As a general rule, if there’s a celebrity that you loved from the 80s or early 90s and you haven’t heard about their career in awhile, the answer to the question “Where are they now?” is probably not “Better than ever, thanks for asking.” The answer will invariably be “serving five to ten for assault” or “dead from an overdose” or “appearing this fall in a new season of The Surreal Life!” That’s a statistical fact. It’s called the law of diminishing celebrity returns.
But there are anomalies. Take Martha Plimpton, for instance. In terms of mainstream recognition, she hit her peak decades ago, as one of the mischievous scamps in the 1985 cult hit The Goonies, and the late River Phoenix’s girlfriend and much-photographed Oscar companion. Since then, at least among people who get all their news from People, Plimpton apparently dropped off the map. What’s she been doing with all that time not in the spotlight? As it turns out, everything awesome.
She’s been in the occasional movie, usually cool indies like Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Pecker. She’s also starred on Broadway and Off-Broadway, in everything from musicals to plays by Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard, earning three consecutive Tony nominations over the last few years. She’s a member of the Steppenwolf Theater ensemble, where she’s held her own on stage with John Malkovich, and she’s on the board of directors of The Players Club (Mark Twain’s old stomping grounds), where she sometimes hosts poker games for friends and fellow actors. Last January, she did a one-woman show called Martha Plimpton Sings? (question mark entirely intentional) for New York’s Lincoln Center, and told stories about her mom dragging her to Jack Kerouac’s grave between belting out curious song choices like “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Thunder Road.”
Next week, Plimpton will be returning to TV, where she’ll finally (knock on wood) find an audience that doesn’t necessarily live in a New York borough. And no, she won’t be doing it on Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. She’s co-starring in Raising Hope, a new Fox sitcom that premieres on Tuesday, September 21st at 9pm ET. It’s a dark comedy in the vein of Arrested Development, which hopefully won’t be cancelled quite as prematurely or unfairly. How can I convince you to watch it? It’s got Cloris Leachman, jokes about child abuse and serial killers, and it comes on after Glee, so all you have to do is not change the channel.
I called Plimpton in Los Angeles, where she’s living temporarily while filming Raising Hope’s first season. You know the feeling of being at a party with strangers but then you meet somebody who’s funny without trying and talking with them seems instantly effortless and within a few minutes you feel like you’re BFFs and you want her to meet your parents? That’s what having a conversation with Martha Plimpton is like.
Eric Spitznagel: You’re a New York girl being forced to live in Los Angeles for work. Has it been a weird adjustment?
Martha Plimpton: No, it’s been fine. I’m used to LA. I lived out here for awhile.
I heard about that. Didn’t you have a place in the Hollywood Hills during the Rodney King riots?
That’s right, yeah. I was renting a house on Queens Road, and we had a view of the entire city, all the way from Watts to Catalina. For some reason, I have no idea why, there was a police scanner in our house. So we were watching the riots unfold and listening to the police scanner, and we knew exactly where to look for the next puff of smoke coming from a bodega. And we had a chair in the window, where the cat started giving birth. So the cat was having kittens while we watched the city go up in flames. It wasn’t long after that that I realized maybe living in Los Angeles was not for me.
You’ve had a lot of success on Broadway, and now you’re playing a kooky grandmother on a Fox sitcom. Is the dependable income of working for TV worth it?
Absolutely. I was really, really tired of being in debt. The reality is that I would have done it whether I needed the money or not. I really like my character and I like the people who are making this show. They’re smart and decent people, not LA schmucks at all. I would almost rather be in debt constantly than work with horrible people that I hate.
But the paycheck doesn’t hurt.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t hurt that I can finally pay my bills. Three Tony nominations in a row is all well and fine, but it’s nice to finally get Chase Bank off my fucking ass.
You don’t make a Broadway acting career seem very tempting. It sounds like you’re earning just slightly more than a 70s-era Times Square hooker.
Basically, yeah. But my knees are getting just as dirty.
You know the best thing about doing TV over Broadway? No corsets.
So far, yeah. But the hours can be just as uncomfortable. I have to wake up at four in the morning to go to work. I am not a morning person. I like to sleep in. It’s part of why I love the theater. I feel that the hours are more civilized. You get out of bed around one in the afternoon, you go to work for a few hours, you give it all you’ve got, really blow it out, and then your free time starts around 11pm.
Raising Hope is following Glee on Tuesday nights.
I know, aren’t we lucky? We couldn’t have asked for a better time slot.
Are you sure Glee fans will stick around? I’m guessing your show doesn’t have a lot of feel-good sing-a-longs?
Actually, believe it or not, there is a little bit of singing.
Does it involve the baby?
The baby doesn’t sing. We’re not doing that E*Trade shit. The baby is a baby. The baby doesn’t talk, the baby isn’t precocious, the baby doesn’t know more than we do.
Have you enjoyed working with an infant?
The one thing I can say about the baby is that her performance is always consistent.
There aren’t a lot of baby actors on Broadway, right? There aren’t Shakespeare in the Park babies, or all-baby Rodgers and Hart musicals.
Nope, not a lot of babies there. But it’s actually been really lovely. We adjust to the baby’s timetable. The baby can’t work sixteen hours the way we can, so we work around the baby. But — I never thought I’d say this, because I don’t actually like children that much — it’s been really lovely having an infant around. When she smiles, it just takes all the tension out of the room.
That’s very sweet. Especially for a show which is essentially about almost killing a baby every week.
That’s the thing about this show. It’s dark and we put this baby into all kinds of horrible life-threatening situations, but ultimately our heart is in the right place. The baby is not harmed in any way. It’s all carefully supervised and well choreographed. She’s got a professional minder who comes in and her parents are there. It’s all fine.
