Martha Plimpton is often remembered for her strong jawline, magnificent cheekbones, luminescent complexion, and eyes that resemble those of a Siamese cat.
Many first noticed her in Richard Avedon’s iconic Calvin Klein ads of 1983, or the following year in her performance alongside Tommy Lee Jones in The River Rat.
She then went on to appear in classic ’80s films such as The Goonies and Parenthood. However, with the emergence of the ’90s, Plimpton’s face slowly faded from the spotlight.
Her IMDb credits demonstrate a variety of roles in independent films, television movies, and shorts. She states that she had no control over the fact that Hollywood no longer wanted her.
She relocated from Los Angeles to Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre and appeared alongside John Malkovich in The Libertine, carrying on her mother’s theatrical legacy, Shelley Plimpton, who was in the original Broadway production of Hair.
Throughout the 2000s, she went back and forth between extended periods of live theatre acting and brief stints on network television.
Her savings were depleted; she became the voice of a popular pet food brand in commercials. During the years of 2007 to 2009, she was nominated for a Tony each year.
Then two years ago, when she was on the verge of being completely destitute, she was chosen for the role of Virginia Chance on the FOX network sitcom Raising Hope, which was her first-ever regular series job. Her words: “Thank god. Thank Jesus.”
I was granted the pleasure of visiting Martha Plimpton at her home off Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
The residence was more like a tree fort in the city than an actual home. Her scruffy wheaten terrier mix, Eloise, unexpectedly came around the corner and greeted us with a bark. Plimpton then appeared, looking incredibly the same as she did in the Calvin Klein ads.
We spent two hours in her backyard, conversing and drinking red wine. I noticed that her jaw had a certain fluidity when she spoke, almost as if her maker had decided against giving her extra turns of the screws in her bones.
She answered my questions with intelligence and a relaxed attitude, despite the difficulty of acting.
Kathryn Borel is the one who said it, according to her.
The group of people that comprised this gathering was referred to as the gang. In this case, the same people can be referred to as the crowd.
As a child, what would you consider yourself to be while growing up in the theater world? Would you say you were cool or more of a nerd?
As a young performer growing up in New York, Martha Plimpton was not part of the Hollywood scene. She did, however, have a close relationship with Ethan Hawke, whom she had known since they were teenagers.
At the time, Hawke had created a theater company called Malaparte, which was a popular hub for many young theater people. Plimpton participated in a production with them, though she didn’t feel as if she was truly part of the group.
BLVR inquired about the identity of the group referred to as “the gang”.
MP has noticed that Josh Hamilton, Jonathan Marc Sherman, and Robert Sean Leonard have a “marvelous youthful hubris” that he himself was lacking.
He attributes this to his more cautious and less “cool” ego. He then explains that he wasn’t part of the group because he didn’t sleep with any of them, which was something that was common for female members of the group.
He clarifies he isn’t judging them, as it is what twenty-year-olds who make theater together often do.
BLVR: Did you make it a point to not become intimate with any of them?
MP: It was never an issue, though it could have been had I been willing to discuss it. I just never felt the need to be that type of person.
Did you experience a delayed development? I was selective and guarded in my decisions.
BLVR: What is the source of your defensiveness?
When I was younger, I had the desire to be perceived as a ‘guy’ rather than a ‘girl’. This has shifted over time, but at the time I was more comfortable being one of the boys. If I had taken part in any kind of sexual activity, then I would have been considered as one of the females.
BLVR: It was similar to a tool in your toolbox that wasn’t necessary to use, but it was there if needed.
MP: So, I didn’t feel I had any freedom. I don’t want anyone to see this as having made me look cool – it didn’t. I was too conservative.
I was wondering if you could tell me about the instance when you became an actor? You were found by Elizabeth Swados, the Broadway director, in a certain way.
I was 8 years old when my mum was performing the Nightclub Cantata at the Village Gate in New York.
Since she didn’t have enough money to pay for a babysitter, I was always there with her. My mother’s theatrics caught the attention of Elizabeth, who had done a successful show on Broadway called Runaways.
She asked my mother if I could audition for a film workshop. I can’t remember what I did in the audition, but I became the youngest member of the cast. It was quite an intense experience and I remember Elizabeth yelling a lot.
Despite the humiliation I felt, I kept doing it, which probably speaks to my earlier masochistic tendencies.
BLVR: Not long after that, you were featured in that renowned Calvin Klein commercial, correct? Brooke Shields was wearing jeans and making the statement that nothing could come between her and her Calvins.
