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Early on in Olive Kitteridge — based on Elizabeth Strout‘s 2008 Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories — Olive (Frances McDormand) is asked by her husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), if she is going to leave him. “For God’s sake, Henry, you could make a woman sick,” McDormand responds curtly, as the intensely complicated, prickly and, at times deeply unhappy character.
However, McDormand was all smiles at the HBO miniseries’ New York City premiere, held at the SVA Theater on Monday night. After posing for photos on the red carpet, the Oscar-winning actress snuck up behind director Lisa Cholodenko and enveloped her in a giant hug.
The two worked together over 12 years ago on the indie drama Laurel Canyon, and directing McDormand again “after we grew up” was somewhat surreal, Cholodenko told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘You are exactly the same!’ and ‘Oh! You are so different!’ So much life has happened and yet we are all essentially kind of the same people.”
Also an executive producer, McDormand was instrumental in translating Olive and Henry’s story — which begins in their middle age and spans four decades — from the page to the screen: She optioned the book rights, convinced longtime friend Jane Anderson to adapt the screenplay and recruited Jenkins to play Olive’s mild-mannered, affable husband.
“His warmth kind of makes up for her coldness — they have a really symbiotic relationship,” author Strout told THR. “From the moment I conceived Olive, and then Henry, I thought of them as two people that loved each other a very great deal. They have a long marriage, they both have other interests, but basically they were each other’s hearts.”
The marriage works because “they both get something that they need from the other that they don’t have,” Jenkins explained to THR. Olive, a no-nonsense grade-school teacher who hands out C’s to all her students, is balanced out by Henry’s inherent gentleness, while he requires “her strength, her willingness to say things that he would never say, but may think. He loves her intelligence, her wit and her quick mind.” Jenkins recalled getting the call from McDormand to read the script and take the part. “It was an easy decision — this is my third or fourth thing with her, but we’ve never had this kind of intimacy. It was extraordinary.”
The miniseries is far from a conventional love story, however. Anderson — who said she worked on the screenplay for two years before finally getting it right — narrowed in on Olive and Henry, a relationship that isn’t always easy and can be, at times, downright strained and unpleasant. “My parents were an Olive-and-Henry dynamic, so I really understood these people, and that helped me write it,” Anderson explained of the characters’ connection. “There is an optimist, and a pessimist.”
The subject of mental illness snakes through the narrative: Olive speaks frankly about her struggle with depression, and a clinical sadness stalks generations of characters in the miniseries’ fictional town of Crosby, Maine. “It’s the story of depression,” Anderson said. “To me, the theme is: You have to live, no matter what. Olive always bucked up. She is a survivor.”
Olive soon crosses paths with Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), whose mother takes her own life and is convinced he should follow suit. In one of the miniseries’ most poetic and moving scenes, “she intercedes, she complicates my plan,” Smith told THR.
Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Kevin’s mother, appreciated Olive Kitteridge‘s directness in addressing depression and mental illness. “They are such a part of our community, but I think it’s still a very taboo thing in our culture — I really like the way the series handles it.”
After the screening, the cast was shuttled to the Altman Building to celebrate with craft cocktails served in mason jars, plus a buffet of rustic dishes including balsamic short ribs, maple-glazed Brussels sprouts and smashed red potatoes. Girls‘ Zosia Mamet and boyfriend Evan Jonigkeit snacked while standing up, while Tim Blake Nelson patiently stood in line for a cocktail just a few feet away. Upon leaving, guests received gift bags that included freshly baked doughnut holes — Olive’s snack of choice.
Olive Kitteridge premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. and continues Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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