Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Moonshine 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' Moonshine Matriarch

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Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Moonshine Matriarch

Margo Martindale: A 'Justified' Moonshine Matriarch

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the more riveting performances I saw this year was given was given by Margo Martindale in the FX series "Justified." She's up for an Emmy Sunday 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.

She's costarring in a new series called "A Gifted Man" that premieres Friday, September 23rd on CBS. 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 was investigating 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 for leaving a paper trail that could incriminate the family. As this clip begins, she picks up a hammer.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Justified")

Mr. BRAD WILLIAM HENKE (Actor): (as Coover Bennett) I'm sorry, mama.

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

(Soundbite of pounding, screaming)

Unidentified Man: Hey, put your hand on his stuff - put your hand on his stuff.

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

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

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) I'm saving your gun hand, now.

Mr. HENKE: (as Coover Bennett) Don't hurt me.

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

Mr. HENKE: (as Coover Bennett) Mama...

Unidentified Man: All you've got to do is...

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) You shut your mouth.

Mr. HENKE: (as Coover Bennett) Mama.

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) 'Cause you're crippled (unintelligible) it ain't you dead on that table.

(Soundbite of growling)

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

Mr. HENKE: (as Coover Bennett) Mama, I love you. Mama, I love you. Mama, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: Oh, that really makes me laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

Ms. MARTINDALE: I know...

GROSS: Because you love him that much.

Ms. MARTINDALE: So sweet.

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: I know. It's so crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: He deserved it.

GROSS: So you were telling me right before we went on the air that you actually used this scene as you Emmy submission scene.

Ms. MARTINDALE: I did. I mean, you know, I guess people have people to do that, but I have myself, really. And I watched lots of different - there's so much to choose from, but I - it's only 18 seconds, the most that they use. So that was the most concise scene that I thought actually was funny, too. I think it's funny, but, you know, that's my warped sense of humor. So that's the scene I chose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you are a really tough, cold, brutal woman in this, who also has this really folksy side, like the first time we see you, you're serving your bootleg liquor, which is affectionately known as your apple pie. So you have these, like, two sides, like, the veneer, which is the folksy side, and the really brutal, you know, drug kingpin side beneath that.

What was your audition like? They called you. I know that they called you for this role. What did they - whoever it was - from "Justified" know about you?

Ms. MARTINDALE: You know what? I don't know what they knew about me, because I was in Los Angeles for the premiere of "Secretariat," and my agent called me. I had...

GROSS: Where you played the secretary.

Ms. MARTINDALE: I played the secretary in "Secretariat," but I wasn't the horse. So...

GROSS: Thank you.

Ms. MARTINDALE: That's a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: But I had to - I was staying out to do an episode of "Harry's Law" because Kathy Bates and I are old friends. And he said, would you like to go audition for this part? They wanted to see you for this Kentucky woman drug dealer. I said, oh, really? Do I have to audition for that? Can't they just look at my reel? And he said, no. They really want to hear you say the words.

So then I got the script and read it. And I said I'll go anywhere, anywhere to do this. Just tell me where to go.

So I went and, just with the casting director, read the scene - read all - most all of the scenes of the first episode. And two hours later, they offered me the part.

GROSS: They were so right. 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, and I want people to know as they listen to this, they what we're hearing is, like, the surface, but there's something going on beneath the surface.

So before we hear it, do you want to talk about playing both of those parts at the same time? Playing the surface speech of, like, this is for the people, and then beneath that, knowing it's really all about what you want for yourself.

Ms. MARTINDALE: It was a - it was kind of an interesting task, because it was like being a preacher, with acting the concerned and loving neighbor. But you had to believe that I was telling the truth. So it was kind of a challenge. It was also - it was very stage-like, because that was two pages of a speech. It was a - it was a monologue on television. You don't really see that very often, that writers give time for things to really grow, and it's not just chopped up in one-liners and little speeches. It was a monologue. So it was challenging.

I kept calling saying, you haven't - please don't send me any new pages, because I've been working on this for a week. Don't send me new pages on this speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, let's hear this speech that you give at the 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Justified")

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

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

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) The gates of hell open, and all that waste rolls down through the hallers(ph) 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.

Ms. 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.

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) That a fact?

