Margo Martindale is an Emmy Award-winning actress — this past year, for her supporting performance in “Justified” — but still more likely to be stopped by someone who thinks she might be their old guidance counselor than stalked by a TMZ photographer. That comes from more than 20 years of respected character work in everything from “The Rocketeer,” “The Firm” and “28 Days” to “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “The Hours” and “Secretariat.” In one of her more recent films, though — the rather excellent little independent, character-rooted thriller “Scalene,” which hits DVD this coming week — Martindale gets to show her chops in a leading role. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Martindale recently, about “Scalene,” fight sequences, her path to acting, and the warm afterglow of her Emmy win. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: I almost don’t want to give it away, but “Scalene” opens with quite a jolt — you and Hannah Hall just doing physical battle, and really going after one another.
MM: I was just saying to someone that I think the first five minutes of that film are pretty fabulous, and quite different.
ShockYa: I can’t imagine you’ve had many big fights like that.
MM: In my professional life? (laughs) No, that was the only time I’ve ever done something like that. I think I was knocked off my feet in something, but that wasn’t me fighting back, that was people fighting around me, or hitting me.
ShockYa: Was there any training involved? Did it come easy?
MM: Oh, you know, I could beat anyone up if I needed to. (laughs) No, I’d worried about that opening sequence going there, and I thought, “Please don’t tell me I’m going to have to do some sort of stunt (falling) down a flight of stairs.” So I didn’t, and I was really happy about that. It was easy, and I thought (director Zack Parker) did a really great job of doing it very simply in the way he edited it. I think Zack has a really great future.
ShockYa: I agree, in that the movie really exhibits a maturity beyond its years. Take me back to that first meeting or contact with Zack and/or Brandon Owens, the co-writer, because the film hinges so much on these subtle differences in perspective. Did the script communicate that fairly readily, or did you have to have a meeting with them and understand their perspective and vision for the film?
MM: Yes, I had to have a meeting with them. I’d agreed to do it, it intrigued me. I liked the complexity of it, the suspense of it, and I didn’t think he overwrote, which I really liked. And then we met in New York and did a reading of it, and I was crazy about it. Zack has a real clear vision of what he wants. He’s not a pussy in any way, or a push-over. There are a lot of people who will bend over backwards to please you, and he’s not that person. He knows what he wants and he’s going to get it. And that, to me, says that I think he’s got great, great vision and style. And I think as he gets more and more money for movies, he’ll only just blossom.
ShockYa: You mentioned the money, and with so many independent films each is almost in a way its own little Jesus miracle, where you’re really trying to make those resources stretch. What was the production process like, and how much time did you guys have?
MM: I think he did it in four weeks, maybe three. I was there three weeks, and I think there maybe were a few days or about a week that I wasn’t there. They had wonderful places for us to stay, and the crew was incredible. It was all these people getting to do what they loved to do, which was great. It was a college town, Richmond, Indiana, with people doing things for free — it was a very sweet, wonderful experience.
ShockYa: In “Scalene” you’re essentially the lead, but for much of your career you’ve had a trajectory that to me seems like so much more fun, because as a character actor you get to do so many different types of things.
MM: It’s been great that way — and to get to do it as a woman, for such a long time. It only gets better, which is great. I’ve always thought, though, that it just depends on what you look like. I think all actors should be character actors. They should be able, if they’re really good, [to] be a character actor who just happened to be a really pretty character actor.
ShockYa: Your filmography is so varied, and littered with so many well known and respected films. Prior to your recent Emmy win, what did people most recognize you for?
MM: I think recently for this movie Alexander Payne wrote and directed, (part of the anthology) “Paris Je T’aime,” young people stopped me on that one a lot. “Million Dollar Baby” was really big, and with “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” every young kid who comes up to me is gaga. “Walk Hard” was kind of a cult thing that people loved; “Dead Man Walking” years ago, and “Nobody’s Fool,” which I did with Paul Newman. “Lorenzo’s Oil,” too — all of those. But that’s so long ago that I don’t remember, you know? It varies. “Dexter” has been huge, and I think I only did five episodes of that.
ShockYa: Because TV shows are in a way a bit more intimate, I imagine people feel like they really know those characters and have less of a problem wandering up to people and talking to them. Have you found that to be true?
