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: Martha Plimpton comes from a prolific acting family—her grandfather was John Carradine, and her parents, Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, were both part of the original Broadway production of Hair before Keith went on to an extensive (and ongoing) film and TV career. Plimpton followed in her family’s footsteps early: By the time she entered her teens, she’d already played Tommy Lee Jones’ daughter in The River Rat, and she went on to take roles in The Goonies, The Mosquito Coast, Parenthood, and much more. Plimpton is currently enjoying the regularity of her first-ever full-time series gig, playing Virginia Chance on Fox’s Raising Hope.
Raising Hope (2010-present)—“Virginia Chance”
Martha Plimpton: I was working on an independent movie up in Canada, and I just got a call that there was a pilot script coming my way and that they needed an answer right away because they were casting people, they were already in the midst of testing, and they were having trouble finding somebody. And I heard it was by Greg Garcia, and I knew Greg… not personally, but we had a lot of mutual friends, and I obviously knew his work from before. So I read it, and it made me laugh out loud, which never happens. I thought it was hilarious. And I just knew the character. I thought, “This is somebody I could see myself playing for a couple of years, if not more.” And that’s pretty rare. So I talked to Greg, and he assured me that playing a grandmother was not gonna cramp my style. [Laughs.] That my age, my being young and playing a grandmother, was kind of part of the joke. So I flew out to L.A. later that week, I think, to test. It was a pretty whirlwind-fast thing. And it ended up working out.
The A.V. Club: You’d never had a full-time series gig before this, correct?
MP: No, I had never done a series-regular gig before. Ever. I had tested before for other shows that didn’t go or that I didn’t get, and, y’know, obviously I’d done a ton of guest stuff on a variety of shows over the years, but I had never had a regular gig.
AVC: Was it because of this particular script that you decided to take a stab at it, or were you just ready for the regularity?
MP: Well, it was the script, it was Greg Garcia, it was the cast he was putting together… It was one of the smoothest, most comfortable network testing experiences I’ve ever had. ’Cause those things are usually extremely stressful and sort of designed to… make you feel really horrible, I guess. [Laughs.] But working with Greg and with Mike Fresco, who directed the pilot, they really shepherded me through the process and helped make the most out of it for me. It was, believe it or not, a very friendly and warm experience, and I thought, “Well, if I’m gonna sign a contract for this many years, these are the kinds of people I want to be doing it with.”
AVC: How quickly did you and Garret Dillahunt fall into your chemistry as Virginia and Burt?
MP: I think it was pretty much right away. We obviously had work sessions together as a cast before we went in, we read together and we tested together, and… I’d known Garret before. We had never worked together, but we had a lot of mutual connections. We had worked and traveled in a lot of the same circles over the years, and I obviously was a big fan of his. So we just kind of hit it off right away. Which was good. [Laughs.]
AVC: You had kind of an indirect connection with him through Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye Of God.
MP: Yeah, exactly! He did the original production of a play that Tim had written called Eye Of God, and I had seen that production when they did it at Seattle Rep in the ’90s, and loved the play. And then Tim adapted his play into a film, which he subsequently made and directed and I did, albeit without Garret. So, yes, we had that connection. We had a lot of connections like that—mutual friends we’d worked with over the past few years, theaters we’d both worked in—but somehow we never managed to work together in any of those circles, which is kind of weird. It’s kind of funny that we had to come to L.A. and do a TV series to finally work together. [Laughs.] But for my money, it worked out perfectly. I mean, I love working with Garret. He’s one of my favorite actors. I think he’s one of the strongest things about the show, and I trust him enormously. I think he’s a comedy genius, and I love playing his fake wife. I just love it.
AVC: When I spoke to you just before Raising Hope premièred, you summed up Cloris Leachman by saying, “She’s as blunt as can be, but goddamn if she isn’t funny.”
MP: I stand by my earlier comment. [Laughs.] She’s great. And she’s very funny on the show.
