Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale Is Just Happy to Be Alive
Hollywood’s reigning supreme character actress on the role that made her consider her own politics, mortality, and, as she tells us, how she looks ugly in hats.
It is perhaps the most miserable day yet. They’ve all been vaguely miserable, but this one, coming when it’s started to seem pointless to even tally the days of quarantine anymore, seems particularly bleak.
The wind is so loud you can hear it indoors. The rain is coming in pathetic smatterings, as if even it couldn’t be bothered to try all that hard. And grayness blankets everything, like someone’s isolation depression was asked to draw a rendering of its general mood.
In Connecticut, where actress Margo Martindale retreated from the Upper West Side in order to enjoy more outdoor space, there have been power surges all day. But Martindale is cackling, like a defiant, joyous—if slightly off-kilter—umbrella to the rain. We have an interview to do. When it’s done, she plans to go outside and “sit in the wind.”
“I find the wind really fun,” she says, amused by her own strangeness. “That’s my activity for the day.”
The laugh grows. If you’ve seen Martindale in one of her (literally) hundreds of screen or stage performances, you know it well—although, admittedly, a glut of recent roles have veered more towards the intense. It sounds like someone scooped up some loose gravel, put it in a tin bucket, and started shaking. It wakes you up. Blessedly, she uses it a lot.
It’s a good time to be Margo Martindale, who, at age 68, ranks among the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood.
She is also enjoying herself—very much so—whether it’s on set for her latest role in the FX on Hulu limited series Mrs. America; at an award show reception toasting The Americans (for which she won an Emmy for playing a spy), where we last saw her in person, surrounded by a gaggle of gay TV reporters fawning over her role in The Good Fight; or just doing her own weird Margo Martindale thing and sitting in the wind.
Martindale’s career-spanning penchant for showing up in memorable, surprisingly diverse supporting roles earned her a Hollywood reputation as a reliable character actress, a distinction immortalized when the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman cast her to voice a deranged version of herself: “Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale.” The satirical canonization only works because it’s inarguably earned. To wit, most of the series’ characters address her simply as, “Beloved.”
It’s been steady, good work since the ’90s: Dead Man Walking, Lorenzo’s Oil, Marvin’s Room, Million Dollar Baby, and, uh, Hannah Montana: The Movie. But it was after a plum role going toe to toe with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper in the starry film adaptation of August: Osage County that the hamster wheel of work left skid marks in its wake. She’s won three Emmys since 2011, one for playing a Kentucky mob boss in Justified, and two as a Russian K.G.B. agent in The Americans.
She’s frequently asked what it’s been like to experience a career surge over the last decade, at an age when roles notoriously start drying up for actresses. It should come as no surprise that, of the many women who get this question—any actress over age 50 who is still working—Martindale’s is by far the best response.
“I tell you, here’s the real truth: I played Amanda Wingfield [the Glass Menagerie matriarch] at 16,” she told The New York Times. “I played an old woman in a wheelchair at 18. I’ve been playing the age I am since I was a kid—I actually am the age that I really was waiting to be. [She laughs.] Time finally caught up to me.”
In a recent tweet, culture writer Louis Peitzman mused, “Every Margo Martindale role feels like the part she was born to play.”
That somehow exactly accurate observation was in specific reference to Martindale’s current performance in Mrs. America, a ’70s-set look at the women’s movement’s battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, spotlighting famous second-wave feminist activists like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), as well as their ultra-conservative foe, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett).
In the series, Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale plays one of the biggest, if more undersung characters in the women’s movement: Bella Abzug, a three-term congresswoman from New York City who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. Nicknamed “Battling Bella,” Abzug charged toward the goal of getting the ERA ratified like a tank, even if the steamroll meant prioritizing politics and a united front over the nuanced desires of the women she was leading.
“I guess people think I’m that way, but I don’t think I am,” Martindale says, when asked if she identified with Abzug’s fearlessness and notorious ferocity.
In 1945, for example, Abzug, then one of the country’s few female attorneys, traveled to Mississippi to defend Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman. She was eight months pregnant, and received so many death threats that she was forced to sleep sitting up in a brightly lit bus station.
