Emmy award-winning actress Martha Plimpton has found her happy place in Hollywood. The native New Yorker opens up about leaving expectations behind and her women's rights organization A is For
by Rebecca Carroll Photography Bryce Duffy
Martha Plimpton has a very clear picture of the difference between New York and LA. “In New York, you get your ass kicked on a daily basis,” says Plimpton, in her manifestly pointed and coaxing tenor. “In LA, you can go a whole day without getting your ass kicked.” Plimpton is talking with me over the phone from her new home… in LA, where she is currently shooting the third season of her successful FOX sitcom, Raising Hope. It’s a marvelous irony.
After over three decades in the business and a lifetime of getting her ass kicked, Plimpton is finally having her day in the sun. Not because she is a three-time Tony-nominated stage actress. Nor because her performances typically draw critical acclaim. No. Plimpton is getting her due as a household name by becoming a TV star. Her 20-year-old self would be appalled.
“I was a total snob in my 20s,” says Plimpton, a little snobbishly. “I never wanted to do a TV series. I wanted to be on Broadway.”
For Plimpton, who started working as a professional actress at 9 years old, being on television was not even part of her aspirational equation, much less the end goal. “I was a total snob in my 20s,” says Plimpton, a little snobbishly. “I never wanted to do a TV series. I wanted to be on Broadway.” Not an entirely shocking admission from an actor who is also a native New Yorker — the combination of which tends to breed a rather shameless (and often correct) sense of artistic superiority over the way things are run in LA, where bad TV shows and train wreck young actresses are made.
“[In LA] you walk around in your 7 for All Mankind jeans and your sunglasses, and the world just seems to shine down its blessings upon you as you have lunch at King’s Road Cafe and gab about whether or not you should get a manager. Nobody has a fucking clue,” Plimpton says, with sharp, unabashed fervor. “Whereas in New York, you walk out of your apartment and you’re just in the shit.
When I first met Plimpton some 15 years ago, she seemed particularly well suited to being in the shit that is New York. At a dark bar near closing time, she held court around tables full of friends and talked about art and New York, acting and relationships. She was cynical about her work, disappointed by the roles she was and was not offered, frustrated by the constant hustle with little payoff or recognition. She also beamed with humanity and pushed laughter out of her chest like a cannonball. To me, a young writer who had only recently moved to the city, Plimpton was the embodiment of a real New Yorker. I was also struck by her frayed beauty at such a young age and the complicated effort to disguise a kind of palpable anxiety.
“When you’re white-knuckling it, not a lot of good comes from that,” Plimpton recalls when I remind her of my first impressions. “Some people are naturally more relaxed and capable of living in the moment. I was not for many, many years.”
I didn’t see or talk with Martha again for a long while. And then, at a dinner party with the same mutual friends, she was different — lighter, cheerful even. By then she had done The Coast of Utopia, the Tom Stoppard trilogy plays that earned her one of her three Tony noms, and was performed on Broadway from 2006 through 2007 by a cast that also included Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup and Jennifer Ehle. It was a defining moment for Plimpton.
“When we were rehearsing the third play in the trilogy, Jack O’Brien [the director] said, ‘You know, you look at that vast expanse of ocean and horizon and you think there’s something big at that horizon, that there’s some point of arrival, and there really isn’t. Every point of arrival is just another point of disembarkation. You never really get there,’” Plimpton explains, without a shred of sentimentality. “So the idea that there’s some place to get is a fallacy. There’s something about that recognition that everything is exactly how it should be — that there isn’t any moment of great success awaiting you, that it’s just another piece of life asking more of you — it altered me.”
After that experience, Plimpton says, “something sort of clicked.” And like that old saying if you stop looking for love it will find you, Plimpton’s shift in perspective regarding her work brought about new and unexpected opportunities. “In a funny way, when I did actually chill out and allow myself to do what I wanted to do because it was pleasurable and not because it was something I should do for my career, I started to enjoy acting more and I think I got a little better at it,” she says. “Work started coming more frequently. I suppose because when I walked into an audition I didn’t have this big cloud over my head.”
Plimpton was nominated for an Emmy after the show’s first season in 2010. It has changed her life entirely.
Plimpton signed on to play Virginia Chance on Raising Hope in 2009, and was nominated for an Emmy after the show’s first season in 2010. It has changed her life entirely. She can no longer sleep late in the mornings (“When you’re doing plays, it’s crazy to get up before 10am, unless you have a matinee.”), she spends a lot more time in the car, the hours are long and, well, she lives in LA half the year. But she’s also out of debt for the first time in her life (“Isn’t it great?!”), which is no small thing. I was on the mass email Plimpton sent to friends shortly before she landed the job on Raising Hope asking if anyone needed a babysitter. And besides, LA isn’t all that bad.
“I love having a backyard. I love watching the hummingbirds come and go,” she says. “The quiet, the trees.” Perhaps the peaceful time away brings a heightened bliss when she arrives back to New York where she still rents the apartment she grew up in on the Upper West Side. She revels in the noise and chaos, and continues to participate in a long history of political activism. Earlier this year she launched A is For, a campaign that encourages women to take back the scarlet letter A and to re-appropriate its meaning from shameful to empowering.
If there was ever any fear that we might lose Plimpton permanently to the “languid, sunny, citrus glaze of Los Angeles,” one need only listen to her affectionately describe the tell tale sign that she is home once again. “It’s that Kennedy airport smell of taxi fumes — that noxious, overpowering smell of taxi exhaust,” she says. “Then you get in a taxi and it’s not much better. That drive into the city on what is now the Jackie Robinson Parkway, and that view from the Triboro Bridge. It’s magical. Every time I make that trip it feels so good.”