Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Much has changed for character actress Margo Martindale since we last sat down with her for a Random Roles interview. For one, you can’t say “character actress Margo Martindale” without thinking of the violent, foul-mouthed version of her running around Hollywoo on BoJack Horseman, voiced with glee by Martindale herself. But the veteran stage and screen actor has experienced something of a career renaissance in the last decade, spurred on by her Emmy-winning turn as Mags Bennett in Justified, a role that opened the door into more villainous roles. As she told us in our latest Random Roles go-round with her, before Mags, “Sometimes, people wanted to pigeonhole me.” But with Justified, “because it was so in my pocket, I had such freedom with it that people then gave me the opportunity to do something, to see if I could actually act.”
Since then, she’s carved out a niche for herself in some truly juicy supporting roles, and found a frequent home for her brand of quietly fiery roles on the FX network, including winning two more Emmys on The Americans. Right now, she can be seen as game-changing politician and activist Bella Abzug on Mrs. America for FX on Hulu. Unsurprisingly, the East Texas-born Martindale fits right in as brassy New Yorker Abzug, proving once again that every role of hers is the role she was born to play.
The interview can be found below. But be sure to also watch the video above to experience the Martindale charm in full effect (trust us, you’re going to want to watch her do the “Hoedown Throwdown”).
Mrs. America (2020)—“Bella Abzug”
The A.V. Club: Playing Bella Abzug sounds like quite an enticing challenge for an actor. What convinced you to take on this role for Mrs. America?
Margo Martindale: I went in to meet with the gals, Dahvi and Coco and Stacey [series E.P.’s Waller, Francini, and Sher, respectively] and we had a fabulous time talking. I said, “You know, there’s so many people that are wonderful that would be wonderful as Bella… It would be an honor to play her, but I so understand.” And I left. And they said that when I left, they said, “Well, there goes Bella.” So that’s how I got involved.
Then, I was calling [FX Network Chairman] John Landgraf to do a favor for me about something, another job on something else. And he said, “I know what you’re calling for. You’re going to get the offer real soon.” I said, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs.] He said, “Bella!” I said, “Oh, I thought that was long gone.” He said, “Oh no, Margo. It’s just been long getting it to do the offer.” And, you know, I love FX. FX is the best place.
AVC: How familiar were you with Bella prior?
MM: Well, I was fairly familiar with Bella because I’ve lived on the Upper West Side since 1974. So she was all around. She was in the papers. I’m certain I was around her, but I don’t remember ever meeting her. But I remember reading about her and thinking boy, she’s ballsy. You know? She’s brassy.
And all of that period of time, I just landed in New York. I’d come from East Texas, gone to the University Of Michigan. I did a stint at Harvard. And then I came to New York in ’74. All I thought about was theater. Theater, theater, theater, theater, theater. Getting the job. Getting the Equity card. Getting this, getting that. Getting the boyfriend. Whichever boyfriend. “That’s a good one. Okay, I’ll take that one.” So I was not a very political person, is what I’m trying to say. I was a very driven person about acting.
I didn’t miss the women’s movement. I was well aware of the women’s movement. I also come from Texas, where I think all the women are liberated. And never thought about it. But I learned so much about the women’s movement and about people that I didn’t know were in the women’s movement. I loved Shirley Chisholm. I was sort of obsessed with Shirley Chisholm. And I would watch her any time she was on. And Betty Friedan—that book never appealed to me. I mean, I didn’t read it. I didn’t pick it up. And I think I knew what The Feminine Mystique was. [Laughs.]
And Gloria [Steinem], of course. We all knew Gloria. She was beautiful. I ran into her one day in Saks or somewhere. But that’s about my extent of that. I was very anti-war. But also, I didn’t want anybody to be drafted. And then I started hearing things about women being drafted. And I thought, I don’t want to be drafted! I don’t want anybody going to war. So that was what had kind of crept into the dialogue from out there in the hinterlands.
AVC: What was it like to work with such an amazing, sprawling cast of women?
MM: It was just divine. We are an incredibly close group. We can’t let go of each other. We meet on Zoom maybe once a week. We’re involved in each others’ lives. And Tracey [Ullman] I talk to, you know, several times a week through just emails and stuff, and pictures of her grandchild. And, Rose [Byrne], I did a movie with Rose, and I’ve known Bobby [Cannavale] since—we did a television series together in 2000. So it’s like I’ve known them for a long time. It’s so exciting.
The Americans (2013-18)—“Claudia”
AVC: The Americans is an all-time great series. But we’re curious, do you keep any of Claudia’s squirrel pins? [Laughs.]
MM: Yes. I think I have two. [Laughs.] They’re so attractive.
AVC: Did you ever learn that there was deeper reasoning or logic behind them? Or were squirrels just Claudia’s favorite animal??
MM: We talked about it. Because Claudia was alone, even though you wanted to believe she had a life, she really was alone over here in the United States. And what she brought with her was her menagerie of squirrels, because someone told us squirrels were good luck in Russia. [Laughs.] I can’t find that anywhere. [Laughs.] That was what it was all based on. I don’t even think it’s true, but that was information I got, and then I grabbed it.
