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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Margo Martindale, a Texas-born character actress who has appeared in TV shows and movies since the late ’80s, crossing paths with Susan Sarandon (four times), Nicole Kidman (three times), Paul Newman (twice), and just about every name in Hollywood, big or small. Though she’s only played a leading role once—as Carol, an American visiting Paris for the first time in “14th Arrondissement,” Alexander Payne’s superb entry in the Paris, Je T’Aime anthology—Martindale has brought her subtle, naturalistic performance style to a range of substantial roles in film and television, including Lorenzo’s Oil, Dead Man Walking, Nobody’s Fool, Million Dollar Baby, and TV’s The Riches and Dexter. In the second season of Justified, Martindale makes a strong impression as the soft-spoken but ruthless matriarch of a family that controls the marijuana trade in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Justified (2011)—“Mags Bennett”
The A.V. Club: Your Justified character is sinister and dangerous, but actors who play sinister characters generally aren’t inclined to think of them that way. What was your approach to playing Mags?
Margo Martindale: I took to heart what they said about her being a traditional woman. I’m very much God-fearing and of the earth. And there are laws and rules that I’ve made, and I believe that everybody else should abide by them. And if they don’t, then they break the law and then I have to kill them. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you enjoy playing these characters? You don’t necessarily have a chance to play this type too often.
MM: It comes so easily to me, it’s frightening. [Laughs.]
AVC: What does that say about you?
MM: I don’t know, because I’m a very nice person. [Laughs.] But that dark, sinister, mean thing is just as easy as sleeping is for me. It’s a great place to be, because you don’t have to think one moment about putting on airs of any kind as an actress. You don’t have to think about prettying it up. Just let it drop to the bottom and go from there. It’s a wonderful place to go from. It’s very liberating.
AVC: You share a lot of scenes with Jeremy Davies, an actor with strange, unpredictable rhythms. What’s it like to play opposite him?
MM: Honestly, that first episode I did with him—I live under a rock. I came home and looked him up. I had no idea who he was. I don’t know who anybody is, which makes it so much easier to act, so you don’t think of all that shit. Because I thought he was spectacular. I couldn’t believe how good he was. And I said to him, “Are you Southern?” And he said, “Well, you know, I’ve been all over.” Of course he’s not. He’s just got this incredible accent. He’s extremely serious. He’s extremely funny. I think he’s delicious. I looked him up, and of course he’s a damn star. And a sex symbol! I am shocked! [Laughs.] I love him. I think he’s great.
AVC: You’ve been inclined to take a lot more roles in television in recent years. Is there a reason behind that?
MM: Well, let’s clear that up, Scott. I have been given many more roles in television in recent years. What I always wanted from the get-go was a television series. And it just takes me a long time. I just have to persevere, and things finally seem to be falling in place. [Laughs.] I started out in the theater. I did many hit plays—I did Steel Magnolias, then everybody came to see that, and that’s how I got into the movies. And I love the movies, but television, television is real nutty. I mean, it’s a big difference for a character actor. It’s the only place character actors can make real money. That’s the truth.
AVC: With the movies, you’re bouncing around for a week here and a few days there, I’m guessing.
MM: I’ve done long periods on movies, too, and that’s money in the real world. Lots of money in the real world. But television is the lottery. And this thing just fell out of the blue for me. I came out here for the première of Secretariat, and my agent said “Do you want to go meet these people on this project?” And I said “Well, what is it?” He sent it to me, I read it, and I said “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read. Yes. Tell me where to go.”
AVC: Had you seen the first season at all?
MM: No. I didn’t even know what it was. I think maybe somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard “Justified,” and I certainly knew who Timothy [Olyphant] was. But I didn’t watch Deadwood. I don’t even really watch that much television. I didn’t know, so I caught up on it as fast as I could. It’s incredible. But the writing is so unbelievable, you’d go anywhere to do that. It’s like I landed in a pot o’gold. [Laughs.]
Days Of Thunder (1990)—“Donna”
AVC: You made a couple of TV appearances before, but this was your first studio movie. What was your impression?
MM: My daughter was a year old. It was like her first Christmas when we were first shooting that. I went in, I read for it. Tony Scott, the director, liked me a lot, even though I had no idea what I was doing. And they had me come. I was the timekeeper for the racetrack—Donna, the timekeeper. I think I said two or three words. I have no idea. I don’t remember what I said. Maybe a sentence or two. I was there for a long time, and then they asked me if I would do the whole movie, go down to Daytona and everywhere with them, because they liked me for whatever reason. I don’t know what I was adding, because I wasn’t adding anything, but they liked me.
