Scene-Stealer Margo Martindale on Her Long, Winding Road to 'August: Osage County' (Q&A)
The 62-year-old character actress, who is best known for her Emmy-winning stint on "Justified," wanted to play Matty Fae in a film from the moment she saw Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play on Broadway years ago.
The dramedy August: Osage County -- John Wells' big screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play -- was released nationwide on Christmas Day. Much of the excitement surrounding its release had to do with the fact that it boasts one of the most star-studded casts ever assembled, including the legendary Meryl Streep, the beloved Julia Roberts, the rising star Benedict Cumberbatch and a host of Oscar-winning or nominated individuals ranging from Chris Cooper to Juliette Lewis and Sam Shepard to Abigail Breslin. But, for my money, one of the best reasons to see the film is the performance of a 62-year-old woman whose face is much better known than her name, but who is one of the greatest character actresses of all time: Margo Martindale.
I recently sat down for an hour with Martindale -- whom I have admired from afar for years but was meeting in-person for the first time -- at THR's Los Angeles offices to chat about her long and winding journey from Jacksonville, Texas to New York to Hollywood, where she recently relocated, with her husband of 27 years, in order to star on the new CBS sitcom The Millers.
Stops along the way have included four films opposite Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, respectively; three with Tom Cruise; two alongside Paul Newman for Robert Benton; and one under the direction of Clint Eastwood and then Alexander Payne, which elevated her profile enough to land her one unforgettable part on the FX series Justified that lasted just one season but brought her an Emmy and shaped everything that has followed: another Emmy nom, for FX's The Americans; the starring role on The Millers; and the opportunity to do what she does best -- which is steal scenes -- in August.
Martindale has wanted to play August's Aunt Mattie Fae ever since she saw Rondi Reed playing it on Broadway. She told her agent, "If there's a movie, I want to play that part," never quite believing that it would happen. But three years later a film version was indeed coming together, she got an audition, then got a call-back and then a call -- at a post-funeral reception for her mother-in-law, ironically enough -- telling her that the part was hers. ("Everybody cheered!") According to just about everybody who has seen the film, she proved worthy of it, particularly in a revelatory scene with Roberts after Martindale's and Cooper's characters, who are married, have a big fight about their son, but really with every perfectly-timed glance or -modulated aside she makes throughout the film.
During our conversation -- highlights of which you can watch above or the entirety of which you can read below -- Martindale was effortlessly charming, speaking in a Southern drawl, with a winking smile and unusual candor. She discussed how she approaches her work, feedback that has confirmed to her that she was doing it well (Robert Duvall mistook her for a real pit girl on Days of Thunder), how far she has come ("I don’t want to be playing, you know, the waitress that doesn’t have any words anymore, which I’ve done... I did my share, I paid my dues"), learning to appreciate the moment (she became very emotional while just thinking about life during a scene in one film), working with big names ("They’re just actors!") and achieving her own stardom, of sorts, at a later age than most. "It’s a great time," she said with a smlle. "It couldn’t be more perfect."
* * *
The Hollywood Reporter: When did you first try acting, even if it was just for fun? And was a moment when you knew that this is what you were meant to be doing?
Martindale: Well, the first time I tried acting, I didn’t even know that’s what it was because I had a playhouse in my backyard and I became different people. I was a school teacher with a whole class of students, I was a hairdresser in a beauty shop, I was a head of an orphanage -- and I think that [Martindale's Justified character] Mags Bennett came out of that! [laughs]
[laughs] No hammers, right?
No hammers, but dog pens. [laughs] Yeah, I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I loved play-acting. And then in high school, the first play I was in, it was done.
From what I’ve gathered, you acted in a wide variety of productions in high school, from The Glass Menagerie to Calamity Jane, right?
You’re very good, very good.
You were actually quite and may still be—quite musical, right?
I am very musical. Am I a great singer? No. But I’m extremely musical. I’ve played piano and I have music going on inside me.
Where, after high school, did you go to sort of hone your acting?
Well, in my hometown in East Texas, the small town of Jacksonville, Texas, was a college, the oldest junior college east of the Mississippi Lon Morris College, not Lawn Mores College, but Lon Morris College. And it just happened to be that there was a famous acting teacher there -- famous in the state of Texas -- so everybody from Houston and from Dallas, they all came to Lon Morris for this drama teacher.
Who was that?
