To children of the '80s, Martha Plimpton will always be known for playing precocious teenagers in films like "Running on Empty," "Parenthood" and "The Goonies." But in a four-decade career, Plimpton has shown she can do far more than play the plucky young heroine.
A turning point arrived in 2010, when she was cast as Virginia Slims Chance, the matriarch of a zany working-class family in Fox's sitcom "Raising Hope." Plimpton had spent much of the preceding decade on the stage, earning three Tony nominations, and had never really thought of herself as a comic actress.
"It was the easiest job I ever had," she said recently between bites of a croque-monsieur at a quiet Brooklyn cafe. "I could be as ridiculous as I wanted to be, and it was fine."
Plimpton's funny streak continues in "The Real O'Neals," an ABC sitcom loosely inspired by the experiences of sex columnist Dan Savage. Plimpton stars as Eileen O'Neal, a devout Irish Catholic mother struggling to accept her newly out-of-the-closet teenage son.
The part is not an obvious fit for Plimpton, 45, an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights, who arrived at a photo shoot in a tunic that had been given to her by a fellow activist and was decorated with hearts and the word "abortion."
"I think that the use of the word abortion and recognizing it as a positive and necessary element of women's healthcare is important," she explained.
Her performance in "The Real O'Neals" has already been singled out for praise. (L.A. Times critic Robert Lloyd called her "the anchor here, as she seems to be wherever she goes.") Not everyone is pleased with the series, though, as Plimpton learned during lunch via a text message telling her the Catholic League had taken out a highly critical ad in the New York Times.
How do you respond to accusations that the show is anti-Catholic?
When anybody hears that it's going to be a show about a Catholic family dealing with their gay son, they assume that we're going to be making fun of Catholics, and it's just not the case. What we're making fun of is the fear. The character I play is a homophobe, but she's a homophobe because she's based her entire value system on her faith, a thing that's given her an enormous sense of purpose, stability and spiritual comfort. When you rely on something like that, and it tells you that anyone who is gay is going to burn in hell, you don't want your son to burn in hell. That's really where Eileen is coming from. It's not coming from a place of hatred. It's my hope that when people see the show, they'll understand that we're not out to humiliate anyone who is coming from this perspective.
Did you have any reservations about returning to the grind of network TV?
None whatsoever. I felt extremely "hashtag blessed," man, to have been given another chance to make a living and pay my mortgage.
Your parents, Shelley Plimpton and Keith Carradine, are both actors. Was show business always a given for you?
It was kind of accidental. I was 8 years old. You're not really terribly aware of career decisions at the age of 8, but I was a showoff and a pain … and constantly performing. My mother and her friend [theater director] Elizabeth Swados were working together when Liz said, "Maybe we should put Martha in one of my shows?" I think my mother sort of felt like, "Oh, good. It will give her a little focus and get her out of my hair for a second." We didn't pursue it really intensely. My mother was very insistent that I not become famous quickly and that, if I wanted to do this, then I think about myself as an actor rather than as a celebrity.
But you did become quite successful at a young age.
I was lucky. It spoiled me a little. I thought that I would be sort of a fabulous leading lady by the time I was 25, and that was not happening at all for so many reasons. If you're working with all these incredible people like Ron Howard and Sidney Lumet and Marty Ritt, you start to think that you're hot ... but life's got other plans.
I read this really awesome interview with Winona Ryder recently where she said that she had gone through a period in her late teens where she was losing parts to me, which I found shocking. When I was that age, I was thinking, "Why can't I play more lead roles?" It's just a wonderful reminder to let all that go and just be present in your own life or, as my friend Kelly likes to say, "Keep your eye on your own paper."
You said you were spoiled. Did you feel like there were fewer opportunities as you matured?
Yes. There were so many fantastic actresses in the '80s who had these unusual, interesting faces and a kind of brio, like Lili Taylor and Mary Stuart Masterson. It was possible to be a tomboy. We don't have those anymore. That started to go away in the mid-'90s and 2000s. The standards for female performers really started to change. I look like a character actor. Which, by the way, is something I'm extremely grateful for, but I think I had to wake up to that. I got to play romantic roles in the '80s, or at least roles that were central to the plot. That all changed as I got older and tastes changed. Because that changed, there wasn't very much for me to do. That's why I was doing so much in theater, because that just doesn't apply. Women are subjected to these cultural trends in a way that men aren't. We're like the canaries in the coal mine.
Outside of your acting work, you founded a nonprofit organization, A Is For, to defend abortion rights, and have been very outspoken on the issue.
The radical Republican obsession with women's bodies is sort of a national illness. I mean, these are literally people who just will propose nothing in any other area except for the regulation and restriction of abortion or access to birth control. It seems to be their only desire. … It's, to me, a fundamental reality. If you can't control your own physical life, you have no control over your life at all.
'The Real O'Neals'
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)