For the past twenty-five years, Margo Martindale has been an acclaimed character actress on stage and screens big and small. Highlights of her big-screen work include her work as Maggie Fitzgerald’s tactless mother Earline in the Best Picture-winner Million Dollar Baby, and her achingly beautiful turn in the final segment of Paris, je t’aime. The past several years have found Martindale in an acclaimed run on television, including an Emmy-nominated guest run on “The Americans” and an Emmy win for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work on “Justified.”
This Oscar season finds Martindale back on the big screen in August: Osage County, which has already been recognized with a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Martindale plays Mattie Fae Aiken, whose often hard-shelled demeanor cloaks a long-held secret and desire to protect her sister Violet (Meryl Streep), niece Barbara (Julia Roberts), husband Charles (Chris Cooper), and son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Like many of the talent in this year’s acclaimed films, the cast of August: Osage County has been enthusiastically touting their films in the final days and hours leading up to Oscar nomination ballots being due. I recently enjoyed a conversation with the lovely Martindale about her work on the film. Here’s what she shared with me about pursuing a sought-after role in a high-profile film, working with Oscar-winners Cooper and Streep, and crafting August: Osage County.
Jackson Truax: Before we get into August: Osage County, some of your best work to date was in Alexander Payne’s short in Paris, je t’aime. That was such an interesting performance, because you’re on-screen the entire film. Concurrently, you have lines throughout , but they’re all voice-over. What were the challenges of that, and giving a performance where your dialogue and on-screen work are delivered separately from each other?
Margo Martindale: That was the most challenging part of it. Alexander and I met each other once, I think. He called me up and said, “I’ve written this piece for you I’ve never written for anybody before. Would you come prepared to do it?” Well, you know my answer to that. Then we hung up and he called me back. He said, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to ask, do you speak French?” I said, “Not a word.” He said, “Oh, that’s even better…” That seven-eight-minute movie, which felt like a full-length movie to me, because he’s so incredibly gifted as a writer. And we did it out of sequence. We shot the last scene first. We did all of it, and then we did the voice-over. But each time I knew exactly what words would be going with each segment. What was going to be said underneath each segment. He directed me as if I were a silent screen actress. It was a perfect mesh, Alexander and me, doing that together. Because we could, both of us talk about our own emotions in what this would feel like. And if I weren’t doing what he felt this would feel like, we’d have to discuss it. So I knew what I was going to be saying. I had worked on it pretty hard in French before I got there. Then we did about eight hours of voice-over, probably the most challenging stuff I’ve ever done, greatly helped and coached and prodded and pried by Alexander, who said some of the pronunciation to me where [my character] would have to do it phonetically. So that was the most challenging part about it. But it turned out, I thought, beautifully. And it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
JT: Getting into August: Osage County, to my knowledge, you auditioned for the role of Mattie Fae. How did you come to audition for the role and what was the audition process?
Martindale: I had seen the play a couple of times. I called my agent as soon as I saw it. I was at a preview… And I said, “I’ve seen this play… I don’t have any interest as a play. Because I thought the play was excellent perfection. And I thought the woman who played Mattie Fae, Rondi Reed was perfect.” If you see it done the way you would like it to be done…I don’t need to do that. “But if there’s a movie of this, and I have a feeling there will be, keep your eyes open. I want that part.” I guess three or four years later he called me and said, “You have an audition for August: Osage County.” I worked very hard. I studied it as if I were doing a play. I went in and auditioned… They seemed to like me. But I didn’t get a real charge from them. Then I waited. About a month later I got a call from them saying, “Do you want to come back?” I got a little more of a charge from them. And then I went to Italy for my mother-in-law’s funeral. During her funeral luncheon, she was ninety-five, I got the call that I had gotten it. That’s really what happened. [Producer] Jean [Doumanian] gave me a lot of adjustments during the audition. I felt I gave a great audition the first time. I wasn’t satisfied with…the feeling I got. But, as I came to learn, [director] John Wells holds stuff very close to his vest. He doesn’t give things away. So I guess I was doing what he wanted me to do.
JT: What was is it about Tracy Letts’ writing that was so enticing, both in seeing the play and then in the reading the screenplay?
Martindale: He writes with great poetry. He writes dialogue that actors just die to do… It’s all about acting. It’s not about anything else. It’s the words and the acting. I think that’s what you yearn to do as an actor. Is to get to stretch emotionally and get to characterize and find a backstory and come in there loaded…ready to explode, if you can. Everybody was incredibly prepared and ready to play. We had a blast.
JT: Mattie Fae is an interesting character, because even though the movie has no single antagonist, she spends so much time antagonizing those around her. What was the biggest challenge in playing that, and finding the humanity in a difficult character?
Martindale: I think originally…where I thought I would go with Mattie Fae was not where I went. Because of where I found myself falling in the insanity of the family. From the dinner table [scene] through to [the fight with] Charles…to the porch where I reveal the secret that I’ve carried. My instinct in doing the scene on the porch was always much more emotionally and much more fragile. But, as I realized, the hardest thing for me, was that I’m not Mattie Fae. Mattie Fae’s kept this secret all these years. Mattie Fae’s a hard woman. Mattie Fae feels like she’s paid for what she’s done. She says she made a mistake, but she’s moved on. A much harder, a much cleaner, a much more factual person, I think than I am. I think that my tendency in that would have been to fill up with tears, which would have been completely wrong. Completely wrong in that movie, and completely wrong for Mattie Fae. So I think I found the right thing. But that was the hardest thing… Where to put her in that whole group of people.
JT: One of the most memorable scenes in the film is you dropping the bombshell on Julia Robert’s character, Barbara. How did you two find which emotional notes you wanted it to hit? What did Julia give you as a scene partner that elevated your performance?
Martindale: I had great respect for Barbara, as a person. And I knew that Barbara was the most capable of those girls. And the most capable one in the family. So what I got from her, was I knew she was the person that I had to reveal this to. Because…someone, and I didn’t feel it could be me, had to put a stop to that relationship… What she gave me was great strength. And the fact that I felt like she knew me.
JT: You, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper play lifelong family members, and you really made it believable that you shared a lifelong history and a life experience. Did you do anything specific to these characters as far as building that relationship or that family history?
Martindale: Chris, and Meryl, and I spent an enormous amount of time together when we weren’t working. Meryl and I shopped together. We went to the grocery store together. We ate together. We talked together. We did everything. I think that she felt, as well as I did, that it was really important…that we really felt like sisters. I really think that we accomplished that. Mostly because we spent a lot of time together. I had worked with Meryl before. And Chris and I have known each other for thirty-three years. So we all knew each other, too. Which was very, very helpful. And Chris and I talked a lot about where we lived, what our house was like. I found a house that I thought we lived in. So we did a lot of backstory. That really, I think, enriched what happened as we came into the movie. I think you can feel where we come from. But being together a lot…it was really important to Meryl. I know that… Last night we were talking at a Question and Answer… She said, “The wig I had…we patterned after Margo’s hair, and Elizabeth Taylor…” She knew me, too. So she knew my cadence. I think Mattie Fae’s cadence is a little bit different from mine. Because I’m a little more laid back. Certainly, she knows my voice. But it helps, more than you can even imagine. I’ve never done that much of being together on a movie before. And I think it paid off. I think I’ll do it again.
JT: It feels like Mattie Fae has the most emotional arcs in the film, because she has a different arc with Violet, another with Barbara, and another with Charles. What challenges did that give you as an actor, in playing these different arcs with different characters throughout the movie?
Martindale: With Violet, my main purpose was always to protect, and love, and support my sister, regardless of anything else. We came from the same crazy, insane, awful, abusive family. We are hard, surviving women. That said, I think that we both knew that what had happened between me and [her husband, Beverly] was never spoken about. But I think there was a lot of forgiveness between us. The relationship with both [husband] Charles and [son, Little Charles] was one of the hardest ones. Because even though I had touched on and felt that kind of vicious, pointed meanness toward a family member… It really came out of trying to protect him. I think the way to do that without any break, was the hard thing for me. It was a very straightforward, really hardcore, bulldozer way to try to hurt someone. To try and say, “Don’t be with him, because you can’t.” My relationship with…my husband, that’s a relationship that is all-loving. I believe that it’s a great, great, fun, sexual, wonderful relationship that is where I live. So to hear him say those things to me, was painful. And then with Barbara, that was just the end of that whole rollercoaster for me.
JT: You’ve done so much great work in film, television, and theater. If you were to be nominated for or win an Oscar for your work in August: Osage County what you that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Martindale: It would be a giant surprise, at this point. But, what would it mean to me? Of course, it would mean a lot. How could you say it can’t? It means a lot in this business. This is the year of amazing movies. So to even be spoken of is really an honor to me.