AVC: Has there been any moment yet since you’ve been playing Virginia where you’ve thought, “Oh, this is just too much”?
MP: There hasn’t been. Not so far. I mean, when you start out with vomiting on a baby, there’s just not a whole lot further you can go. [Laughs.] And I took to that quite easily. You know, I just like Garcia’s sense of humor. I like that the show has a kind of twisted sensibility, but that it’s based in something authentic and honest and decent. It’s not cynical, you know? So I like that about the show, and that’s why I feel like we can get away with some of the stuff we get away with.
Rollover (1981)—“Fewster’s Older Daughter”
MP: Oh my gosh! That was my… okay, I think I was about 11 years old, and that was my film-acting debut. It was a movie that starred Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson, it was directed by Alan Pakula, may he rest in peace, and… here are the things I remember most about that movie.
I remember shooting our scenes, or at least the scenes that I was in, in a house somewhere in some suburban location. I can’t remember exactly where, but somewhere outside of New York City. And I remember, if I am not mistaken, Reagan being shot while we were shooting, and there being a television on in the house where we were shooting, and watching that. Now, I may have made this up. [Laughs.] Because at that time, as I say, I was about 11, and I can’t be held to account for an 11-year-old’s memories. They could be dreams, they could be memories. I’m not certain. But I’m pretty certain I remember being in this dark house and watching the news about Reagan and James Brady and all that biz. And I also remember that I spent the majority of my time on that set playing one of those early handheld digital baseball games. Which I feel like I mastered. I must’ve been there for hours and hours and hours. [Laughs.]
That’s also the first time I remember meeting Jane Fonda, and I later worked with her on a movie called Stanley & Iris as well. Which means she may be the actress I’ve worked with most in film. [Laughs.] I don’t think I’ve ever worked with the same actor more than once in movies, if I’m counting correctly.
AVC: When you decided to be an actor, did your parents back your decision?
MP: Um… you know, it was not something that was suggested that I do, or that I was pushed into at all. My mother was an actress, so when I was a kid, it was just a fun way to pass the summers instead of going to camp. I was doing plays. And it really wasn’t until I sort of stumbled upon this gig doing these Calvin Klein commercials for Richard Avedon… which I don’t really remember how I got. I think it was just that some casting director wanted me to come in. I think it might’ve been Cis Corman, if anybody remembers that name, who was a legendary casting director in New York. But my mother did not take me to commercial auditions, I was not dressed in ribbons and bows. I wasn’t paraded around for sale at all. My mother wasn’t into that.
The only reason I believe she allowed me to do it was because Richard Avedon himself was making these commercials, directing them and shooting them. She would’ve been crazy to turn that experience down. [Laughs.] So that was the only commercial I have ever done, and it led to me eventually getting my first real role in a movie, in The River Rat. But these things happened by accident. Like I said, my mother didn’t like other stage mothers, she didn’t like that scene, and it wasn’t something I did constantly. It was something I did when the opportunity was right, and when something seemed like it would be fun. There was never any sense that I should pursue this for any other reason than that I enjoyed it. And now I’m stuck. [Laughs.] Now there’s nothing else I know how to do.
ER (1999)—“Meg Corwin”
MP: Oh my God. That was a four-episode arc I did in the late ’90s. I believe Julianna Margulies, who is a spectacular lady, may have suggested me for that job. I was not working a lot at that time, and it was a really good gig for me. I played a pregnant junkie, which for some reason ended up being, for a period there in my career, my go-to character. I had to either be pregnant or on drugs, one of the two. Or both! [Laughs.] So I did that job. I’m pretty sure it was four episodes total. And it was a great experience. I loved ER—I watched it, I was a fan—and Julianna was fantastic. I remember one day we were shooting a scene where I was working in a diner where she was a customer, and I was rehearsing and trying to practice carrying these glasses and plates on a tray, and I tripped. And I spilled a full glass of orange juice all over her, like, $20,000 coat. I’m sure I’m exaggerating on the price there, but either way, I was just mortified. And this was my first day, so I didn’t exactly start out on a great foot. But luckily, Julianna forgave me, and all was well. Those are my main memories of that show. That, and, like, screaming and chained to a hospital bed, pregnant. [Laughs.]