Her name was Zula Pearson. And I’d known her all my life because I grew up in Jacksonville. So, I went to Lon Morris for two years, and from Lon Morris I auditioned for a round of scholarships -- URTA’s [University/Resident Theatre Association] -- and I was awarded a scholarship to every school there except for Stevens College.
Screw them, right?
Screw them! They were only looking for men because it was a girls’ school. And I chose the University of Michigan and went to the University of Michigan.
While there, you were involved with the theater program?
Oh yeah, I went there on a theater scholarship. And all I really did was one play after another. Then, Michigan wasn’t what it is now. It didn’t have a BFA program. It didn’t have an MFA program, either. But it was a massive amount of plays. I imagine I did 25 or 30 plays while I was there. So it was great.
When you graduated, what was your next move? I understand that the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville was one important stop along the way...
I went from Michigan, where I didn’t graduate -- I actually left three hours short because I had a job at Harvard -- to Loeb Drama Center to do The Threepenny Opera with Christopher Reeve and Jonathan Frakes. And from there I met a bunch of people from Juilliard and I moved to New York with those people. Louisville didn’t come until about 1980.
So New York was where you started getting paid professional theater work?
Yeah. Actually at the University of Michigan there was a summer job that was a paying job. And then at Harvard. But I didn’t get my equity card until I think ’75 in New York doing a David Mamet play, The Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock, that was co-directed by David Mamet.
What a way to start...
It was a children’s play. David Mamet wrote a children’s play.
I believe that in the late 70’s and early 80’s, another thing that you began doing was a lot of commercials, right?
I did a lot of commercials starting in about ’75, yeah. Well, not "a lot"; I never was a big old commercial gal, but I made a good living. I didn’t immediately make "a living" at commercials; the first year I made maybe a living was about ’80. I had a great year in ’85. I had a nice little supplement.
And around the end of the 80’s, the TV credits start to come along. One of the first was a pretty big deal: Lonesome Dove...
That was 1988, ’87, because I was pregnant.
At that point of your career, were you thinking that your future was primarily going to be in the theater or were TV and movies always in the gameplan?
You know, I didn’t even think. I didn’t think. I knew that I loved acting in front of a camera because it could get inside your head and that was a very different feeling from doing it onstage. And it suited me.
They're totally different things, acting for camera versus acting on the stage, right?
Completely different and totally different.
What do you think makes a person equipped to be a screen actor? There are some who might not be a great theater actor but can be great on TV or film...
I think that you have to be able to expose yourself. I think if you’re willing to expose yourself, that’s the most important thing. I’m not afraid to be open. And I think that anybody who tries to pattern it, it doesn’t work.
Why do you think you were willing to be open and not everybody can be open?
I’ve said this before somewhere, but when I was on the campus of Harvard I can remember sitting on the campus reading a book and knowing how the sun was hitting me. And I thought, “I think I want to be in the movies.” It was as if God was the camera, you know? It was just in a moment of quiet that I had a revelation somehow. [laughs] And, of course, I still didn’t know that’s what I was going to do.
Speaking of movies, I believe that your first film role was as a pit girl in Days of Thunder in 1990...
Yes. I think I had maybe three words or four.
But hey, you impressed one of your costars quite a lot, right? Can you tell the story about Mr. Duvall? I think it’s pretty interesting...
How do you know that?!
[laughs] I do my homework...
Well, Duvall had an assistant -- I can’t remember his name -- who was from Texas. So I would say three or four times he called me and said, “Mr. Duvall would like you to come to lunch with us.” And I’d have an excuse every time because I thought he will see that I am as dull as I can be. He thinks I’m interesting now. If I go to lunch with him, I’ll expose myself. Is this the story you’re talking about?
I don’t know where you got that! And then, I’m flying home for Christmas and I’m sitting next to Duvall on the plane. And he says, “What are you doing on this plane?” I said, “Well, I’m going home for Christmas.” He said, “You don’t live in South Carolina?” or wherever we were. I said, “No, I’m an actress. I live in New York.” He said, “You’re an actress?!” He said, “I thought you were the pit girl!" [laughs] I’ll tell you why he was asking me out. Of course, I thought that he thought I was great, but that wasn’t it at all. He was working on a script and he wanted to use a lot of real people.
You were a great real person...
And I was a great real person because I was a real pit girl. I was very natural in front of the camera.
That’s great. Do you know what the movie was that he wanted to meet with you about?
