Margo Martindale on Why People Think She Plays Evil Women

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Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Do you know who Margo Martindale is? Probably, yes, though perhaps you’ve not paired her face with her name. Over the past ten years, Martindale, 64, has built an increasingly high profile on TV, stealing scenes on shows like Justified (as badass Harlan County marijuana queenpin Mags Bennett, for which she won an Emmy), The Americans (as badass KGB spy-handler Claudia, for which she won another Emmy), and now The Good Wife, where she’s currently sparring with Alan Cumming weekly as badass political strategist Ruth Eastman. Offscreen, Martindale is far cheerier than her usual roles, and has a stronger Texas accent than she allows onscreen. Over her morning coffee, she chatted with Vulture about her late-career renaissance, having a cartoon version of herself, and what it’s like to have everyone think you’re evil.

So I was looking on Twitter to see how people liked you on The Good Wife, and pretty much every tweet was some version of, “Margo Martindale is a gift to the universe.”
[Laughs.] Well, thank goodness I’m not on Twitter. I think it would take over my life. But that’s so sweet, I love that. I’m having so much fun on the show, it’s ridiculous.

There was also one person who thought you and Alan Cumming should headline the next season of True Detective. Which is an idea I could get behind!
[Laughs.] Me too! Me too! It’d be absurd — but really good! He’s so much fun. Working with him is like playing a piece of music or dancing. He’s an … unusual and surprising person.  I haven’t had a drink with him yet, but I can’t wait.

You’ve been on a roll for a while now, getting all these really rich roles at an age when so many actresses are relegated to playing moms and grandmas. How does it feel?
You know, it’s like I’m finally playing all the parts that I played when I was 16. I played Amanda Wingfield [from The Glass Menagerie] when I was 16! I don’t have to act the age I always had to act before and probably wasn’t very good at — now I can just be. And complicated people I’m drawn to. I’ve been blessed to play these great parts that just open another door and another door, is I guess how it’s worked. I’m having a blast,.

As a huge Justified fan, I wondered if playing Mags Bennett felt like the turning point for you?
Mags of course changed everything — then I got all evil parts. People were like, “Ooh, she’s sneaky.” But it sort of started with The Riches on FX. I’d done 100 Centre Street with Sidney Lumet in 2000, but it was my first series regular [role], and it gave me a chance to build a character on television.  It was the beginning of this new thing, and in that time period Alexander Payne also wrote this beautiful part for me in Paris Je T’Aime, an unusual and different kind of part. Then of course it was the thrill of a lifetime to play Mags — the language was so rich and poetic and not cut of anything else, so I could just be whatever I wanted to be. Kind of like playing in my backyard.

So starting with The Riches, it seems like you’ve rode this wave just as television has become a newly golden medium for acting.
I think that’s true. And The Riches was ahead of its time; I thought it was such a delicious show, deliciously clever, and it worked on so many different levels. I’m sorry we didn’t get to really play that one out. It was too early, too early even for FX, maybe. It was the beginning of all the wonderful stuff FX has done.

So how did your role as Ruth on The Good Wife come to you?
I was doing a movie down in South Carolina, and the Kings called me and said, “We’d love for you to come play this part,” and it just sounded wonderful.  They pitched the character to me as a really smart strategist, a southern political person that had the spin of a good ol’ girl, but she knows how to get her way, and that I would be fighting and pushing Eli out, that I’d be acting with Alan and Chris and Julianna, mostly.

You’re from Texas; is Ruth a type you’re familiar with?
Absolutely. I really was going to go way out and try to come up with a really different look for her, something so odd and off and a little not of this world, and … downscale. But, you know, The Good Wife’s so pretty. So I gave that up when I saw the clothes.  Oh my lord, they can wear anything! It’s so fun to see clothes like that on people who look like models. That’s part of what’s great about the show: It looks so good. And the writing is so clever and well thought-out. I’m tickled.

As annoying as Eli can be, he’s become the underdog, and it feels like the audience is rooting for him now …
I know! It’s so annoying to me! [Laughs.] I was walking through Lowe’s the other day, and just as I was leaving, the woman at the counter looks at me and goes, “Leave Eli alone!”