The Good Wife (2009-2011)—“Patti Nyholm”
MP: Again, pregnant and working with Julianna. [Laughs.] That is an awesome character I loved to play. And again, it’s possible Julianna may have recommended me or suggested me for that job. I think. I’m not sure. But whoever’s responsible, I owe them a fantastic debt of gratitude, because the character’s incredibly popular, and with good reason. I mean, she’s written really, really well. That character is one of the most enjoyable characters I’ve played on television, because she’s a shark, but I believe in her. I believe she is a very, very good lawyer. She’s good at what she does. And so I admire her. I really like Patti Nyholm. I think she’s actually someone I would enjoy hanging out with. Tremendously.
The Sleepy Time Gal (2001)—“Rebecca”
MP: Oh my God. That’s a movie by Chris Munch, and that’s with Jacqueline Bisset, although I never had any scenes with her, unfortunately, because I’m playing her child that she’s given up for adoption, and who’s sort of looking for her history. I haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t seen it since we did it. But it’s a very sad movie, and I remember not being entirely sure who I was playing in that movie. I think I was playing sort of amalgamation of some of Chris’ personality traits, and I’m not sure I fully identified with that character. It was made totally on the fly. Like, totally low budget. I mean, we were getting shots illegally in the New York public library. We were, like, sneaking shots, and literally doing my hair and makeup on the subway, going from location to location. It was as guerilla filmmaking as you can get, pretty much. But it had a fantastic cast. Frankie Faison is in that movie, along with a lot of other fine actors. I like the way it turned out. I was surprised at how much I liked it. When we were making it, I felt very much at a loss much of the time, and I think that might be evident in my performance. But I think the film itself is a very moving, contemplative, sad movie. And Jacqueline Bisset’s fantastic in it.
Parenthood (1989)—“Julie Buckman”
MP: Just the best movie. I loved it. I loved working on that movie, I loved making that movie, I loved that character… You know, when you’re a teenager acting, you are so inside your own head, you don’t really have any understanding of what’s going on. You think you know everything, and you know nothing. This goes on until maybe your early 30s. [Laughs.] And so I feel like… I wish I had been a little bit less self-conscious in making that movie, ’cause I don’t think I was used to playing an ingénue kind of part, if you know what I mean. But Ron Howard is truly one of the easiest and kindest people to work for in the world, and I loved him. I really loved him, and I loved that whole cast. I loved coming to work every day and being in the presence of those people. Steve Martin was awesome.
We were down shooting in Florida at Universal when the studio was still just being built, so I remember we were… I think we were the only movie on that lot, because the lot was still under construction. And so it was kind of lonely out there. It was just us, pretty much. You took a walk out of the stage, and across this barren field, you’d see the Bates Motel being built. [Laughs.] You know, where they were going to be putting up the Universal Studios tour thing. But yeah, I loved it.
I was bald when we started shooting, so they had to get me a wig. I had shot a movie where I was, like, a cancer patient, so I didn’t have any hair, so they needed to build me a wig, which they did. And then they needed to build me a Mohawk hairpiece for the scenes where Keanu [Reeves] shaves my head. [Laughs.] But it was a lot of fun. God, we had a blast. I remember going to Disneyworld with Keanu, and hanging out with Joaquin [Phoenix], who was of course Leaf at the time, who was an awesome, fun, daredevil kid. And all these comedians around. Rick Moranis? I mean, it was just too much fun to even say. Dianne Wiest, one of the sweetest, loveliest people in the world. You know, everyone who’s in that movie must feel a great fondness for it. I know I do.
How To Make It In America (2010-2011)—“Edie Weitz”
MP: Well, she runs this interior-decorating firm where this character played by Lake Bell works, and she’s this kind of hotsy-totsy, pot-smoking libertine, you know, who goes to Burning Man and has this wacked-out New York thing going on. [Laughs.] Pencil skirts and the like. I had a lot of fun playing that character.