MM: They really have no problem wandering up to me. (laughs) Or asking me, “Don’t I know you?” I usually say, “I don’t know, I don’t think I know you.” And finally it dawns on them, and then they’re embarrassed. It used to be that all the time: “Aren’t you the teacher? Aren’t you the principal? Don’t you work at the post office? Do you work down at the court?” And I would say, “Well, I’ve worked at all those places, but I’ve done it in the movies.”
ShockYa: What was your path to acting like?
MM: I started in high school, and then went to a school, a community college in Jacksonville, Texas, my hometown, that really had a fantastic theater department. And then I got a full scholarship to the University of Michigan for theater, and from there I went to Harvard, working in the theater. And then I went to New York. The ’70s there were hard for me; I did about four plays. And then in the late ’70s it sort of started to break. I went to Actors Theatre in Louisville for four years. Then we brought a play to town in ’82, and then in 1987 I did the original “Steel Magnolias,” which was sort of my introduction to movies because everybody in Hollywood came to see it.
ShockYa: That stage experience you have separates you from the avenue by which a lot of younger actors now get into acting — there’s so much TV and film aimed specifically at younger audiences that kids are getting into acting for a camera a lot earlier. But is the stage acting manifestly different, in your opinion — did it influence your style or development?
MM: I think it’s all kind of the same, at least for me. It’s all about being honest and finding… I mean, I’m very technical on stage, and because you have to repeat, I tend to choreograph things, like a dance. But I noticed in “Justified,” even, that I used a lot of that, because I had a monologue that was two pages long. So I had to learn it like a play, and then do it. If you learn things and let them get into your blood and psyche, it’s fun in television and the movies to then throw it away and hang out and play. But that’s the way that I do it in a play too — it’s all about getting the words in you first.
ShockYa: You mentioned there being a difficult patch of time in New York. How were you with auditions at the time, and has your perspective or opinion on them changed or remained essentially the same?
MM: I’ve always loved auditioning. People think I’m crazy, but I love [it]. It’s like going to a party and meeting new people, and trying to win them over, in a way — feeling out the room, knowing which way to come in to somebody’s personality. I can do it many different ways, but I like it. I like showing what I can do to somebody new.
ShockYa: You mentioned “Justified,” and I have to admit that watching that, I had visions of some alternate universe crossover with you and Jacki Weaver’s character from “Animal Kingdom.”
MM: I have to say that I keep forgetting, (but) that’s something I want to watch! I’ve heard that before, so I want to see her. It’s Australian, right?
ShockYa: It is, and it’s a lot of fun. [Like Martindale’s “Justified” character], she’s the matriarch of this crime family, and her poor grandson goes from out of the frying pan and into the fire. You think she’s going to be a safe harbor from the storm for him, and she is not. (laughs) But how did you role on “Justified” come about?
MM: I was out for the premiere of “Secretariat” in Los Angeles, with my husband. And Kathy Bates is a friend of mine, and they asked me to do her show. I thought, “Well, I haven’t seen her in a while,” so my husband went home, I stayed to do “Harry’s Law,” and in that time between the premiere and shooting my agent called and asked about… the part on “Justified,” a drug mama in Kentucky. And I said, “Just send my reel. I don’t really need to audition for that, do I?” And he said, “Well, they really want to hear you say the words.” So I said OK, he sent me the script, I read it and thought, “Wow, that’s incredible, I’ll go anywhere!” It wasn’t at all what I expected. So I auditioned with the casting director, and then a couple hours later I was doing “Justified.” And it was for four episodes (at first), I think, but after they saw the first episode we shot I think they decided that I’d be the whole season. I don’t say this, but (producer) Graham Yost I think said, “After we saw you kill that man we knew we had a season.”
ShockYa: What about the whirlwind after your Emmy win? I think your body of work pretty much speaks for itself, but this town is a funny one and awards wins really do tend to mean something. Has it garnered you extra attention and opportunity?
MM: Yes, it really has. That’s upped everything a bit. Things that I would have to work really hard to get have come easier, money has come easier. More jobs without auditions, that kind of thing. What I really want is another television series. I did a series this year, which I loved. It was a wonderful, fun job that didn’t challenge me much, but it was a great job here in town — “A Gifted Man,” for CBS. But I want a new one.
ShockYa: Is it the settledness of a particular schedule or the structure of a full character arc that you find most appealing?
MM: It’s all appealing. I like the home base of it, the consistency of the people. “Justified,” “Dexter” and I did one with Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, too — all of those were with really great actors, and really good environments. This one last year was particularly wonderful — though, as I say not challenging. But (it was) wonderful. I love TV for acting.
Written by: Brent Simon