It was The Apostle, yeah. He didn’t have all the money yet. But he was interested in real people. That’s why he was interested. It had nothing to do with anything else.
You were doing your job well then...
I guess I was doing something well.
In the immediate years after that, there were a few people who you worked with on multiple occasions on some very good movies, so I wonder if you can reflect on those a bit. One was Susan Sarandon, with whom you made four movies. My sense was that Lorenzo’s Oil and Dead Man Walking were the highlights...
Yeah, and I auditioned. [Lorenzo's Oil co-writer/director] George Miller came to see me in a play at the Manhattan Theater Club several times. He had asked me to audition several times. But then he backed it up by coming to see me and cast me in Lorenzo’s Oil, a really lovely part. And I really, really got along with Susan. So when Dead Man Walking came along, I believe -- and I may be wrong, but I think this is right -- that Susan wanted me to play her best friend. And [Sarandon's then-partner and Dead Man Walking writer/director] Tim [Robbins]. They did try me out in the part that Celia Weston played, too, but cast me as Sister Colleen. It was great. And then I did two other things with Susan -- I did Twilight, which we didn’t work on together, and some television movie, in which I played nothing, as I recall -- a ticket-taker at some place. [laughs]
You mentioned Twilight, and that was also one of two films that you made with both Robert Benton and Paul Newman. From what I gathered in other interviews you've given, you were pretty fond of both of them, right?
Both. I’ve done all of Benton’s last movies; the last four movies he’s done, I’ve done. We became really good friends. I love him. I think he’s just the greatest guy in the world. I did Nobody’s Fool -- that’s how I met Benton and Newman. It was okay. Paul was a quiet man and it was fine shooting. And then we did the reshoots in the summer and he came into my dressing room and he just sat down. He said, “Let’s talk.” So it was nice. We kind of became chummy. And then, when we did Twilight, it was all right. And then he came to see me on Broadway in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Appropriately enough, right? [Newman had starred in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.] And he had some nice things to say?
Yeah. He said something nice. And he called me, "Mucho" [her Twilight character's nickname].
One other of those early film roles that I have to ask you about is The Firm, with Tom Cruise. How would you characterize your experience on that one?
I loved it. I loved him -- he was great. We had broken for Christmas and he had gone, I guess, back to Los Angeles. [In the film] I was his secretary, so when he came back, he got down on his knees and he said, “I saw my secretary in Lorenzo’s Oil!” He was so kind and so sweet. I saw him a couple of years ago. He didn’t remember me. [laughs] So what?! My memory of him was just lovely.
It seems like one of the roles that has to have been kind of a landmark for you would be the one you played for Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby...
Yeah, I guess it was. I had auditioned for him three times, I believe, for something shot in South America. He was always interested in me. I had never met him but he had me come back and made me read another part or try me out in something else but they wouldn’t cast me. And then I went back several times for Bridges of Madison County -- my friend Debra Monk got it, who was more right for that part of the country than me. And then there was Mystic River and there was a part I really wanted. I auditioned for it and he came back and said that he would like me to try for this other part of nosy neighbor and I said, “I’m not interested in nosy neighbor.” I thought, “Well, I’m finished with this.”
Alas, I got a call when I was here in Los Angeles doing something -- don’t know what -- and they wanted me to come in for that part [in Million Dollar Baby]. And I’d read it and I thought, “I want this part.” I said, “I don’t want to come in. I want to go back to New York and read in New York, where I feel comfortable.” So I did and Clint said to me, when I got there, “We all sat in a dark room and we’d seen a bunch of people and once you came on,” he said, “everybody said, ‘That’s it.’” So it was nice. It was a great part -- and [yet] I didn’t work for six months after that movie came out. I thought that would really-- I started to think, you know--
Meaning that you figured people would see that and it would lead to other things?
I thought I would get a job. But I didn’t get a job for six months. And then I got The Riches and it was never-- It was almost like there was a delayed reaction to Million Dollar Baby.
That was the big turning point?
Yeah, before and after The Riches, for television series, yeah.
I have to ask you: in Million Dollar Baby and some of the others that followed, you played pretty terrible people. In real life, you seem like such a nice person. Is it fun to play someone who is so different from the way you are? Do you particularly like that?
