Margo Martindale
Martindale as Mags Bennett in "Justified"Martindale as the Russian spy Claudia in "The Americans"

The Consummate Character Actress Enjoys Life as a Star

by Marilou Carlin


When Margo Martindale won her Emmy Award in 2011 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, the first thing she said in her acceptance speech was: “Sometimes things just take time. But with time comes great appreciation.” 


Two months earlier, Martindale (BA ’73, theatre & drama) had turned 60. And though she has enjoyed a long and rich career, steadily working in theatre, film, and television, her award-winning role as Mags Bennett in the FX series Justified took her from greatly admired character actress to bona fide star. “My career couldn’t have unfolded in a better way at a better time,” she said. “This has only made my life more comfortable and more fun at 61 years old.  It’s great.”


Since winning the Emmy, Martindale has filmed August: Osage County with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, and Ewan McGregor. Based on Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, and produced by the Weinstein Company and George Clooney, the high-profile film is slated for release in fall 2013. During this same period, she appeared in five other TV projects, including two as a series regular (A Gifted Man on CBS and the current FX series The Americans), and made three more movies, including Beautiful Creatures, starring Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis.


But it was Mags Bennett that first injected a dose of midlife magic into Martindale’s career. It was a role that might very well have been written specifically for this native of Jacksonville, Texas, who retains a hint of her Texas twang. When her agent told her that the producers wanted her to read for the role of a Kentucky mountain woman who’s the head of a drug ring, Martindale said, “Send them my reel; I’m not gonna read for that. If they don’t know I can do that, then what the hell?” Her agent replied that the producers wanted to hear her “say the words.” “Then he sent me the script,” she continued, “and I said, okay, I’ll go anywhere to read for this. It was so beautiful.”


Although the character is fairly terrifying and often despicable, Martindale says that “it was kind of a perfect strangeness that I’ve never gotten to play before that was absolutely easy as pie for me.”


Martindale says that playing unlikeable women is “deliriously fun,” which may be why she’s exceptionally good at it—she was also much acclaimed for her role as Hillary Swank’s mean and ungrateful mother in Million Dollar Baby. But far from being typecast in odious roles, Martindale has played a vast cross-section of characters over the years, including plenty of “good” women, such as Sister Colleen in Dead Man Walking and the charmingly innocent Carol in the final short film of the 2006 anthology Paris je t’aime.


Martindale says this remains her favorite role, perhaps because it was written specifically for her, by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), who also directed. It is virtually a silent film, with voiceover by Martindale in French (with a heavy American accent), which follows Carol as she tours Paris on her own while ruminating on the experience and her life. It culminates in an achingly poignant moment where Carol sits alone in a park and is suddenly overwhelmed by emotion, expressed entirely through her face. “It was about my youth and my childhood, my daughter when she was a child, the middle years of my life, the death of my mother… all of that in a single moment,” said Martindale.


The scene is a tour de force in cinematic acting technique. Yet Martindale’s early career was entirely on the stage. She started out studying at the small Lon Morris College, a Methodist junior college in her hometown that happened to have an excellent theatre department. In her sophomore year, she attended the University Resident Theater Association (URTA) auditions in their very first year of existence. Of the 23 schools auditioning that day, she was offered scholarships by 22. “I knew nothing 'cause I was just a hick from Jacksonville, Texas,” she said. “I chose Michigan because Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes were on their brochure cover!”


Unfortunately, URTA auditions were meant only for graduate students and U-M’s Theatre & Drama Department only offered undergrad degrees. But the department recognized her prodigious talent, so it sought and found a different scholarship to ensure her enrollment. Martindale’s college acting career soon took off. “I had a wonderful time at Michigan,” she said. “It was the early '70s, and wild and completely out of my element, but I seemed to fit in just fine.”


After graduating, Martindale took a job at the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard before moving to New York in 1974. She made ends meet with a variety of jobs: office worker, private investigator, waitress, spa consultant. The acting jobs were sporadic until her friend, playwright Jim McClure, wrote a role for her in 1977 for his play Laundry & Bourbon, a one-act set in the tiny town of Maynard, Texas. Though well reviewed, it didn’t make her an overnight success, so Martindale took matters into her own hands: “I called every theatre in the country that was doing that play and said, ‘I’m the original Hattie in Laundry & Bourbon, I could come to your theatre and do it.’ And that is how, honestly, I got many, many, many jobs.”


Next she was invited to join the Actor’s Theater of Louisville, in Kentucky, “the grandest place to act in the country,” she said. One of the premier venues for producing new plays, it was a boon for Martindale. She performed in dozens of new works over four years, toured Yugoslavia, Ireland, and Japan with the company, and starred in their hit production of Talking With at New York’s Manhattan Theater Club.


Then, in 1987, Martindale got the stage role that would change her life: she originated Truvy, the beauty salon owner, in the off-Broadway sensation Steel Magnolias. “Everybody in Hollywood came to see it,” said Martindale, “and that’s how I got in the movies.”


Since then, Martindale has made 49 films and appeared in 36 television series and films. The feature films include major studio productions (Lorenzo’s Oil, The Firm, The Hours), as well as stellar indies (The Savages and Feast of Love). Her television roles have ranged from guest appearances (Law & Order) to series regular on network shows (100 Centre Street) and cable series (The Riches) to TV films (Iron Jawed Angels) and mini-series (Lonesome Dove).


“It’s hard to keep a career going as a character actress,” said Martindale. “I happen to be extremely fortunate. Now I’m offered many more opportunities, bigger spans and arcs in movies and television.” In fact, she says, she prefers film and TV work to the stage. “It’s easier and more lucrative,” she said. “It appeals to my emotional state. When you’re doing a play, you don’t have a life for big hunks of time.”


Still, she intends to do more plays in the future. She is regularly invited back to Broadway, where she was nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award in 2004 for her role as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Coincidentally, she played that same role as a student at U-M, when she was just 20 years old. In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, Martindale marveled at the difference of playing the role at the different times of her life. “The speech at the end of that play—'Time goes by so quickly ...’— boy, did that have different weight from when I was 20 years old to when I was 50-something-odd years old. It's all about what you've experienced. You can't teach that to a younger actor. You have to have lived that."