How Margo Martindale Became ‘Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale’

Margo Martindale in 'The Millers' (Photo: CBS)
Margo Martindale in ‘The Millers’ (Photo: CBS)

She won three Emmys in five years for her roles on Justified and The Americans. She’ll soon be featured in four shows — drama, comedy, dramedy, and an animated series — across two cable networks and two streaming networks. And her talent and reputation are such that one of those characters is a fictionalized version of her known as “Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale,” which pretty much sums up Margo Martindale’s exalted place in the TV landscape.

Yahoo TV spoke with the lovely and gregarious Texas native and longtime New York City resident about current events with her characters on The Americans, Sneaky Pete, and BoJack Horseman, how she begins creating a character when she takes on a new role (hint: call her queen of the backstory), what kinds of roles attract her now and what’s still on her wish list, and the “most eye-opening” role of her career.

Margo Martindale as Claudia in ‘The Americans’ (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

Let’s start with The Americans. You have two Emmy wins for playing KGB handler Claudia. We learned more about her in the beginning, but now that handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) has returned to Russia, it seems like Claudia might be coming back into the mix a little more. Does that mean we might begin to find out a little more about her and her past?
Well, maybe a little. I don’t know how much we’ll learn about her past. I would love to [learn more], of course. That would just be a dream, but [series showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] keep it pretty close to their vest for us as they do for [viewers]. I know they have lots of fun things in store for me. That’s what they tell me.

How do you go about playing a character like Claudia, who’s so mysterious, as you said, even to you?
I started with the fact that I gave her a back history. I know that she was in the Army, and probably Gabriel and I were in the Army together. We were friends as young people, and were we more? I have no idea. That would be fun. I think for KGB agents, really one of their most important qualities is their ability to analyze and intuit situations. So, I decided — and this is just me, you understand, what I think about her — that Claudia had gone to the Moscow Arts Theater, where she was an actress. She learned a little bit of acting and how to become someone else. She learned English there and then perfected it in Canada, where she probably first came to. Then once she passed well enough, she then was brought to Washington, D.C. Now some of that, a few kernels, Joel and Joe have given me, but the rest I have filled in.

No. 1: her speech, how she talks. Does she think in Russian? I try to sound as if I am completely American, however, there’s a pulled in, filtered quality to her speech that probably feels like she learned it formally. I did that by desperately trying not to have my Texas accent [come through]. Like I say, this is totally in my imagination. That’s how I first came to finding the character. She’s a completely interior character, shows nothing, doesn’t ever reveal her cards. It’s a very different part for me, and certainly not my nature.

Does that make it more fun?
It makes it harder. Does it make it more fun? It’s fun to watch, to find out, did I accomplish that?

Do you watch yourself? I know a lot of actors don’t.
Oh yeah, I do. Of course. How else can you learn?

The two Emmy wins for The Americans, do they mean something different to you, having been your second and third Emmys? How does winning awards factor into what you do?
Nothing will ever match that first one [for Justified in 2011], which was just a recognition and a validation after however many years I’ve been working at this business, at 60. It was extraordinary and beyond exciting. These two were bonus, and unexpected, and I’m delighted, because it helps. It all helps. I think the thing is, never expect anything, just do the work.

Martindale as Audrey in 'Sneaky Pete' (Photo: Amazon Prime Studios)
Martindale as Audrey in ‘Sneaky Pete’ (Photo: Amazon Prime Studios)

You’re going to do a second season of Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, another season with your great matriarch, Audrey. Her whole family has secrets, which makes them so real and relatable and endearing. We conclude by the end of Season 1 that the family needed and benefited from “Pete” (Giovanni Ribisi) showing up in their lives as much as he did. Where will Audrey go in Season 2?
That’s the whole premise: we need him as much as he needs us. It’s beyond, beyond fun. And I don’t know where we go, because I just talked to [showrunner] Graham [Yost] yesterday. I would say I’m so excited to find out. I mean, I imagine we pick up exactly where we left off. Will it be a truncated, quick 10-day season? The first season took place in 10 days. I can’t wait to find out the timeframe on this next season, and I just can’t wait to see what we’re doing. It’s the most fantastic, wonderful group of actors. We’ve been together for a long time now: we started it with CBS, and then Amazon picked it up, and we waited a few months, and then we started. We’ve been together two years. And we are a real, connected, cohesive group. It’s a great ensemble.

