Talking To Margo Martindale About ‘The Americans,’ Mags Bennett, And Working With Meryl Streep

To give you an indication of the kind of delightful person actress Margo Martindale is, please allow me to quote a passage from our interview. Margo, presented without context: “When I started to shoot that, I broke down crying. *Laughs* That’s the pussy I really am.” In the span of two sentences, she’s fragile, funny, and lewd — she’s the perfect mother, grandmother, best friend, drug kingpin, whatever you want her to be, which is why it was such a delight to see her on last night’s episode of The Americans, FX’s latest quality drama.

Of course Martindale’s best known for her Emmy-winning work as Mags Bennett on another FX show, Justified, one of the many shows, movies, and topics we discussed during a recent chat on the phone. Also covered: singing, dancing, working with Meryl Streep, the Emmys, and, of course, The Americans. Also, pie. Always pie.

Tell me a little bit about your character on The Americans, Claudia.

I am a KGB operative. I’ve been in the United States for many, many, many years. I’m Phillip and Elizabeth’s handler. From what I understand from [creator] Joe [Weisberg], these handlers, these KBG agents who were deep cover here, were picked particularly for their skills, especially their ability to read people. I give Phillip and Elizabeth the messages from the higher-ups in Russia; I run them.

One of the things that most grabbed my attention about The Americans when it was announced is that it’s led by a female, the only FX show to do so, with the possible exception of American Horror Story. Both you and Keri Russell are very prominent in the marketing, too.

Keri, especially. I’m certainly a supporting character, but a very important supporting character. Keri, though, she’s a young Claudia. Her first and foremost eye is on the Motherland. We’re very, very devote soldiers. Phillip is probably…less. He has ideas of getting out. But it’s exciting — they’re both so incredibly good.

Before The Americans, you were on Justified, and it seems like that happens a lot — a person on one FX show going to another. What is it about the network that breeds such familiarity?

I think John Landgraf is as good as it gets. He’s a genius. I did a series before on FX, too, The Riches with Eddie Izzard, and it feels like the right place for me. It’s edgy and interesting. I think he has great taste in what he picks. I’m very happy to be here…I was also very happy to be on the show I was on last year on CBS [A Gifted Man]. That was luxury compared to this, being in the studio all the time [ED. NOTE: before I started recording, we had a back-and-forth about the terrible weather in New York, and how she had to work outside in the cold all day].

Is there a big difference between shooting a network and cable show?

In what we’re shooting, yes. Justified, for example, was all location for me. We were out in the raw. For The Americans, I’ll never be inside, I don’t think. A Gifted Man was all inside, which was really nice. *Laughs*

I can’t think of a TV show character that made more of an impact in 10 episodes than Mags did. Did you know coming in what her full arc was going to be?

Nope. They didn’t either. It was a perfect fit. It’ll be hard to find that again. It was one of those perfect everythings. To play someone like that who was actually smart and a hillbilly is really fun for me. It was deliciously fun.

And you got to sing. Was that the first time?

It was! They didn’t even know if I could carry a tune!

It was great. You even did a little jig.

*Laughs* I love that episode. I had a blast. Great directors, too. We’re getting a few Justified people on The Americans, too.

When you read Mags’ fate, were you torn apart?

Yes, I was. In fact, I don’t think it could have been any other way. It was too grand, too high, too perfect for it to have ended any other way. When I started to shoot that, I broke down crying. *Laughs* That’s the pussy I really am.

That’s one of those episodes that I’ll remember where I was when I watched it.

I’m excited for this season of Justified. They’re keeping it with the people there; they’re not bringing in big bad guys.

Do you still watch the show?

No. *Laughs* I watched a little bit of season three, but I think I’ll watch it this season.

Were there any moments, when you were waiting around and not shooting a scene, that you’ll never forget? Hijinks ensuing and such.

I remember the first episode, Tim [Olyphant] was so gracious and wonderful to me and my boys [Dickie, Coover, and Doyle]. He invited us all to his trailer, and we were just going to work it out. We were instantly part of the show. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. To be a leading person coming in like that — when will I ever get to do that again?

Before we chatted, I rewatched your Emmy speech, which is one of my all-time favorites. Was it at all a blur? Do you even remember being up there?

I remember thinking, I have to be here in this moment. Even as charged as I was, I was very much there. I wanted to take in the audience. I turned to Tim first — Tim was on one side of me, my husband was on the other — I started being concerned that if by chance I did win, there’s no handrail to go up those stairs. They were massively deep. I turned to Tim and said, “I’m not expecting to win, but if I do, would you help me?” “I can’t do that!” he said. *Laughs*

Your husband would have been jealous.

I turned to him and he said, “No, I will not help you.” *Laughs* Ashton Kutcher helped me, so thank you, Ashton.

You’ve been an amazing character actor for years, but you’ve got a big 2013 ahead of you. There’s The Americans, but also Beautiful Creatures and August: Osage County, as Mattie Fae Aiken. Are you excited or nervous or both?

I’m nervous. August was a wonderful, incredible two months. It will look beautiful. The script is magnificent. The actors are all fabulous. Will it all work? That will be a mystery. I was wildly happy to get that part, and I said to myself, after seeing it on Broadway, “I want to play that in the movie.” Rondi Reed, who played it on stage, I couldn’t have perfected that. There was no need to do it on stage. So I decided to set my sights on the movie.

You’ve worked with Meryl Streep, who plays your sister Violet, a few times in your career. Did that previous experience with her help build your relationship as sisters?

Tremendously. We spent our off time together. She’s a great, great person. These sisters really lean on each other, and I’ve known Chris Cooper, who plays my husband, since 1981. I love him so much.

It seems like you know everyone.

I don’t know everyone, but I have been doing it for a long time.

Well, hopefully this time next year, you’ll be asking Meryl to help you up the stairs at the Oscars.

*Laughs* Well, let’s not go there. I think that when everyone got this job, you had that looming around in the back of your mind. Juliette Lewis said, “So much came with getting these roles,” and I responded, “I know. I wish we had never had that. I wish we had just been out here doing a movie.” Which we were, but there was so much expectation. There’s something about that that makes it hard.

Was it internal or external expectations?

I think both. That was a breakthrough role for me to get in movies. A lot came with that.

One more question: how often do people ask you about pie?

All the time. *Laughs*

(Image via Bobby Finger)