08.24.11

Emmy’s Stealth Frontrunner

Nominee Margo Martindale may not be prepping an Emmy speech—but she should be. The supporting-actress nominee opens up about playing Justified’s Mags Bennett, how she won’t be wasted on CBS’s 'A Gifted Man,' and why she believes in ghosts.

Margo Martindale is not writing an Emmy acceptance speech.

“The thing that would be nice about not winning,” said Martindale, sitting in the bar of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, “is not having to do that.”

Still, Martindale, who celebrated her 60th birthday four days after receiving word that she had been nominated for an outstanding supporting actress Emmy Award for her turn as brutal kingpin Mags Bennett on FX’s Justified, ought to at least come up with some talking points, given the volume and voracity with which critics have raved about her performance this year.

In person, Martindale is warm and genial and prone to flipping the bird. (She said she had sent Justified executive producer Graham Yost a photo that morning of her doing just that.) She couldn’t be more different from the larger-than-life Mags, a tough-as-nails woman in the rough-and-tumble male world of Harlan County, Kentucky. Yost said Martindale landed the role because she played Mags as “very friendly and down to earth, but there was steel in there, a hint of menace.”

During Justified’s second season, Martindale’s Mags was revealed to be a notorious poisoner (her homemade moonshine, which she calls apple pie, has proved to be deadly) and a savage mother, hammering her homespun truths into her wayward sons with, well, a hammer.

“As is often said, the devil gets the best lines,” said Yost. “There’s a reason actors like to play the bad guy—it’s fun. And we had so much fun writing for Margo. She elevated anything we threw at her—hit son Coover’s hand with a ballpeen hammer, get Loretta gussied up for a party, sway the audience at a town meeting on coal, sing a song, get shot, take her own life. It wasn’t easy to kill her off. We loved Margo and Mags so much, but we decided to give her one great season and let her go out with a hopefully memorable bang.”

Mags ended the season by taking her own life as she sat across from Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens, finding salvation—or at least an escape route—in a poisoned chalice of her own apple pie.

“I was devastated to be dead on Justified,” said Martindale, who admitted that she would have been only too willing to remain with the show had her character not died. “Mags Bennett comes along maybe just once in a lifetime.” Still, Martindale and the show’s writers made the audience believe for just one second that this survivor could somehow walk away more or less unscathed.

“I tried to play it like she could,” she said. “It just wouldn’t be poetic … Limping out of there with a bullet in her leg and everyone in town hating her. I mean, how awful.”

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It’s apparent Martindale had a lot of love for both Mags and Justified. (“It felt like home,” she said. “[But] there are new homes.”) Martindale, meanwhile, credits Mags’s innate honesty as the reason the character has connected with viewers.

“Mags Bennett didn’t put on any airs,” she said. “Mags Bennett didn’t care that she was fat. I care that I’m fat, but I could let that part of it go. I didn’t wear [any] makeup except for the spots on my face. My hair had to be the worst it’s ever been; I just made it as bad as it could be. There was great freedom in that.”

“That honesty was something that people really connected with,” she continued. “And the fury, rage, horror, and power.”

I didn’t wear [any] makeup except for the spots on my face. My hair had to be the worst it’s ever been; I just made it as bad as it could be. There was great freedom in that.

Before Justified, Martindale had been one of those actors who pops up in recurring roles and sends viewers scurrying to IMDB to look up her credits. Her best-known television roles were as cancer-stricken Camilla Figg on Showtime’s Dexter and neighbor Nina Burns on FX’s short-lived The Riches. On film, she’s appeared in Dead Man Walking, Million Dollar Baby, Secretariat, and a zillion others, often playing a number of secretaries—“I did it in The Firm. I did it in Ghosts of Mississippi,” she said—or other supporting roles (that’s her as a scorekeeper in Days of Thunder). She’s also known for originating the role of Truvy in the original off-Broadway run of Steel Magnolias, and she scored a Tony nomination in 2004 for the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

On screen, Martindale has played only one leading role to date. Alexander Payne wrote the role of Carol in Paris, je t’aime’s “14ème Arrondissement” segment for her specifically, after meeting her once. She refers to the role—she plays a Midwesterner who recounts her trip to Paris and a moment of profound epiphany in broken French—as the “second favorite thing” she’s ever done and recalled Payne calling her up to offer her the role, telling her there would be no money in it but that she and her husband, musician Bill Boals, would be flown to Paris to shoot it.

“I like anything that has complication,” she said. “Carol had a childlike innocence of sorts, but a sadness and a happiness at the same time.”

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Martindale said she hopes that Mags Bennett opens doors for other older actresses. “There’s life after 30,” she said, chuckling. Indeed, at 60, Martindale seems to just be coming into her prime. She’s constantly recognized as Mags these days (“Wait a minute, do I look like her?” she asked, semi-honestly), and noted “there’s power in age.”

This fall, Martindale will be seen on CBS’s medical-supernatural drama A Gifted Man, opposite Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, where she’ll play—you guessed it—a secretary; in this case, Rita, the executive assistant to the titular character.

“I don’t think I will be wasted,” Martindale said, in response to criticism that the role of Rita was an odd one with which to follow Justified’s Mags. “I do think it will be wonderfully fun … They will give me something to do. I’m not going to complain. I’ll be patient and see. It’s a different thing doing a network drama. It’s very different than doing wild people out in Kentucky … I’m delighted to have it and to have something that I’m going straight into. Would it have been easier not to be doing a job now? Yes. But I wouldn’t be as happy.”

A Gifted Man revolves around an arrogant neurosurgeon (Wilson) who is visited by the spirit of his dead ex-wife (Ehle), who wants him to get his life back on track. For her part, Martindale hopes that Rita will move into the “supernatural and spiritual healing in connection with medicine” aspect of the plot. She said she not only believes in ghosts, but has been visited by them, including by the spirit of Susan Kingsley, a former colleague from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, who was killed in an automobile accident at 37.

“I was devastated,” said Martindale of Kingsley’s death. “She came back and sat on a bed with a gold lamé dress on … She said, ‘Come with me.’ She took me out into a field. Everything was in black and white. In this tabernacle were people in black and white from ages past, present, and future. She got a huge book out and she read backwards to me in another language. I knew that she was reading the truth of it all. Then she took my hand and she said, ‘Come with me. Open your mind and you will see the truth. Open your mind and you will understand.’”

Martindale leaned forward, the corners of her mouth turning up into a wry smile. “Then she said, ‘If you need any tips on acting, give me a call.’”