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

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of audience response and applause)

Ms. ARTINDALE: (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.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's Margo Martindale in a scene from the FX series "Justified," and this is from Season Two, which will eventually be out on DVD - soon, I hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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?

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Margo Martindale. She's up for an Emmy Sunday for her performance in the FX series "Justified." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Margo Martindale. She's up for an Emmy Sunday for her performance in the FX series "Justified," and she co-stars in the new series, "A Gifted Man," which premieres Friday, September 23 on CBS.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

Ms. 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 annunciation as well.

I remember it when I was in high school, the biology said to his - my favorite teacher, Mr. Billy Gwinn(ph), said to the students: Now, listen to Margo Martindale's voice. Now she's probably got male genes in her. Of course, I thought what in the hell is that? Thank you Mr. Gwinn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: Oh, boy. 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?

Ms. MARTINDALE: And maybe "Justified" has changed that for me in my head. Sometimes I think I have to pretty it up, girlify(ph) 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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...

Ms. MARTINDALE: You're so sweet.

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

Ms. MARTINDALE: I was a cheerleader.

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

Ms. 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, 'cause people really get mad when they read that.

GROSS: But I imagine you had, you know, quite an attractive figure then to be a cheerleader and...

Ms. MARTINDALE: I had a really lovely figure, I did. Surprise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. 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?

Ms. 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.

Ms. MARTINDALE: I didn't have armor around me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. 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.

Now I'd love to lose some weight. So there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Margo Martindale. She was the season guest star this year in the FX series "Justified." She played a really powerful, really tough Appalachian woman who basically runs a marijuana drug ring. And now she's in a new series called "A Gifted Man," a new TV series.

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.

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yes, some people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Million Dollar Baby")

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Earline Fitzgerald) How much money did this cost you?

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

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

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

Ms. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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. It's a great role where you are a very unappealing character. Do you have fun with roles like that, where you have to really play unappealing, ungrateful?

Ms. MARTINDALE: I think they are the most fun. The only thing you lose mostly in those parts is that sense of humor. It's not being funny. I think some of those parts are funny but only funny in how brutal they are. You have to let the bounce and music of repartee go away. You can't be sophisticated in that way when you play those parts, but they've given me the most joy.

GROSS: So how did you prepare for this part, for instance?

Ms. 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: Did he give you any advice or, you know, any notes at the audition?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Oh, he wasn't there. He's never there.

GROSS: Oh, he's - oh.

Ms. MARTINDALE: Uh-uh. And he - when I got - when we did it, he said we love what you're did. Just do it that way. So he just kind of let me do whatever I wanted to do. It was nice. He's wonderful.

GROSS: Margo Martindale will be back in the second half of the show. She's up for an Emmy for her performance in the FX series "Justified," and she co-stars in the new series "A Gifted Man," which premieres Friday, September 23 on CBS. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Margo Martindale. She's up for an Emmy Sunday for her performance in the FX series "Justified" as the tough matriarch of a drug ring in Kentucky. She co-stars in the new series "A Gifted Man," which premieres on CBS - Friday, September, 23.

When we left off, we were talking about her role in "Million Dollar Baby," which starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood. She played the greedy, selfish mother of the young boxer who was portrayed by Hilary Swank. When we left off, we were talking about working with Eastwood.

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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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?

Ms. MARTINDALE: He died of outpatient surgery.

GROSS: Oh no.


GROSS: A staph infection or something?

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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 fifty fifty-eight years old. So...

GROSS: So he was an older brother.

Ms. MARTINDALE: He was five years older than me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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

GROSS: I'm really sorry.

Ms. 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.


GROSS: 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?

Ms. 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: There's one other movie I want to ask you about, and I don't know how many people saw this. It's an independent film called "Paris, Je T'Aime," and it was about 12 very short films put together in this one anthology, all having to do with Paris. And you're the star of the final film and it's basically your film. You're the only character we follow in this film. It's largely done in a voiceover. And the premise is that inspired by your Adult Education French class, you decided to take a week in Paris on vacation. Now you're a postal worker. You're single. You're kind of lonely. You don't have much of a life outside your job, but you've gone to Paris.