AVC: How do you feel about the way Claudia’s story ends?
MM: [Cries.] It just makes me cry. Yes, I thought it was perfect. I’m sorry. [Laughs.] I can cry at the drop of a hat. [Laughs.] But yeah, I just think the writing is so fabulous. [Cries.] They ended it just like they should. I’m emotional anyway this time, but that’s a little over the top, Margo. [Laughs.] I think their writing is so extraordinarily subtle and classy that they couldn’t have ended it more beautifully. It’s just a beautiful ending.
Keri [Russell] and I sat together when we watched that episode. We were in Los Angeles doing one of the viewing things. And she looked to me, and she said, “I haven’t watched this show since first season. I’m afraid I might get emotional.”
AVC: We also have to mention that you got to be beaten up by Keri early on. What an honor!
MM: Quite honestly, she’s really tough. She’s like a little muscle. She could beat me up, even though I outweigh her by about 120 lb. or so.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)—“Ma Cox”
AVC: There’s another time when you did some stunt work: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. You play Ma Cox, and you fall out of a window.
MM: [Laughs.] Of course I did!
AVC: That was really you falling, right?
MM: Yes. [Laughs.] That movie really makes me laugh. Dew-ey! Dewey Dewey Dewey Dewey Dew-ey! [Laughs.]
AVC: A big part of why you’re especially funny in this role is because you are playing it straight. Besides Walk The Line, were there other movies or characters that you had intentionally tapped into here?
MM: No. I just did it. It started hitting me in a funny spot that makes me happy. And I knew John [C. Reilly]. We had done a movie together, so it was really, really, really fun. It really works. It just came out at the wrong time, or—I don’t know what it was. Or people didn’t get it? But it’s a huge cult hit now.
And, you know, Pa Cox. You know, Ray Barry. He was in Justified. I did a movie in Mexico with him, and I did Dead Man Walking with him. I’ve known Ray a long time.
The Rocketeer (1991)—“Millie”
AVC: Superhero movies are all over the place now—but at the time, The Rocketeer was kind of an anomaly.
MM: Such a great movie, and there’s Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton. And Alan Arkin. Yeah, it was great. I think they tried to market it to the wrong audience. I think it was more of an adult film, or not a teenage film. It was really well done. It’s really pretty.
The Hours (2002)—“Mrs. Latch”
MM: It’s a beautiful movie. And that Philip Glass music? Oh my goodness. Scott Rudin asked me to do that. I think Anne Pitoniak—a beautiful actress that I worked with in Louisville, Kentucky—I think she was going to do it and couldn’t do it. Or wasn’t able to do it? And so he asked me to do it. And I was flattered.
AVC: That’s another film credit you share with John C. Reilly. And one of a handful with Meryl Streep, of course.
MM: Oh, Meryl.
August: Osage County (2013)—“Mattie Fae Aiken”
AVC: More recently, the two of you were sisters in August: Osage County, which has an incredible ensemble.
MM: Meryl’s wonderful. I love her. Everybody was extremely nervous for the read-through. I remember everybody—because [writer] Tracy Letts was there. And, you know, everybody was in awe of his talent. And Sam Shepard is sitting there at the table, too. And Tracy is nervous because of Sam Shepard. I mean, everybody was a little nervous and a little shy to talk! But what a great group. And Chris Cooper and I started out together at the [Actors] Theatre Of Louisville. So we had a real connection already.
AVC: Considering that it was actually filmed in Oklahoma, and you’re from East Texas, did that world feel familiar to you once you stepped on set?
MM: Oh, sure. And I’d seen the play three times. I called my agent, and I said, “I don’t need to do this play. Rondi Reed does a beautiful job.” I mean—I wasn’t trying to replace or anything like that. “But by God, I want the movie if they sell that.” I said, “So you please keep your eye on that.” So that happened.
AVC: Speaking of the theater, that’s where you got your start; for example, you originated the role of Steel Magnolias’ Truvy Off-Broadway. Knowing that, were you keeping your eye on the 1989 film version?
MM: I didn’t care.
AVC: No? And Dolly taking your part…
MM: Oh, look. You know, they made a big movie out of it that became an enormous hit. We were a small, little real play that everybody in Hollywood came to see. And then Bobby [Harling, writer] sold it, and good for him. I think he’s great. And I think it could only be all-stars. If there’s going to be one star, it had to be all stars.
Also, when it came out, I had left the show in New York to have my child. Then when she was three months or four months, we went on tour, my husband and daughter and I, with the national tour of Steel Magnolias. So at the end of the tour, I think, by the time we got to San Francisco, the movie was out.
And I didn’t see it first, but my husband and Carole Cook’s husband, Tom Troupe, they both went. And they went, “[Exasperation.] Just terrible.” [Laughs.]
AVC: [Laughs.] They’re like, “I don’t know who this ingenue Dolly Parton is, but she’s no Margo Martindale.”