I was part of a campaign for which Richard Avedon was taking photos. The Brooke Shields ads had already been released and were a success, and this campaign was set to be further based on interviews Avedon conducted.
A total of six of us were involved, and three of those may have been aired. I was accompanied by Shari Belafonte, Andie MacDowell, and a couple of other models, and we had large photos of ourselves in Macy’s.
This campaign landed me an audition for The River Rat, and the writer of Coal Miner’s Daughter, Tom Rickman, was apprehensive to hire a New York City native for the part.
BLVR: Why were you not like the others who lived near the river?
MP exclaimed enthusiastically, “I got the part of a bayou girl– a Southern, river-rat girl! Her father is a parolee and she goes fishing every day. I had no experience with biking, but I could have discussed Blanche DuBois with anyone.
I had never been exposed to the life of the Mississippi River, but the director was willing to give me the opportunity because of the commercial.”
BLVR: Was the commercial something that he found particularly intriguing?
MP said that when she walked into the room her presence calmed his fears as she was the type of precocious tomboy he had wanted for the role.
She revealed that she had always been a fan of Tommy Lee Jones, even when she was only twelve, and that she was thrilled to be able to work with him. She spent two months in Paducah, Kentucky and lived in a motel with her mother.
The motel didn’t have a kitchen or even a microwave and she described it as ‘fucking long’. In a strange twist of events, her best friend came down to visit and they trick or treated in the motel with her dressed as Lana Turner and her friend as Princess Diana. Luckily, they managed to get some candy.
BLVR: You had the chance to act alongside Tommy Lee Jones, who not only was the actor you wanted to work with, but was also a Harvard cum laude graduate who was knowledgeable on Flannery O’Connor, shared a room with Al Gore, and had multiple Emmy nominations.
How did you find that experience?
MP: At the time, he was a method actor, and he wanted our off-camera relationship to be very similar to our on-camera relationship.
As a result, during production, he rarely spoke to me. In hindsight, it was a brilliant decision, because I constantly wanted his approval.
This created an emotional connection between us, much like the bond a daughter would have with her father.
Every now and then, he would show me brief moments of kindness, and I felt like I was in the sun. I was completely charmed by him.
BLVR: Was your upbringing with a solo mom a component in your association with him?
MP: Absolutely. Since my dad was absent, I developed an immense amount of affection for him. As a result, it was easy to weep in the moments that called for tears.
BLVR: He provided you with a lot of useful information which greatly contributed to your success as a budding actor.
Regarding my efforts on the job and the way I tackled the task, I have heard of the stories of his less-than-loveable demeanor, yet I still highly regard him and I truly appreciate him.
After your two blockbusters, The Goonies and Parenthood, what made you decide to start working on indie projects? Can you tell me more about that shift in your career?
MP: It wasn’t entirely my decision to have an unusual face that elicits odd expressions when I communicate.
I was not the ideal for a romantic lead role due to these natural characteristics. This ended up being a lucky thing for me. In the ’80s and ’90s, there was no character work for women my age, so I was frequently cast as the best friend, with every line I said being posed as a question.
I became frustrated with this and was determined to prove my worth by refusing to be a part of any movie that didn’t cast me as the star.
BLVR: “…you are completely misguided!”
MP: People were always requesting that I be Winona Ryder’s friend. It wasn’t that I had any issues with her – she’s great. I just wasn’t keen on being someone’s companion.
That’s why I did fewer movies. In hindsight, it ended up being a beneficial decision. It pushed me to seek out different alternatives and look at things in innovative ways. I ended up taking on some indie projects and going off the typical path.
I also did a lot of theater work. Fortunately, I did, as that’s when I was invited to join Steppenwolf. Subsequently, I started receiving marvellous roles.
What was the first noteworthy role you had on stage after you became an adult?
MP: Terry Johnson’s directing of Stephen Jeffreys’ play, The Libertine, focused on the Earl of Rochester – a restoration playwright, drinker, and libertine.
I portrayed his lover Elizabeth Barry. The Earl is credited for revolutionizing acting by creating a more naturalistic style, which was far ahead of its time.
This was a change from the formulaic and presentational style of the time, where there were specific postures and expressions to indicate emotions.
Elizabeth Barry had difficulty performing these postures and the audience reacted negatively. The Earl of Rochester saw potential in her, made her his protegee, and together they changed the way actors perform.
