An Interview with Martha Plimpton
Martha Plimpton: strong jaw, great cheekbones, alabaster skin, eyes of a Siamese cat. Maybe you first saw her in Richard Avedon’s blunt, fetishistic Calvin Klein commercials of 1983, or the next year, capably holding her own against Tommy Lee Jones in the film The River Rat, or a few years later in the Hollywood classics The Goonies and Parenthood. Then the ’80s blinked into the ’90s and Plimpton’s face disappeared.
If you check her IMDb credits, there are some indies, some TV movies, a few shorts. She says it wasn’t her choice—that Hollywood types had pretty much decided her face wasn’t for them anymore. She moved east, from L.A. to Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, where she starred opposite John Malkovich in The Libertine, following in the theatrical tradition of her mother, Shelley Plimpton, who performed in the original Broadway run of Hair.
Throughout the 2000s, she toggled between long periods of stage acting and short spurts of network television. Her savings ran out; she was the commercial voice of a popular pet food brand. Between 2007 and 2009, she received a Tony nomination every year. And two years ago, about two seconds before she was about to go broke again, she was offered the role of Virginia Chance in the FOX network comedy Raising Hope—her first-ever regular series gig. To quote her: “Thank god. Thank Jesus.”
I met Martha Plimpton at her home off Laurel Canyon Boulevard—a rustic little nest that is more of an urban tree fort than a house. Her scruffy wheaten terrier mix, Eloise, bounded around the corner and barked a greeting. Then Plimpton arrived—her face virtually (shockingly) the same as it was in those Calvin Klein ads. We sat in her backyard for two hours, drinking red wine. I noticed that when she spoke, there was a suppleness to her jaw, as though her maker could have given two more brief turns to the screws in the bones but decided against it. She answered my questions with intelligence, gameness, and muscle, while remaining appealingly casual about the ordeal of acting.
I. THE GANG
THE BELIEVER: How would you characterize yourself as a kid, growing up in the theater scene? Were you a cool guy? Or a big nerd?
MARTHA PLIMPTON: I grew up in New York as a child actor, so I didn’t get sucked into any machines. I wasn’t in the Hollywood scene. I didn’t hang out with those people. One of my dearest friends in the world is Ethan Hawke. We’ve known each other since we were fifteen or sixteen. He had a theater company called Malaparte. It was the epicenter of young, theater-people cool. I did a play with them, and I was the least cool person there. I did not feel at all like part of the gang.
BLVR: Who was “the gang”?
MP: They’re all brilliant people: Josh Hamilton and Jonathan Marc Sherman and Robert Sean Leonard. These really good, young, earnest actors who wanted to make great things with this marvelous youthful hubris. I lacked that hubris, that confidence. My ego presented itself more cautiously. Hence, not cool. I think part of it is that I wasn’t sleeping with any of them. If you were a girl in that group, at that time, you would have slept with at least one of them. I didn’t. So that made me not part of the gang. By the way, I’m not insulting them by saying this. This is what twentyyear-olds who make theater together do. It’s not a judgment at all. I just didn’t participate in that.
BLVR: Was that a conscious thing, not to sleep with any of them?
MP: No. It didn’t come up. It could have come up if I had been open to that. I’ve just never been that kind of girl.
BLVR: Were you a late bloomer?
MP: No. I was choosy and defensive.
BLVR: Where do you think your defensiveness came from?
MP: I think I wanted to be one of the men, not one of the girls. That’s changed now, since I’ve gotten older. But back then I preferred to be thought of as one of the guys. If I had participated sexually in that kind of stuff, I would have been one of the girls.
BLVR: It was like a tool in your kit that you didn’t want or need to use, necessarily.
MP: Right. And I think I wasn’t free in that way. I don’t want to make it seem like this made me cool. This made me not cool. I was too old-fashioned.
II. SHOWERS OF SUNSHINE
BLVR: Can you describe to me the moment you became an actor? You were discovered, in a way, by the Broadway director Elizabeth Swados.