You're a very unsophisticated traveler. There's a lot about Paris you really don't get. But you just start coming alive during the course of this short film. And it ends with this just lovely moment where you're sitting on a park bench in Paris, just like watching the people in the park, watching, seeing the grass and the sunshine. And in the voiceover you say something to the effect that you feel the joy and sadness of being alive. And you've woken up. You are alive in a way that you hadn't been before, even though you're still alone, but something's been turned on within you. And it's a beautiful moment. We see it in your face and it's just, it's such a nice performance.

And then your voiceover, the premise is that you're basically reading your journal to the French class and you're not very good at French, so you're reading it in this really heavily American accented French...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that probably no French person would ever be able to understand. I love this character. And it's different from the other characters we've been talking about because this isn't, she's not a heavy, she could have been a real like stereotype lonely middle-aged woman, but you don't play her that way.

Ms. MARTINDALE: That's so sweet. I loved doing that. That and "Justified" and "Million Dollar Baby," you've picked the three of my favorite things I ever did. Alexander Payne called me up and...

GROSS: He wrote and directed your segment. Yeah.

Ms. MARTINDALE: He wrote and directed my segment. And he said, Margo, this is Alexander Payne. Do you remember me?

Ms. MARTINDALE: I said, yeah. He said I've written something. I've written it for you. I've never written for anyone before. And there's no money in it. And would you like to come to Paris and do it? I said, let me think about that, yes. And then we hung up. He explained a little bit about what it was. We hung up and called me back and he said, By the way, do you speak French? I said not a word. And he said, oh, that's even better.

So when we got there, and they brought my husband and me, we had a fabulous time in Paris. And I had never been to Paris, so that was really perfect for that character. We shot that last scene first.


Ms. MARTINDALE: So after we did that last scene, Alexander said, well, everything else is gravy. He also had me watch before I got there a Fellini film that he wanted to - the leading character he kind of wanted me to have a feeling of this woman, and that's kind of what you see in her. It's - a and I can never remember the name of this movie, but it's "Cabrini"...

GROSS: "Nights of Cabiria."

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yes, that's it. Anyway, I tried to have her feeling of innocence. There's an innocence about her that I tried to - it's very, very like a child seeing something for the first time.

GROSS: What's it like to play like the epiphany before you've played everything leading up to it?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Well, you know what? It was in a park in Paris in the 14th Arrondissement. And I was sitting on a park bench and I could start - this was like being me, this thing. It was - I was sitting on a park bench and I went from looking at some old people on a bench and thinking of my mother and all the people that were gone to panning over to seeing a playground full of children and thinking of my daughter growing up, and it just was there, just...

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. MARTINDALE: ...immediately.

GROSS: Oh. Well, I could see how it would be there because the emotion is still so there.

Ms. MARTINDALE: It's just, you know, it's all about life. It was so easy. I'm sorry. It was so easy to do.

GROSS: No. No. No.

(Soundbite of sniffling)

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yeah. And so everything else was just, you know, and Alexander directed me as if he were directing a silent movie, which was fantastic. It was a perfect combination for me.

GROSS: Can I just say what you've just demonstrated is just the opposite of what you had to do, you know, going back to when - after your brother died and you were playing this like callous mother in "Million Dollar Baby," when you said you had to shut down your own feeling to play that scene because you were just feeling such grief and you had to be so cold. And in this you totally drew on in "Paris, Je T'Aime" you should totally drew on yourself...


GROSS: ...on your own experiences, your own memories, your loss, the pleasure of watching your daughter grow up. And that emotion is still obviously so with you. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yeah. Well, you know, it's with us all, isn't it? All of what we've lived through. That's the most wonderful part about getting older...

GROSS: And...

Ms. MARTINDALE: ...and having experience in life. I mean I played Big Mama in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" when I was 20 years old at the University of Michigan. And then I played Big Mama on Broadway in 2004. The where - the speech at the end of that play - time goes by so quickly, nothing can outrun it, death commences too early, even before you're half acquainted with life you meet with the other boy, did that have different weight from when I was 20 years old to when I was 50-some-odd years old. It's all about just what you've experienced. You can't teach that to a younger actor. You have to have lived it, I think.