It’s very easy for me to do that kinda stuff. It’s almost like dropping any facade. I don’t mean that I am basically a nasty, horrible, terrible person, but it’s fun to do something where you don’t have to put on any pretense at all. I mean, I could talk in my own register without ever having to sweeten it up a little bit and I could just-- I mean, it’s very interesting, when I go back and look-- Earline, the woman in Million Dollar Baby, was ignorant. But Mags Bennett was very smart. It’s fun to go back and look at that and think that I was working from my most-- When I saw that I thought, I liked that person. I didn’t hate her. I didn’t even find her unattractive.
Whoever you’re playing, I guess that in order to play them effectively you can’t judge the character, right? You have to see why they would be that way?
Well, I saw that Earline in Million Dollar Baby was a woman who had children who had no idea how to be a mother, period. She just was too stupid to know how to mother. And Mags Bennett wanted to be a better mother because she got the opportunity with that little girl. She knew she hadn’t mothered those boys right and she wanted to be a better mother. And she was an incredibly sharp businesswoman.
Which, in some ways, makes her the more tragic character, because she was capable of so much more...
She was capable, but I think she-- I liked who Mags Bennett was. [laughs]
So between those two projects was another one that I gather was particularly special to you, Paris, je t’aime. The back story to that is just terrific, I think. Can you explain how that came about?
I met Alexander Payne for About Schmidt -- not for any reason, really. Kathy Bates was already cast, I believe. He had me read something and he said to me, “I’m not going to cast you in this part.” He said, “I just wanted you to know that I think you’re beautiful and I wanted to meet.” That’s what he said. And that was the end of Alexander Payne until that summer of whatever he called me up -- I guess he got my number from my agent -- and said, “This is Alexander Payne. Do you remember me?” And I said, “Well, sure, I remember you.” And he said, “I’ve written a movie for you.” He said, “I’ve never written anything for anyone before.” And he said, “There’s no money in it. Will you come to Paris and do it?” And I said, “Let me think about it -- yes!” He told me a little bit about it and then he hung up the phone -- and he called me back. He said, “Oh, by the way, do you speak French?” And I said, “Not a word.” He said, “Even better.” It was interesting because he kind of really knew me, somehow, for not really knowing me.
So you and your husband go off to Paris for, what was it, a week?
Like, seven days, six days, yeah.
And while there, you were sort of experiencing what your character was, right?
Exactly, except that I wasn’t alone.
Your character, though, was sort of taking it all in and was really affected by it. So were you, right?
I had never had any interest in going to Paris. I thought, “It’s just going to be another city.” But it’s so not what I expected and it blew me away. I went back this spring; it’s magical, beautiful and not like any other city. Really, it was, yeah. I was thrown off by how much I loved Paris.
And as far as the making of the film, I believe that Payne asked you to see a Fellini movie, right?
Yes, that’s right. He asked me to see-- I’ll never remember--
Was it Nights of Cabiria?
Yes, thank you.
Why do you think he wanted you to do that?
Well, every time I would get to a certain place in certain shots, he said, “Think”—what was her name? No, I don’t mean the actress, I mean the character. [It was Maria.] I can never even remember the name of the film. But because she had a naïve quality that was very childlike in her aweness at what she was seeing, he would say, “Dig that.” And it was perfect. It was a perfect thing for me. He was the perfect director for me.
There wasn’t much dialogue, right?
I had two words, except or a massive amount of French talking.
Yes. But it was mainly like a silent movie, right?
It was a silent, so, he actually directed me like a silent actress. I thought it was beautiful. I thought his writing is beautiful. I can’t wait to see his new movie. Have you seen it?
And my next door neighbor June Squibb. She played my mother last week on The Millers, so she’s my mother now. We lived side by side in New York for 30 years.
You two are both favorites of Payne...
He’s very sweet. I love it.
So just one last Paris, je t’aime question. You talked to Terry Gross from NPR about one particular moment that you had in Paris, sitting on a park bench...
The first thing we shot was that. It was going from eating a sandwich on a bench to looking at a children’s playground. All I had to do was be there because it was going from watching my daughter to watching my mother-- [Becomes emotional.] it was a beautiful thing that that gave me. It was all about being happy and sad at the same time. And it really was happy and sad at the same time. It was perfect. And then, Alexander said to me, “You don’t have to worry about the rest of the movie. You’ve already done it.” It was given to me right there. There was nothing I had to come up with, because it was in front of my eyes in this beautiful park.
As an actress, are you always able to easily tap into your emotions?