MP: I was eight. My mother was doing some crazy avantgarde stuff in New York. She was doing this show called Nightclub Cantata, which was being performed at the Village Gate. And because my mother was a broke actress, she didn’t have money for babysitters. So I was down at the theater with her all the time. I was a fucking pain-in-theass ham, always getting onstage and making a jerk of myself. Elizabeth took note of that. She had already done a show on Broadway, called Runaways, that was very successful. She wanted to look into the possibility of making a film out of it—to do a film workshop. She asked my mother if she’d let me audition. I can’t remember what I did—Elizabeth probably asked me to act like a duck, and I probably complied. I became the youngest member of the cast. It was an intense experience. I adore Liz, but she is an intense person. I remember her yelling a lot, and at times feeling humiliated. It didn’t scar me, though, because I continued to do it. Something about it must have appealed to me. It might be the key to some of my earlier masochism.
BLVR: A little after that you were part of that iconic Calvin Klein ad campaign, right? With Brooke Shields in jeans talking about how nothing comes between her and her Calvins.
MP: Yes. Richard Avedon was shooting these commercials. The Brooke Shields ones had come out and they were huge. This was going to be a new campaign, based on interviews that Avedon did. He’d take snippets from those interviews and base scripts around them. I think I did a total of six. Three might have actually aired. But it was a big campaign. There were big blown-up photos of us all over Macy’s. It was me, Shari Belafonte, Andie MacDowell, and a couple of other models. From that I got to audition for The River Rat. Tom Rickman, who had written Coal Miner’s Daughter, had seen my commercial and was very nervous to hire an urban New York kid to play the part.
BLVR: Why? Because you were a city mouse and not a river rat?
MP: Yeah! Because the character is this girl from the bayou— this Southern, river-rat girl whose father is a released parolee and who literally goes catfishing every day. I didn’t even know how to ride a bike! I could have told him anything he needed to know about Blanche DuBois, but I had absolutely no exposure at all to river life on the Mississippi. But he was willing to see me because of the commercial.
BLVR: Did he say what it was about that commercial that piqued his interest?
MP: No. But he said that when I walked into the room, his fears were allayed. I imagine he required a precocious tomboy, and that’s what I was. I have never been particularly girly. He needed a twelve-year-old girl who was not going to be afraid to pull a hook out of the mouth of a catfish— he needed someone who would be excited about that. I was. And, strangely, I was a huge fan of Tommy Lee Jones [who played Plimpton’s father in The River Rat]. Even at twelve, believe it or not, I wanted to work with him. So I went down there and spent a couple of months in Paducah, Kentucky. It was intense. My mother and I lived in adjoining motel rooms at the Executive Inn. No kitchen. I don’t think we even had microwaves, because this was 1983. I lived in that fucking hotel for so fucking long. I remember my best girlfriend flying down from New York to visit me and doing Halloween in the motel. We trick-or-treated in the motel. She was Princess Di and I was Lana Turner. I think we did manage to get some candy.
BLVR: Meanwhile, you’re acting opposite Tommy Lee Jones. Not only the actor you wanted to work with, but a Harvard cum laude graduate who was conversant in Flannery O’Connor and roomed with Al Gore and was a multiple Emmy nominee. How do you remember that experience?
MP: Around that time—and I don’t know whether he still is—but he was something of a method actor. It was important to him that our relationship off-camera reflect something in our relationship on-camera. Which meant that for most of the production, he barely spoke to me. It actually was a phenomenally smart thing for him to do, because I sought his approval constantly. It made me pay attention to what we were doing. It created this emotional bond that was very much like what a young girl would feel for her father. Over time, he would offer these brief glimpses of warmth and they felt like showers of sunshine. I became completely enamored of him.
BLVR: You were raised by a single mother—did that factor into the relationship with him?
MP: Definitely. My dad was not around, so I fell completely in love with him. That made it possible for me to shed a tear in those scenes where I needed to cry.
BLVR: It sounds like he was hugely informative to your success as a young actor.
MP: And to my work ethic, and to the way I saw my job on set. I know people say he can be a bastard, but I have lifelong respect for him. I really do love him.
III. WINONA RYDER’S SIDEKICK
BLVR: I’m curious about your move into indie projects after your two box-office smashes, The Goonies and Parenthood. Can you describe that career turn?
MP: That wasn’t entirely my choice. By nature, I have been given an odd face. My face moves and does odd things when I express myself. That’s not a great quality if you want to be an ingenue. An ingenue is a pretty girl who it’s easy to project your emotions and fantasies onto. I come with baggage. I come with muscles in my face that move when I talk in ways that I’m not conscious of. I’m not a typical romantic lead. At that age, in movies, I was always going to be a character actress, because of biology and my face. This turned out to be a really good thing. At the time, I was frustrated by it because I wanted to play lead roles and do more complicated work, and at that time, in the 1980s and partially in the ’90s, character work for women my age was nonexistent. I was always going to be the best friend—every line was a question. I was bored. My ego wouldn’t allow it. I thought, Fuck them. If they don’t have the interest, then I don’t want to be in their fucking movie. I had a big chip on my shoulder about it. Like, “If I’m so fucking talented, make me the fucking star of your movie…”
BLVR: “…you dumb piece of shit!”
