One of the most satisfying moments on Sunday night’s Emmys came when Margo Martindale won for her performance as hillbilly crime lord Mags Bennet on FX’s “Justified.” It was the role of a lifetime for a hardworking but largely anonymous character actress, and she played it brilliantly.
Martindale was so incredible as Mags, in fact, that I was disheartened to watch the pilot for CBS’ “A Gifted Man”(*) (it debuts tonight at 8) and see how little she had to do as the administrative assistant to Patrick Wilson’s title character, a brilliant but cold New York surgeon who begins to change when the ghost of his ex-wife begins appearing to him. It was the kind of minor role Martindale might have gotten a few years ago, and it seemed a waste of the talents she put on such impressive display in “Justified.”
(*) No time to review “A Gifted Man,” except to say that it seems like a familiar and not especially memorable blend of every story you’ve ever seen about a tough professional whose heart grows three sizes, mixed in with a bit of “Ghost Whisperer” and some interesting direction from Jonathan Demme that I’m not sure future directors can replicate. Fienberg should have a longer review later today, but at the moment, I’m mainly interested in Martindale.
At the show’s press tour session last month, executive producer Neal Baer admitted that Martindale didn’t have enough to do in the pilot, and promised that her role would expand significantly in future episodes. And at that night’s press tour party, I sat down with Martindale for a few minutes to discuss Mags (including how her character’s story ends, for those who both haven’t seen it and didn’t see Martindale’s Emmy speech) and her pragmatic approach to both the Emmy she would win a few weeks later, and to the new gig.
When I heard you were playing the villain in season 2 of “Justified,” I thought, “Well, that’s inspired.” Had you ever had a part like that before?
Well, “Million-Dollar Baby” was the closest. At least she was dark and mean, but not like that.
Not grand. That was a very small woman, and Mags was not small.
No, Mags was not small. Mags had power.
So when you got the script for that, what was the reaction?
“I’ll go anywhere I have to go to audition for this.” And I auditioned with the casting director, nobody else, and I was hired a couple of hours later.
Wow. Do you remember what scene you read?
I read the death scene in the first episode, where I poisoned him. But I eventually read every scene in that episode, whatever was there.
You’ve had a long and impressive but somewhat workmanlike career. What would something like an Emmy mean for you?
I don’t really know. I think getting nominated has meant something to me. Would it change? The thing is, I don’t know who was nominated last year, but I know who won last year – and only because I’m in the race this year. But does it mean something in the business? I think it does. It would be good for me.
How long did it take you to find that character?
In an instant. In that audition room. And then I had a wardrobe fitting, and when they started bringing out clothes, I said, “Oh, yes. Men’s shoes, yes! And I think it should be my dead husband’s clothes. Give me some men’s pants, make ’em a little bit short.” It was the writing and then putting on those clothes.
In the episode you submitted for the Emmy, there’s that great moment at the end where Mags is pleading with Raylan to see Loretta, and as soon as he says no, it’s a different Mags there. How sincere was she before he said that?
So to your mind, that wasn’t an act?
But once he says no, the armor goes up?
Back in the mode, baby! (laughs)
And did you know all along that this would be one season and out?
So when did you find out?
I think around episode 11, maybe episode 10.
Had you been entertaining any hopes that this might continue?
I certainly had. I knew they really liked me, and I thought that if they liked me so much, that they’d keep me around like they did Walton (Goggins). Surprise! (laughs)
On the other hand, you got a hell of a death scene, which Walton has not had yet.
It’s a beautiful death scene. It was a poetic ending. Would I love to be doing “Justified” for the next 5 years? Yes. Would it have been what it was if I had stayed? No.
At what point in the airing of “Justified” was the “Gifted Man” pilot made?
Airing was finished, I believe. I had gotten the script, it went through a lot of different stages. I knew they wanted me to do it. I got it overnight and went in.
In the pilot, at least, you don’t have a lot to do, but in the panel, Neal (Baer) was promising that there’s a lot more to come. What sort of things did you know at the time you went in to read and do it?
Nothing. You know what? It was a network show, it was shooting in my hometown, and I was dead on another show. Was I sitting around waiting for all the other people who were gonna write great shows for me? No. When would that happen: a year from now? Six months from now? Or never! I was delighted, I wanted it, I love Patrick Wilson, and I thought the pilot was beautifully written. Did I worry about not getting anything to do? A little bit. Do I believe that would happen now? No.
So at this point, you feel confident going forward?
I feel confident there will be stuff for me to do. Will it be Mags Bennet? (shrugs)
How often does Mags Bennet come along?
Once in a lifetime. But this is beautiful writing. And it’s a whole different world – doing a network show after doing a cable show. You reach a lot more people, and there are a lot more rules. So you have that going in. I’m all for network television. We’ll see. I’m ecstatic to be doing it. I really am. It’s a gift, and maybe I can buy a house.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org