MM: Truvy was all about heart. Dolly Parton has all the right essence. She also happens to have a body, blond hair, and big tits! So then, Truvy became blond hair and big tits, when Truvy really wasn’t that to begin with.
Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009)—“Ruby”
AVC: Another connection that you and Dolly share is you’re both part of what I’m going to call the “Hannah Montana universe,” because you were in the Hannah Montana movie as Grandma Ruby.
MM: And Dolly’s Miley’s godmother!
AVC: Now that we’re talking about it, there are a lot of similarities between the Hannah Montana movie and August: Osage County. [Laughs.] You know, estranged families coming together in the South.
MM: [Laughs.] Yes, of course. Identical. I think they’re kind of parallel stories.
AVC: How familiar were you with Hannah Montana as a show before the film came along?
MM: Not on any level. But it was a great part, and I loved Peter Chelsom. He’s a wonderful director, wonderful. He was extremely kind and nice to me.
AVC: You were in a scene where she performs the “Hoedown Throwdown.” Do you remember that song?
MM: Oh, yes. [Sings “Hoedown Throwdown.”] Yes, I remember it. I did know the—I could do the dance for a long time. Now, I’ve kind of lost it. Not really, but it would take me about an hour to really recreate it.
I love, I love, I love that movie! I think—you know, people kind of thought of it as the TV show. And it was so not the TV show. It was a Disney movie. It was like a ’60s Disney movie.
BoJack Horseman (2014-20)—“Character Actress Margo Martindale”
AVC: You had been working with Will Arnett on The Millers, and that’s how this came about, right?
MM: We were working on The Millers, and while we were there, “You’ve got to come do my show, this cartoon.” I said, “No, I’m not.” I was promoting August: Osage and trying to do well at something I had never done before, a sitcom. Working hard. He said, “Yeah. Yeah, you are.” I said, “No. I’m not going to do it, so you can stop it.” And he said, “The part is Margo Martindale, Character Actress.” I said, “Okay, Will. I guess I have to.”
And I read it, and I said, “I have to tell you, these characters seem like animals.” He said, “They are animals, you idiot!” [Laughs.]
AVC: [Laughs.] And now you’ve got the now classic line, “When you go to heaven, look up Margo Martindale. I won’t be there, but my movies will.”
MM: [Laughs.] So, so great. I tell you, Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, series creator], I love, I love, I love him. He’s just great. Isn’t that a wonderful show?
AVC: Oh, absolutely. And are you getting recognized for that, despite it being an animated role?
MM: When people stop me and say, “I love you in BoJack Horseman,” I say, “How did you know that was me?” And I’m very glad, because she’s kind of skinny!
I guess that’s it. If they hear my voice—I mean, I was picking up some [deeper voice] drugs at the pharmacy. And I had on a mask, and a girl said, “I’m such a huge fan of yours! I heard your voice, and I knew you were on BoJack Horseman.” [Laughs.] How wild is that?
AVC: To bring it back to that line, “I won’t be in heaven, but my movies will,” which of your films will absolutely be in heaven?
MM: Well, Heaven Is For Real.
AVC: [Laughs.] It’s right there in the title.
MM: One of my favorite movies I did was The Hollars. I really love John Krasinski.
I don’t know. I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many really, really great directors. Great directors. Robert Benton being one of my favorites. Nobody’s Fool, kind of a perfect movie.
Blow The Man Down (2019)–“Enid Nora Devlin”
AVC: Your career is a testament to the fact that some of the best parts are in supporting roles. Are you also out there hoping and searching for the perfect lead role?
MM: I’m seeking a good role. I’m always seeking a good role. I’m always seeking something different. I love this movie I have that came out on Amazon—Blow The Man Down. It’s a first movie for these young women [Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy] that wrote and directed it. And I think it’s just a great beginning for them, and it was great to be part of that. And a very different part for me, and that was fun to do.
I don’t know. I’m up for anything. I’m up to do something—always to do something different. But also to revisit something in a different way.
AVC: You know, we’ve spoken when the directors previously, and they describe you as “the female Jack Nicholson.” What are your thoughts on that?
MM: I think that’s pretty good! I love Jack Nicholson. “You can’t handle the truth!”
AVC: It was recently announced that you were going to have a recurring role in Your Honor on Showtime with Bryan Cranston, produced by Michelle and Robert King.
MM: All the reasons I did it.
MM: I think they’re incredibly smart. Ruth—I love that part. I mean, I don’t think Ruth could ever be a big part of any of it, but I’d like to do some version of Ruth in something. But they were even smart to down to the articles that certain characters use. And rhythmically and musically, it was extremely easy to learn, because the writing is that way. Now, they are only producers of Your Honor. That’s Peter Moffat that has written Your Honor. We were shooting on March, Friday 13. We closed down Friday 13, and I was on a plane home on the 14th.
And then I was supposed to go do Impeachment with Ryan Murphy—Sarah Paulson is playing Linda Tripp, and I was playing Lucianne Goldberg. And I’m very excited, because she’s a really crazy character. I don’t know when we’ll do that.