AVC: Just to be there on the screen, not saying anything?
MM: I was the timekeeper. I sat in a chair. Donna the timekeeper. And I guess they were gonna give me something to do, but I said, “I don’t want to do this whole movie. I want to go home and be with my baby. Don’t make me go to Daytona.” What I didn’t know was that you got residuals on movies. And had I done that whole thing—I guess I just didn’t know what I was doing. But I got out of it, and they let me go home. [Laughs.] But when I was going home for Christmas, I sat next to [Robert] Duvall. Now, Duvall’s assistant was from Texas, and he was like “Call that girl, ask her, I want her to go to lunch with us.” But I’d always say no, because I’m so gaga over Robert Duvall that I thought if I went to lunch, I would make a fool of myself. So I declined every time. And then we were flying home for Christmas, and I sat next to him. And he said, “What are you doing on this plane?” I said, “I’m going home for Christmas.” He said, “You’re not the real timekeeper?” I said, “No, I’m acting the timekeeper! I’m an actress!” All that time I thought he believed I was so good in my stupid non-part that he wanted to have me out to lunch, and he thought I was a real person. [Laughs.]
AVC: For someone early on in her film career, it seems like you weren’t clamoring for work. You didn’t want to go to Daytona. You didn’t want to have lunch with Robert Duvall—
MM: Well, I only didn’t want to because I didn’t want to show my cards, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as he thought I was. That’s really why.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)—“Wendy Gimble”
MM: Now that was a part. I got that because I was doing a play in New York, and George Miller and Nick Enright came to see me in this play twice. First they had me come in, then they came back to see me in the play, and then they cast me in that lovely part. It was a great experience. I love George Miller. I thought he was a genius. And I thought that movie was beautiful.
AVC: There are so few films with that level of emotional intensity. Did that suffuse the set?
MM: It was very highly charged, with George and Susan [Sarandon] and Nick [Nolte]. It was powerful. A very emotional time. I remember sitting and having this feeling—often when I’m doing something I really love, sitting in those chairs with the sun beating down on you and the wind blowing and the leaves blowing by, and thinking, “Man, this is the greatest.” And I had that feeling then, and I’ve had it many times on Justified already. So it’s nice.
AVC: It was the first of four movies you’ve made with Susan Sarandon. Is it fair to say she advocated for your casting in future roles?
MM: I think Tim [Robbins] and she both did for Dead Man Walking, yes. And then another stupid thing for television she asked me to do, which kept me from doing a huge movie role, because they wouldn’t let me out, and the scene that conflicted with whatever movie this was—a scene that was later cut. And then I did Twilight with Susan, too, but Susan and I didn’t work together. Just Paul Newman and Liev Schreiber.
AVC: What film was it you couldn’t do?
MM: I think it was Runaway Bride. A huge commercial hit.
Dead Man Walking (1995)—“Sister Colleen”
MM: Very heavy atmosphere there, too. It was an interesting time, being with Helen Prejean and Tim and Susan. And a couple of times Tim, Susan, myself, and a few other people went to executions. The parents of a real kid who was killed, they made it their mission in life to go to all executions. And we were there, of course, protesting the execution, but they were there to support the death penalty. And I remember them seeing us and all of us trying to hide in the car, because they knew who Tim and Susan were. Anyway, the shoot overall was great. I remember thinking that everybody felt we were down making a movie in New Orleans, and I think most people thought no one would see it. That was sort of the feeling on that movie.
AVC: Was there a freedom to that?
MM: Tim was committed to making a movie that showed both sides [of the issue], and it was a movie that meant a lot to him, to both of them. They didn’t care where it fell. I think there was a lot of freedom in that, and they did what they wanted to do. Isn’t that the lesson of it all? Just do what you want to do, and if they don’t like it, fuck ’em.
The Firm (1993)—“Nina Huff”
MM: Dreamy time. I answered the phone “Mr. McDeere.” But he [Tom Cruise] was so sweet and so nice. And I had been with them in Days Of Thunder, so I had seen Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman get together. You know, I saw them sitting next to each other and stuff like that. I certainly wasn’t privy to anything. And there they were together by The Firm. And he was so sweet to me. He had gone home for Christmas. I was there for a long time, and he came back and got down on his knees in front of me, and he said, “I saw a movie over Christmas. And I saw my secretary, and she was playing this wonderful part!” And it was Lorenzo’s Oil. He was sweet, very sweet. And I did another movie with Nicole. They all kinda always remembered me, which was very nice.
