Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Backwoods Matriarch Margo Martindale plays Mags Bennett, the leader of a law-defying Appalachian family in the FX series Justified. The Emmy-nominated actress talks about playing Mags — as well as her other roles in Paris, Je T'Aime and Million Dollar Baby.
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Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Backwoods Matriarch

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Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Backwoods Matriarch

Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Backwoods Matriarch

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. One of the more riveting TV performances this year was given by Margo Martindale in the FX series "Justified." She won an Emmy for that performance.

It was great to see her develop a character through an entire season of a series. I'd been impressed with her before in "Million Dollar Baby," playing Hilary Swank's mother; in "Paris Je T'Aime" as a middle-aged woman whose life is changed by a trip to Paris; and in other roles. But it took me a while to realize that these performances were by the same person.

Let's start with a scene from "Justified." The series is about a deputy U.S. marshal in Kentucky played by Timothy Olyphant. In this year's arc, he investigated a family drug ring run by a very tough woman, Mags Bennett, and her sons.

Mags was played by Margo Martindale. In this scene, she's disciplining her not-very-bright son Coover for leaving a paper trail that could incriminate the family. As this clip begins, she picks up a hammer.


BRAD WILLIAM HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) I'm sorry, mama.

MARGO MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Coover, I know you're sorry. That's why it's going to hurt so much to have to do this.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hey, put your hand ((unintelligible)...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Take what's coming.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama, I'm...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) I'm saving your gun hand now.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama, don't hurt me.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Cross me again, and I will leave you...

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) All you've got to do is...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) You shut your mouth.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) (Unintelligible) it ain't you dead on that table.


MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) As it is, I have to hurt Coover. And I like Coover.

(As Coover Bennett) Mama, I love you. Mama, I love you. Mama, no.


GROSS: Margo Martindale, welcome to FRESH AIR, and please don't hurt me.


MARTINDALE: Oh, that really makes me laugh.


GROSS: It's such an amazing scene. And, I mean, you're playing it both ways, like you're the loving mother who has to do this, as if you're about to spank your baby, but you're about break his - every finger in his hand with a hammer. But you're nice enough to spare his gun hand.


GROSS: Because you love him that much.


GROSS: Tell me what it was like to play that scene.

MARTINDALE: Well, you know, it was - everything about this part just came so easily. And I had...


GROSS: That scares me, I have to tell you.


MARTINDALE: I know. It's so crazy.


MARTINDALE: But those boys were just fantastic - Brad Henke and Jeremy Davies and Joe Lyle Taylor, my sons. We had a blast. It was like doing a, you know, a six-month movie. It was just - it was easy. That's all I can say, very easy.

That scene, the only thing I worried about was hurting his hand. It was a rubber hammer, but I kept saying, oh, please, Brad, if it hurts, let me know. And, of course, I think it hurt a little bit, but, you know, that's OK.


MARTINDALE: He deserved it.

GROSS: One of my favorite scenes in "Justified" is at, like, a town hall meeting. There's a big company, big coal-mining company that wants to buy out everybody's land so that they can, you know, that they can mine the mountains. And you get up, and you give this inspirational speech about the spirit of the mountain people and how you're not going to give in to big coal. And it sounds like a cross between, like, the documentary "Harlan County USA" - which is about coal-mining, you know, like, destroying Kentucky -and "Norma Rae."

But the truth - which we find out a little later - is that the reason why you don't want people to sell their land is because you want to force the coal company to accept the deal you're about to offer. You want to hold them hostage to your deal, which would make you incredibly wealthy and basically give you a percentage of the company that owns the coal company.

So all this Appalachian speech-ifying is just a way to cut out all the people and get the deal that benefits you.

So I want to play that speech that you give at this town hall meeting, we'll hear an excerpt of it, and in this speech we'll also hear the coal mining company representative Carol Johnson.


GROSS: (As Mags Bennett) You know what happens when 500 million gallons of slurry breaks loose? The gates of hell open.

