There’s No Shortage of Margo Martindale on Peak TV (Exclusive)
By Joel Keller
Before Margo Martindale played the memorable role of Mags Bennett on FX’s Justified, she was one of those character actresses who always played the friend, the mother, the grandmother or the nosy neighbor. Recognizable, but not well-known enough for anyone but diehards to know her name.
That changed with Mags, a role that won her an Emmy in 2011 at the age of 60. Roles have opened up to her ever since. "It's definitely more varied. People give me a lot more room to be other people and [play] much bigger parts," she tells ET from the set of her latest series, Sneaky Pete. The role she's currently playing on the Amazon Prime series is no different.
Martindale plays Audrey Bernhardt, the matriarch of a family that owns a long-running bail bonds business in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In her line of work, she's had to deal with all manner of tough customers, but the predicament she got into at the end of the show's first season was unlike anything she's faced. She had to cover up her involvement in the death of an NYPD detective who was coming after her nephew Pete -- who is really a con man named Marius (Giovanni Ribisi).
Suffice it to say the plot of Sneaky Pete is intricate. And in order to prepare herself for a scene, Martindale traces how Audrey got to that point. "I go back and reread, so that I know where I'm coming from," she says. "Sometimes I have to go back a long time and say that I knew [a plot point] from [a previous] episode."
Picking up right where season one left off, filming the new season has been even trickier for the actress. "I think it will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it leaves you in a place that you must go back to the first season to watch, if you haven't seen it, to get to the second season, because the second season starts the next day. Which is the hardest thing in shooting this," she says, because of what's always in her mind during a scene. "Where was I last night? What did I do yesterday morning? What time of day is it now?"
The new season, which is now streaming, has also been more physically challenging as Audrey tries to cover up her involvement in the shooting. “I love acting. So, honestly, I'm really good with most of it. It's just physically, sometimes, it gets to me," Martindale says. "There was a scene I did this season where I had to have a newspaper over my head, walking through water in a junkyard, in slippery oil. And walking a long distance, and I was miserable at the end of that. My back was killing me. I can do a lot of things, but I can't do all the physical stuff that I used to do."
It's a busy time for Martindale, who has had no shortage of guest-starring TV roles, including a recurring arc on the final season of The Good Wife, and multiple films released over the past two years. Shortly after wrapping Sneaky Pete, she was on the set of the final season of The Americans.
On the critically acclaimed drama, returning to FX on March 28, she plays Claudia, the KGB handler for spy couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Kerri Russell and Mathew Rhys), who are thinking of leaving it all behind even as older daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) gets further embroiled in the business.
Much to the delight of the show’s fans, Martindale will be in most of the episodes of the final season, making up for a lack of regular appearances after landing a lead role on the CBS sitcom The Millers. Claudia's relationship with the Jenningses was more formal than that of her replacement, Gabriel (Frank Langella). Martindale found it challenging to drop back into the show in those middle seasons."It was tougher to remember who I was," she says. "How did I speak? I had to go back and watch myself. I just feel [Claudia's speech pattern] was very formal."
Speaking of The Millers, which was canceled after two seasons, Martindale says that she “enjoyed it,” adding: “I wish I had the opportunity to do that another year, because I was becoming extremely relaxed doing it, and I liked that."
She acknowledges what the fans of her dramatic work thought of the role, especially because it took her from The Americans. "I mean, they all said, 'Why would she waste her talent on something like that?' Well, it is an incredible challenge. It is hard work, and I like that about it,” Martindale reflects. “Actually, I think it was hitting its stride, I think, toward the end of the first season. Those parts don't come along very often, someone of my age getting a lead in a sitcom.”