Well, I try to just let it happen, and a wonderful thing about aging is that you have so much to draw on. I don’t even have to draw on it because it sits with me now, whereas when I was 20 years old playing Big Mama saying, “Time goes by so quickly,” I kinda knew what I was talking about but I really knew what I was talking about when I did it on Broadway when I was however old I was, 52 or 54.
I believe that Dexter came along just around that same time. You sort of popped in and out of that over the first three seasons, which were, a lot of people believe, the best seasons of the show...
Yeah, I thought that first season was extraordinary. Boy, is he [Dexter star Michael C. Hall] good! Isn’t he good? I love serial killers. [laughs] So, it was really fun to get to be in it.
You seem to be very good at making memorable exits...
Well, killed by a pie -- again.
That’s right. I was going to say, you’re cornering the pie market.
I did a Sidney Lumet series called 100 Centre Street in 2000 and 2001, and Steve Shill, who directed the last episode I did of Dexter, directed one of my big episodes on 100 Centre Street, so he knew me, which was nice, because when it came to doing the death of me in Dexter, I really thought I was doing a great job, but he came and he said, [In accent] “Margo, you can go deeper. You can go deeper.” And he was right.
He was? Do you bristle when you hear something like that, or you knew—
No, I’m delighted, because I really thought I was there and I wasn’t, but it took somebody who actually knew me to know that I wasn’t where I could get to be.
Where you could get to be -- and what I think you’ve said is the highlight of everything so far -- is your work as Mags Bennett on Justified. It was just one season -- season two -- and just 10 episodes, and yet it was sort of the role of a lifetime, right? Or one of them?
Well, it would be hard to top it, but yeah. I was here for a premiere of Secretariat and I had stayed to do Harry’s Law because I wanted to see [Kathy] Bates. And my agent called me and said, “There’s this part of a woman on Justified.” And I said, “What’s Justified?” He said, “It’s a show on FX, Margo!” I never know anything. And I said, “What’s it for?” He said, “A drug-pushing hillbilly woman.” I said, “Send him my reel, please. If I can’t get that--” [laughs] And he said, “No, they have to hear you read.” So, I said, “Well, send me the script and I’ll tell you whether I will or not.” And I read it and I was like, “I don’t care where I have to go!” And that was it. It was poetry.
And then it was basically six straight months on the set?
It was, I think they started me off with-- They said they’d give me three or five [episodes], and I think Graham [Yost, the series' creator and executive producer] said to me, or I’ve heard him say it, that after they saw the first one they knew they had a season, so then they gave me 10.
One of the things that I understand you really liked about that character was that you could just drop any sort of vanity, any pretenses. Is that right?
That’s what I liked about it. It was like, no vanity. And in that I found that -- that’s what I was trying to say, is that -- with no vanity and no cheerleader and no blah-blah or lipstick or any of that, I kind of liked what I was, which was a fascinating thing to see. I don’t mean that I liked who I was in the part; I’m just talking about I liked where I was coming from as a person.
I assumed that you worked most closely with your the three young actors who played Mags' sons, Jeremy Davies, Brad William Henke and Joseph Lyle Taylor. What was your main takeaway from that?
Well, the first episode was when I killed that man with apple pie and Jeremy Davies was there, my little son, Dickie, the little squirrely one. And I said to him, “Are you Southern?” I don’t keep up with stuff. And he said, “No, no.” I said, “Boy, you’ve got a really good Southern accent.” And I said, “What have you done?” And he said, “I was on a little show, Lost.” [laughs] Then I felt really stupid. I went back and looked him up. I see now. Anyway, he was wonderful. And then, each boy -- Joe Lyle Taylor I’d done 100 Centre Street with and Brad Henke I loved. I mean, they were just great guys.
There are two scenes from Justified that I have to ask you about and then I'll go on to the next topic. First, the hammer scene. I think the episode with that was your Emmy submission, right?
What was it? The seasons—that was episode seven, my singing scene, and it was my hoedown. The hammer scene, I thought it was really hilarious. My husband called me and he said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen you do!” [laughs] Because he was in New York watching it. I don’t know. It was fun. "I hope I’m not hurting you, Brad!" [laughs]
[laughs] It was, presumably, a rubber hammer?
No, it was a real hammer! [laughs] It was rubber. But you know, they could hurt, those rubber hammers, if you use enough force.
And then your last scene -- it’s got to have been kind of tough to say goodbye to a character like that, no?
