For Martha Plimpton, Acting Is Really the Only Choice


Young people who want to pursue an acting career often must decide whether they aspire to become movie stars or actors. For Martha Plimpton, it was a Hobson’s choice.

The child of actors and a child star in her own right, Plimpton naturally gravitated toward the career with less champagne, fewer flashbulbs popping around her and much less cash.

It was her mom--Shelley Plimpton of “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Putney Swope"--who made the alternatives ahead clear. No daughter of hers should choose money over art, she used to say.

“She wasn’t going to encourage me to sell myself short that early,” the younger Plimpton recalls. “She recognized that I was going to have a long life past the age of 13 and that I should probably be thinking about my future, more than just financially.”

That’s why during a recent interview before a performance of her latest play, Plimpton is found wolfing down bites of a Subway sandwich in the lobby of a chilly lower Manhattan theater. It’s not exactly Spago, but she seems proudly happy anyway.


“I’m working very hard and I feel good about the work that I’m doing--and I prefer it this way,” she says. “I mean, it would be nice to be really, really rich. But really would it?”

Plimpton, 31, stars in the appropriately titled “Hobson’s Choice,” a comedy by Harold Brighouse set in 1880 England that centers on wealth, class and family. The cast also includes Brian Murray, David Aaron Baker and Peter Maloney.

Plimpton plays Maggie Hobson, the headstrong elder daughter of a middle-class boot maker who schemes to match-make her sisters and protect her father’s business, all with heavy doses of tough love. For Maggie, it’s basically her way or the highway.

“It’s hard because Maggie is sort of on top of everything, surveying the action. But at the same time propelling it and also coming up with these plans,” Plimpton says. “It’s hard not to get complacent.”

David Warren, the show’s director, says Plimpton has breathed life into a tricky role, managing to convey a sense of authority without sacrificing her openness and humor.

“What she has naturally is power and strength. She’s also very vulnerable and very warm and very kind. She seems to have both of them at the same time,” Warren says. “Maybe that’s why she’s so special.”

Plimpton has used those skills to tackle everything from mainstream Hollywood fare--"The Goonies,” “Running on Empty” and “Parenthood"--to indies such as “Eye of God,” “200 Cigarettes” and John Waters’ “Pecker.”

But it’s been the stage where Plimpton has lately enjoyed a renaissance. After working with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Joseph Papp Public Theater, she has spent much of the past few years with the acclaimed Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company.

There she starred in John Malkovich’s 1996 production of “The Libertine” as well as “The Playboy of the Western World,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Hedda Gabler.” Earlier this year she made her directing debut with “Absolution.”

In 1998, Plimpton was taken to lunch by Steppenwolf’s artistic director and casually asked to join the successful ensemble. She would work alongside such actors as Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and Laurie Metcalf.

“I was really overcome. I was incredibly honored and so excited and really felt affirmed. I’ve been able to do things there that I never would have been able to do anywhere else,” she says. “It’s brought me an incredible amount of encouragement.”

From a Long

Line of Actors

Joining Steppenwolf, which Plimpton likens to working at “a nice, family-owned organic farm,” has offered her an artistic home, the collegiality of a group of dedicated performers and the chance to grow as an actor.

Plimpton virtually has show biz in her veins. Besides her mother, a former actress, her father is Keith Carradine (“The Will Rogers Follies,” “Nashville”) and her grandfather was John Carradine (“Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Ten Commandments”).

Conceived while her parents were in New York for a Broadway run of “Hair,” Plimpton was soon sucked into the child acting machine, producing much of the work with which she is still recognized. “To most of the people on the subway, I’m viewed as that ‘Goonie’ girl,” she says.

After entering adulthood, Plimpton revisited her decision to pick the hardscrabble life of an actress over movie stardom. She soon decided that her mom was right--sort of.

“I realized ... as I got older that I could choose to be an actor to a certain extent, but movie stardom is not something you choose. It chooses you. You have very little control over that,” she says.

“So I stopped considering that an option when I realized, ‘You know what? I’ve been working a really long time. I’ve been doing this since I was 8. I’m too tired, I’m too old.’ If it chooses me, it chooses me. If not, not. I’m not sweating it.

“I’m 31 now, which in Hollywood terms is ripe. Unless you’re really established in that mainstream Hollywood way, 31 is a hard age for a character actress,” she says.

Asked if she feels her experiences on stage, in big-budget films and small independent projects have left her feeling more seasoned than your typical actress, Plimpton smiles.

“A little too much cumin,” she says.