Earlier this summer, Upper West Side native Martha Plimpton celebrated her first Emmy nomination for her first starring role as a TV regular, in the Fox comedy Raising Hope. Then she cleaned up a bunch of dog poop in her shower, a fact that she made sure to mention in the press release. (“Apparently my dog is so excited, she has explosive diarrhea.”) The dog is Eloise, a two-year old wheaten-terrier mutt Plimpton adopted this January from an L.A. shelter after falling in love with a video of her being petted on Facebook. And the role is her very funny turn as lovably salty house cleaner Virginia Chance, who takes care of her senile Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman); believes her father was killed by a duck; and becomes a grandma at age 39, when her son Jimmy (Lucas Neff) — whom she had at age 15 — accidentally knocks up a serial killer (Bijou Phillips). Plimpton took Jada Yuan to the Riverside Park dog run with Eloise to talk about Cloris Leachman’s insanity, the time she almost killed Stephen Colbert, and why she decided to do TV.
How did you wind up adopting Eloise?
We were not looking for a dog, but on Facebook people put up these alerts: “Please help, this dog’s about to be offed immediately.” She’s so fucking cute. Look at that face! Look at those eyelashes!
Is she your first dog?
She had one predecessor in my adulthood, Alice, who was, rest in peace, the greatest dog in the world — before Eloise, that is. She was a yellow Lab; I had her for fourteen years, and she went with me everywhere. We drove across country together twelve times. Getting her was one of the best decisions I had ever made. I love dogs because they’re so adaptable. I’ve had cats all my life and obviously loved them, but the litter box, and the having to always get a house sitter, they’re just too — they’re too rigid. Cats are too needy somehow. They need to be home all the time, they can’t be moved around or taken anywhere without getting pissed off and weird and peeing on the furniture. Every little change irritates them. I feel like dogs are so much easier. Yes, you have to walk them, but, you know, I walk. I can take a dog with me to walk. I just feel like they’re more adaptable.
Let’s talk Raising Hope. You got three Tony nominations in a row — for The Coast of Utopia, Top Girls, and Pal Joey, your first musical. What made you decide to do TV? Were you tired of the hustle that comes with working in theater?
I can’t say that that’s why I decided to do TV, because if I’d found something great that I’d wanted to do earlier, I would have. It’s not like I was turning down TV work left and right. Doing theater was the way I could work that was the most welcoming to me. It had the most opportunity for me, it had more roles for me to play, there were more people in theater who wanted to work with me and who I wanted to work with. And that’s not over. It just so happened that this series-regular job came along that actually seemed like it would be fun, and not, like, exhausting drudgery. And the people were really nice. This guy Greg Garcia who created the show is actually a human being. He’s a very loyal guy, and he’s very interested in making something that’s quality, that’s gonna last. He’s funny as hell, but he’s not cruel. There’s a lot of cruel comedy, and I don’t relate to it. It doesn’t stay funny to me. It’s funny for a minute and then it’s depressing and ugly.
What’s an example of cruel comedy?
It’s hard for me to think of an example without being insulting to somebody else’s work, so I don’t want to say, but there’s a lot of bickering at each other or bitching at each other or putting each other down on TV. And our show has a much sweeter, more humane side to it; even though these people are hardly genteel. I like that about it. It makes me happy to go to work. I remember we had one director who came on and said, “That was really funny, but could you do a little bitchy?” And I was like, “You know what? That’s not a good direction for me. I’m probably not going to be able to help you with that.” He stopped saying things like that after I told him that I thought that was dumb. But respectfully. I wasn’t mean!
It seems like your character has softened some over the course of the season.
She’s softened some. I think they obviously wanted more women to watch, and women get freaked out when they see a woman smoking around a baby. They’re like “Ew!”
Did you know your character was going to quit smoking in the second episode?
I was disappointed. We weren’t smoking real cigarettes on the show, we were smoking herbal cigarettes, but I was disappointed because I thought it was a fantastic element of the character. Part of the reason I wanted to do the show was like, “This is ballsy. People aren’t doing this on television.” But the fact is that television is television and you have an audience that you want to titillate without offending. And it’s true: Cigarettes are disgusting and they kill people and we don’t want to encourage their use, but at the same time you want to be creatively free to sort of tell a story about characters. In a strange way, I feel like the fact that I got to smoke in the first two episodes established Virginia in a way, but now we almost don’t need the cigarettes. Though I do miss having that kind of behavioral tic. I encouraged and wanted them to write into an episode that Virginia would get caught sneaking, relapsing.
Of course, because nobody quits cold turkey like that.