How often, in your experience, does that happen, where you feel like a real family off-camera, too?
I don’t think it’s often. I think that’s just a blessing that we got. We all are coming from the same place. And for me, to have a husband on this show who is just a little bit older than me, and just so incredibly powerful, and wonderful, I find beyond exciting.

There’s romantic chemistry between Audrey and Otto (Peter Gerety). They’re a sexy couple.
You better bet your ass they are. Peter Gerety, oh, what a fantastic actor he is.

Martindale with Giovanni Ribisi in 'Sneaky Pete' (Photo: Amazon Prime Studios)
Martindale with Giovanni Ribisi in ‘Sneaky Pete’ (Photo: Amazon Prime Studios)

What made you sign on for Sneaky Pete? I’m guessing at this point, you get more work than you can, or even want to do.
I tell you, this was now two years ago, and I had a lot of options for new shows. This one came when Bryan Cranston and David Shore called me and talked to me on the phone, and then they sent me the script, and I thought, “Well, this just sounds wonderful.” Giovanni wasn’t attached yet, but they talked to me about Giovanni, and I adore him. I loved him. What more do you want? That was enough for me.

Graham, who you worked with on Justified, wasn’t even attached at that point, was he?
No, but what an excitement. It’s like a little treasure box had opened up in the middle.

What, in general, at this point, makes you decide to take on a new role?
I need something different. Nothing [that makes me say], “I’ve done that. I did that. I’ve done that. I don’t want to do that, I’ve done that… Okay, that’s a great story, but I’ve done it.” So, it’s hard to find what you haven’t done at 65 years old. I’ve done a lot of different parts. Now, Sneaky Pete is different because this person wasn’t as insane as the other people I play. I don’t mean insane, I mean complicated. [Audrey is] complicated, she’s really smart, really intuitive, but a woman for who things just snowballed. In trying to keep her family together, she went to really great lengths, which is the sort of person who has gone from being completely together to just completely out of control. That was a very different kind of part.

Are there certain kinds of characters that you’re drawn to, that you just can’t say no to playing?
I’d love to play totally psychotic, but nobody has offered that to me. Then I’ve always said I’ve wanted to play an alcoholic, drug-addicted person, and then somebody offered that to me, and I thought, “Well, that story is just too dark. I can’t go there.” I couldn’t. The one that came along wasn’t the one I wanted. It has to be character and story.

Bojack Horseman
The Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale in ‘BoJack Horseman’ (Photo: Netflix)

BoJack Horseman‘s Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale. First of all, I have to ask, do we know if Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale is alive? She crashed BoJack’s boat at the end of last season.
Well, I’m afraid Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale hasn’t heard from esteemed group of BoJack Horseman writers, so maybe the esteemed character actress has died. I don’t know.

How was that role presented to you originally? I assume it was via Will Arnett.
Of course it was Will. I was doing The Millers with Will, and Will said, “You’re going to come do my cartoon.” I said, “Oh no, I’m not.” I was doing the press for August: Osage County and The Millers, and I thought, “I am not going to do anything else. I promise you, that’s it.” He said, “Yeah, you are.” I said, “Will, I can’t. I’m not doing it.” He said, “No, the part is Margo Martindale, character actress, so who’s going to do it?” I said, “I guess I’m going to do it.” That’s how it happened, and then I read it, and I said to Will, “I don’t know how to say this, Will, but they all seem like animals.” He said, “You idiot, they are animals.”

It’s obviously an homage, though, to the incredible work you’ve done, and the reputation and body of work you’ve built.
It was so sweet, and fun, and wild. Really wild. It’s one of those great things that just pushed me to be more, and more, and more.

What did you think of that aspect of the character, when Will told you, “By the way, she’s going to do all these crazy criminal things on BoJack’s behalf,” she’s robbing a bank and having a shootout with cops?
I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just trusted Will, that’s all I can tell you. I just said, “If Will likes it, I’m sure it’s good.” But I really love that the character is beyond fierce and can do whatever she wants to do, because she can do more than just about anyone. It’s kind of like being a superhero.

Martindale as Mags Bennett in ‘Justified’ (Photo: FX)

We’ve mentioned Justified. Weed kingpin Mags Bennett was one of the most memorable characters on a show full of them. When you characterize the impact of the role and that show on your career, how important is it in the scheme of things? Not just in terms of the recognition that it brought you, but for yourself, how important was doing that show and creating that character?
Here’s the thing: I was finally given a part that allowed me to do whatever I wanted with it, and it was the most eye-opening thing I’ve ever done, because my wildest imagination and my most freeing part was doing that, and look at what it gave me. So, it was a surprise that my imagination and my backyard play as a child could turn into Mags Bennett, but that’s really what that was.

