Of all the performances Margo Martindale has delivered so far in 2016, perhaps her most revealing one has been on the animated Netflix series, BoJack Horseman. What the role reveals, however, is more about our perception of her than who she really is.
On the show–a jazzy, inventive riff on fame and depression–Martindale plays the role she was born for: Character Actress Margo Martindale. (She is never referred to with any fewer than all four words.) It’s telling that Will Arnett, a producer on the show and the voice behind BoJack, refused to take no for an answer when he asked Martindale to voice the character. It would have been tough for the creators of the show to pay tribute to her increasing ubiquity and range without the actress herself on board. Considering that Character Actress Margo Martindale is also a savage, down-for-whatever urban warrior on the show, it’s clear which of her roles seems to have most captured the popular imagination.
Although she came up in the world of theater–starting in her home state, Texas, and eventually New York–Martindale has been a fixture in TV and films since the early ’90s. She popped up consistently in all kinds of projects, slowly earning the title BoJack Horseman ascribed her, and then she found her niche in TV dramas like The Riches and Dexter. When she played the second season Big Bad on the neo-Western Justified, though, Martindale left an indelible impression on viewers and walked away with an Emmy. (Her first of three so far.) While that role may have taken viewers by surprise, by the time she showed up as the tough-as-nails Claudia on The Americans in 2013, it almost felt like typecasting.
What is it about Margo Martindale that makes her so believable as a heavy? In person, she’s as nice as you could want, with her distinctive and disarming Southern accent. Although she can narrow her eyes into cold, impassive slits onscreen and strike fear in the hearts of men, she also has a deeply expressive face that lends itself to more sympathetic characters. (When I mention her expressive face, Martindale more or less conducts an olympic floor routine of facial elasticity to sidestep this observation in a friendly way.) She can do a lot with a line that may seem to have no subtext as written. And she certainly gets the opportunity to do so in the indie dramedy, The Hollars.
Directed by Jim Krasinski, the new film is about a New York City transplant returning to his home town when his mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Watching Martindale disappear into the role of the ailing matriarch will almost make you forget that this is the same woman who plays a ruthless spymaster on The Americans. Almost. As the film continues its theatrical run, Co.Create spoke with Martindale about her late-career explosion and her approach to building a character.
“I don’t know that I ever decided I was gonna be a professional actor,” Martindale says. “I just knew that when I did a play in high school and everybody applauded, the feeling I had was ‘I think this is what I wanna do.’ I don’t even know if I thought it was what I wanted to do but I loved it and it never left.”
“I honestly always thought I could play lots of different people, always,” Martindale says. “In my career, they didn’t give me a lot of opportunity at the beginning and then you add a little bit more and they go, “Oh, well maybe.” And then a little bit more and and then finally somebody gave me something and then it sort of opened up that people have given me lots of different parts, lots of different people. Early on, I thought what I would be doing in the ’80s was a sitcom on television. It didn’t happen. Then I just went down the drama path and I’m grateful that this is the way it went.”
“I knew when I read Million Dollar Baby that I could do that role with my eyes closed,” Martindale says. “And that was the first mean person that came along. And then I had a little flurry of people calling me up to be badassess, little parts and things. And then Mags Bennett [the villain on season 2 of Justified, for which she won an Emmy] came along just kind of out of the blue and that changed everything. It’s fun to play the bad guy, but by now a role like Sally in The Hollars is refreshing.”
“It was freezing, we were at a warehouse, and it was ice cold,” Martindale says of the scene in season one of The Americans when Keri Russell beats her up and nearly drowns her. “They had heated the water. I couldn’t have my head go underwater because I had a burst eardrum, so I had to put my face in the water and then somebody else came in and got their head dunked down and I went back to the floor and then fell over and whatever. The fight guys are there telling you what to do, and I did most of it except for putting my head down into the water.”
“On a series, it’s evolving. You don’t know the end; you learn it as it comes to you. You try to get as much back-story as you can and then you go from there,” Martindale says. “On a movie, you have the whole story in front of you and then you try to forget the end of it and stay in the moment. It’s the same technique doing it, it’s just a different head that you’re in because in the show I’m doing now, Sneaky Pete, I don’t really know where I’m going, which is exciting. I ask a lot of questions to certain people about the character’s backstory. Usually in a movie you know the story but in a television show I do ask a lot of questions about it so that in the quiet you know where you fall to. I need to know the world that my head goes to.”
“You know what was going through my head in this movie?” Martindale says. “Everything that was happening. It was very easy to be in this world without anything but who I was going through my head. It was the most I feel ‘there’ that I’ve ever been. Maybe it’s the gravity of what the character is going through. But that’s what I always try to do. Forget the camera is there. Forget it. Don’t think about it, don’t think about where it is or where it’s gonna get you, don’t ask all those stupid questions like what size lens is this or which side do I look over at—just be there and forget the camera and that’s it.”
“I’m grateful for this time. It’s fabulous. It’s different to be in a place where I don’t have to audition for everything,” Martindale says. “I don’t mind auditioning. I like it. I’ve always liked it. But it’s nice to not have to prepare something that you might not get, put your heart and soul in something and you don’t get it. Honestly, though, I always believed in myself. So if I didn’t get a part I thought they were just stupid.”