Margo Martindale still remembers the moment she decided she wanted to be a screen actress.
“When I left University of Michigan, I went to Harvard to act in a play at Threepenny Opera with Christopher Reeve,” the actress recently told IndieWire. “I remember sitting on the campus of Harvard, sitting under a tree and a light hit me in such a way. I was just thinking and I thought, ‘That’s what I’d like to do.'”
It may sound a bit like divine intervention, but Martindale had long been thinking about making the jump from stage acting, something she had done since she was just a kid, to the big screen. The Texas native knows the story sounds a little funny, but she delivers it with such conviction that it’s hard to deny. And she certainly has a sense of humor about it.
“That’s really what happened,” Martindale laughed. “That’s how it happened.”
The Scene Stealer
Martindale wasn’t nervous about shifting professional and creative gears – “No, I knew from sitting under that tree that I could do it,” she half-joked – and she approached her decision with her trademark gusto. Although it was hardly a quick rise to the top (Martindale’s first film didn’t come along until 1990, nearly twenty years after her moment under the tree), she built up a steady string of Off-Broadway theater work that kept her busy and growing.
By the time she landed that first film role as a “pit girl” in Tony Scott’s “Days of Thunder,” she was a scene-stealing character actress that everyone couldn’t help but admire. A popular story holds that her “Thunder” co-star Robert Duvall actually mistook her for a real pit girl when he first met her, proof of her early ability to embody any kind of role she put her mind to.
In the years that followed, Martindale continued to steal scenes left and right, thanks to turns in films as diverse as “Million Dollar Baby” and “Orphan” and lauded roles in television series like “The Americans” and “Justified.” Throughout her three decades on the big screen, Martindale has worked consistently (she has an even 100 credits on her IMDb profile at the present moment), and she’s rarely had to place quantity over quality.
“Well, let me just say, as I’ve gotten older, the parts have gotten better,” Martindale said when asked about how her career has changed over time. “As I’ve gotten older, it got bigger and bigger. The parts got bigger and bigger and more interested and more complicated.”
It’s not the kind of story people often hear about women in Hollywood – especially women like Martindale, who are in their mid-sixties and damn proud of it – but Martindale’s focused work ethic and ability to work in a myriad of genres have taken her far. One might even say she’s our best character actress.
“Character Actress Margo Martindale”
That’s certainly the thinking at Netflix animated series “BoJack Horseman,” which cast Martindale as herself – kind of – back in 2014, literally in the role of “Character Actress Margo Martindale.” She loves it. “I’m bonkers about it,” Martindale said of the show.
It’s also introduced her to a new subset of fans, many of whom manage to recognize her out in public, despite the fact that her “BoJack” avatar is, of course, an animated version of her.
“Some girl stopped me yesterday,” Martindale said. “I said, ‘What, do you recognize me from my cartoon?’ She said, ‘Well, I knew who you were.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s kind of a culty, wonderful thing.”
Martindale is also out promoting her latest feature film, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars,” which casts Martindale as a big-talking, big-hearted matriarch who must prepare her family – including Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley and Krasinski himself – for the worst when she falls ill with a massive brain tumor. The film premiered at Sundance in January and is now heading into its theatrical release, and Martindale’s sustained enthusiasm for the project is invigorating.
Perhaps it’s because of the serendipitous nature of the film, or at least of working with Krasinski.
“Get Margo Martindale, And I’ll Do It”
“John and I had done a commercial together in 2000, a Marshalls commercial, and we connected big time then,” Martindale remembered. “When I was doing [the television series] ‘The Millers,’ John was good friends with [co-star] Will Arnett, and he said, ‘Do you know how to get in touch with her?’ and I said, ‘Please tell John to call me. I haven’t talked to him in 16 years.'”
Martindale had also previously done a film with screenwriter James C. Strouse – 2009’s “The Winning Season” – and loved his writing. By the time Krasinski sent her the script for “The Hollars,” she was pretty much sold. Jenkins, who plays her husband in the film, helped matters, too, as Martindale explained that he told Krasinski, “Get Margo Martindale, and I’ll do it.”
The filming experience was very special for Martindale, who reveled in being directed by a fellow actor, something she says she finds “comforting” for her actorly spirit. Martindale still prepares for each part with a serious eye for the craft and the process.
“I approach each thing coming from the text of the film, the play, the television show, and try to figure out what the facts are and then try to come up with somebody that I haven’t done before,” she said.
Despite the success Martindale has found in her long-running career – including two Emmys for her work on “Justified” and “The Americans” – the actress can’t help but get starry-eyed when it comes to awards talk. When asked if she still gets excited about accolades after all these years, she laughed, “Absolutely. Are you kidding?”
She added, “I’m a baby at all that. That started at 50, though I did win best actress in college at 18. Maybe in high school, too, but I was the only one acting in high school.”
Plenty of performers talk at length about how lucky they are for their particular careers or special breaks, but Martindale truly seems to believe she’s been especially, notably fortunate.
“It takes an opportunity to show that you have more goods than others thought,” she reflected. “So many actors who are really gifted and talented just don’t get the opportunity. I happened to get that opportunity. I’ve been very, very, very, very fortunate, and I’m very grateful for my career and that at 60, I won an Emmy.”
She smiled and added, “It’s really good.”
“The Hollars” is in theaters today, August 26.