CAROL JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) Those poundments are built strong to keep the slurry back.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) The gates of hell open, and all that waste rolls down through the hollers and poisons the water and the land and everything it touches. The mining company has a word for those leavings, doesn't it? The spoil. The spoil. And that is what our lives will be if Black Pike has their way with our mountain.

JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) With all due respect, Mrs. Bennett, Black Pike will replace the mountaintops and leave money, a lot of money in the pockets of the working people of Bennett and Harlan County.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) That a fact?

JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) Yes, ma'am. That is a fact.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Well, that's something to consider because it ain't an easy life here, no, ma'am. To an outsider, it's probably hard to understand why we're all not just lining up and saying, where do we sign? But we got our own kind of food, our own music, our own liquor.


MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) We got our own way of courting and raising children and our own way of living and dying. And to protect all that, we have got to say no thank you to Ms. Carol Johnson here and Black Pike.


GROSS: So that is such a great scene. I love when you go: We have our own - we have our own food. We have our own way of living.


MARTINDALE: I tell you, they're just the greatest writers ever. They really are incredible.

GROSS: Where did you go, who did you watch? Did you watch movies? Did you visit Harlan County? What did you do to get into this?

MARTINDALE: I just, just came right out of me. I didn't do anything. I'm from Texas. I'm from east Texas. I'm from big land-owning people, big ranchers, big hunters, big athletes. They all talked like that. They're all smart and deceptive and powerful. And also I lived four years in Kentucky, at Actors Theater of Louisville. So it's all part of my makeup.

You know, it's something I really understand. I'd like to say that I worked really hard and studied people and everything, but I didn't. I just - it just came out of my imagination and the 60 years I've lived, truly.


GROSS: I think one of your great tools is your voice. You have a really deep voice that you can make even deeper in roles like "Justified." You can bring your voice from really, like, deep within.


GROSS: And I have to say that this is at a time when a lot of women speak in much higher voices and when - often our voices get more trapped in our throats, you know, for woman. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about your voice and using how deep and full it can be in a role like your role on "Justified," where you have express power. You have to convey you've got the power.

MARTINDALE: Sometimes I worry that my voice is too mmmm, buzzy, too round, that when I'm on stage, I really have to lift my voice. I have to put it in another spot so that you can hear me because sometimes when you're down in this thing, you can't hear the enunciation as well.

My voice is lower than - I have one - both of my brothers, but one of them is not with me anymore, but my voice is lower than their voices. Texas men usually have a little bit higher voices like that. But my mine's lower than - my mother had a very low voice, too. So I don't know. I - sometimes I feel that it is a plus, and something I think that it gets in my way, my voice.

GROSS: Why does it get in your way sometimes?

MARTINDALE: And maybe "Justified" has changed that for me in my head. Sometimes I think I have to pretty it up, girlify it, make it more - make it a little sweeter, a little softer, a little more - you know, have a little more - because everybody I talk to on the phone said yeah, yes sir, no sir. This is a woman. I've said this is a woman, I must say it maybe 2,500 times in my life. And I get really pissy about it.


GROSS: This is why I'm so grateful to the people on "Justified" for allowing you to, like, unleash your gifts.


MARTINDALE: It's been - it was - they just let me run wild. Isn't that wonderful? It was really, really liberating, I can tell you that. It also I think has - I think because I let it go, I let everything except that I love to act, and I love to be honest and true to the character; that's all that I cared about. And I didn't care what I looked like, I didn't care what I - how - you know, obviously I didn't care what I looked like.

I care what I look like. I care that I'm fat. I care, but Mags Bennett did not care, and I love that about Mags Bennett. So, maybe...

GROSS: Her size is part of her power.


MARTINDALE: Maybe she's taught me something. I hope so.

GROSS: You just described yourself as fat.


GROSS: I'd use the word plump or something, but...

MARTINDALE: You're so sweet.