You’re telling me you’ve never lost your temper with the baby and got all up in its grill?
Well, I did punch her once. But I got a strict dressing down from the Fox higher-ups and that will not be happening again.
I read somewhere that you get depressed by happy babies.
I said that?
A long time ago, but yeah, you did.
That’s the thing about interviews, at some point you’re going to change your mind. But it’s there forever and you can’t escape it.
Ten years from now, you’ll be like, “I said I punched a baby? That doesn’t sound like me.”
I’m getting older now, Eric, and my death is getting more imminent. The sight of a happy baby doesn’t depress me anymore. These days, it fills me with a joy akin to surrender.
Cloris Leachman is one of your co-stars on Raising Hope. Tell us something shocking and ribald about her.
She has the best ass in show business. I know because I’ve seen it. And so has our entire crew.
We’re going to need some kind of context.
To give you context might ruin the image. Let’s just say that Cloris is not afraid to go all the way for a joke.
So the ass-flashing was intentional?
Oh yeah, completely. Everything is intentional with Cloris.
In another forty years, you could be the next Cloris Leachman or Betty White. You’ll be the sass-talking old lady actress who everybody adores.
That’s a tremendous compliment. If I make it half as long as Cloris has, that will be an achievement.
Will you be showing your ass as freely as she does?
God, I hope I have an ass to show. She’s got a great ass. It’s firm, it’s taut, it’s high. It’s a marvelous thing.
I’m sure nobody has mentioned it to you yet, but this summer was the 25th anniversary of Goonies.
It’s so weird, but yeah, I actually have heard that.
Roughly how many voicemails do you get every week from Corey Feldman asking you to do a reunion movie?
[Laughs.] I hear from Corey and Sean (Astin) about it occasionally. I’ve heard they’re talking about maybe turning it into a musical. Goonies occupies a very special place in people’s hearts, obviously, but it’s become way bigger than I ever imagined it would be. I think to sully that with any kind of further investigation might actually kind of ruin a great thing.
Well, how about Hedda Gabbler then? Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Steppenwolf’s 2001 production of Hedda Gabbler, in which you played the lead.
Oh yeah, yeah. That’s going to be huge. They’re already selling those t-shirts at Alphabets.
Let’s play a little game. I’ll give you a quote, and you tell me if it comes from Goonies or Hedda Gabbler. Ready?
“These impulses come over me all of a sudden, and I just can’t resist them.”
That’s from Goonies. Didn’t Chunk say that when he was eating a Baby Ruth?
No, sorry, it was Hedda Gabbler.
Okay, sorry. I’m going to fail this, I feel.
“If you hit the wrong note, we’ll all B flat!”
That’s Hedda Gabbler. Løvborg says that to Thea Elvsted in an off-stage scene where they’re playing the synclavier together.
I hate to say this, Martha, but you’re zero for two.
“It’s a release to know that in spite of everything, a premeditated act of courage is still possible.”
That’s definitely Hedda Gabler. Nobody in Goonies does anything with premeditated courage.
Well done. “Next time, kiss with your eyes open. It’s a whole different experience.”
That’s also Hedda Gabler. Judge Brack says it to Hedda right before she shoots herself in the head.
Oh come on!
Here’s an easy one, you should be able to get this quote. “Goonies never say die!”
Well that’s obviously from Goonies. Am I stupid? You think I’m stupid!
I would never suggest that. It’s interesting, your difficulty with this quiz suggests that there really isn’t that much difference between Henrik Ibsen and Steven Spielberg.
That’s true. They both have the same level of interest in trolls.
And Ibsen loved the fast-paced, Nazi-chase adventure.
Yes he did. He loved stories about chasing Nazis.
But that’s very hard to translate on stage. It’s why A Doll’s House is almost unwatchable.
Well, it just looks silly when you’re chasing a Nazi around a couch. Nobody buys it.
I don’t know why it is, but I’m always surprised when I find out you don’t have tattoos. You seem like the sort of woman who’d be covered in tats.
I’ve never really wanted a tattoo. I can’t make my mind up long enough about anything, why would I want something permanent on my body? You know what I mean? To mark the occasion of some dumb decision I made.
That’s how somebody gets “I love Crowded House” tattooed on their body.
[Laughs.] Hey, I do love Crowded House.
If you did get a tattoo, what would it be?
[Long pause.] Maybe a poem? Some line from e.e. cummings or Robert Lowell. But you know what? I’d rather just read it on a piece of paper. I don’t want to have to read it every day. Everything gets boring after awhile. Everything.
You’re not shy about your liberal political beliefs. Does that come from growing up and living in New York City? Are you just a product of the New York liberal elite?
Yeah, maybe it comes from growing up in New York with a liberal mom and a liberal, jazz-piano-playing, alcoholic grandmother who was run out of town for accompanying black musicians in the 50s and things like that. I am a fierce patriot, and I try to be outspoken about my beliefs. We need it now. Especially with that fucking Face in the Crowd Andy Griffith guy, Glenn Beck. We need very strong and very strident voices to counter that. The trouble with being strident is it makes it possible for people to dismiss you. But you know what? Fuck it.
It’s hard to have a reasonable discussion with people who honestly think Obama means them harm and it’s their responsibility to take the country back.
Exactly, yes! What is this, the fucking reformation after the Civil War and you’re afraid that freed slaves are going to take your land from you? It’s not your country to take back. It belongs to all of us. And also, you might want to have a conversation with the Native Americans before you talk about taking back the country.
They kind of had squatter’s rights.
This guy Glenn Beck, I saw him once in New York. I passed by him on the street on Columbus Circle. We just caught eyes for a second, and I literally went, “Ewww!!”
Did he hear you?
I don’t think he hears anything outside the H-bombs going off in his head. It’s just calliope music and gunfire in there.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)