MP: I kept getting asked to be Winona Ryder’s friend. Not that I have anything against her—she’s awesome. But I wasn’t into being anybody’s sidekick. So I made fewer movies. It turned out to be a good thing. It meant that I had to look at other options and be a little more creative in my thinking. So I did some movies that were indie, and some things that were off the beaten path. But I also did a lot of theater. Thank god that I did—because that’s when I was invited to join Steppenwolf. That’s when I started getting great parts.
BLVR: What was your first great theater part as an adult?
MP: The Libertine, a play by Stephen Jeffreys, directed by Terry Johnson. It was about the Earl of Rochester, who was a restoration playwright, a drunkard, and a libertine. I played his lover, the actress Elizabeth Barry. One of the things the Earl of Rochester is credited with—along with his extremely bawdy poetry—is revolutionizing acting at that time. Until he started directing her, there was literally a rule book for acting. It was a book of faces you made to indicate different things: surprise, sadness, whatever emotion the actor was feeling. There were postures and ways you held your arms. Acting was extremely formulaic and presentational. The Earl of Rochester saw Elizabeth Barry act, and he saw how she failed to pull off these postures. The audience hated her and threw oranges at her and screamed, all while he’s falling in love with her. He made her his protégée, and in the process they both changed the way actors perform. Together they created a more naturalistic style, which was far ahead of its time. And in this play, not only did I get to wear my first wig and my first corset and do all that fun shit, I got to do an English accent, and I played John Malkovich’s lover. I mean, come on!
BLVR: That’s so funny. You were successfully playing this character who was not conventionally accepted, right after Hollywood, in a way, had rejected you for being unconventional.
MP: I had never thought of that. In an odd way, maybe that’s true. [Pause] I get bored really easily. I thought to myself, I don’t want to just work. I want to live well, and that’s more than just a salary. What am I here to do? What is my life supposed to be? If I’m not going to be a writer or a person who makes beautiful things, at least I can be someone to help people make beautiful things. As an actor, I think that’s what you do. You’re a facilitator of other people’s great ideas. You’re the instrument. You’re the paint.
IV. “I AM LUCKY TO BE SELECTED TO PERFORM THIS TASK”
BLVR: In the late ’90s and early 2000s, you were suddenly back on TV. You were doing very mainstream shows like 7th Heaven, ER, Grey’s Anatomy. What happened there?
MP: I needed to make money. When I was doing theater, I was living off my savings. After about ten years of that, you don’t have savings anymore. I’m not a profligate person. I don’t live high on the hog, as you can see. I’ve lived in the same apartment in New York my entire life. The fact that I live in that apartment has meant that I haven’t had to whore myself out, thank god. But I was not making any fucking money, or able to put any away. I was living hand to mouth. And because I was doing so much theater, people in movies were not interested in me. When I was a kid, doing television was a major step down. I had to work really hard to change my perception of that. From my perspective, doing episodic television was one step above doing commercials. This was the snob in me—I had very little respect for it. Most of the shows were procedural and soapy, but I ended up getting some really good parts. That was important. If the part isn’t good, don’t bother. Then the 7th Heaven thing came along, and that was extraordinary because I ended up working out a deal with them where I would act in one episode if they allowed me to write one.
BLVR: I’ve never heard of that. Had you been writing all this time?
MP: I have written anonymously and under pseudonyms. I’d written the forward to the reissue of a book by Jane Alpert called Growing Up Underground. But it certainly was in no way my profession, and I’d never written a television show. So I did this episode of 7th Heaven where I played this utterly bizarre cougar character that was completely out of my wheelhouse. I was in my thirties and I remember thinking, This is so insulting that I am considered an old woman! I was not terribly good on that episode. But the episode I wrote I was very proud of. I wrote a very special musical Valentine’s Day episode.
BLVR: [Laughs for several seconds]
MP: And I have to tell you, to their enormous credit, they changed almost nothing. It was thrilling to me, because I thought they would change everything. I literally wrote the script and got zero notes. But they filmed it! It was wild!
