To celebrate the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County, TheaterMania is spotlighting members of the cast and creative team in an ongoing series. First we interviewed Julia Roberts, who plays Barbara Fordham. Next up is Margo Martindale, who plays the role of Mattie Fae Aiken.
Margo Martindale will soon go from an actress whose face moviegoers and TV viewers only recognize to one they know by 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!'" But now, thanks to her boisterous and blistering performance as Mattie Fae Aiken in the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, everyone will know her by name.
Martindale studied theater at the University of Michigan and spent a summer acting at Harvard (where her biggest competition was Christine Lahti). She had a brief career off-Broadway, including playing opposite Holly Hunter in Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest for Manhattan Theatre Club. Martindale was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk Awards for her Broadway debut as Big Mama in the 2003 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (opposite Ned Beatty as Big Daddy). But it's on the big screen where she feels most at home. "I love doing movies. I love theater, too, but it's different, of course. Theater is a shared experience with audiences. Movies are much more personal to me. I love it. She almost blushes and repeats, "I love it!"
Though she had worked on three films with Meryl Streep (who plays Mattie Fae's sister, Violet), Martindale says, "We make each other laugh. I know her beats and she knows mine. She has a very wicked sense of humor. She's as down to earth as can be." Martindale has been friends with Chris Cooper, who plays her husband, Charlie, for 33 years, and she still had to contain her excitement 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."
But once Martindale and the rest of the cast arrived on location in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, their connection was solidified. "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. 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 next door to one another in a townhouse complex. "It was perfect for us all. [We] got to know [one another]," she explains. "There was intense socializing. We did breakfast, lunch, and dinner — even shopped 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!" Or, when they wanted to stay in, the cast would get together at Streep's and cook. "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. 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."
As for what Martindale thinks of the film, "I was blown away," she says. "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."
She adds that, as much as possible, the film keeps with the play and is just as poetic. "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."
Martindale's grateful Letts did the adaptation. "Things had to be trimmed. The play is three and a half hours; the film, an intense two hours and ten minutes." But there are elements the movie brings to the look and feel of the story that a stage production cannot. 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.
To keep with the vibe of a play, Wells tried to shoot as as much in sequence as he could, "which gave us a great sense of continuity," explains Martindale. "By the time that dinner scene came around it was as if we were sitting down to a family meal, only this time with quite an explosion."
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!"
Martindale explains that Mattie Fae isn't her at all. "She's so not me — a completely different emotional being…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…being cruel to their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), was difficult. Cruelty isn't my strong suit," she admits. "It's one thing when you read it in the script, and another when you do it, especially with the force John wanted…[but] I got into her by digging deep inside myself. I have the framework. I'm a technician, but I do things all sorts of ways."
Watch a video trailer of the film August: Osage County below: