Margo Martindale comes off as this bluff Earth Mother, sassy and droll, a woman who’s heard it all. Cast her as an aged barmaid, a cynical aunt, a grumpy mother or grandmother and let her drop a few bon mots in her dry, Texas drawl.
“People think I’m this no-nonsense, blunt sort of woman,” she says. “Maybe it’s some way I’m coming off. Something will happen and I hear friends go, ‘Oh, you know what MARGO would say.’ Like they know.”
Martindale, 62, laughs.
“I am much more introspective and quiet than these women Hollywood has me play. But I guess I am a lot more like these women than I know.”
Take Mattie Fae, her character in “August: Osage County.” She’s quick with the pointed, wounding put-down. And in her own way, she’s every bit as mean as her unfiltered harpy of a sister, played by Meryl Streep.
“She and her sister have survived the same things, this awful dysfunctional Oklahoma family that they grew up in, for starters. They’re survivors, but they’re both very hard, tough women. Their mother was a very sharp tongued woman, and so are they.”
Where Oscar winners Streep and Julia Roberts (playing her daughter) are loud and combative, sorting out a bad relationship with shouting matches, Mattie Fae is quieter, softer — coping with her sister in calmer tones, putting down her put-upon son (Benedict Cumberbatch) with a smile. It’s a turn that makes her stand out in a cast of Hollywood A-listers.
“If you’re listening to the other actors, they’re going to help you figure out where you fit in,” Martindale says. “I believe we’re all on the same, level playing field…Tracy Letts’ writing, it’s like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. And Meryl set the bar very high, and that raises your expectations. You have to be your best and on your toes, because you know she is.
“So there’s restraint in Mattie Fae. She thinks she’s kind of come up in the world. She’s kept a secret, and confined her temper to that sharp tongue. But she’s a force of nature, too. She’s just not that loud about it.”
“‘Force of nature” comes up a lot in stories about Martindale and reviews of her work. An alumna of the University of Michigan and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, she popped up on TV in “Lonesome Dove” in the late ’80s, with choice supporting parts in films such as “The Firm,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Dead Man Walking” getting her noticed. She was the mother of the “Million Dollar Baby,” and has been in four films with Streep, three with Susan Sarandon. Recent years have seen her take on recurring roles in many a TV series — currently as a KGB handler of Russian spies in America in “The Americans.” Another “no-nonsense” part, she says.
“But for someone who plays all these ‘no nonsense’ women, there is a silly, frivolous part of me, a nonsense side. That’s why I have a sitcom, I guess.”
Martindale is front and center in CBS TV’s “The Millers,” a sitcom about a newly-divorced journalist (Will Arnett) coping with the problems of his equally split-up parents (Martindale and Beau Bridges).
“Carol Miller, is as no-nonsense as everybody else I play. She just speaks a lot faster than I do. I didn’t need to lose my accent. But I wanted her to be a fast-talker, kind of wound up. I can’t underplay her, because the character is kind of the driving force of that show. So I crank her up. Beau Bridges gets to underplay, which is usually what I prefer. But have to drive it.”
She may be, as the Christian Science Monitor notes in its review of “August: Osage County,” “always wonderful.” But a formula sitcom can be a severe test of that.
“She absolutely refuses to condescend to the material,” Willa Paskin wrote in Slate, in a review panning the show but trotting out “Force of Nature” for its headline, praising Martindale. It’s the sort of rim shot one-liner comedy that requires her to sell lines like this one, with conviction.
“I had to wash my underwear in the bathroom sink. So don’t get your panties in a wad when you find my panties in a wad.”
Her TV work isn’t slowing down the film career, Martindale says. Her next film, “Heaven is for Real,” opens in the spring.
“Step by step and inch by inch, I’ve found my way. Not sure how. It’s great to be my age and have more work than I know what to do with.”