Olive Kitteridge: HBO and Frances McDormand bring Elizabeth Strout bestseller to poignant life

Like many readers of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel Olive Kitteridge, Frances McDormand fell in love with the character-rich examination of small-town secrets and happily shared it with her friends. One longtime pal called her soon after, wondering if McDormand would find a way to play the plainspoken Olive onscreen.

McDormand said no, unwilling to dilute the power of Strout’s words.

“For me, acting has always been just a social extension of my private reading life,” says the lifelong book collector, “so I was never interested in reading books to consider them as material to develop into other projects.”

A serendipitous encounter with The Wire creator David Simon, however, convinced McDormand that limited-series television could serve the kind of deeply felt, woman-centric stories she longed to produce — including that of Olive Kitteridge. McDormand (wife and muse of legendary filmmaker Joel Coen) optioned the book, tapping screenwriter Jane Anderson to help condense its 13 interwoven narratives down to the novel’s very essence — a quarter-century in the marriage of eccentric Olive, whose forthright ways mask a wounded soul, and her husband, Henry, a warmhearted pharmacist who does his best to care for his wife and cushion others from her candor. Even as both nurse crushes on colleagues more like themselves.

Five years in the making, McDormand’s extraordinary four-part Olive Kitteridge debuts Nov. 2-3 on HBO, featuring her Burn After Reading costar Richard Jenkins as Henry.

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“I tear up every time I think about him,” says McDormand of Jenkins, who revealed that the two spent weeks rehearsing together before setting foot on set. “We have three fundamental things that moored us as Olive and Henry. One is the fact that we are not movie stars; we are working character actors and that’s how we go about the business of what we do. The second is that we both have a background in theater. And also, we’ve both been married to the same people for over 30 years. We both believe in the institution of marriage, and we both intend to die with our chosen partners. That was the story we wanted to tell.”

“It’s the kind of work I thought I would be doing all the time as an actor, and it doesn’t happen very often,” Jenkins says. “So when it does come along. it’s joyous to do it.

So, while Henry is frequently the target of Olive’s harshest observations — “Henry, you could make a woman sick,” she growls when he hands her a tender greeting card — Jenkins immediately grasped their bond. “These two really got a lot from each other that neither one of them had in themselves,” he muses. “And Olive is right most of the time. She says things that we just don’t usually say, but that’s one of the things that is attractive about her to him. You understand these people because you can see something in yourself in them.” And in your own family upheavals.

McDormand says she and Anderson especially connected with Olive’s relationship with the Kitteridges’ only child, Christopher (John Gallagher Jr.), who can stomach neither his mother’s rigidity nor his father’s peacemaking nature.

“One of the reasons that the process of developing Olive Kitteridge was important to me personally was because I have a son, he’s my only child — and Jane has a son exactly the same age,” says McDormand. “She’s been with her partner for as long as Joel and I have been together, and both our sons went off to college the summer we did Olive Kitteridge, so we were going through so much of this as we were writing it together. We found solace in the work — and it helped us back off our sons. Olive is better at other people’s problems than her own, so she’s never going to be successful with Christopher, because she’s too close … and she’s too afraid of failing.”

When the time came to cast widower Jack Kennison, Olive’s unlikely late-in-life ally, McDormand approached her Moonrise Kingdom costar Bill Murray. “Isn’t he just gorgeous?!” she trills of Murray’s razor-wit performance. “It’s really great to see Bill play grown up. He’s never left his inner child — his inner child has been his outer child forever — but Jack Kennison is a full-on, full-fledged grownup. A grieving grownup. And that, I think, was heaven for Bill to play.”

And — like the rest of Olive Kitteridge — for viewers to behold.

Olive Kitteridge premieres Nov. 2-3 on HBO.

Photo/video: HBO

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About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.