Nobody’s Fool (1994)—“Birdy”
Twilight (1998)—“Gloria Lamar”
AVC: You got to do two interesting movies with Paul Newman and Robert Benton, Nobody’s Fool and Twilight. What were those experiences like?
MM: Robert Benton is like my oldest brother. He feels like kinfolk to me. We come from the same part of the country, and I just think he’s one of the great filmmakers. I love him dearly. I really do. Doing that part in Nobody’s Fool was just wonderful. It was wonderful to be with Paul Newman, who was shy and quiet and professional and wonderful. Then when we did reshoots in the summertime, Paul came to my dressing room, and from that moment on, we were friends. And then when we did Twilight, Benton wrote that for me, and Paul wanted me to do it, and it was great. I died in the arms of Paul Newman. What’s better than that? And then I did a play on Broadway and he came to see me and called me “Mucho.” He said, “You’re blowing them off the stage, Mucho. You’re blowing them off the stage.” It was Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Of course he had done it himself.
AVC: You started as a stage actress. Is that something you return to frequently or less frequently over the years?
MM: Less frequently. I did Cat five years ago. I was nominated for a Tony, with Jason Patric and Ashley Judd and Ned Beatty. It was great. But it’s hard work. I’m all for a couple of plays a year. Day shows, a week. If it’s a short run and it’s a really good part, I think might say yes. I was offered a play in London about six months ago. They inquired about availability for a Broadway musical, which I would have liked to do, but it started before Justified stops. If you sign a contract, you’re locked in for six months to a year, that’s the hard part, and you’re not available to do television and film. I love it all, but I probably like television and film more right now, at my age, which will be 60. It’s not as hard work. Work is harder for stage, the commitment is harder. It’s all harder. Do I want to do one again? Yes I do. I really want to do a musical.
AVC: Have you done a lot of musicals?
MM: I had done a lot of musicals before I went to New York, but I’ve only done one in New York. I’m not a great singer at all, but I can sing, and I can dance. [Laughs.] I do want to do that.
Law & Order (1996)—“Ms. Best”
MM: I worked in a travel agency. I was a travel agent. It was a tiny little part. And I never did a Law & Order. I don’t even think they ever asked me to do one. I did Law & Order: SVU, but when I did “Atonement” [the name of the L&O episode], Martha [Mitchell], the lovely director, asked me to do it because she’d seen Dead Man Walking. But it was a tiny little part. The Law & Order: SVU episode that I did, I was a horrible woman who kept children in cages, and I guess of course that came from Million Dollar Baby. [Laughs.]
Paris, Je T’Aime (2006)—“Carol”
MM: That’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Alexander Payne had me come in to meet him for About Schmidt, not for [Kathy] Bates’ part, but for another part, because Bates was already involved. And basically he said, “I just wanted you to come in so I could tell you how much I love you, and how beautiful I think you are.” And I thought, “Yeah, well, this guy’s really full of shit.” That’s all I met Alexander for. And then I got a call out of the blue, the agent said, “I gave your number to Alexander Payne, he wanted to call you.” So he called and said, “Hi Margo, this is Alexander Payne, do you remember me? I’ve written a movie for you. I’ve never written anything for anyone. There’s no money in it. Will you come to Paris and do it?” And I said, “Well let me think. Yes. Yes, I will.” [Laughs.] And then he told me the story of it and then we hung up. Then he called back and said, “Oh wait, do you speak French?” And I said, “Not a word.” He said, “Even better.” That’s how it happened.
AVC: What about the experience of shooting it?
MM: It was probably the best experience I’ve ever had. Because I was the star of an eight, nine-minute movie. And Alexander and I—somehow he understood me in a way that other people don’t. I don’t know why. He understood my emotional capacity. And he’d go and direct me like it was a silent movie, which was fabulous. We shot the last part of it on the park bench first. He said, “Okay, you don’t even have to worry anymore. It’s done. Now let’s just go and have fun.” Before I got there he asked me to watch a Fellini movie, Nights Of Cabiria, and study the actress [Giulietta Masina]. He wanted me to have that feeling, and whatever it was, it clicked in me. It was sort of an innocent, naïve, wide-eyed, childlike view of the world. And when we’d get to a place, he’d say, “Cabiria—think of her.” Different times, not all the time. Then we had the grueling eight or nine hours of French voiceover, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. [Laughs.] It was really hard. He spoon-fed it to me. I’d like to take all the credit for that, but it really was Alexander’s masterpiece in that part. Really was. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s sort of a perfect little movie.
