LOS ANGELES — Frances McDormand’s “rubber face” — ruddy, wind-burned, creased and contorted — says as much as the dialogue in “Olive Kitteridge,” HBO’s miniseries about a New England family and its caustic matriarch.
And the 57-year-old Oscar-winning actress speaks approvingly about plying a countenance that doesn’t try to hide the marks of time.
“I’ve got a rubber face,” McDormand says flatly. “It has always served me very well and really helps, especially as I get older because I still have all my road map intact, and I can use it at will.”
Based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, “Olive Kitteridge” premieres on Sunday and charts the life of McDormand’s bitter and self-hating Olive from ages 45 to 70, in part through that “road map.”
Director Lisa Cholodenko, best known for the Academy Award-nominated “The Kids Are All Right,” frames the tautly told episodic and non-linear story around Olive’s expressions, accentuating her tart-tongued grievances with husband Henry and son Christopher.
“Any sympathy that you get in this film is all going to be by way of reactions, the moments that are private and are not dramatized and not meant to be seen,” Cholodenko said. “What’s special about film is you get to see what’s unseen.”
Life is an intolerable affliction for Olive, a junior high math teacher with a gentle and good-hearted husband, played by Richard Jenkins, who is too much of a “sap” in her opinion to see the inherent darkness of the world from their seaside Maine idyll.
At one point she declares, “I’m just waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.”
Hidden beneath Olive’s abrasive, angry and at times clownish nature lies a woman reeling from the loss of her father to suicide.
It is a story of such a varied woman in McDormand’s mind, it could not be told within Hollywood conventions.
“I’ve found that long-format television is really the right medium for female storytelling,” said McDormand, who optioned the book herself and produced it alongside Tom Hanks, among others.
“Our stories are complex, they’re not linear, they’re not formulaic,” she said. “You need more time. This isn’t just a story of a woman … it’s a story that really needs generations to discover the legacy of the family’s depression.”
The four-hour format allowed for a closer examination of Olive’s bruised internal life and space for comedy and tragedy to live alongside one another, Cholodenko said. The filmmaker added that at a feature length, Olive’s story would have fallen victim to melodrama.
“The great gift of this character is that she’s not a hero in all the archetypical female ways,” Cholodenko said. “She’s not Joan of Arc and she’s not a nurse and she’s not a long-suffering wife.
“She’s strong and complicated and shape shifting and you like her and don’t like her. She’s your best friend and worst nightmare. She’s repellant and irresistible.”