Nobody does! Like, “Of course! She’s just magically without cigarettes!” But even the hint of that, I think the network just didn’t want to go for. And I completely understand it, I totally get it, I have no argument with it really, at all. But yeah, I was a little bit bummed, like, “Oh, darn it. That was fun.” That was fun to do.
It must also be pretty fun to work with Cloris Leachman.
Who wouldn’t want to experience that at least once in their life?
What is it like experiencing that?
I mean, it’s great! We’re so lucky to have her. She’s so completely out of her mind, and in the best possible ways. In some ways, you know, when you want to make your day, it’s a little bit annoying, but the fact is that you get so much good stuff from her, she’s so comically on point, and she’s so imaginative and totally fearless, that it’s completely worth dealing with her insanity. Which can be really very charming.
What’s an example of the insanity?
She’s just all over the place. She’s just having a good time. She’s at a party, right? And she’s keeping the party going.
Keeping it going in her head?
Everywhere. She just wants to talk to everybody, she wants to tell everybody what she thinks about their hair. But it’s not because she’s not interested in doing good work. That’s not it. It’s just she’s having such a good time. So you have to enjoy that. You just have to let go and love it. And it’s totally worth it. I think she’s just phenomenal. We’re so lucky she’s doing it, and she’s got stories, and stories, and stories. Just great stories about, like … how the mustache came to be in High Anxiety [Leachman played a demented villainess], the eyebrows for Frau Blücher [in Young Frankenstein]. All that stuff.
And how did they come to be?
It mostly has to do with her being late to set because she’s playing around putting on thick eyebrows, and they’re like, “We don’t have time to take them off. Let’s just shoot.” And so that’s how the eyebrows came to be. It’s stuff like that you kind of have to go, “Oh well, this is where her creativity comes. It comes in being late and making last-minute decisions.” But they’re always priceless. It’s always unforgettable. People love it. I mean, she once ate shaving cream for a gag. That’s in the show! She doesn’t do it every episode, thank God. But in the pilot, her character didn’t really talk very much. She just kind of screamed and ran around topless, and as we’ve gone on the writers have written to all of our strengths.
Was she actually topless?
Oh, no, no, no! No, not intentionally. But no, she —
What do you mean “not intentionally”?
I can’t — these aren’t all — I can’t answer all the questions! But um, no, the writers just decided that they needed to write for her, they needed to give her dialogue, and they needed to give her a lot of it, because she’s just so damn funny. Her delivery is just so — it’s so good. And nobody else can approximate it. It’s very hard to imitate Cloris Leachman.
I have tried. I’m not very good at it.
How have the writers played to your strengths?
I don’t know. I’m not in the writers’ room ever. It scares me. I don’t know what goes on in there. I don’t want to know. But I think they know that I’m really conscious about not being the “tsk tsk” mother, that Virginia is sort of in there with the rest of them, being just as much of a screw-up. It’s more fun when they’re on the same team and they’re all sort of battling some outside adversary, or some outside conflict.
Even if the outside adversary is Cloris Leachman shooting at them while they hide in an attic.
Exactly. It’s more fun if the family operates as a team than if the mom is this kind of disapproving sourpuss, which is more common in sitcoms, I think.
When you got this job and learned you’d have to split your time between New York and L.A., was that heartbreaking?
No. I haven’t moved there. I rent a furnished house, and I take a suitcase, and I don’t consider it my home at all. We just started out shooting thirteen episodes and then hoping it would get picked up. And now that we know we have a second season, I’m going to do the same thing. It’s an unusual situation for me to be working and making a living.
Do you just generally have to accept one or the other?
Yes. Television is the only place for an actor to actually make a living anymore. You can’t make a living in the theater. You really can’t. Even on Broadway. You might make some good money for a couple months or whatever, but it’s not going to get you out of any holes if you’re in debt. And in movies, where there’s less and less work for an actor like me, it’s extremely hard to get a job that’s gonna pay above scale.
What do you mean “an actor like me”?
Meaning a female character actor who’s above 22, who isn’t, like, a super-gorgeous, stunning superstar. There’s just not that much work. There’s not that many movies getting made that are gonna cast an actor like me. There’s a stable of, like, ten people that people are willing to hire and the rest is kind of catch as catch can. Which is fine, really. You’re not going to hear me complaining at all about my lot. I’m very, very happy with my career and I have no complaints. But that’s the reality. If you want to actually pay off your bills, or if you have student loans, or if you’re an actor coming out of school and you need to make money, and live in an apartment by yourself and not with three roommates, you have to do television.
Does doing Raising Hope make you want to have a kid?
