Martha Plimpton. Photo by Christopher Gallo.
I drove out to the beach to see Martha. Driving out to the end of Long Island, the trees get smaller and the sun gets bigger. I imagine Martha, a scarf around her neck, walking down Main Street in Sag Harbor, where she lives. Each step she takes lands on the silence of a fishing town that goes back hundreds of years. This place gives her peace. A hundred years ago she might have been pacing her widow’s walk waiting for her man’s boat to come in. And then again, I can just as easily see her bringing that boat in. For Martha has both those spirits in her; the lady on the walk and the salty dog.
The first time I saw Martha she was walking by me on MacDougal Street one bright summer day. I remember her because she had a purpose to her walk that went beyond the distance between two points. And I remember her hair, it was bright and wild and made you look at it. The first time I recognized this walker was when I saw her in Running on Empty. She saw everything and more, she had a look that saw things you wanted to know about. A look that was dangerously curious.
I first worked with Martha a few years ago at Naked Angels. She was in a play of mine, in a part that was originally written for a man and then adapted for a woman. What I was struck by was Martha’s power. She makes no apologies with her work. She makes choices. And in the passive and non-committal world of popular culture and entertainment that is a treat and a blessing. Her range on stage extends from the sweetness of a silent forgotten moment to a rage, which I think scares her as well as her audience.
She is one of our dynamic actors. And maybe it’s the revolution of the times we live in, but these dynamic actors all seem to be women. Maybe it’s their time to demand the stage and reinvent reality as every generation of actors has done in the past. Martha is all real, she has no time for pretense. She attacks the moment as though her life depended on it. These are the stakes she works with. And that is why I would watch her in anything. Martha just recently appeared on stage in a Steppenwolf production of The Libertine and in the films Beautiful Girls, I Shot Andy Warhol (playing Stevie to Lili Taylor’s Valerie Solanas), and in the upcoming I am Rappaport.
Frank Pugliese Alright, so what are you up to?
Martha Plimpton I’m getting ready to move out of this house, which is a total tragedy but it’s got to happen. And I just got back from Chicago where I did this play, The Libertine, which was amazing.
MP ’Cause I worked with unbelievable actors and an unbelievable theater company, Steppenwolf, in a great play written by Steven Jeffries, a Brit.
FP So, it’s a new play?
MP Yeah, it’s fairly new. They did it at the Royal Court in ’94. So yeah, they brought it out to Chicago and Terry Johnson, a playwright, directed it. I got to play a fascinating woman who actually existed during the Restoration Period: Elizabeth Barry. She was the first actress of her time to become famous for acting in a naturalistic style.
FP What year was that?
MP Late 1600’s, 1676 was the year the play starts to wind down in the second act. Originally she was a terrible actress, and about to be fired from the theater when the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, came and saw her. He decided to take her on and trained her, and ultimately fell in love with her. He became her first love and her teacher, and she became his nemesis and the beginning of his demise.
FP His demise?
MP Yeah, he was a notorious philanderer and scoundrel and total genius. He died of alcoholism at 32. Pretty great story though.
FP How did you prepare for it?
MP There are certain jobs you get where you read the script once and you think: Oh, okay, I can do this. This’ll be great. I don’t have a method. I don’t have any technique. I’m a flounderer. I blindly go where I’m supposed to go. But it was an incredible experience. Working with John Malkovitch, who played the Earl of Rochester, was great. He’s completely fluid. No fear whatsoever. And that’s a really great thing to participate in, and to watch.
FP Did being on stage with him do anything to your performance?
MP When you’re working with good people it brings good things out in you. You don’t have time to flick off. You don’t want to waste anybody’s time. You want to work hard. Looking into the face of virtuosity, something clicks in your head, almost an automatic reflex. I wouldn’t say Malkovitch is totally insane, but he’s not living in the real world. He’s living in his world, which is a fine world to live in apparently.
FP Take a visit … Is the play coming to New York?
MP No. John came into the dressing room one day and said, “They asked if we wanted to take the show to Broadway and I said, “No.” I just went, “John, I don’t want to hear it.” It’s my hometown. I never worked on Broadway, ever.
FP Theater-wise you’ve been working in New York for how long?
MP Since I was eight.