Did that really feel like the first time ever that you, in any medium — TV, movies, theater, anywhere — had really gotten to do that?
Yes. I mean, I did it a little bit in Million Dollar Baby, this thing that’s my own, but that woman was so stupid. You know what I mean? She was not a smart person, and Mags was brilliant. It was fun to be in a man’s world, and to be smart, and a business woman, and to play it like I would have, had it been my own self. In that part of it, yeah, it was eye-opening.

Had you had any desire to revisit Mags? There could be a prequel movie, or a limited series prequel…
Are you kidding? I begged Graham Yost to bring me back from the dead.

Well, as you mentioned with Claudia on The Americans, you have this affinity for writing great backstories for your characters. Maybe you should write this yourself.
I told Graham the backstory [I came up with] for Audrey on Sneaky Pete, and he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we have to go back to the writers’ room, because that’s not the story.” There was a whole different world than I had imagined Audrey to be coming from. His was better. I told him it took me to Episode 8 to realize that he was right, and I was wrong.

Mags really is just one of those indelible characters, and I think we’re all still curious to know more about her, to see her again.
Well, you tell Graham. I can’t. He loves Mags as much as we do. They always say, “I still miss Mags,” but I really miss it. It was a great, wonderful show.

Mags was a tough mama, definitely had some regrets as a parent. But on a Texas Monthly feature on your career, a reader left this comment: “I have always loved [Margo]. She seems like she could be anyone’s mother, and they would’ve enjoyed their childhood.”
Well, ask my daughter that. [Laughs] But [Mags], she really wanted to be a good mother. She tried being a really good mother. She was going to try again with Loretta [played by Kaitlyn Dever], if she would’ve let her.

Will Arnett as Nathan Miller, Martindale as Carol Miller, and Jayma Mays as Debbie in ‘The Millers’ (Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS)

You played another mom on The Millers. You were one of the leads, it was a network sitcom, multi-camera. Did you enjoy that genre? It’s so different from the intense cable dramas we know you from in recent years.
Beyond different. You know what was fun about it? I loved, loved, loved the group, and I loved Will, and we had great chemistry. What was great about it was Jim Burrows, who directed all of them except one, I think. Learning from him how to [be in] that, which, it’s not even in the same world, was absolutely fun, because it was completely challenging, and at the end of it, I felt like I made big steps.

Would you want to do another sitcom?
Yeah, would love to. When the time would be right, absolutely. I’m a stage actress, really, who happened to find another home in movies and television, so there is an element of that, you know. But it’s just an element. Everyone says, “Oh, it’s just like being onstage.” It’s not just like being onstage, but there is an element of it.

Is it a very different kind of energy, doing a show like that versus an hour drama?
Absolutely, completely different. It’s exhausting, it’s a workout. It’s fast, and that’s the part that was really challenging. It is massively fast, and you have to know how to be fast and agile. I worked at it really hard, that’s all I can say. Nobody’s as agile as Will Arnett. I said to him, “We cannot compare each other, so shut up,” because he’s in a school of his own, he’s so good at it. But he taught me a lot, too. He and Jim Burrows. They were great, both of them.

Is there any type of role or genre that you haven’t done yet but really want to?
I’m interested in playing somebody English. Maybe, I don’t know, because I’d have to work at it really hard. Onstage, I certainly would love to do [theater] again, just not yet. Not yet.

Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, Margo Martindale as Ruth Eastman and Chris Noth as Peter Florrick (Photo by Paul Sarkis/CBS via Getty Images)
Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, Martindale as Ruth Eastman, and Chris Noth as Peter Florrick (Photo: Paul Sarkis/CBS via Getty Images)

The Good Wife. It had another great role for you as Ruth Eastman, Peter Florrick’s campaign strategist. You’ve said that people were approaching you and telling you they were happy that you were playing another evil character with Ruth. You argued that you were simply playing another character who’s good at her job. That’s so true. Claudia, Mags, Audrey… even Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale is really committed to doing those things that BoJack asks of her. Would you have fun playing someone who wasn’t so good at her job, who wasn’t as competent as pretty much all of your characters?
Yes, I would! That would be fun. I haven’t thought of that, but yes. Let me just say, I could do that very well… in an unorganized office, someone just middling, somebody with big eyes and her hair fried, and sitting there going, “I don’t know what this is.” That would be fun.

Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan and Margo Martindale as Camilla in Dexter (Photo: Showtime)
Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan and Martindale as Camilla in ‘Dexter’ (Photo: Showtime)

You played Camilla Figg on Dexter — another woman who was good at her job. Camilla also had one of the sweetest TV death scenes ever, and not just because she died via pie. It was the meaning behind it, the decisions that both she and Dexter made to get to that after she asked him to assist her in ending her life and her cancer pain. If you have to exit a show, that was a pretty great way to do it.
It was, I thought. I loved Dexter. I loved the writing of Dexter. I thought that was a brilliant show, and Michael C. Hall was just brilliant. It’s a show that, I mean I’m totally into serial killers. They really make great stories. It was very interesting to do that, because I had done this series with Sidney Lumet called 100 Centre Street, and I had one big episode where I had a boyfriend. He was played by Tom Wopat, and he kissed me. It was just a really beautiful old thing, and the director was Steven Shill. Then he directed that episode of Dexter [“Easy as Pie”], and he knew me well enough to say — even though I thought I was hitting it — “You can go deeper, Margo. You can go deeper.” And I thought, “Wow, it’s nice to know that somebody knows that.” He pushed me to do that. I had great help in that Dexter episode, and great writing, of course, and a great acting partner.

How much pie did you have to eat to get through that?
Too much, and I don’t even like key lime pie. Lots of different pieces.

In addition to The Americans and Season 2 of Sneaky Pete, you also have a role on Greg Garcia’s upcoming TBS comedy, The Guest Book. Is it a recurring role?
You know, I did it in one day. I didn’t know it was going to turn into a bunch of episodes. It’s turning into three, but I think it’s going to be more than that.

You worked with Greg on The Millers, and this is an interesting concept, about all the different guests who come to stay at a remote cabin, and the people who populate the small mountain town it’s in. How did you get involved with this one?
It’s a fantastic concept. Greg loves writing single camera shows. It’s more his style, he would say that to you, and his writing is really, really funny, and dark. I have no idea what it’ll look like. I don’t know that I was very good at it, but I was happy to do it. I love Kellie Martin, who I worked with. She plays the local town cop. Greg said, “Would you come do this?” I was out [in California] for something else. I said, “Well, if I can do it on this day.” He said, “Okay, we’re just going to shoot up in Santa Clarita.” I said “Okay, but I don’t have a car this time, so you’ll have to send a car for me.” As we went past Santa Clarita, I said to the driver, “Well, we passed Santa Clarita.” And he said, “Oh, it’s not in Santa Clarita. It’s an hour past Santa Clarita, out in the desert.” I said to Greg, “You sneaky devil!” I’m up in, I don’t know where, but some weird place in this lodge, which was wonderful, actually, once you got there, and that’s where we shot. It was fun.

Who do you play?
Well, I play Kellie’s mother. She’s just a doll, really a great gal.

What’s the first thing you do when you take on a new role, to begin creating a character?
Try to figure out how the person came about, where she came from. What was her life like before we see her? That’s No. 1, and I work a lot on it, so that it’s not just in my first memory, which is really quick. It’s in the depth. It’s the only way to get it in. A young actor asked me how to do that, and I said, “When you go in to audition, know it like you’re doing a play.” Because you can’t just do it off the top. If you want to look like you’re living it, live it. That’s where I began. Then I learn more and more as I go along, especially on a TV series. TV is the only thing that’s really alive, because it’s happening as you go. You don’t know the end, so another day brings a new life to it. Unlike a play, unlike a movie, where you know the beginning, middle, and end.

It’s the only place where you can keep going deeper and deeper with the characters. Is it your favorite genre to work in?
Oh, I don’t know that I could say that, if it’s my favorite, but it’s where I’ve been able to do the deepest characters I’ve done. I’ve done some other things in movies that I really like, but it is really where you have to know everything about the person you’re playing. To be able to move forward, you have to know what kind of decisions they would make.

Can you point to one character out of all the things you’ve done — movies, TV, theater — that is your favorite?
Oh, Mags Bennett’s right up there.

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Sneaky Pete Season 1 is streaming on Amazon Video. BoJack Horseman Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Netflix. The Guest Book premieres in August on TBS.

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