BLVR: Did you like it?
MP: Yeah! I was filled with pride. I was astonished at how good it made me feel, watching these actors say and do these things that I had written. I wish I could have been there when they shot it. And let me tell you—the WGA [Writers Guild of America] is a fantastic union. The residuals from that episode made it possible for me to exist and pay my rent for years. I would be on the brink of not being able to pay my rent, and then a check would come.
BLVR: I don’t want to sound too indecorous, but I want to talk about how you got into debt. I was surprised when I heard that you had been in debt up until recently. It seems counterintuitive—you’re not exactly the Nic Cage type, buying nine Rolls-Royces and a pyramid tomb. But how poor were you? Oatmeal for dinner every night? Can’t-pay-yourtaxes poor?
MP: I was I-can’t-pay-my-taxes-this-year poor. I wasn’t poor. Let’s not use that word. We know what poor means. I was broke. I was functionally broke in the mid-2000s. I was doing plays where you get $350 a week. Those would be my only jobs. At one point I became the voice of Iams pet food. I did the campaign and made a nice chunk and it immediately went to paying my credit-card debts. I was living on credit. It also went to rent, taxes, payroll taxes, commissions. The reality is that as an actor, I pay a minimum of 25 percent of my income off the top [to an agent]. And between 35 and 45 percent is gone in taxes. It was scary. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t have a college degree. I am fantastically underqualified to do anything except maybe to write, which is not a stable way to make a living. I started writing industrial presentations for large corporations for small paychecks, one thousand dollars here, five thousand there.
BLVR: Does anyone know what your pseudonym is?
MP: No. And it’s not always the same one. Someone in my family who works in this field knew my situation. They asked me if I’d like to write industrials. I said yes.
BLVR: It’s interesting to hear you say this, especially after hearing you talk about how prideful you were when you made that conscious decision to turn away from big Hollywood and go do theater in Chicago. How did doing these erratic corporate jobs affect the way you saw yourself?
MP: It woke my ass up. Between that and working in the theater, you can’t be so full of yourself. You have to roll with it. That’s what made it easier to do Grey’s or SVU. I started to see myself as a functionary. I perform a task. I am lucky to be selected to perform this task. I am not owed this. I don’t deserve it more than anyone else. I am here to serve.
BLVR: It’s so much easier to think of it as a job rather than a craft.
MP: One of the people I respect most in the world is this actor named Richard Easton. He’s a wonderful older actor who bristles at the idea of an actor being called an artist. I have to say, I kind of agree with him. When actors think of themselves as artists, they lose sight of their jobs. They stop enjoying it. Being an artist is unenjoyable. You are solitary. You are making something purely out of your imagination. That’s not acting. Acting is collaborative; you have to be available to others. Acting is dependent on the artistry of others. Tom Stoppard is an artist. [Pause] You can be artful in your life, and in what you do. To live an artful life is a wonderful thing, but I do think that claiming that “artist” mantle is a difficult thing to do and not be laughed at.
BLVR: What does the concept of artistic integrity mean to you?
MP: I think that in my current job, it has something to do with gameness. But this shifts all the time. Artistic integrity is not a static thing. To talk about it in deeper terms, here’s what it means to me: fearlessness, gameness, being unafraid, unself-conscious, being uninterested in self-protection.
BLVR: It is saying “yes” in the improv game.
MP: When you start worrying about how you are being perceived, your work loses integrity. This is the same in life in general—when you become so fearful of loss or losing out or being embarrassed. You can’t forget your role in the community. Here’s an example: the crew on Raising Hope is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. It is extremely important to me that they understand that I am one of them, and that I bring as much to my day as they do. These are people who are getting up just as early as I am, hauling fucking sandbags and moving fucking cables around and constantly on their feet. It’s very important that I share in that experience with them—that I am making something. That I am not a passive beneficiary of those efforts. So when I fuck up and forget my lines because I am exhausted or tired, I feel embarrassment because I want them to have something to look at when they are not moving lights around. That’s what artistic integrity means to me at this stage, in this job.
V. WHO NEEDS A BABYSITTER?
BLVR: It sounds like you don’t have much of a relationship with vanity.
MP: I don’t have much. I’d like to have more. I’d like to feel that kind of self-love, self-regard. I’d like to know how I would be changed by it. I know this sounds extraordinarily pretentious.
BLVR: What makes you feel good?
