09.09.11

Martha Plimpton Strikes Comic Gold

Three-time Tony nominee Martha Plimpton committed to her first TV sitcom, 'Raising Hope,' because she felt she’d be working with 'real people.' Now, the Emmy nominee tells Maria Elena Fernandez what it’s like having Cloris Leachman play your grandmother while playing a grandmother herself and why she feels like she already won.

Three-time Tony nominee Martha Plimpton has now earned her second Emmy nomination—this time, for her first starring role as a TV regular on Fox’s Raising Hope. Plimpton plays Virginia, the center of the wacky Chance household, who cleans houses for a living and loves her family to pieces. Virginia was raised by her grandmother, Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), who now lives with her and the rest of the family: dim-witted, but attentive and hot husband, Burt (Garret Dillahunt); their 24-year-old son Jimmy (Lucas Neff); and his baby daughter Hope, whose murderer mother was executed in the 2010 pilot.

Plimpton’s Emmy recognition comes from “Say Cheese,” an episode in which Virginia’s obsession with the perfect family portrait gets the best of her. In the Outstanding Lead Actress category, Plimpton is up against Tina Fey (30 Rock), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), Laura Linney (The Big C) and last year’s winner, Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie). Before the Sept. 18 ceremony, Plimpton talked to The Daily Beast’s Maria Elena Fernandez about her dog’s reaction to the nomination, why the cast can’t stop laughing on set, and what she loves about playing a “half-drunk lioness.”

You were nominated previously as a guest star for Law & Order: SVU, so congratulations on your second Emmy nomination. Your statement the day the nominations were announced was funny. (Plimpton said she had cleaned up a bunch of dog poop in her shower because “apparently, my dog is so excited, she has explosive diarrhea.”)  I just want to make sure: Is your dog OK?

Yes, Eloise is just fine, thank you. It was just nerves. [Laughs]

Considering that freshman TV series are in such precarious positions, it’s a big compliment to be nominated for Raising Hope’s first season. But you’ve been nominated for three Tonys. Is this kind of thing old hat?

I was completely blown away. I’m completely, completely thrilled to be in the company that I’m in. It’s astonishingly great company. There are so many brilliant women on television right now. And I’m astonished and just blown away. It’s hard to describe exactly how it makes you feel. The truth is, people will constantly give you shit and say that you’re lying when you say that being nominated means everything. But the fact is, that’s the truth. Being nominated is the win. For me, being nominated is winning. It’s just unbelievable. It also feels great for the show. It’s a testament to [Raising Hope’s creator and executive producer] Greg Garcia—to his writing of this character. It’s just a lovely validation of what we’re trying to do over here.

What influenced your decision to sign on for a TV role that could potentially last several years?

I like Greg Garcia as a person, you know? Not only did I like the pilot and it made me laugh, and not only did I like the character and thought the character was something I could do and relate to, I like Greg Garcia as a person. If I’m going to sign my life away on a TV show for how many years, hopefully, I wanted to do it with people that I liked, people that are actual real people. And that’s Greg. He’s a family man. He’s hilarious and a hard worker. And he’s on set every day. But more than anything, he’s an actual real human being. And I just thought that’s the kind of set I want to be on.

Were you a fan of Greg’s Emmy-winning series My Name Is Earl?

Yeah, I was. Our show is a little different than Earl. It’s not quite as madcap and zany. It’s a little more grounded. Obviously, it’s more family-oriented. But I do think it has a lot of the same kind of fearlessness on some levels that Earl had.

I think what’s different about Raising Hope is we haven’t seen this type of family before. Even though they get into all kinds of crazy trouble, in the end, it’s still a very heart-warming family show. It combines both elements well.

I do, too. We balance the craziness with the fact that we’re coming from an honest place and we’re trying to be truthful. You know, it’s not cynical. And it’s never cruel, which I hate.

Virginia Chance is the youngest grandmother I’ve ever heard of. What drew you to play her?

I love her. I think she makes me laugh. She’s ballsy. And she’s also got a sweet, sentimental core and she loves her family. And she’s in love with her husband. And she’s completely devoted to them and protective of them. She puts me in the mind of a half-drunk lioness. I like that she’s in there with them. Usually, the mother is sitting on the outside, kind of judgy.  I like that Virginia’s in there with the rest of the family.

Yes, it’s a fresh take on the sitcom marriage, where the guy’s a buffoon and the wife is a relentless nagger.

Exactly. I like that Burt and Virginia are a team.

The truth is, people will constantly give you shit and say that you’re lying when you say that being nominated means everything. But the fact is, that’s the truth. Being nominated is the win.

I read that you were bummed that Virginia doesn’t smoke anymore. In the pilot, we saw her smoking around the baby. Was that the problem?

Yes, because it told you immediately what kind of show you were watching. Cigarettes are an instant signifier in culture. It punctuates a joke, or puts that extra zing on a punch line. I like them as a prop. I think it can be really useful for character and texture and contrast and all of that. But the reality is that we don’t want to encourage a deadly habit and it made perfect sense to have Virginia want to quit. We don’t want to come off as pro-smoking. Even though we didn’t smoke real cigarettes at all, you want to be careful of people’s sensitivities. Now that we’ve established it, it’s OK to let it go. I wouldn’t mind for Virginia to have a relapse, considering that’s the way most people in this country live when they try to quit. It’s an ongoing struggle.

Lucas Neff told me that he has a hard time keeping a straight face with you and Garret Dillahunt. Do you?

Garret cracks me up on a daily basis. I’m constantly blowing takes because Garret makes me laugh. He’s a fantastic actor with a truly unusual sense of comedy.

Normally, people don’t pay much attention to the baby on a show, but Baby Hope is on her way to becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Why do you think that is?

Well, the babies [twin toddlers, Baylie and Rylie Cregut] are the stars of the show. That’s the name of the show.

Are they divas?

Oh no! Though some days, it’s harder than others. They’re very sweet babies and comfortable on set with us. We make a lot of effort to make sure they’re happy. We don’t force them to work if they’re not having a good time. They are bonding with us. It’s nice.

Your cast mate Cloris Leachman also earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress. Is that a fun perk of the job—working with Cloris?

You know it is. [Laughs]

Lucas told me that for the scene in the bathtub, she ate the shaving cream and she wasn’t supposed to. And it was not whip cream. It was actual shaving cream.

That’s right. That’s what she does.

Is she good at holding it in, or is she constantly cracking up?

If she starts laughing, she laughs. She doesn’t care about ruining a take. She just laughs.

What are some of the craziest things she’s done that we haven’t seen on TV?

Oh, I don’t know that I could tell you that. I think we might want to keep some things to ourselves around here. [Laughs] I don’t think we want to raise the curtain quite so far. But I can tell you she’s completely crazy in the best possible way.