From Private Eye to Drug Lord: The Many Lives of ‘Sneaky Pete’ Star Margo Martindale
Margo Martindale has been a working actor all her adult life, but it wasn’t until she was in her late fifties that she became — as she’s described whenever she plays herself on BoJack Horseman — Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale. Her current hot streak began in 2011 when she played backwoods drug lord Mags Bennett in the second season of FX’s Justified. The role won her the first of three Emmys (the other two came from playing KGB handler Claudia on The Americans) and vaulted her from the ranks of the vaguely recognizable to one of television’s busiest — and, yes, most esteemed — performers.
Her main job at the moment is on Amazon’s Sneaky Pete (Season Three debuts Friday). She plays Audrey Bernhardt, bail bondswoman and matriarch to another troubled family, who has been convinced that a con man played by Giovanni Ribisi is her long-lost grandson Pete. The series, co-created by Bryan Cranston, was developed years ago at CBS as a more straightforward procedural — a grifter learns to be a bounty hunter — then was reinvented for Amazon by Martindale’s old Justified and Americans boss Graham Yost as a much more serialized tale where the family’s problems keep intersecting with the con man’s. (Yost ran the first two seasons; Brotherhood creator Blake Masters take the helm for the third.)
I spoke with Martindale about sticking with Sneaky Pete while it was in limbo, how playing Mags Bennett changed her life and a lot more — including her real-life stint as an Eighties private eye, working alongside Newman from Seinfeld. Seriously.
The Sneaky Pete pilot was shot for CBS back in 2015. Then they passed and it took a while for it to find a new home at Amazon.
I think that from the pilot to when we started shooting was a year and three months later.
That’s a long time to wait while other long-term jobs are potentially out there. What made you want to stick it out?
Well, here’s three things that made me wanna stick with it: Number one, that’s the most extraordinary cast I’ve ever been with. Number two, Bryan Cranston was involved. And number three, Graham Yost decided to write it.
We come back for Season Three and Audrey’s dealing with a lot in the family, including questions about the car crash that Julia, Taylor and Carly’s parents died in. What was that like for you to get to play?
Well this season has explored more about the family story, and it’s a family lie, and it’s a family secret. So we’re all working together for this season. The family is at odds with each other, and I have been facing a truth of my past, which is very bothersome and could be life-threatening. And what we find is that truth is actually ever-changing.
The show is split in two: half with the family, half with Giovanni’s character off running cons in the city. Audrey is a very good character, but do you ever wish she could be out there running cons too?
Well, I kind of do this season. We intermingle quite a bit more. I don’t get in with the con people, but I am in with some other deceptive jerks and con artists — and I might not be too far behind.
When you got the Justified part, what were your expectations for what Mags might be able to do for your career at that point?
I had no expectations. I did it for a dollar. I was out there doing press for Secretariat, and my agent said, “There’s an audition they want you to go to, to play a weed-growing matriarch in Kentucky…” I said, “I have to audition for that? Are you kidding me?” And then he sent me the script, and I said, “I don’t care where I have to go, I want this part.” They saw me and I think made the offer that day.
What has playing Mags done for your career?
Oh, it just blew it open. Because I had only played one bad guy and that was in Million Dollar Baby. And I think people thought they found me in a field somewhere in Missouri — that I wasn’t really an actor, I was just some awful redneck. I guess I surprised people, even though I had been acting all my life. But I was mostly doing it in the theatre, and then I didn’t get into the movie business until about 1989. I don’t think Graham [Yost] super knew who I was. Most people didn’t know who I was.
And now you’re Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale.
[Laughs] Oh, well, just that good.
When you were still primarily a theater actress, did you have to do other things to pay the bills?
Well, my husband worked. We both worked. And sometimes I did some other jobs in there. I can’t remember when I stopped doing other jobs, but I think it was in the Eighties.
I’ve heard a story that one of those other jobs you took as was a private investigator.
Yes, that was in 1984.
Tell me about that.
I was doing The Miss Firecracker Contest with Holly Hunter, Pat Richardson and Mark Linn-Baker at Manhattan Theatre Club. It was Beth Henley’s play, directed by Stephen Tobolowsky. For which we made about $300, maybe $350-375. So I worked as a private detective during the day.
What kind of cases did you work?
Mostly background checks on people, and probing into doing some surveillance and stuff on husbands, you know.
Now trying to picture you doing the surveillance.
And I worked with Wayne Knight. Now, just think about that.
Wayne and I had had a club act together. So he introduced me to that job.
What was a stakeout with you and Wayne like?
Wayne actually did more stakeouts than I did. Most of my stuff was on the phone. We did a lot of counterfeit rings, purses and stuff like that.
And you only did it in 1984?
Yeah, not after. I think that after that I did a play called Curse of the Starving Class and it was enough money that it was a living. Then I was a spa consultant during the day. And when I did this small, little play called Steel Magnolias, and then that play exploded, that’s what happened with getting me into the movies.
So you had to put down the trench coat and the fedora for good at that point.
Yes, that was it.
When the BoJack people approached you about playing this version of yourself, what was your initial response?
Well, the BoJack people didn’t. Will [Arnett] did when we were doing [the short-lived CBS sitcom] The Millers. I was so deep in doing The Millers, I was like, “I’m not gonna come do a cartoon. I don’t have time to do that.” He said, “Yes, you are.” I said, “No, I’m not. I’m not gonna do it.” He said, “One of the parts is Margo Martindale, Character Actress. What do you think?” I said, “I guess I’m going to do it.”
Do you ever find yourself like out in the world and people say, “Oh, it’s Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale”?
Yes, it happens all the time. And it’s just crazy. And, you know, when you’re a cartoon and someone recognizes you, it’s a little strange. Also, recently I did The Act on Hulu, where I play Patricia Arquette’s mother. And let me just say, never have I looked more scary and horrifying. And now, I’ve gone several places, just in a few days, and they go, “Oh, you’re on The Act!” And I just say, “Am I just like that?”
So, as someone whose career took off relatively late, and went from people not knowing you to now being recognized for all sorts of things, what has that been like?
You know what? It’s just what I always wanted. I feel so blessed and so grateful to behold where I’ve gotten to be, working like I always wanted to. It’s just really, honestly the best way to do it.
You think if you had somehow hit it big at 23, you would not have enjoyed it as much?
I think so.