The Goonies (1985)—“Stef”
MP: Oh, my God, where do I begin? [Laughs.] The thing that comes to mind most about The Goonies when you say the name “Stef” is the fact that I had to wear that costume every day for five months. I don’t know if I can express how satisfying it was when we were done to know that I would never have to lace up those damned sneakers ever again. Or put that dumb giant sweatshirt on. Oh my Lord… [Laughs.] That’s what I remember the most. I mean, this is where I developed… Ned Beatty once did an interview where he was asked the least favorite thing about his job, and he said, “I hate having to take off my own clothes to put on other people’s clothes.” And I thought, “Yes! That is it!” You get dressed in the morning, you leave your house, you go somewhere, you get in a room, and you put on other clothes. Just think about how that feels. It just feels weird! And it feels particularly weird when those clothes are, like, filthy and muddy and damp clothes you’ve been wearing for months. I mean, we obviously had changes and stuff, but, yeah, wearing the same clothes every day… oh my God.
AVC: Time for the obligatory question you’ve heard a thousand times: Will we ever see this long-discussed Goonies sequel?
MP: People will ask that until I am a skeleton in my grave. [Laughs.] And the answer will always be the same: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s not up to me, y’know? I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s like, I can’t believe how many years I’ve been hearing this question as though it has anything to do with me, as though I am sitting in Spielberg’s office every day. You know what I mean?
AVC: The more operative question, then, would be if you’d be into it if such a thing finally does get off the drawing board.
MP: Well, really, how much ya gonna pay me? [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. You know, the God’s honest truth is that if there hasn’t been one yet, there probably isn’t gonna be one. We should all just sort of live our lives and enjoy what we’ve had together, enjoy that the movie is still so important to so many people that people who grew up watching it are now showing it to their kids. I mean, that’s awesome. You can’t improve on that, as far as I’m concerned.
Beautiful Girls (1996)—“Jan”
MP: Oh yeah! You know, I liked that character. I only had a couple of scenes in that movie, but I really enjoyed doing it. I liked my hair in that movie, too. I remember that my hair looked pretty good. You know, I loved Michael Rapaport. I thought he was hilarious, and I liked our scenes together. I was only there for a short time, though, so, y’know, I like that I’m in that movie, but I also tend to forget that I’m in it. [Laughs.] Because the part in it is so small! But I really had a good time working on it, and I liked the people I worked with. A lot of people really like that movie, which is great. It’s nice. I feel lucky that I’m a part of it.
The Hand Me Down Kid (1983)—“Rhona”
MP: [Very, very long pause as she slowly realizes what the project is.] Oh my God, that’s hilarious! Okay, so this was… oh, my God, I love it… an ABC Afterschool Special. Remember those? They were extremely popular when we were kids, and the stories they usually told were meant to appeal to teenagers or tweens—except before the term “tweens” existed—and they were usually, like, morality tales. Little one-hour stories about how to deal with bullies or drugs or eating disorders. You know, the controversial issues of the day for kids. Divorce was another one. And this one was about… Tracey Gold was the star of this particular one, and if I’m not mistaken, she was struggling because she was the youngest in the family, so she felt unimportant. And myself and Jennifer Thompson, we played bullies who were harassing her, and… I literally remember wearing a backward newsboy cap. [Laughs.] You couldn’t get more “bully” than that. We wore backward newsboy caps, we were tough, we hung out on the corner and gave Tracey Gold, poor sweet Tracey Gold, a hard time. And we stole her bike, I’m pretty sure. But I love that my character’s name was Rhona. I’d completely forgotten that. That’s hilarious! Rhona? Who would name their poor child Rhona? No wonder she became a bully! [Laughs.]