MP I started at The Public Theater in a film workshop of The Runaways after it went to Broadway. And then I did The Hagaddah there, a regular run of it. Both were Elizabeth Swados, you know, weird avant-garde musical stuff. I just kept doing workshops and stuff all over the city, because I wasn’t old enough to do anything else. And I did some little T.V. things, an After School Special, what New York kid actors do. Then I started making movies. And I did a Calvin Klein commercial when I was 11 which was kind of a big success, just after the Brooke Shields ones: Nothing comes between me and my Calvins. And it aired three times, during the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, and the Grammys.
FP The international holidays.
MP Exactly. So from that I got a movie job. The River Rat when I was 12 with Tommy Lee Jones. That was my first big break. And then from there, in high school, I did mainly movies and a few plays.
FP Where did you go to high school?
MP I went to Professional Children’s School.
FP In the city? How does that work? They let you out when you’re going to go do a movie?
MP Yeah, it’s a private school. They put you on correspondence. When you’re working on a movie or a play, you’re required to do at least three hours a day of schooling.
FP Did you graduate?
MP I did not graduate.
FP We’ll click the tape recorder off right here.
MP I’m actually proud of it. I finished my senior year missing a credit in gym and I think I failed algebra three times. I was really inept in that area.
FP What is it with algebra and geometry? Why don’t they teach you a course on how to find an apartment?
MP After I got out of school I did some Shakespeare at The Public Theater. It was amazing, and it reminded me why I was doing this. I met some really fantastic people that I’m still friends with today, which never happens. It was my first time doing Shakespeare, which I totally loved. And then I did a few more movies and I moved to L.A. for a year and a half.
FP That’s too bad.
MP I’m glad I did it, because now I know that I don’t belong there.
FP It’s one long lunch. You sit down, get up years later, and somebody else pays the check.
MP Exactly. (laughter) It was pretty awful. We lived in this house made of pressboard and Scotch tape up in The Hills on Queens Road. We had this huge view of the city.
FP Chinese chicken salad?
MP Oh, tons of it. Mongolian beef. Mongolian barbecue, and Roscoe’s chicken and waffles.
FP East meets West and there’s a problem.
MP The most memorable day there was the day the riots started. I was driving with my old boyfriend and we got into a huge fight way east, on Vermont, and I left him there. He had to walk home while I drove and he was taking forever and I didn’t know what had happened to him … I turned on the TV and helicopters were flying over Florence and Normandy. And it took him five hours to walk home. He could feel that there was something wrong but he didn’t know what it was. It was quiet, no one was driving, very bizarre. For the next two days we had friends fleeing the Valley to come stay with us.
From Beautiful Girls. Photo by Lorey Sebastien © Miramax Films, 1995.
FP When you talk about movies you just say, “movies.” Does that ever get specific to you? You keep bunching them up. Is that the way you look at them?
MP Basically. I’d like to do really good movies, but really good movies do not get made very often; and if they do, they get made for five cents. You don’t make any money, you’re working insane hours for 24 days, and when it’s over you’re ready to commit yourself. Then there’s big Hollywood movies, which I’ll never get hired for …
FP What do you mean?
MP I never, I won’t. Unless I want to be the sidekick whose every line is a question: “What do you mean? Who said that? Does he really like you? Are you really gonna do that? Well, how do you know?” I’m not all that interested. I’m sure that one of these days I’ll get broke enough so I’ll have to be the question asker. Movie making is so tedious and exhausting and for the most part, frustrating, that you might as well have good material otherwise what’s the point? You’re going to be frustrated and bored and hot, and have shitty material? I’d rather do little movies with really good actors that are well written, and do small parts.
FP And live in a small apartment. Or just start asking questions. “How do you feel about him?”
MP Exactly. That’s my definition of the female supporting actress in today’s Hollywood climate. Who’s generally described as, “Not gorgeous but cute, with a savvy attitude. Smart and sassy. Not all that pretty, but her sense of humor makes up for it.”