MP: A structured bodice.
BLVR: Tons of Saran wrap, wrapped in layers around your body.
MP: I need bones. I need a structured look. Yeah.
BLVR: You won an Emmy for your role in The Good Wife. Did you feel pretty when you walked onstage?
MP: I felt dressed up.
BLVR: Now you’re on this network television show that people really like. It contradicts the idea of Martha Plimpton, the indie actress, the stage actress, the writer of industrial presentations.
MP: They decision to be on Raising Hope was very easy. I liked the show. I liked Greg Garcia a lot. When the call came in that I would have the opportunity to audition for the show and I read the script, I was fucking delighted. I had heard they were having trouble casting. It was getting late in the casting process and he needed to cast it, and I guess I came up for him accidentally. He might have seen something about me online, and he was like, “Oh, right, her… Why haven’t I seen her yet?” I was working on an independent movie in Canada at the time—outside of Toronto in Mennonite country—and it had to happen very quickly. I read the script and I laughed. And I never laugh at sitcom scripts. I never find them funny. I always see things coming from a mile away. I’ve only ever tested for four shows. So I came out, auditioned for Greg and the director and the casting agent, and the audition led to the chemistry with the other cast members. I could tell they wanted me to succeed, and they put me totally at ease. They never said to me,“The job is yours,” and that has happened to me in the past. I once auditioned for a show that would end up becoming quite successful, and I remember the creator of the show telling me, “It’s yours.” But I ended up not getting it, and it ended up really damaging my relationship with that creator. I was angry. Because you shouldn’t promise something you can’t deliver! It was unprofessional. Anyway, I got the fucking job on Raising Hope. And thank god. Because literally, not moments before—and this three weeks after my third Tony nomination in a row—I sent out a Facebook alert saying: “It’s come to this. I need money. Who needs a babysitter?” And one of my friends wrote me back with a sevenday schedule. It was the kind of thing where I would have had to be in Brooklyn at 7 a.m. every day.
BLVR: That was your Plan B.
MP: That was my Plan A! The job came within moments, it feels like, of me writing her back and saying, “That’s great, see you Monday at 7!”
VI. THE BENEFIT OF NEGATIVE THINKING
BLVR: Do you consider yourself a comedy actress now?
MP: No. I just consider myself an actress. If I’m right for the job, I’ll get it right. But I’ll kind of do anything at this point. I feel like my job is not to judge what I’m doing but merely to do it.
BLVR: What is the new landscape for you like? Now that you’re on a popular television show that has some legs, are you starting to get offered movie roles again?
BLVR: Is that surprising?
MP: No. The beautiful thing about television now is that there’s stuff for women to do. In movies, there’s still a problem. The problem persists. There’s still a lack of interest in women who don’t look like beautiful models. I’m not complaining about this, and I’m not bitter about this. I want to make that very clear. If I do television and plays for the rest of my life, I’m totally happy with that. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, because there’s nothing to miss out on. It’s possible that when I’m fifty, there will be something for me to do in movies. But at forty-two, with the face I have, nobody is writing it. I can’t be upset that I’m not doing it if no one is writing it.
BLVR: At fifty, the world will open to you in a new way.
MP: That was true even when I turned forty. My agents used to tell me this all the time: things will change as you get older. Of course, this pissed me off because I thought that it was ridiculous that a woman like me in her thirties couldn’t get acting roles on camera. But that is the way women are perceived in this industry. The fact that there’s more to do in television and plays is great. So it’s not impossible. The strange irony is that although right now I’m the most financially secure I’ve ever been, I still recognize the need to challenge myself. But what does that look like? Another play? Another TV show? I’m not saying I’m quitting—I love it and I’ll never stop. But I also feel like my life can’t be a series of performance experiences. I have to have something else in my life beyond that. And I don’t know what that is right now.
BLVR: Maybe it’s more relaxing not to have an idea of it. They say optimists have a much higher rate of depression, because the world doesn’t measure up to their expectations.
MP: David Rakoff was a dear friend of mine, and he was intimate with that idea. He’s one of those friends who, I don’t know, I’d like to keep giving him things, even though he might not be here anymore. I think about him every day. He is an extraordinary human being. He was familiar with the idea of the benefit of negative thinking. The only plan I’ve ever had is: don’t do anything that will keep you from having the freedom to do what you want. That’s it. I think that’s why I never slept with any of those guys in my twenties.