GROSS: My guest is Margo Martindale. She's up for an Emmy Sunday for her performance in the FX series "Justified."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Margo Martindale and she's co-starring in a new TV series that premieres soon. It's called "A Gifted Man." And in this one you're the assistant to a surgeon who is gifted in two senses. He's brilliant at diagnosis and surgery. And he's discovered a new gift, a supernatural one. He can actually see and communicate with his ex-wife, who returns to him after she's killed in a car accident. And she wants a favor. She wants him to care for the patients at the free clinic that she ran while she was alive. He has a very wealthy practice and she ran a free clinic for poor people, so he has to decide what to do at the end of the first episode. And he's totally baffled by this whole supernatural experience.

But anyways, you're his assistant. And I'm going to play a scene from early on with you and a surgeon who's played by Patrick Wilson. You want to say anything before hearing the scene?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Well, number one, I think he is delicious, Patrick Wilson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: And we have incredible chemistry. And I love medical shows and I love ghosts, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: ...(unintelligible) that is the part and I think other people do too - and I'm excited about it.

GROSS: Good. Good. Let's hear the scene from episode one.

(Soundbite of TV show, "A Gifted Man")

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) You have an 8:00 a.m. staff meeting, then the two back-to-back (unintelligible)...

Mr. PATRICK WILSON (Actor): (as Michael Holt) Hmm.

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) Madeline needs 15 minutes.

Mr. WILSON: (as Michael Holt) Put her in at lunch.

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) Can't. You'll be doing a consult with Lacy Sandreski. Lacy Sandreski.

Mr. WILSON: (as Michael Holt) Lacy Sandreski.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) She's 19 years old, ranked number one. In the last 12 months she's won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. And if she wins the French, which starts next week, she'll be the youngest woman ever to win a Grand Slam.

Mr. WILSON: (as Michael Holt) What's her consult about?

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) Her father wouldn't say, just that they need to see you ASAP. And one more thing, it's my birthday.

Mr. WILSON: (as Michael Holt) Again?

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) Once a year like everyone else. Lynn is taking me to Jean-Luc. I'm leaving at 6:00.

Mr. WILSON: (as Michael Holt) Jean-Luc is overrated. Well...

Ms. NECAR ZADEGAN (Actor): (as Madeline) I needed a few minutes.

Ms. MARTINDALE: (as Rita) I told him.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Ms. MARTINDALE (as Rita) Happy Birthday, Rita. Why, thank you, Michael.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Margo Martindale in a scene from her new TV series, "A Gifted Man."

So this is a relatively like normal person that you're playing...

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yeah. I'm...

GROSS: ...judging from the first episode. You know, we've heard so many like, you know, like brutal and weird and - or very like interior kind of roles that you've played. And here you're like a really competent working professional.

Ms. MARTINDALE: Isn't that a surprise.

(Soundbite of laughter)


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: I tried to make her a drunk who had gone to rehab, but they wouldn't let me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why did you want to do that? To add a little bit of color?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Just to give me something more. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: I like complicated people.

GROSS: Right. Well, earlier we talked about your voice. And it turns out that you have a great singing voice.


GROSS: 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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?

Ms. 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?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Mm-hmm. He is. He's a lyric tenor. And...

GROSS: Oh, he sings?

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yeah. He's fantastic.


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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: That's what he always says, you're extremely musical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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.

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

GROSS: And I hope you get that Emmy.

Ms. MARTINDALE: Oh, that would be fun. It would be fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: The dress has been the hard part.

GROSS: What you're going to wear?

Ms. MARTINDALE: I think I love it. I think I love it. She's a fantastic designer, Jane Sutell, and I'm - and it's red, because I said no black. No jackets. I'm not going to hide.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it's not like a pants thing; it's like a dress thing.

Ms. MARTINDALE: Yeah. A pants thing, I should have worn, maybe I should've worn pants, I don't know. I feel much comfortable in pants, but it is a long dress.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you're not wearing what you were on "Justified," because it wouldn't be appropriate for the occasion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARTINDALE: Maybe that's what I should've worn, some big flannel shirt with a big-ass belt around it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So thank you so much. Good luck with your new series, "A Gifted Man."

Ms. MARTINDALE: Thank you. Thank you.

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

(Soundbite of TV show, "Justified")

Ms. 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: Margo Martindale is up for an Emmy Sunday in the category Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in the FX series "Justified." She's in the new TV series "A Gifted Man," which premieres Friday, September 23 on CBS.

We'll see what the new TV season has in store for us in a minute when our TV critic, David Bianculli, presents his fall preview.

This is FRESH AIR.

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