An odd face
Martha Plimpton: strong jaw, great cheekbones, alabaster skin, eyes of a Siamese cat. Maybe you first saw her in Richard Avedon’s blunt, fetishistic Calvin Klein commercials of 1983, or the next year, capably holding her own against Tommy Lee Jones in the film The River Rat, or a few years later in the Hollywood classics The Goonies and Parenthood. Then the ’80s blinked into the ’90s and Plimpton’s face disappeared.
If you check her IMDb credits, there are some indies, some TV movies, a few shorts. She says it wasn’t her choice—that Hollywood types had pretty much decided her face wasn’t for them anymore. She moved east, from L.A. to Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, where she starred opposite John Malkovich in The Libertine, following in the theatrical tradition of her mother, Shelley Plimpton, who performed in the original Broadway run of Hair.
Throughout the 2000s, she toggled between long periods of stage acting and short spurts of network television. Her savings ran out; she was the commercial voice of a popular pet food brand. Between 2007 and 2009, she received a Tony nomination every year. And two years ago, about two seconds before she was about to go broke again, she was offered the role of Virginia Chance in the FOX network comedy Raising Hope—her first-ever regular series gig. To quote her: “Thank god. Thank Jesus.”
I met Martha Plimpton at her home off Laurel Canyon Boulevard—a rustic little nest that is more of an urban tree fort than a house. Her scruffy wheaten terrier mix, Eloise, bounded around the corner and barked a greeting. Then Plimpton arrived—her face virtually (shockingly) the same as it was in those Calvin Klein ads. We sat in her backyard for two hours, drinking red wine. I noticed that when she spoke, there was a suppleness to her jaw, as though her maker could have given two more brief turns to the screws in the bones but decided against it. She answered my questions with intelligence, gameness, and muscle, while remaining appealingly casual about the ordeal of acting.
THE BELIEVER: Can you describe to me the moment you became an actor? You were discovered, in a way, by the Broadway director Elizabeth Swados.
MARTHA PLIMPTON: I was eight. My mother was doing some crazy avant-garde stuff in New York. She was doing this show called Nightclub Cantata, which was being performed at the Village Gate. And because my mother was a broke actress, she didn’t have money for babysitters. So I was down at the theater with her all the time. I was a fucking pain-in-the-ass ham, always getting onstage and making a jerk of myself. Elizabeth took note of that. She had already done a show on Broadway, called Runaways, that was very successful. She wanted to look into the possibility of making a film out of it—to do a film workshop. She asked my mother if she’d let me audition. I can’t remember what I did—Elizabeth probably asked me to act like a duck, and I probably complied. I became the youngest member of the cast. It was an intense experience. I adore Liz, but she is an intense person. I remember her yelling a lot, and at times feeling humiliated. It didn’t scar me, though, because I continued to do it. Something about it must have appealed to me. It might be the key to some of my earlier masochism.
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