FP The other one. “The most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen … ”
MP Right. “Perky breasts and a gorgeous smile that just says, ‘Kiss me.’ Jim is instantly attracted to her … ” The theater is a much more interesting place to work. You get more time. And there’s something about disappearing forever every night. Like that’s it. For that night. When it’s over it’s over. Although I’ve also had good experiences working on movies, like working with Sidney Lumet (Running on Empty). We’d rehearse for two weeks with the set taped out on the floor of the rehearsal studio, get all the blocking down, do run-throughs like a play, then by the time we got on the set he knew where everything was going to be. You have ultimate freedom because you’re not conscious about where you’re stepping and what you’re doing—it flows out and it’s much more spontaneous. And then you’re home by five o’clock. Under budget, in on time, good performances and solid material. That’s a great way to work, the best way to work.
I’m going to do this movie in Oklahoma. Tim Nelson wrote this really interesting play called Eye of God a few years back and we’re making it into a movie now. And Tim was able to translate his play into an extremely concise, pared down, beautiful screenplay. He’ll tell you there’s not a single adverb in it, which is quite an accomplishment as far as I’m concerned.
FP Oklahoma in the summer.
MP I know, I know. Right outside of Tulsa.
FP Really hot. After that, or you don’t know …
MP I’m actually in the process of putting together a movie of my own that this friend of mine wrote.
FP That you’re going to direct?
MP No, this friend of mine is going to direct it, but I’m helping him. I guess you could say I’m co-producing it.
FP Well if you can say it, then say it.
MP I’m saying it. I’m co-producing it.
FP When I was first in Naked Angels, I did some acting. How can you handle that kind of rejection? I can’t deal with it.
MP I’ve just had another taste of hideous rejection. But not even straightforward rejection; hideous behind my back rejection, which essentially destroyed my faith in humanity.
FP Who needs it? There’s enough in personal life. It chips away at you.
MP It used to chip away at me, now it makes me stronger, makes me more resolved. I’ve been doing this for most of my life. It’s not a matter of whether or not I can do these things, I know I can do them. My attitude now is, “Fine, you’re not gonna hire me? I’ll do it myself.” I’ll talk to my friends, I’ll be on the phone for nine hours trying to get something going. It’s inspiring me now.
FP Your resolve has actually become a strength.
MP It’s really clear to me that I can’t expect anyone to do anything for me because they like my work.
FP So much of their decisions are not about talent.
MP It’s about who their friends are, how they’re gonna make more money, do I wanna flick her? Between the two worlds of plays and movies there’s a chasm the size of the fuckin’ Grand Canyon.
From I Shot Andy Warhol. Photo by Bill Foley, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn.
FP It’s the end of a 30 year tradition of method actors, this overall emotional, psychological narrow-mindedness. You used to close the door and the managers and the agents took care of you because you were too busy being insane to take care of yourself. I think that’s over.
MP It is over.
FP If there’s going to be a new wave of actor it’s gotta be the type who’s even more global, more attuned to the business, and can take charge of their work. If people are starting little companies on their computers, you as an actor have to be able to do the same.
Let me ask you, do you have a solid group of people you like to work with?
MP No, I don’t have a community of actors and writers and people around me. Most of my friends are actors, but we don’t necessarily work together. When I was out in Chicago, hearing about how they started Steppenwolf, it occurred to me that something like that could never happen in New York. Like Naked Angels, for example, you fought the good fight, tried your hardest, but the fact is that pilot season comes around and everybody’s gotta go.
FP Yeah, but you adapt to that, you work around it. But you’re right, the kind of thing that happened at Steppenwolf would be very hard to recreate anywhere else. The rent alone is $10,000 a month in New York for a tiny little theater.
MP Exactly. So having a community of people like that around you, to draw from and work with, is relatively impossible in New York.
FP I wish there was another way to define it, because that could really turn into power, and really scare the hell out of most producers. Producing now is just trying to put certain properties, which are really people, together, and translating them into money. But if the people are already together, the producers can go flick themselves. I wish L.A. was in Staten Island, because then you’d just go across the Verrazano, do a pilot, come back and do a play at night. Think about London. The same guys at the BBC are doing plays at night at the Royal Court.
MP I can see how it happens with actors here, you get to a certain point in your career where everybody wants you, you’re a millionaire, and you get a movie made in a second and a half. Your priorities change. I can’t justify it, but I can see how it happens.
FP It’s brutal. There’s bodies strewn all over L.A. and New York. But all this aside, you want to keep acting.