I had a moment [before shooting it], and they asked if they could clear the room, because I realized that I was about to say goodbye to Mags and I broke down crying. It was so, so silly, but you know, I did, and then I gathered it together -- and killed myself. [laughs]
So how special was it for you, after putting in a lot of work over a lot of years, to finally receive proper recognition from your peers at the Emmys? I am a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association and we gave you our best supporting actress award, but to then get nominated for and win an Emmy is a whole different level...
You know, it’s fascinating because having been in it [the Emmy awards season] for two years, three years -- in that part of show business -- you realize how much is at play. It’s not what it appears to be. But, that particular thing, I think, was. People really were kind about that character, about a 60-year-old woman being meaner than anything. And, you know, I think it kind of was fun for people.
And was it awesome for you?
It was glorious. It could never be that again. Oh, it was just fabulous. It was fabulous.
Now that, I guess directly, indirectly might have led to the third of these three consecutive FX series. First The Riches, then Justified and now The Americans, which I have to say the TV Academy really blew it with -- well, they got it right in terms of nominating you, but everyone should have been nominated -- Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich -- because it's such a great show...
It’s a great show. I think it’ll be next year, don’t you? I think so. I think they’re so fabulous, those two, everybody, honestly.
As far as your involvement, was it somebody at FX saying, “Hey, we loved you on these last two shows, come be in another one?”
Graham called me and said, “Will you come do this?” And I said, “Sure. I’ll do it. You don’t even have to tell me what it is. I’ll do it.” And I started and I don’t know that I knew I was doing 10 when I started. It wasn’t really exciting until the last four.
When did you get beaten up?
Well, I got beaten up in, I think, about the fifth one. That wasn’t particularly exciting. I didn’t win; she [Russell] did. But it was about the fourth from the end where I started getting to be other people, I believe. I was undercover as this woman but I really was not-- I was still really Claudia, and I wanted to twist it so that I could be somebody else.
So how, after a number of years doing cable shows, have you now wound up going over to a network to do The Millers? I know you are one of the central characters, but it’s got to be a totally different experience, working in network versus cable, in terms of the workload and what you can and can’t show...
Well, I did A Gifted Man, which was not a big successful show, the year before last, after Justified. But coming to this? It's different. I mean, it’s not a drama and it’s not a single camera comedy. It’s flat, all-out, straight-out comedy on stage. It’s really hard. It’s really intense. And it’s the greatest group of people, the sweetest group, the most wonderful group of people. And I will get better as I go.
How many episodes are you doing this season?
We’re doing 22. I think we’re about at 10 or something like that, nine, coming up on 10, maybe.
You get a script and then you have to act it out how long afterwards? What's the turnaround?
Zero?! Do you like working that way?
No, I don’t, but I think it’s a challenge. And it’s good to be-- I’m happy to be challenged. I haven’t gotten there yet but I’d like to come all the way together with this character so that it is not so-- It’s a hard process because I have to have it in my body to do it. And I think the people that are best at this are comics that do it like this. [snaps fingers]
Well, that’s what I was going to ask you next, actually. Do you feel just as comfortable doing comedy as drama?
I do feel as comfortable doing comedy. Do I feel as comfortable doing fast comedy? No. But, I will. I mean, I’m getting better.
And the show has been very well received!
I guess what they consider a hit. Not bad. Not bad.
It demanded a pretty big commitment from you, in the sense that you had to come out from New York, where you’d been living for like 40 years, right?
I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I’m happy and all that, but I had no-- I didn’t think it through on any level -- that we might actually be picked up and actually do it and now it's a hit and we’re doing 22? No, I didn’t really think it through. It actually could be on the air for a while. But it’s okay -- it’s good. It’s good. It’s a good thing. I mean, otherwise it would be, you know, the same thing -- going, with some downtime.
Are you still able to do The Americans?
I’m doing two episodes soon, yeah.
I don’t know which way you came down Wilshire today but there is a big billboard of your face out along the street for The Millers. That's got to be kind of exciting, on some level...
That does nothing for me. Zero. Nothing. Absolutely no reaction. I don’t even-- I know that that’s me, but it means nothing.
So I guess that kind of begs the question: has stardom or being the lead or whatever ever been important to you? In terms of you measuring your own success as you’ve gone along, what has been the metric?
