Television

“I Was Margo Martindale, Private Dick”

The Americans’ actress on why she’s loved playing a spy—and being one.

Margo Martindale in The Americans.
Margo Martindale in The Americans. FX

The actress Margo Martindale appeared in a number of feature films and television series before winning an Emmy for her role as Mags Bennett in the FX show Justified at the age of 60. But she has probably become best known for her recurring role on another FX series, The Americans, which is currently in its final season. She plays Claudia, the handler of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a seemingly normal (albeit gorgeous) American couple who are in fact Russian spies in Gorbachev-era Washington, D.C. (They are played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who became a couple in real life.) Claudia, alternately ruthless and nurturing, has very little in common with Mags Bennett, the fierce matriarch of a Kentucky crime family; all of Martindale’s performances come with unique shadings and surprising depth.

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I recently spoke by phone with Martindale, who was promoting The Americans as it approaches its final episode next month. (Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of The Slate Group’s editor in chief Jacob Weisberg.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed becoming famous late in life, why TV demands a different type of acting, and what her previous career as a private investigator has in common with her current one.

Isaac Chotiner: A lot of actors reach fame or fortune early in their lives. How do you think it is different when you become well known later in life?

Margo Martindale: Well, it certainly couldn’t have been better for me. I don’t know how it would have been. I loved that it makes life so much fuller this way. It made me work harder. It made me need things. If you need things, you work harder to get them. I’m delighted with how my career unfolded.

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Do you think it’s often harder for younger actors or actresses when they make it big at a young age?

I think it is really hard. What do you have to look forward to? Try and match what you did last? I like to see if I can get something better next.

Tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you started. I noticed your first movie credit was Days of Thunder, that Tom Cruise movie.

Everybody has talked about Days of Thunder today. That is so hilarious.

Who’s talking about Days of Thunder?

I played Donna, the pit girl.

I do not remember you, I’m sorry to say.

No, I don’t remember me either, but I’m there.

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OK, so what led you to get into movies?

I had done plays all my life. Many, many, many plays, off-Broadway plays. Finally, Broadway plays. I did a play that became extremely famous called Steel Magnolias, and everybody in Hollywood came to see it. I was on the list of people to see when movie [people] would come to town. That’s how I got in the movies.

You’ve done a lot of plays, a lot of movies, a lot of television. Do you enjoy one more than the other?

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I love television because it’s the most alive, because you don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s a living thing. Sometimes the writers are watching you to see how things will unfold. Sometimes the writers have written it, and you come to it, and they have to change their way of going because of what you’ve done. You inspire them, and they inspire you. In movies, they’re written. It’s done. In plays, it’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s the difference. I love all of them. Everything comes from the same place, but in plays you have to transmit it in a different way.

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It seems like it would be difficult to act in an episode not knowing your character’s full arc. I suppose you could say that’s the way real life is. But there might be things that will develop later about your character that you’d want to examine or exhibit earlier that you don’t get to because you don’t know where your character is going.

I don’t find it difficult. If the people who are running the show are smart enough, they’ll tell me, “You can’t do that because of something that’s going to happen.” The Americans would definitely say, when I would do something, to change it sometimes from being too hard, too tough, or too emotional.

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And that was because they had an idea of the way the character would develop eventually?

They knew how the character was going to end. I finally did around Episode 5 of this season. Most of the time, I had no idea.

If you think back on your Justified character, do you see her as much different from Claudia?

Let me just say, Justified is a single thing all by itself because it was sort of a gift from God for me. It was a coming together of all the things that I am and all of my imagination. I didn’t need to put it past anyone because I knew where I was going, what I was doing. I knew that I knew what I was talking about doing that part.

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What was it about the character?

My background. My insanity. My playing in the backyard playing different people. It was the most child-like I’ve been. I don’t mean Mags Bennett was child-like, but it was the purest I’ve been ever.

Is that an unalloyed good for a person doing a performance, or is it emotionally draining in some way?

It was exhilarating. It was like flying to me.

How is this character on The Americans different from that?

That is a person that is boxed up in ironclad handcuffs and buttoned down. I’d never done that before. I was excited at what came out. Exact opposite of Mags Bennett, exactly the opposite.

What has it been like to do the show as Russia has become such front-page news? Has it changed the way you think about the show you’re doing at all?

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No, I don’t think it changed anything about how they wrote the show because they had no idea what was going to happen, so I think they stayed true to their voice on how they wanted to write it. If there were any parallels, so be it.

I only understand … I have a deeper understanding of spies.

Say more.

I understand that there are spies living among us at all times. I have enjoyed being a spy because I am kind of a spy in my own life.

How do you mean?

Well, I spy on people I want to play. I’ve always been observant of people. I think that to be a spy, and in fact I was a private investigator during a time of my life–

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We can’t skip over that. When were you a private investigator?

I was Margo Martindale, private dick. I was.

For how long?

For about maybe a year, but probably more like eight months. I was a private investigator during the day, and I was doing a play at the Manhattan Theatre Club at night.

When you started saying this, I thought the two roles do have something in common.

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They do have something in common. That’s the interesting thing about it. You need to be able to read people. I think that’s how I was chosen as a soldier, how Claudia was chosen, because they could see that I was intuitive. You’d better be intuitive if you act, too.

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Robert Mueller should send you to Moscow.

[Laughs.]

How does it feel to have the show coming to an end? Do you want to do another long series?

Absolutely. I always want it to be long, most of them. I’ll truly miss seeing Keri and Matthew and [the executive producers].

[Referring to a publicity person listening in] I’ll see her. I’ll see these girls. Don’t you worry about that. It’s different from doing a play because then you’re with the people every single day. The family is much tighter, much closer, much more focused.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys fell in love on the set though.

Yeah, but they were there a lot more than I was. Let’s just say that.

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