GROSS: Thank you, but, no, I read that when you were in high school, you were a cheerleader...

MARTINDALE: I was a cheerleader.

GROSS: ...and you were like the football homecoming queen or something along those lines.

MARTINDALE: I was only - I was not - I was the football sweetheart in the ninth grade. I was Ms. Jacksonville High School in high school. But I was never the homecoming queen. Let's get that straight because people really get mad when they read that. But I imagine you had, you know, quite an attractive figure then to be a cheerleader and...

I had a really lovely figure, I did. Surprise.


GROSS: Did it upset you when you started putting on weight?

MARTINDALE: Yes, mm-huh, yes. Uh-huh. It's always - I wore a body brace all during my teenage years, from when I was 12 until I was 15.

GROSS: For like scoliosis or something?

MARTINDALE: For severe scoliosis. I - they think I had polio when I was three and that it - when my spine grew that it grew crooked. So I wore the body brace, and I wore prism glasses to see. I was extremely small. And then when I got out of that brace, I put on I'd say 20 pounds almost immediately because I felt very vulnerable. So I...

GROSS: Oh, 'cause you didn't have this, like, brace protecting you.

MARTINDALE: I didn't have armor around me.

GROSS: Yeah.

MARTINDALE: Yeah, so - but I'm talking - then I weighed 140 pounds instead of 120 pounds. And then, and then after my father died, I gained 70 pounds. Then I lost that 70 pounds. And I stayed alright right until I had a child. And then I just said to hell with it and went with it.

GROSS: We're listening back to our interview with Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her performance this year on the FX series "Justified." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're listening back to our interview with Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her performance this year on the FX series "Justified."

The first time I noticed you was in the Clint Eastwood movie "Million Dollar Baby," which starred Hilary Swank as a young boxer who was really going against the odds because she's a woman, and she's being trained by an over-the-hill boxer trainer played by Clint Eastwood.

And when she starts to win matches, she buys her mother, you, and her sister and her sister's child a house. Now, they're all on welfare. They don't really care about her. They're what some people might call white trash.

MARTINDALE: Yes, some people.


GROSS: So when she takes you and your daughter to your new home that she bought you to surprise you all, the big surprise is your reaction. So here's the scene with Hilary Swank and you as her mother. You speak first.


MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) How much money did this cost you?

HILARY SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) You never mind that.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Well, you shouldn't have done that.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) You need a decent place.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald ) You shouldn't have done it. You should've asked me first. Golly, the government's going to find out about this house, they're going to stop my welfare.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) Mama, no they ain't.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Yeah, they are. You're fine. You're working. But I can't live without my welfare.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) Mama, I send you money.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) What about my medicine? Medicaid gonna cut me off. How am I supposed to get my medicine?

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) I'll send you more money.

RIKI LINDHOME: (As Mardell Fitzgerald) I hope you're not setting J.D. to move in here with us. He's getting out, you know.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Why didn't you just give me the money? Why'd you have to buy me a house?

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) I didn't have to, mama, but it's yours. You want some money? Sell it.

GROSS: What gratitude you display in that scene.


GROSS: That was really just such a stunning role. I saw that, and I was wondering who is that actress because I don't think I'd really seen you that much before that, or I hadn't really noticed. So how did you prepare for this part, for instance?

MARTINDALE: You know, I - the same kind of thing. I mean, it was sort of a lead-in to "Justified," I think. I was in Los Angeles again. They asked me to come in and audition for that part. And I said I want to wait until I get back to New York because I want this part, and I feel more comfortable auditioning in New York. It's a weird thing; you feel more comfortable at home.

And I did the whole part. I learned the whole part, I did the whole part. And I think that's the way you get it for Clint Eastwood. If you're not a star, you really have to show him the whole thing done.

GROSS: He was one of the stars of the film, playing the manager of the boxer, and there's a scene at the end after the young woman boxer, played by Hilary Swank, has broken her neck. She's lying helplessly in her bed. She's paralyzed from the neck down.