MP I want to keep doing it, but I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. I want to change things, in my life. I want to make sure I do good work. I want to work with people I respect, with people I care about. What’s going on with Naked Angels now?
FP We’re doing readings.
MP Where? In various places?
FP Wherever anyone will have us. We’re looking at a space on 42nd Street, 43rd Street. All right. What was your favorite vacation?
MP (laughter) My favorite vacation? I went to Mexico once for ten days, and slept in a little palapa on the beach made of twigs sticking out of the sand, and the bed was a hammock. Me and my friend said, “We want the one right next to the water … ” really stupid idea. That night there was a huge windstorm which blew sand at 180 miles an hour. We didn’t sleep all night and when we woke up the next morning our towels were wrapped around our heads. Sand in our mouths, our eyes and our ears …
FP What, you were sleeping outside?
MP No it’s a grass hut, sticks in the ground for walls.
FP Like everybody in the world knows what a palapa is …
MP Well that’s what it’s called for God’s sake. They cost $2.50 a night, it was gorgeous.
FP You work all the time, and when you’re not working do you try to get other work?
MP I’m looking for other work. Desperately searching for other work.
FP Do you ever get to relax? I had someone tell me once that they were working real hard on being more spontaneous.
MP That’s good. No, I’m working really hard on being more organized, saving money, producing a movie. I never would have thought of doing these things a year ago.
FP When you’re doing something creative it’s such a trick, you throw it all away while you’re doing something creative. It feels very freeing, almost Zen-like because it’s the only time you’re not thinking about anything else. You have to try to do that with the rest of your life.
MP I love it when I’m working because it’s a total excuse to tell everybody not to bother me. I loved Chicago, I didn’t see any of it. I didn’t do a fuckin’ thing when I was there except the play.
FP But you were happy.
MP I was so happy. I woke up at two o’clock in the afternoon, I ate my food, I walked my dog, I went to the theater at five-thirty. I had my regimen: Take a nap, go to the dressing room, put on some music, put my hair in the wig, put some make-up on; put the corset on, do the whole deal … My costumes, man, they were gorgeous. It became really clear that the only reason I do this is so I can essentially be an adult who plays dress up.
FP But is there anything you would want to do if you couldn’t do this?
MP We talked about this one night in Chicago. A bunch of us went out to dinner and this actor asked everybody, “What would you do if you couldn’t do this?” And Malkovich said he would be a hairdresser; because he’s really good at that, he has this thing with wigs and hair. So hey, why not? I would never begrudge a talent. And then it came to me, and it also occurred to the person who asked me because he said, “You’ve never done anything else, have you?” I said “No,” and he said, “Wow, then you’re really stuck. You’re just doomed.” And I am.
FP What other kinds of things make you angry?
MP Hollywood and women makes me furious. You know this Hollywood Women’s Political Committee?
MP Lunch. Yeah. Free meal. Rubber chicken.
FP Every political movement in the movie business, there’s a lunch. (laughter) It all boils down to Chinese chicken salad. You say, I want to help people in Sarajevo. Okay, we’ll talk about it at lunch, 200 people.
MP Wearing their Donna Karan suits.
FP Yeah, Calvin Klein for the guys. ‘Cause you don’t want to get anything too European, it’s slightly erotic in a very weird way. Is there something in popular culture that you would want changed?
MP MTV. I would like it abolished. MTV is the ultimate mental lunch. It represents such hypocrisy, sickening commerce under the guise of hipness and freedom of expression and political awareness and rock & roll. Suck my balls.
FP Anything that pretends to be revolutionary, and then has to go to a commercial break, is not going to work. What, totally outside of your personal life, crushingly depresses you?
MP Everything that comes to mind has to do with people in the street. People in the street begging for money.
FP I have the same experience. The minute I make human contact I’m just devastated. If I can keep them abstract, I can work it out. So what makes you incredibly joyous and happy?
MP In everyday life? When they start selling the lilacs at the Korean markets in the spring. Seeing babies on the street. That also crushes me though, happy babies.
FP Why’s that?
MP Depresses the shit out of me. When I see really cute, happy babies in their strollers, I get unbelievably sad. Maybe it’s because I’m conscious of the inevitable disappointment they’re going to face. Maybe it’s because I wish I were an infant again.