200 Cigarettes (1999)—“Monica”
MP: Well, you know, she’s the one who’s throwing this New Year’s party that everyone is supposed to be avoiding or whatever, and nobody shows up. The highlight of that experience for me was getting to meet Elvis Costello.
AVC: As well it should’ve been.
MP: He was awesome. And I… [Pause.] I don’t know if I should tell you this, but… I was so excited to meet Elvis Costello that when he wrapped, when he was done, the wardrobe people let me go into his trailer and dab the sweat from the inside of his porkpie hat onto a piece of toilet paper, which I then slid into the sleeve of my Goodbye Cruel World album that he had just signed. I feel like maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that I have Elvis Costello’s sweat on a piece of toilet paper. [Laughs.] But I do!
Family Ties (1985)—“Jessie Black”
MP: I was 14, and I played a shoplifting orphan who Mallory befriends and takes under her wing. She’s caught shoplifting by Alex P. Keaton, a.k.a. Michael J. Fox, in the boutique where Mallory works in the mall. And I remember… I think one of my biggest laughs, and it wasn’t even that funny… [Laughs.] I’d have to watch the episode again. But Alex P. Keaton—I have to say his name in its entirety, ’cause you might not know who I’m talking about—sort of grabs me by the arms from behind to keep me there until the authorities can get there to take me away, and he says something like, “You’re pretty strong for such a little guy,” or whatever. And I say to him, “So are you.” And somehow I got a huge laugh from the studio audience! That’s the laugh I most remember getting. And I really should watch the episode again. I have not seen it since then.
But it was a blast, because at the time, being 14, I was a huge fan of the show, which was one of my favorites as a kid. But I was so nervous and intimidated. Lemme just tell ya, Michael J. Fox was, like, the star of stars. He was, like, Robert Redford for the tween set. [Laughs.] And this was before Back To The Future, of course. And he carried himself like a star, and… he literally was Robert Redford on a TV show! A very small Robert Redford. But he was very nice, and obviously so was Justine Bateman. I thought she was just so beautiful and glamorous, and I was just this nerdy, skinny kid. But not long after we shot that, which was a wild experience, I ended up having my appendix perforate and get infected, so I had to go into the hospital for, like, a month. So I remember being on serious painkillers and half-asleep when it finally aired. We had a viewing party in my hospital room, where some friends and family showed up and watched the episode, but I was so stoned when I saw it that I don’t remember any of it. [Laughs.] So I really should watch it again!
The Mosquito Coast (1986)—“Emily Spellgood”
MP: Oh my God, I loved that character. That was just awesome. First of all, I got to play Andre Gregory’s daughter, and even though it was a small role, I was down there in Belize, where we shot the movie for quite a long time—maybe even for about a third of production I was down there—and… Okay, first of all, the character’s just so weird. She’s this missionary’s daughter who’s all sort of decked out in ’80s new-wave teenybopper garb in the middle of this jungle, with her Walkman and her Lolita sunglasses. I think this may be the only time any director has ever cast me in the role of a sexually forward young person. Actually, young or otherwise. [Laughs.] And I was a little shy about that. I was only, like, 15 when we shot that. But it was an incredible experience, and it changed my life.
Peter Weir remains one of my favorite directors of all time, someone I would beat people over the head to work with again. And Helen Mirren! I mean, I remember when I came on set and she was there, and… I don’t know if you remember this, but of course she was in one of the greatest movies about the Middle Ages ever: Excalibur. I thought she was one of the most beautiful things to ever have existed, and I was enthralled by her and wanted to be like her and wanted to become her when I got older. And, of course, personally that movie had a huge impact on my life. And also, being in Belize, being in Central America in the mid-’80s was an incredible experience for a 15-year-old kid. I mean, in the time that I wasn’t shooting down there, I went traveling around Belize and Guatemala and saw some extraordinary things. You know, I will say that, in talking about all this, it makes me think how many incredible experiences I’ve had and how many extraordinary places I’ve been because of my job. The incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, the astonishingly talented people I’ve gotten to meet and watch work over the years… I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I’m very grateful for that. But that movie, I think, ranks up there in my top five experiences, if not my top three.