“I feel more like a child,” Martindale says, laughing again. “Even still.”
Mrs. America is closing in on the end of its season on Hulu, and this week’s episode, airing Wednesday, is a showcase for Martindale’s performance and Abzug’s work, appropriately titled “Bella.”
It sees Abzug in prime bulldozing mode, dressing down the passionate army of homemakers recruited by Schlafly to spread propaganda that the ERA will forcefully remove happy housewives from domestic bliss.
She explains, to the housewives’ disgust, that Schlafly may actually be a feminist and “the most liberated woman in America.” Then she asks the women about the skills Schlafly has taught them: How to lobby legislators? Draft a press release? Create a budget and balance it? After they nod enthusiastically, she burns them: “Congratulations, you’re working girls.”
“I have to say, that was fun,” Martindale says about delivering that line. “Steering them down that path and letting them sit in it. That was great.”
Martindale has been living in New York since 1974, which would have placed her in the Upper West Side right around the time the events in Mrs. America take place. She grew up in Jacksonville, Texas—“I’m just a small-town Texas gal”—before eventually going to the University of Michigan on a scholarship. After a stint working and performing at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center, she made the trip down I-95 to pursue the off-Broadway theater scene.
She remembers Abzug being a general presence at the time. “She was always in the news. She was always in the paper. ‘The loud woman from the Bronx.’” But, with a bit of wistfulness looking back—and especially after having filmed Mrs. America—she laments that she was never that politically engaged herself.
“All I cared about—and it’s very small-minded, to tell you the truth—was acting,” she says. She absorbed the energy of the movement and observed the tension with detractors like Schlafly, but felt that she was “always liberated.”
Her time on Mrs. America and researching Abzug’s work was like a late-in-life education.
“It’s almost as I had never been to school before,” she says. “Politics has never been anything that interested me. My husband could tell you everything about politics and I just want to go [sings] ‘da da da da da,’ anything like that to not hear about it. But this opened my eyes. At 68 years old, to learn something like this. I’m so grateful.”
The nuances of that pivotal time in the fight for equal rights is one thing. But playing Abzug was also an education—albeit on a much more superficial level—on how Margo Martindale feels about seeing herself in hats.
They were Abzug’s signature, these hats, in a whole smorgasboard of, let’s say... striking styles. There were buckets and bowlers, floppy ones and smokestack ones, all made even more eye-catching by the unmistakable trends of the ’70s they were designed to embellish.
Talking about the challenges of channeling Abzug, it’s a sprint through nailing her peculiar accent to Martindale bringing up the hats. “I am not a hat wearer,” she says.
Sometimes she didn’t totally, vehemently hate the way she looked in them. The small-brimmed ones were the worst. But “the large brims, they complemented my big chin,” she says, offering a self-effacing laugh.
Did the experience make her think about adopting hats into her everyday wardrobe? “Kevin,” she starts, drawing out an eternal pause. “Absolutely not.”
As Mrs. America airs, one dominant conversation has been about how timely the show is now. These are women who, four decades ago, were demanding equal pay, fighting for the ownership of their bodies and reproductive rights, and creating a groundswell of momentum to assert power and respect in a patriarchal society. Down to the same rallying cries, same protest signs, and same talking points, women in 2020 are finding themselves doing the same. It is only in this last year that the necessary 38th state ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
A lot of people have found this heartbreaking and dejecting. After all that work, history is repeating itself. More, what ground was really made?
“For some reason when watching it, I did’'t find it depressing,” Martindale says. “I found it to be escapism. It’s showing this time that we have lived through. Even though we haven't really gotten that far, we're still here.”
She stutters a little bit and takes another stab at it.
“I didn’t find it terribly depressing. I found it comforting somehow. Comforting in that it is history that we lived through.” She lets out another one of those Margo Martindale giggles. “I guess I’m comforted because I’m still alive, if you know what I’m talking about. More along the lines of each day when you wake up and just think, ‘Thank the good Lord that I’m still here.’”
We mentally whisper an amen. It’s time to go. There are things to do, and wind to sit in. But Margo Martindale has just one last bit of wisdom to impart. “Be well,” she says. “And please, oh please, wear a mask.”