It’s been to keep working. That’s really what I’ve done. I loved being that person in Justified because it was the central gal for that season. I don’t want to be playing, you know, the waitress that doesn’t have any words anymore, which I’ve done. I have -- but I did my share, I paid my dues. Yeah, I don’t even think of where I am in the-- We’re a group together and I just think of trying to be better. It’s fun that even if I failed last week I might be really good this week. And I don’t think I failed last week. I actually think I did okay last week. But maybe next week will be another story. [laughs] No, it’s a trip, doing it.
I can’t imagine having that much to memorize that quickly...
And they do it. Every day is a new—everything is new—not everything, but a lot.
Have you always been able to memorize lines very quickly?
I’m not quick-quick, but I’m quick. But, like I say, there’s certain people that can get it just in their heads. I can’t do it that way.
And are you expected to adhere to the script word-for-word?
Yeah, I think it’s really important to stay with the script. None of its paraphrasing, no improvising at all. That’s not this show.
I saw a movie of yours in Toronto back in September called August: Osage County. And I wonder, first of all, the usual question: How did it come to you to begin with? But also, once it did and you realized that it consists of the most star studded cast in recent memory, was it something you looked forward to or is it intimidating to be working with so many other good actors?
I looked so forward to it and I wasn’t intimidated. I don’t think of actors like that. They’re just actors.
Plus, you’ve been there and done that with Meryl Streep three times, right? Marvin’s Room, …First Do No Harm and The Hours...
I don’t know about-- It’s the same thing. I mean, they are just actors -- really good ones. [laughs]
I would be a little bit jittery about working with Meryl Streep. Not at all? Not even the first time?
Well, the first time was Marvin’s Room. The first time? A little bit scary. [laughs] Yeah, I remember she told me, she said, “Stop worrying about repeating. We’re doing this some other way. You don’t have to worry about that. Just let it go.” She was, you know, helpful.
In this film you’re her sister, Mattie Fae. Was this a project where they said, “We see you immediately as this character, will you do it?”
Oh, no, no, no. Of course not.
That would be too easy...
No, too easy. I’d seen the play and loved it -- loved it -- and thought Rondi Reed was fabulous, incredible. And I said, “I don’t need to do it on the stage because she’s done it.” But I said, “If there’s a movie, I want to play that part.” And I just kind of put it out there. I told my agent that three years before. And then he came around and he said I had an audition for August: Osage County. I worked my ass off. I learned it backwards and forwards as if I was performing the play. I went in and I thought I blew them away -- and they did not feel that way. [laughs] They didn’t seem overwhelmed. So I threw the script away. It didn’t feel very good. And then I got a call to come back and I went in and it felt this much better. But I realized that that’s sort of their take. And the next thing I knew, my husband and daughter and I were in Italy. His mother died at 95 and we had to come back for her funeral. We were at her funeral luncheon after we buried her and I got a call that I got the job. So perfect for that play! Everybody cheered. [laughs] It was sort of a joyous, crazy time.
One moment that will probably stand out to many people about your performance would be your scene with Chris Cooper...
Ah, I don’t know. I’ve only seen it once. It is certainly his moment. I thought he was extraordinary in that. It was an odd scene because I think I’d been so mean before he came in there. And in my head -- and I talked to Chris about this a few weeks ago -- I said, “I didn’t think you could hear me." I didn’t think that he was watching me or something like that. Whatever. It turned out to be a really good scene, I thought. You know what I liked the best -- and I thought it was an unusual scene because it’s all done without much break, like old fashioned movies which I liked a lot -- was our arriving into the thing, Chris and I coming in, going into the house, coming in, opening up the windows. You could see our whole relationship and you could almost see who I was in that family. I liked the entrance into that a whole lot. And the reveal at the end -- I liked that a lot. I played it less emotional than my own gut wanted me to. I think it was exactly right for who that woman was.
A little bit closed off...
Closed off, yeah. She really didn’t have much remorse or regret. A little bit.
Many people today refer to you as one of the best "character actors." What do you understand that phrase to mean? And is it one that you like or you dislike?
I love it. If you act, aren’t you a character actor? I mean, I never even got that. I mean, I understood what people said. You know, I’m the old lady with the cane and that--
No -- you can come in and steal a scene...
If you can act, you are making choices to be a different person. Or you’re a personality.
Finally, you have sort of achieved this level of success at a later time in your career than a lot of people. Having seen what it’s like, do you wish it had happened earlier or do you feel it’s happened at the right time?
Perfect. I was playing 60 when I was 16. [laughs] It’s a great time. It’s great. It couldn’t be more perfect.
Sundance: On the Scene