AVC: You mentioned that the film had a huge impact on your life personally, but setting aside those personal aspects, how was the experience of working with River Phoenix as an actor?
MP: It really was fantastic. It was good for me as a young actor to be in the company of another young actor who took his job seriously. I enjoyed that. That was rare for me. I knew what it was like to work with adults who took their job seriously, but most of the time if I was working with people my own age, they weren’t particularly interested in authenticity or studying what they were doing. So I think I had a kindred spirit there. And it was really great.
The River Rat (1984)—“Jonsy”
MP: That one doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s a funny little movie, and a strange movie. It was directed by Tom Rickman, who had written Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it starred Tommy Lee Jones and Brian Dennehy. It was the first time… I was 12 years old, and it was the first time I had ever had a lead role in anything. I mean, y’know, it was about me and Tommy Lee, so I was in almost every scene. And it was quite a trial by fire for a 12-year-old. I had to fly down to Kentucky and be down there for three months shooting this movie, living in a hotel room, living in the Executive Inn and Suites in Paducah, Kentucky. And I was down there so long that we celebrated holidays down there, like Halloween. We, like, trick-or-treated in a motel. [Laughs.] It was crazy! And I remember my girlfriend flew down from New York, and she was Princess Di and I was Lana Turner, and we dressed up and trick-or-treated in an Executive Inn in Paducah. But these are the ways you attempt to preserve some sense of normalcy for your 12-year-old self. But I loved it, and I remember being incredibly afraid of Tommy Lee for a long time. He was a very intimidating figure, as he remains today.
AVC: What did he think about having to work with a 12-year-old girl on her first real movie? He’s pretty renowned for not suffering fools gladly.
MP: Yeah, you’ve got that right. [Laughs.] He was extremely interesting, because it was explained to me early on that he was a Method actor and that I should not expect to have a relationship with him on-set or off, as it would compromise his work in the film. So I accepted those terms very early on, and I didn’t cross any boundaries with him. But I did do my best to get him to warm up, and over time I think he warmed to me. And we became friends. And that was really, really special to me. I don’t care what anybody says about Tommy Lee Jones, I still consider him a dear friend and one of my earliest teachers on a set. You know what I mean? I learned an enormous amount from him about professionalism and preparation and commitment and respect for the people you’re working with. He was never anything but an absolute professional, and I completely idolized him, and still do.
I loved making the movie. It was a wild experience for me. Here’s this New York City kid, I had never ridden a bike, I had never driven a boat, I had never caught a fish, and here I was playing a girl from the back hills of Kentucky, with a Kentucky accent, and doing all this stuff like I’d done it all my life. It was pretty surreal, y’know? I mean, I’m pretty impressed that they gave me the opportunity to do that, ’cause God knows I had absolutely no familiarity with life anywhere near that kind of place. At all. Catfishing and being on a boat and all that stuff. But I learned it all. This awesome guy named Randall taught me about driving a boat, and how to catch fish, and how to cut bait… all that stuff. It was an incredible learning experience for a 12-year-old.
AVC: What lessons did you take away from working on the film that you’re still using today?
MP: Oh, so many of the ones I’ve mentioned. They’re all there. Never cut a scene short until you hear the director yell “Cut!” Just keep going. Know your shit really well. [Laughs.] Practice. Be committed. Be jovial. Be open. Have empathy for others. It’s a crazy thing, you know, when kids become actors. Very often, their parents or whoever aren’t interested in what their kids are learning while they’re doing it. They’re interested in what their kids are getting. You know, in terms of money or perks or fame or whatever. But my interest and my mother’s interest and the people I’ve always enjoyed working with the most, their interest is in doing this because we want to have fun, to learn, and to tell a story honestly. There’s a craft to it. You have to learn it. It’s not something you just do ’cause you’re cute or something. Cuteness doesn’t last. But the skill? That’s something you can keep on using for the rest of your life.