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.
I think that the use of the word abortion and recognizing it as a positive and necessary element of women’s healthcare is important.
The radical Republican obsession with women’s bodies is sort of a national illness.
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?
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.
Martha Plimpton: Career in pictures(Clockwise from top left: Bob D’Amico / ABC; Ron Galella / WireImage; NBC; Evan Agostini / Getty Images)
Martha Plimpton and River Phoenix at the 1989 Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. They appeared together in the 1986 film “The Mosquito Coast.”(Ron Galella / WireImage)
Martha Plimpton in the 1997 film “Eye of God.”(Castle Hill Productions)
Beau Bridges and Martha Plimpton star in “The Defenders: Taking the First."(Ben Mark Holzberg / FPS/Showtime)
Catherine Kellner, left, and Martha Plimpton in a scene from Paramount Pictures' "200 Cigarettes.”(David Lee / Paramount Pictures)
Martha Plimpton stars in “Hobson’s Choice” in 2002.(Chad Rachman / Associated Press)
Plimpton guest starred as Claire Rinato opposite actor Ice-T on a 2002 episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”(NBC)
Martha Plimpton attends a special screening of the film “Shattered Glass” on Oct. 28, 2003, in New York City.(Evan Agostini / Getty Images)
Martha Plimpton and Julian Fleisher in the play “Together Again for the Third Time.”(M.J. Maguire / Actors Gang Theatre)
From left, Ana Reeder, Jennifer Ikeda, Elizabeth Marvel, Marisa Tomei, Mary Catherine Garrison, Mary Beth Hurt and Martha Plimpton dine in “Top Girls.”(Ari Mintz / Newsday)
“Martha Plimpton Sings?” at the Allen Room as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series on Jan. 16, 2010.(Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images)
Jimmy (Lucas Neff) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) in “Raising Hope."(Ray Mickshaw / Fox)
Martha Plimpton at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 18, 2011 in Los Angeles.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
ABC’s “The Real O’Neals” stars, from left, Bebe Wood as Shannon, Matt Shively as Jimmy, Noah Galvin as Kenny, Jay R. Ferguson as Pat and Martha Plimpton as Eileen.(Bob D’Amico / ABC)
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?
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)