Margo Martindale on Finding Success as an Older Actress: “I’m having a blast”

"My dream was always to get on a show and be on a show, but I think I landed in a place I actually didn’t expect" - Margo Martindale

Actress Margo Martindale

There are few movie character I remember disliking as much as Maggie’s mother in Million Dollar Baby, played by Margo Martindale. The character was so infuriating that I could help but respect Martindale for portraying such a terrible person so effectively. Of course, in the decade since Martindale’s career has taken off, especially on television and particularly in antagonistic roles.

In an interview with Vulture, Martindale talks about being a middle-aged star and why she thinks her characters are misjudged.

Martindale points out that unlike other actresses, she’s been getting better roles as she’s aged. She explains, “You know, it’s like I’m finally playing all the parts that I played when I was 16. I played Amanda Wingfield [from The Glass Menagerie] when I was 16! I don’t have to act the age I always had to act before and probably wasn’t very good at — now I can just be. And complicated people I’m drawn to. I’ve been blessed to play these great parts that just open another door and another door, is I guess how it’s worked. I’m having a blast.”

Though some point to her role as Mags Bennett in Justified as when her she started to get offered more opportunities, Martindale says she had been building towards that in her other work. She says, “Mags of course changed everything — then I got all evil parts. People were like, ‘Ooh, she’s sneaky.’ But it sort of started with The Riches on FX. I’d done 100 Centre Street with Sidney Lumet in 2000, but it was my first series regular [role], and it gave me a chance to build a character on television.  It was the beginning of this new thing, and in that time period Alexander Payne also wrote this beautiful part for me in Paris Je T’Aime, an unusual and different kind of part. Then of course it was the thrill of a lifetime to play Mags — the language was so rich and poetic and not cut of anything else, so I could just be whatever I wanted to be. Kind of like playing in my backyard.”

In fact, Martindale doesn’t even see the characters she plays as particularly villainous. She explains, “Most people on the street say to me, ‘You’re so evil!’ And I find that so interesting. These three parts people consider evil — Claudia from The Americans, Mags, and Ruth — they’re just excellent at what they do. If I were a man, would you call me evil? No. These are smart characters.” She also disagrees with being labeled as a “character actor,” adding, “That’s what I’ve always found stupid— aren’t all actors character actors? Even leading actresses aren’t playing themselves.”

Above all, Martindale is proud to have the career so always dreamed of having, even if for years she wasn’t taken seriously as an actress. She recalls, “I got my first professional job at Harvard, at the Loeb Drama Center, and I remember sitting on campus one day under a tree — I was doing Threepenny Opera. I was reading a book and the light caught me, and I thought, I want to be in the movies. Somehow, in my head, I always thought it would be fabulously fun to have a light on you. That’s what the moment was like for me, it’s hard to explain. It was a profound moment of knowing what acting in front of a camera would be — just extremely real. Which is what I always thought it was supposed to be. Sometimes when you’re real, people want to see more acting.  They think, Oh she’s just being herself. I remember when I did Million Dollar Baby, I read a review that said the casting director who found those people to play the mother, et cetera, should get an Academy Award. Meaning we were not actors, just people they found in Missouri or something. I think they thought I wasn’t an actress. I promise you, I was acting!”

However, Martindale also points out that as much as she wanted to be where she is now, she never expected to be there. She continues, “My dream was always to get on a show and be on a show, but I think I landed in a place I actually didn’t expect. I have the best of all worlds right now. I wouldn’t have gotten to do so many different people, you know?”

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