It’s been said that Margo Martindale has gone from being an actress whose face moviegoers and TV viewers know to one who now has a brand name. “It’s nice when people come up to me and actually know my name! Usually it’s ‘Aren’t you -- ?’ or ‘Weren’t you in -- ?’ or ‘Hi, you’re the lady at my bank!’” Now, thanks to capturing the coveted role of Mattie Fae in the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County[The Weinstein Company] and her boisterous and blistering performance, everyone’ll know her name.

She was a Tony and Drama Desk nominee in her Broadway debut [and, so far, only main-stem outing] as Big Mama in the 2003 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [opposite Ned Beatty as Big Daddy], and an Emmy winner [“Justified,” Season Two] and an Emmy nominee [FX’s “The Americans”].

Before segueing into film and TV in 1998, she had a brief career Off Broadway, including playing opposite Holly Hunter in Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest for Manhattan Theater Club. And before becoming bi-coastal for her new TV series, “The Millers,” this Upper West Sider went to see August: Osage County three times.

“The part of Mattie Fae just had my name on it,” Martindale. “After I went the first time, I called my agent and said if this is ever made into a film, I want to be part of it. I didn’t need to do the play as [Tony winner] Rondi Reed was so perfect – actually, just magnificent. I love Tracy Letts. He’s an exciting and brilliant writer.”

Martindale did get a call – for the film audition. “I prepared my sides as if I was auditioning for a play,” she relates. “I got a call back. When my agent did call to tell me I got the part, I – no, I won’t tell you what I did. I’ll be embarrassed.”

Martindale had worked in three films with Meryl Streep [who plays Violet in “August”] and has been friends with Chris Cooper, who plays her husband, for 33 years, but had never worked with him. She didn’t know Julia Roberts, who plays her sister, Barbara, or the rest of the cast.

Martindale tried to contain herself at the initial read-through, “but there was Sam Shepard [who plays Violet’s husband, Beverly], and my heart really started beating. Coming up the ranks, I’d done several of his plays.”

Martindale arrived on location in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 50 miles north of Tulsa and near the Kansas border, the second week of September 2012. “It didn’t take long before we were all bosom buddies, thanks to the producers and our director, John Wells. They created an atmosphere for bonding and togetherness.” And it was an unusual set. “We became a family,” explains Martindale, “a much nicer one than in the play and film. What an amazing ensemble. Everyone got along, everyone was so professional. Everyone came to the set prepared.”

The entire cast and crew lived together next door to each other in a townhouse complex. “It was perfect for us all got to know each other,” she explains. “There was intense socializing. We did breakfast, lunch and dinner together, even shop together. No egos! All agreed it was like landing in a pot of jam!”

Bartlesville is a small town, where, movie stars or not, things tend to close early, especially on Sunday. “However,” says Martindale, “that didn’t deter John. He’d arrange for a restaurant to remain open and we all gathered. Everyone!”

With bonds of friendship established, evenings the cast got together at Streep’s and cooked. “It was potluck,” notes Martindale. “Everyone brought something – some things better than others! After a tough day of heavy drama, there were lots of laughs.” Then, they’d rehearse. Afterward, they kept in touch with the world watching TV, drawn to the presidential debates and to Hurricane Sandy unfolding its wrath.

“I regretted Tracy wasn’t with us long,” rues Martindale. “As we began our journey, he was off to co-star on Broadway [and win a Tony and Drama Desk] in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And it really was sad when we wrapped at Thanksgiving last year, and everyone went their way. These past weeks, I’ve looked forward to the promotional appearances. It’s like seeing old friends again.”

Martindale only saw the entire film in June “and I was blown away. It’s raw and in your face, as only a movie can be, and has retained the underlying humor. Meryl’s simply magnificent, but you’ve come to expect that. Julia is a revelation, but I can say that about everyone. It’s perfectly cast.”

Though she and Streep are friends, Martindale points out they aren’t long-time intimates. “We’ve spent a lot of time together through the years, and each time seems like it was only yesterday. We make each other laugh. I know her beats, and she knows mine. She has a very wicked sense of humor. I don’t know how many know that. She’s as down to earth as can be.”

Martindale adds that, as much as possible, the film’s in keeping with the play and as poetic as the play. “The subject matter is dark and grim, but there’s room for laughter. The underlying humor is still there. You’ll see a big difference at the beginning, but it sets the tone for what’s to come.”

The Actress is grateful Letts did the adaptation. “The play’s been opened up to include outdoor sequences. One plus over the stage play was shooting in Osage County, Oklahoma. The landscape plays a large part in the film. However, in spite of that, it still feels claustrophobic.

“Things had to be trimmed,” Martindale continues. The play is three and a half hours; the film, an intense two hours and ten minutes. As much as possible, John shot in sequence, which gave us a great sense of continuity. By the time that dinner scene came round, it was as if we were sitting down to a family meal, only this time with quite an explosion.”

Martindale explains that Mattie Fae isn’t at all her. “She’s so not me – a completely different emotional being, not introspective, not careful with her words, and she shoots from the hip. She’s proud, thinks a lot of herself, and is never wrong or ever shows regret. It was a little bit of a different muscle for me, an adjustment. However, I felt I was perfect to play her. I got into her by digging deep inside myself, I have the framework. I’m a technician, but I do things all sorts of way.”

She laughs that she’d never browbeat her husband the way she does poor Charles, played by Chris Cooper. But being cruel to their son Little Charlie [Benedict Cumberbatch] was difficult. “Contrary to my role in “Justified,” where Martindale played a violent moonshine queen pin in the Kentucky hills, cruelty isn’t my strong suit. It’s one thing when you read it in the script, and another when you do it, especially with the force John wanted.”

Martindale loves directors and knew of and respected Wells, “but I didn’t know how John worked. He was a different kind of director for me. He was guiding me to do things a certain way. I liked and respected him, but he started to give me something I didn’t want. In the end, he was right; I was wrong. I wanted to be more indulgent and that just isn’t Mattie Fae!”


Key Subjects: 
August: Osage County, Tracy Letts, Margo Martindale
Ellis Nassour
December 2013