And you and your daughter, like the whole family comes in basically putting a document under her nose and telling her to sign it with her mouth because it's the only part of her body that moves, willing everything she owns to you for when she dies. And Clint Eastwood is in the doorway staring really hostilely at you. And I'm wondering what the experience was like of having your director...


GROSS: ...because he directed the film as well - in the doorway staring hostilely at you as you were trying to do your scenes.

MARTINDALE: Oh, you know, honestly, that scene, I - the first part of the movie, first two scenes that I did, then I went home, and my brother died.

GROSS: Oh, my God. I'm so sorry.

MARTINDALE: And - yeah. And when I came back, he was so kind to me that what I really was doing during all of that last scene was trying very hard not to be emotional about it. So it was - everybody was extremely supportive, and it was all about me not giving into my own life experiences during that time. He couldn't be more lovely and wonderful as a director and a person.

GROSS: Would you mind if I asked how your brother died?

MARTINDALE: He died of outpatient surgery.

GROSS: Oh no.


GROSS: A staph infection or something?

MARTINDALE: No. No. He blew a blood clot in the morning. He went home after having some kind of hernia operation and...

GROSS: Oh no.

MARTINDALE: ...and, you know, died. He called me before he got actually, he had a hernia operation and one of his testicles removed. I'm sorry, Tim. But he called me when he got home. He said, I'm high, sister, I'm going to go to sleep.


MARTINDALE: And then he said, I'm tired. I said, Oh Tim, you're ridiculous, and then he, he said I'll call you tomorrow, and he, he was dead. So it was really shocking and hard, and he was 50, 58 years old. So...

GROSS: So he was an older brother.

MARTINDALE: He was five years older than me. And I have another brother who's 13 years older than me. But...

GROSS: I'm really sorry.

MARTINDALE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: So I'm thinking, you know, a lot of actors are given the advice to kind of play - like find the emotion within you, play yourself in a way. You know, be your version of that character. And from how you're describing it, you had to make sure you were not in touch with your emotions, because your emotions are so raw at that moment.

Did you have to draw on a completely different way of acting because what you were experiencing was so profound and so, you know, so bad, you were in such grief?

MARTINDALE: You know, I never thought about that, but yes, I guess I did. I shut - though I think that - approaching that scene I would have shut down that part of the anyway, because I'm very empathic and I would have been affected emotionally by that scene as me. So I had to actually, like in "Justified," shut down that part of me that feels for people. So that part of my brain was not there.

GROSS: Earlier we talked about your voice. And it turns out that you have a great singing voice. There's a moment in "Justified" where you're on the porch and somebody says oh, sing. And you go, oh no, of course hoping that they'll...


GROSS: ...keep asking, which they do, so you break out into song, and wow, you sound great. So have you done musicals or anything like that?

MARTINDALE: I've done a lot of musicals. I love music. I love music. I would love to do a musical again. It's been a while.

GROSS: Your husband is a musician, right?

MARTINDALE: He is. He's a lyric tenor. And...

GROSS: Oh, he sings?

MARTINDALE: Yeah. He's fantastic. And so when I married him, I didn't think I could sing anymore because he can sing. I'm just incredibly musical.


MARTINDALE: That's what he always says: You're extremely musical.


MARTINDALE: So - but, yeah, it's fun. I can sing. No, I'm not a great singer, but I can sing.

GROSS: Well, Margo Martindale, it has been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MARTINDALE: Thank you so much, Terry. I so appreciate it.

GROSS: And here you are singing on the porch in "Justified."


MARTINDALE: (As Mags) (Singing) High on the mountain (unintelligible), wind blowing free, thinking about the days that used to be. High on a mountain, standing all alone, wondering where the years of my life had flown.

GROSS: My interview with Margo Martindale was recorded in September of this year, just before she won an Emmy for her performance as Mags Bennett in the FX series "Justified." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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