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Real-Life Nomad Linda May on Finally Settling Down After Nomadland

Photo: Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock

In Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Linda May plays herself, a nomadic grandma living out of her vehicle who dreams of building an Earthship where she can settle down. She’s one of several transient characters in the film, who — either by choice or by force — have opted to leave a louder kind of life behind in pursuance of something more financially and environmentally sustainable. In reality, Linda May really did draw inspiration from Bob Wells, the organizer of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, known as the largest gathering of nomads in the U.S., who welcomed Linda May into a community of vandwellers and travellers. The film ends before we find out whether or not Linda May made it to that Earthship, but in a recent interview with Vulture, the nomad filled us in on her post-premiere life — including her 2021 awards season ambitions.

This interview has been edited and condensed from a conversation conducted during the writing of New York Magazine’s Chloe Zhao profile.

Hi, Linda May.
Well, hello. Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you over the phone. How are you? You’re in, is it New Mexico?

Are you on the road, or are you settled somewhere?
I’m settled. I bought bare land, and I’m developing it now. Off grid.

You talk about that in the movie, right? The house that you’re going to build is something you bring up.
Right. So I bought land in Taos, New Mexico, and there was a well casement here. So I’m developing the well, and I’m going to put in a greenhouse and finish my little cabin here.

That’s work that I would not know where to begin to do. It’s exciting.
Oh, well I was a general contractor.

Were you really?

So I’m really interested in hearing about what it was like to find your life being put onscreen, but also what it was like playing yourself — or a variation of yourself onscreen. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were approached? I know you were a major subject of the book.
I met Jessica Bruder at my first Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. I had a King Charles Cavalier spaniel, and so did Jessica. But she had to leave her dog in New York when she came out to do the interviews for her magazine article. So where it all started for me is when Jessica approached me, she said, “Can I pet your dog? And will you do an interview for Harper’s Magazine?” I immediately said yes. We just really hit it off together and had such a good time. So she did the magazine article, and then she was approached by her publisher: “This article is a book. You should write a book.” So she followed me around for like three years. I kept wondering, “Why is this woman following me around?” I knew she was writing the book, but I sure didn’t think that I would have anything interesting that … I just thought my life was pretty normal. But evidently, she saw a story there that reflected what was happening since 2008 to a lot of people.

And then the book was optioned by Frances McDormand’s company. When did you get approached about it as a movie?
Oh, I guess Jessica had been approached. She’s always calling me up and said, “Oh, this has happened. That’s happening.” You know? She said, “There’s talk of Hollywood here, Linda.” And I’m like, “No way, no way.” But a lot of incredible things had happened since the book. I know she spoke in front of a congressional dinner. I thought that was pretty incredible. So it wasn’t really surprising to me that she would get [a movie]. Nothing was surprising me anymore. It was all incredible. It was all like magic and miracles just kept happening.

So when did they raise the prospect of you being in the movie? Do you remember the first time they were like, “We want you to play yourself”?
Once I found out that the movie was on track, Chloe was out traveling, and she called me and said, “Can I stop by?” And this is when I had land in Douglas, Arizona. And so she came there, and we talked. And at that time, I had like seven other RTR friends — women — that were in the area. So I got them together, by the time Chloe was there. And we all sat around, and Chloe listened to stories and took us to dinner. I don’t remember exactly when they said, “Do you want to be in the movie?” But I think it was sort of assumed right from that meeting that I would have some small part.

How did you feel about that? Was it exciting? Was it nerve-wracking?
Well, I never had any intentions of being in a movie. That was just not on my radar at all. I thought maybe I’d walk through a scene or something, but it ended up being more than that. It just kept evolving for me. And I just said, “Okay, I’m just going to go along with all of this.” Because I wanted to have our story of van-dwellers and people that choose or somehow end up living in an RV [onscreen]. Some people choose it and some are forced into it, like Bob was forced into it, and end up loving the life. We could just shrug off what it is to live in the city — the constant traffic, the noise — to be in an RV in the forest with such peace. You think it’s quiet, but there’s all this wildlife around you, making all this noise. The birds singing and coyotes singing. But it’s peaceful. You just feel such a connection. You feel more alive there … well, I did. I felt more alive there than I ever did living in a city with noisy neighbors and sirens and air traffic. To not have any of those interruptions in your space is such a feeling of freedom.

When you watch the film, do you feel like it effectively represents the spectrum of people who end up as nomads?
Oh, yes. Chloe listened to the stories, and she retold the stories as she heard them, as she understood them. I know my girlfriend, when we went to the premiere, she had her son attend with us. And of course, it was at a drive-in [movie theater]. And she told me, as she was watching the movie, she said, “Now he sees what I’ve been telling him what my life is like.” And he told her that he had such a better understanding of what she was always trying to explain to him. And my children were there too. And they said they got the same thing. “Oh, is that what it’s like?” Yeah.

What was acting like for you? Did you get lines to memorize? Or was it more improvised work?
Oh, I just felt so appreciated and spoiled. By everybody, the crew. If I needed water, somebody would hand me water. They would ask me, “Do you need to eat? Are you hungry? Are you warm? Are you cold? Stand in the shade, get a blanket.” And Chloe would come and say, “Tell me the story about working at Amazon.” So we would do that. I’d tell the story. We hardly ever reshot anything. It was like, “Okay, that’s good.” I was expecting maybe when I first started that we’d be doing things like 25 times. I was hoping that wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t.

One of the really moving scenes in the movie is when you talk about your low points — and thinking about ending things — and the moment where you choose life on the road. Was it difficult to tell stories like these in front of the camera?
They made it so easy. I was doing that scene with Frances McDormand inside my little squeeze-in. I don’t know if you noticed where that was shot.

Your trailer, right?
Yeah. My trailer is like nine feet by six feet inside. And we had the sound man with a boom, and we had Josh with the camera, and Chloe was right behind. And Frances and I are so close together. I didn’t know how they were going to get the sound and the shots, but they worked miracles. And just telling Frances that it was a true story. So it was just, “Tell Frances the story.” So I did. It was a story about how low you can sink with no hope. And about finding Bob and our community. He called us a tribe. And with my Indian ancestry, I felt like, “Yes, I need a tribe.” They welcomed me with open arms.

When I went to my first RTR, I was having a problem with the refrigerator. I had a C-class before I had my trailer. And the C-class didn’t really work out for me. I met Swankie there. She said, “Well, hold on, let me go get somebody for you.” And a couple of guys came back with her, opened up my hood, opened up my RV, and fixed the problem. And expected no payment — just pay it forward, help who you can. They were just glad to be able to help another member of the tribe. We just had that immediate bond with each other because like we’re all sailing in the same boat.

Do you remember what your impressions were of Chloe when you first met her?
My grandson is a big movie buff and he has directors that he loves and thinks walk on water — like Quentin Tarantino, you know? And I met this little tiny Chinese girl, and she talked with such confidence and friendship with me. She totally put me at ease, just made me feel like whatever we were going to do together, she’s going to have my back. And she was very interested in our story, so I just trusted her from the time she stepped out of her van — that she’s so proud of, that she and [cinematographer Joshua James Richards] had built. She really made me feel like she was getting it. She showed up in her van.

I’ve seen your name among the contenders for Best Supporting Actress. What is it like to be part of awards season?
Oh, that I have bragging rights here. But I’m not too hopeful, really. With all the other real actresses. Who else is on the … well Swankie, I know is on the list. And I think, “Oh, I hope she gets it.”

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Nomadland’s Linda May on Finally Settling Down