the family is enough” — McDormand plans to continue producing. Whatever’s next, she is uninterested in going back to “playing supporting roles to male protagonists.”
“I’ve had a taste of the other side,” she said. “Watch out!”
Olive would approve.
Follow me on Twitter: @Meredith Blake
When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)