This play offered me my first wig, corset, and English accent, as well as the opportunity to act as John Malkovich’s lover – an amazing experience!
BLVR: It’s really amusing that you took up a role of someone who wasn’t generally accepted, right after the movie industry had turned down your unconventionality.
MP: It had never occurred to me before, but maybe that is true in some way. [Pause] I get easily distracted. I felt I was not content with just having a job.
I wanted to make the most of my life and not just focus on the salary. I asked myself, what is my purpose in life? If I’m not going to be a writer or an artist, then at least I can help people create art.
That is what I think an actor is; they are a facilitator to help bring other people’s ideas to life. They are the vessel, the tool, the paint.
BLVR: After a period of time, you re-emerged on television in the late ’90s and early 2000s. You were featured in popular shows such as 7th Heaven, ER, and Grey’s Anatomy. What was the story behind your return?
When I was doing theater, I had no money as I was living off of my savings. After a decade of this, I was hand-to-mouth and could not even save money. Consequently, I was not offered movie roles.
TV was looked down upon by me as I considered it a step below commercials. However, I eventually got good parts and went on to write and act in an episode of 7th Heaven after I worked out a deal with them.
Living in the same apartment my entire life meant that I did not have to resort to desperate measures.
BLVR: This is a new one on me. Have you been composing for a while?
MP: I had written anonymously and under a fake name prior to being asked to write an episode of 7th Heaven. I had contributed to the reissue of Jane Alpert’s book Growing Up Underground.
I was in my thirties when I was asked to play a cougar, which I found insulting. Nonetheless, I was proud of the episode I wrote, a musical Valentine’s Day special.
BLVR responded with a burst of laughter that lasted for several moments.
I was amazed by the fact that there was almost no changes made to the script that I wrote. I was expecting that there would be a lot of modifications, but instead, they just went ahead and filmed it! It was a surreal experience.
BLVR inquired if the person had enjoyed it.
I was extremely proud of myself. It was an incredible feeling seeing my work come to life through the actors.
I really wish I could have been at the set while they were shooting. The WGA was a great help; the money I got from the residuals of that episode allowed me to pay my rent for several years. I was close to not being able to pay my rent, and then a check would arrive to save me.
BLVR: I don’t mean to be too indelicate, but I wanted to inquire about your financial situation. It seemed quite unexpected to me that you had been in debt not too long ago. It’s not as though you were buying nine Rolls-Royces and an extravagant tomb.
So, how bad were you off? Were you eating oatmeal every night? Or did it get to the point where you could not even pay your taxes?
MP was not “poor” by any means, but he was certainly “broke” in the mid-2000s. He was doing plays where he only made $350 a week and the only way he was able to pay off his credit-card debt was when he became the voice of Iams pet food, giving him a nice chunk of money.
To make things worse, he had to part with 25 percent of his income for his agent and another 35-45 percent for taxes.
Being an actor was a scary situation for him as he had no college degree and no other skills to fall back on. He started writing industrial presentations for large corporations, which gave him small paychecks of $1,000 or $5,000.
Does anyone have knowledge of what your alias is?
My family member, who is employed in the same industry, was aware of my circumstances and inquired if I would be interested in writing industrials. I responded in the affirmative.
BLVR: It’s quite a contrast to hear this now, given that you were previously speaking about the pride you felt when you made the decision to forgo major Hollywood productions and pursue theater in Chicago. So, how did taking on these irregular corporate jobs influence how you viewed yourself?
MP: My sleep was interrupted by this experience, but it made me realize that I can’t be arrogant if I’m working in the theater. It’s essential to adapt to any circumstance.
This understanding made it easier for me to take on roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I started to view myself as a tool that should be grateful for being chosen to serve. I am not privileged or entitled to this role, and I am merely here to help.
Considering it more of a profession than an art form seems to make it simpler.
MP: Richard Easton is someone I have immense respect for. He is a great older actor and does not appreciate the idea of being called an artist.
I understand his feelings, as when actors think of themselves as artists, they often forget their job and lose the pleasure of it. Being an artist is a lonely pursuit and requires creativity from within.
That is not a part of acting, which is a collaborative process and relies on the artistry of others. Tom Stoppard is an artist. [Pause] You can live artfully, which is a beautiful thing, but it is hard to claim the “artist” title without being met with laughter.
What does being an artist with a sense of integrity signify to you?