These characters you’ve played seem like they could read merely as villains on the page. But it seems to me they’re pretty much women who get the job done, no matter what it takes.
Most people on the street say to me, “You’re so evil!” And I find that so interesting. These three parts people consider evil — Claudia from The Americans, Mags, and Ruth — they’re just excellent at what they do. If I were a man, would you call me evil? No. These are smart characters. Ruth really is great at what she does. That doesn't make her evil, it just makes her really good. She knows how to play the game, and it is a game, it’s a football game. She’s great with eyeing people and knowing how to play them. And Claudia is a great soldier; she’s been doing a fantastic job for her country and was recruited because of her skill to read people. And Mags Bennett, well, she could rule the world, as far as I’m concerned. Smart as a whip in a room with men.

I’d imagine you and Alan have a lot of fun on set — is it hard to keep a straight face playing opposite him?
You know, Alan’s actually serious — which I love about him. We know when it’s fun, and we both start to twinkle at each other. A lot of twinkles. But he doesn’t crack up a lot. I crack up more than he does.

You also appear on BoJack Horseman as Character Actress Margo Martindale, which I adore.
Thank you! [Laughs.] Well, that came about because I was doing The Millers with Will Arnett, and he said, "You have to come do my cartoon." I said, "I don’t want to do a cartoon!" He said, "You have to do it — the part is Character Actress Margo Martindale." I just did one last week and it is so funny. It hits a little too close to home. My husband and I were on the way to the airport to go to the Creative Arts Emmys, and he was looking at my Wikipedia page, I think just to see if that had come in there yet, and it said, “Margo spent the last year in prison for armed robbery.” Now, we got that taken off, but I called Will and said, “This is what your cartoon’s done for me!” They’ll twirl it in close enough to some things that are me that I guess someone thought it was real that I’d gone to prison? My Lord, so crazy.

There’s the joke there that so many people recognize you but can’t quite place you. But in a weird way, that seems like the dream of so many actors: to be known for “the work” and not for who they are in real life.
Recently, and it’s sort of been a little odd, I’ve had several young men say to me, “Margo Martindale! Hello!” And I thought, Wow, Margo Martindale — could that be from BoJack Horseman?

I’ve always found the character-actor label odd. Like, shouldn’t all actors be known for playing characters?
That’s what I’ve always found stupid— a ren’t all actors character actors? Even leading actresses aren’t playing themselves. 

When you were younger, is this the kind of career you hoped for?
I got my first professional job at Harvard, at the Loeb Drama Center, and I remember sitting on campus one day under a tree — I was doing Threepenny Opera. I was reading a book and the light caught me, and I thought, I want to be in the movies. Somehow, in my head, I always thought it would be fabulously fun to have a light on you. That’s what the moment was like for me, it’s hard to explain. It was a profound moment of knowing what acting in front of a camera would be — just extremely real. Which is what I always thought it was supposed to be. Sometimes when you’re real, people want to see more acting.  They think, Oh she’s just being herself. I remember when I did Million Dollar Baby, I read a review that said the casting director who found those people to play the mother, et cetera, should get an Academy Award. Meaning we were not actors, just people they found in Missouri or something. I think they thought I wasn’t an actress. I promise you, I was acting!

You’ve almost become a specialist in these memorable guest roles. Do you find it more interesting than being a regular, or is that something you’d want?
I guess it’s more interesting. My dream was always to get on a show and be on a show, but I think I landed in a place I actually didn’t expect. I have the best of all worlds right now. I wouldn’t have gotten to do so many different people, you know? And I have five movies in the can right now; two will be out in April. One that’s very different for me — it’s called In the Family, it’s John Krasinski’s movie, with Richard Jenkins and me and John. Isn’t Richard just wonderful? I’m gaga over Richard Jenkins. So it allows me to go off and do movies as well. And I start on a new show in February, Sneaky Pete — Bryan Cranston and David Shore’s show with Giovanni Ribisi and Marin Ireland, and it’ll be for Amazon, so we’ll do ten episodes and be finished in June. Then I have the whole rest of the time to see what’s going on.