Features

A Meeting of Hearts and Minds: Olive Kitteridge

A prominent actress, producer and director ally to bring an unlikely emotional journey to the screen in HBO's adaptation of novelist Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

Amy Dawes
  • Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins as Olive and Henry Kitteridge

She’s the kind of character who rarely takes the spotlight — a mature woman, smarter than most, essentially decent though willfully blunt.

For actress Frances McDormand, the role of Olive Kitteridge was not to be missed — so much so, she took the lead in setting up the project.

McDormand, an Oscar winner for Fargo, optioned author Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a collection of linked short stories, the same week in 2009 that the book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction — which it ultimately won. Now an HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge will debuted this month, with Richard Jenkins as Henry, the good-hearted pharmacist, husband to Olive, a middle-school math teacher.

As an executive producer of the four-hour drama, McDormand worked closely with Jane Anderson (Normal, The Baby Dance), who penned the adaptation and also executive-produced, with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Fortunately, the women are neighbors.

“We both have these ersatz hippie places just a town apart in northern California,” says Anderson. “So we’d meet and work through the outlines and read stuff out loud. When you have the star involved like that, it’s a little like building a dress to fit — it’s an ongoing process. Even after they can put it on, you’re adjusting it here and there.”

For Anderson, the story — set in small-town coastal Maine — explores “what it takes to sustain decency in the world. Olive, on the surface, is a cranky, judgmental, even wretched woman. But she’s infinitely decent — she will always show up for the underdog, the outsider or those like her who suffer from a degree of depression.”

For director Lisa Cholodenko, who made Olive the follow-up to her Oscar-nominated 2010 feature, The Kids Are All Right, “it’s about a marriage and how a marriage survives depression. It was a gorgeous script, an effortless read — so I felt confident that the details were compelling enough that when you engaged with those, the bigger ideas and themes would come through.” 

HBO budgeted for a compressed 50-day shoot, done mostly in the Cape Ann area of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which stood in for Maine.

“We all had to be incredibly focused on the task at hand — there was a lot of pressure,” says Cholodenko. “But I was working with people who are at the top of their game.”

Another challenge was capturing the Down East sensibility of the townspeople in a way that would pass muster with audiences in Maine.

“I’m not a Yankee,” says Cholodenko, who grew up in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “But I feel very strongly about authenticity. Is this how the house would look? Is this what they’d be wearing and what they’d say? That was fun and a little scary.”

The filmmaker had worked with McDormand before: in her feature film Laurel Canyon, the star played a successful music producer whose unfettered lifestyle disturbs her uptight son.

“Fran’s an incredible actor, and she had lived with Olive for so long,” Cholodenko observes. “I was there to guide her, modulate her and keep her on track. Sometimes the material’s really funny, and other times it’s heartbreaking, so I guided those tonal shifts. But both Fran and Richard Jenkins had such an intuitive sense of who these characters were that my job was sort of stealth, and for me that was thrilling.”

One area where the miniseries departs from the book is in its brief but potent use of visual effects: the mental hallucinations of one troubled character are brought vividly to life, while the book merely hints at them.

“Film is such a visual medium, that I thought, ‘Oh, hell yes, let’s have flowers coming out of the piano,’” says Anderson, who wrote those effects, and others, into her script. 

Another departure came with her decision to bookend the mini with a sequence in which a widowed Olive (McDormand is seen aging from her mid-40s to early 70s) grapples with the ultimate existential question: to be or not to be.

That leads to an emotional catharsis, in a scene where Olive is alone in the woods, which may become one of the most talked-about aspects of McDormand’s performance.

The actress resisted that peak of emotion, calling it “immodest,” Cholodenko remembers.  “She didn’t want to go that deep with it — she wanted to play her as a stoic. But I was convinced the audience needed her to go there. Getting through to Olive had been an impossible task, for anyone in her life. I felt she needed that moment of reckoning. So I was iron-fisted about it.

“But Fran’s a tough customer. I don’t think she’d have done it, if she didn’t feel on some level that it was the right thing. I’m incredibly proud of her.”