Uh, God, this subject! [Laughs.] Well, I mean, everything makes you want to have a kid. You’re 40, you’re getting old, your ovaries are drying up. The gynecologist is like “SO, are you thinking about it?” Everybody wants to know, “Are you thinking about it? Are you thinking about it?” I’ll put it to you this way: I don’t dislike children as much as I used to. I have a much higher tolerance for them now. And those babies that are on our show are the cutest, sweetest, cuddliest — I mean, they smell good. I’ve definitely learned to enjoy their presence a lot more during this show.
But for now the dog motherhood is enough?
Yeah. It’s such a crazy — nobody asks men this question. “So, do you wanna have kids?” No offense, but it’s the question everybody feels like they can ask. “So, what are you going to do with your reproductive organs?” “What are your plans for your body?” “What’s your sex life like?” I mean, it would be great, it would be nice, but who knows? I’m not really a planner. Apparently, as you can see, because I’m 40 years old. I feel like most of my life, obviously, everything has always been about work. Those things have always come second. I’ve always supported myself, I’ve always been financially independent to a greater or lesser degree, but when you’re independent like that, and you’re female, and you’re working, it’s just — you wake up one morning: “Holy shit! Oh, that’s right, I didn’t do that. Huh.” You know what I mean? So I guess it’s accurate to say that I’m at that point, where I’ve woken up and gone, “Oh yeah! Wait a minute, I’m 40! What? How did I turn 40? That’s crazy. Three seconds ago I was 30. Three seconds ago. And in five seconds I’m going to be 50. What?!” It goes like THAT. It does, it goes like that.
On to a less charged topic: You did a concert production of Company in which you played Stephen Colbert’s wife and had a scene in which you two fought karate-style.
Yeah, he taught me some acrobatics that he’d done in a show with Amy Sedaris, so I basically learned what she used to do. She used to crawl up on his shoulders, and from a handstand he’d flip her onto his shoulders.
You know how to do a handstand?
No, I can’t. He taught me how to do it. And one night, actually — oh my God — he said, “You have to do it with more momentum because I can’t reach out for your legs,” and the next time I did it, I had so much momentum that I almost paralyzed him. I got him clean in the center of the forehead with my shoe. It was bad. It was really bad. I was horror stricken with what I’d done. Luckily he was okay in the end. He just could not have been more patient and sweet and forgiving, thank God. I felt so guilty. I did almost kill him.
What are you reading in your downtime?
I’ve been reading a lot of articles. I started reading Letters to a Young Contrarian, which is an older collection of Christopher Hitchens essays. It’s so fantastic. I just love that guy. I think that he’s just essential. He makes me feel less alone, which I really like. And I just love his pure rationality. It’s very soothing. You wouldn’t call Christopher Hitchens soothing. But I find him really soothing.
Does it bother you that he thinks women aren’t funny?
He sort of restarted that conversation. And as much as I love Christopher Hitchens, on that front I don’t know what he’s talking about. He was saying that women aren’t as funny as men because they don’t need to be, because humor is a way of getting people to pay attention to you, and women don’t require humor in order for men to pay attention to them. That was the gist, I think, of what he was saying. I don’t particularly agree with it. I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about. Ever since then, people feel like it’s a valid question. I did this panel, Fox’s Women in Comedy, and I kid you not, for the first ten minutes, every single question was, “Why aren’t women allowed to be funny?” And you couldn’t answer that question more ways than we attempted to answer it, and they kept asking the same question with different words, over and over and over again. And finally, it was like, (a) We’ve answered the question, and (b) It’s not so.
Right. And you should know, since you’ve been nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy! Is Eloise excited for you? You’d mentioned she had explosive diarrhea the morning you found out about the nomination.
She’s doing much better now. She went on a strict chicken and rice diet for a few days and she’s perfectly fine now.
Was it related to the Emmy nod?
[Laughs.] I’d like to think that my dog has that level of connection with me, but I don’t think it was.
Does she continue to be excited?
About the Emmy nomination? I don’t think she gives a shit. I don’t think she cares.
Did you tell her about it?
No, we don’t really talk about it. We don’t really talk about that much. You know, we play and we tell each other we love each other, but that’s about as far as our communication goes. She’s got her priorities straight. She doesn’t really care about Emmys. She loves me whether I’m nominated for an Emmy or not.
What was your reaction?
I was amazed. I was completely delighted and totally blown away. And then starts the furious phone calls about what the heck you’re going to wear and stuff like that. But other than that, I was still on vacation. So we just kind of celebrated with a bottle of champagne and sat out on the porch and had some lobsters. It was lovely.