Veteran character actress Margo Martindale plays Mattie Faye Aiken, the sister of Meryl Streep’s Violet Weston role in “August: Osage County,” the film based on Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts’ play, first launched at Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts is a longtime ensemble member.
In Chicago recently, Martindale sat down to chat about this fourth film she’s done with Streep and her difficulty in being so mean to Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays her sensitive son) — even though it was just acting. Martindale’s character also has kept a family secret for decades — a plot point that is pivotal to the story’s climactic end. The movie opens locally Friday.
Q: Your character Mattie Faye has kept a major — very unsettling — secret for decades. How was it to play that kind of a part?
A: That’s the actor’s dream – to sit on that much complexity. Though thinking about the backstory of my character — Mattie Faye — I think she’s kept that big secret for so long, it’s just become who she is, and frankly it’s something she intended to take to her grave, if life had turned out differently.
Q: I know it’s acting, but was it hard to be such a mean mom to your son — Benedict Cumberbatch — in this film?
A: I found that hard. One of the toughest things I’ve ever faced as an actress. The cruelty was pretty fierce. And it actually was all in one, short period of time that we were filming. I think that’s what added to making it so uncomfortable for me.
It was so hard to play her, because there was no soft-peddling whatsoever of her cruelty to the son who was such a disappointment to her. I had to make it very fiercely pointed.
Q: I understand that while filming all of the key actors — yourself, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and the rest — lived in very close proximity to each other. True?
A: We really did live together in the sense we were neighbors to each other in this new townhouse community. We literally shared walls. We lived together, cooked together, drank wine together and watched television together. We really did become a family — but fortunately in a good sense, and not as the dysfunctional family we play in the film!
We had a great time and I think it really gave a perfect environment for this ensemble. I look at those people — those actors — as those people we play in the film. It was a very ‘Steppenwolf-y’ kind of thing!
Q: You get to play Meryl Streep’s sister. What was that like, in this particular film?
A: It was incredible. I found out I got this role actually at a funeral lunch for my mother-in-law, who died in Texas at age 95 and then I got the call I got the job and everybody at the table cheered. It was a little weird, but I think my mother-in-law would have understood!
I’ve known Meryl for years, but this was the most time I’ve ever spent working with her. This is my fourth movie with her, but really the third time we actually worked together — but here we shared so many scenes. It was a dream.
Q: How about the rest of the cast? Did you know others from before?
A: No, the only people I knew before we got to Oklahoma to shoot the movie were Meryl and Chris [Cooper].
Q: The dinner table scene is iconic — both to the play and now the film. What was filming that like? It had to be incredibly intense.
A: That was very intense. It was 18 or 19 pages of dialogue and despite it being so difficult, we actually got through in a quicker amount of time than John [Wells, the director] had anticipated. Everybody came extremely prepared. We had rehearsed it at Meryl’s house, sitting in chairs in the same positions where we would sit at the dining room table on the set. We brought pot luck and passed the dinner around and we sort of were all geared-up and ready to do that scene. We knew what it was, and we were excited to do it. It was thrilling. I feel like it did justice to the play.