It’s All About Love (2003)—“Betsy”
AVC: This was Thomas Vinterberg’s follow-up to The Celebration, and it had a rocky trip, to say the least.
MM: What I remember mostly was that it was one of the first times I didn’t have to audition. Thomas Vinterberg had seen my reel and met with me, and I said, “Do you want me to read something?” And he said, “Oh God! I would never ask you to read anything! Would you like to do this?” I said, “Yes!” He asked us to watch Rosemary’s Baby. So he had in his head that it was very much a film like that, I think. I remember one time during the filming, Thomas said, “I thought I was making an interesting movie. I didn’t know I was making a weird movie.” [Laughs.] But it was extremely fun being in Sweden and Denmark with those guys. I had a blast, a blast with Joaquin [Phoenix] and Claire Danes. Did I think it was going to be great? I thought it might be strange. I loved The Celebration so much, and I think everybody was in [It’s All About Love] because of that. I’m sure Joaquin and Claire and Sean Penn all did it because of that movie, it was just so incredible. And I guess—has Thomas done anything else?
Million Dollar Baby (2004)—“Earline Fitzgerald”
MM: I went in and I read it. I was out in Los Angeles doing something, and they wanted me to come in and audition out here, and I said, “No. This is why I’m going to have to wait until I get back in New York, because I feel more comfortable in New York. So when I go back to New York, I’ll go in.” I did the whole part in the audition; of course, [Clint Eastwood] wasn’t there. But when I met him, both Clint and one of the producers or the DP or something said, “We all sat in a dark room and when we saw you, we just said, ‘That’s it.’” As far as the performance goes, I walked into the house and did what I did when I auditioned. And I finished and said, “Well, what do you think?” And he said, “It looks great.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, did you like it?” I said, “I’m only listening to what you say.” I think we did two takes and we were done.
AVC: He’s kind of famous for that, just getting things done in a couple of takes and moving on.
MM: Done, done, done. It was the quietest set you’ll ever be on. It’s not like there are any cameras there, so it’s like you’re really play-acting with the sun beating down on you, hoping that God or somebody is watching, when you’re doing it all by yourself. That’s what it’s like working on his set.
AVC: Do you like working that way? Doing things that quickly?
MM: It just depends on what it is. It depends on how much business there is. If there’s a lot of business, I would like to at least have enough rehearsal that I’m comfortable with the business before I do it. I think a lot of times, you can get what you want fast because it’s fresher. Sidney Lumet’s like that, too. I did a series with him and a movie with him. But you rehearse a long time with Sidney.
AVC: Do you like that as well? To rehearse and know how things are going to go?
MM: I like to rehearse in a less formal way. Sometimes I think you lose the spontaneity if you rehearse like a play. Sidney rehearses like a play. He sets up a prop table and you do run-throughs. It really cuts down on costs.
AVC: You feel like some of the freshness is lost, like you leave your best take in rehearsal?
MM: I think you do. A little bit. I remember when I did Lorenzo’s Oil, I had to break down out by a car, and I didn’t know then that they were filming me. I didn’t know anything! I was going full out, and I was so full. I never could get back there. It takes a long time to learn that you don’t throw it all out there in the very beginning. I didn’t know that. [Laughs.]
MM: Oh man. I love Dexter, I love the writing on Dexter, I love Michael C. Hall. I did the first three years. I did two episodes in season one, one in season two, and two in season three. The kickoff thing they gave me was really, really worth it. And that season three, we did two key-lime pie episodes, and the guy who directed me in 100 Centre Street, Steve Shill, directed me on the second episode of the key-lime pie, and it was so great to have somebody who knew me and knew what I could do. [Martindale’s character plays a terminally ill woman who asks Dexter to euthanize her via poisoned key-lime pie. —ed.] I thought I was doing a good job for most people, but Steve came to me and said, “Margo. You can go deeper.” He wasn’t quite buying it. He challenged what I was doing and he made me better. And I was sad to be dead, but I don’t know where I was going to go with that character. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there any residual bitterness there, since they killed you off?
MM: [Laughs.] No, no. Not at all.