According to me, my current job has to do with intrepidity. Nevertheless, this can vary. Artistic consistency is not a permanent point.
If I am to discuss this in more detail, to me it suggests courage, daringness, not being scared, unawareness, and being unconcerned with self-defense.
In the improvisational game, one way to show agreement is to say “yes.”
MP: When you start worrying about being judged, the quality of your work suffers. This is true in life in general–anxiety over potential loss or humiliation can also be detrimental. It is essential to keep in mind your role in the community.
To illustrate, the team I worked with on Raising Hope was one of the most impressive I have ever seen. It was essential for me to show that I am part of the team, and that my contribution is as valuable as theirs.
These folks were getting up early, lugging equipment, and constantly on their feet.
So, I felt embarrassed when I stumbled over my lines due to exhaustion, as I wanted them to have something to look at when not setting up lights. That’s what artistic integrity means to me in this career.
It appears that you have no significant connection to vanity.
MP stated that they don’t possess much, but would like to. They desire to feel more self-love and to understand how it would alter them, but acknowledged that this ambition could be seen as haughty.
BLVR: What brings you pleasure? A garment with a form-fitting top.
BLVR: Numerous layers of plastic wrap tightly enveloping your figure.
MP: I’m in search of a look that will provide me with a solid foundation. Yes, that’s what I’m aiming for.
BLVR: After you were awarded an Emmy for your acting in The Good Wife, did you experience a feeling of pride when you went up to accept the prize?
I was wearing my best clothes.
BLVR: Your current situation of being on a well-liked network TV show is in opposition to your prior identity as an independent film star, theatre actor, and creator of industrial shows.
MP revealed that their decision to join the cast of Raising Hope was an easy one since they had been a fan of the show and of Greg Garcia in particular.
They had heard that the production was having difficulty in casting when they received a call to audition, which they were “fucking delighted” about.
The audition process went quickly and they had the opportunity to test their chemistry with the other cast members, which brought them ease.
However, they expressed their frustration at the unprofessionalism of another creator who had promised them a job they did not receive. Fortunately, they landed the part on Raising Hope, which came at a great time as they had posted a Facebook alert asking for a babysitting job.
BLVR: That was the contingency plan.
My Plan A had worked out quickly! I had written her back and told her that I was delighted; I would be seeing her on Monday at 7 o’clock.
Negative thinking can have a constructive outcome in some cases. It can motivate a person to work harder and to seek out assistance, which can be beneficial.
Unfortunate ideas can be of assistance in certain circumstances as they can be a catalyst for an individual to strive for betterment and look for aid, which can ultimately be advantageous.
BLVR asked if the person saw themselves as a comedy actress at the present time.
I would not classify myself as anything beyond an actress. If I’m suited for the role, then it will be mine. I’m not one to make decisions on what to do, but instead, I will take any opportunity that comes my way. My work is to simply act, not to pick and choose.
BLVR: Now that you’ve become a part of a well-known television show, how has your career been affected? Have you been given the chance to return to movies?
MP answered in the negative. Does that come as a shock?
MP clarified that there is an abundance of work for women in television, which is a beautiful thing.
However, in film, the problem of a lack of roles for women who don’t fit the model standard still persists. Despite this, the speaker made it clear that they are not bitter and would be content doing TV and plays for the rest of their life.
They also noted that although they are optimistic that there will be roles for them in movies when they are fifty, at the age of forty-two with their appearance, no one is writing for them – so there is no reason to be upset about not being in films if there are no roles.
At the age of fifty, the planet will present itself in an unprecedented manner.
When I turned forty, my representation used to reiterate to me that things would alter as I aged. This used to infuriate me because I thought it was absurd that a female in her thirties would not be able to get cast in a part on screen.
This is the way women are perceived in this industry, however fortunately there is more to do in television and theater.
Despite the fact that I am now more financially stable than ever, I comprehend that I need to challenge myself. I’m not saying I’m going to end my passion–I’m still in love with it–but I want something else in life in addition to the performing arts. I’m not sure what that is yet.
It could be argued that not having expectations is more calming. There is an oft-mentioned opinion that optimists are more likely to be depressed due to the fact that reality does not match what they envisioned.
MP: I had a special bond with David Rakoff, and he truly understood the value of negative thinking.
The only life plan I ever put into place was to never do anything that would take away my ability to do whatever I wanted. That’s why I never got involved romantically with anyone I knew in my twenties. He was a remarkable individual, and I think about him everyday.
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