When people see Martha Plimpton, they often think, "Oh, that girl," as in the gawky teen who climbed into the caverns with Mouth, Chunk and the kid with all the cool gadgets in The Goonies. "I turned 14 on that movie," she says. "We had no idea there would be reunions and T-shirts and fan sites 25 years later!"
But while her peers hit rehab and the reality-TV circuit, the daughter of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton became a rare thing for child stars — a character and stage actress. She filled her résumé with roles in edgy indie films and snagged three Tony nominations.
"I don't know if I was avoiding the mainstream or if the mainstream was avoiding me," says Plimpton. "I'm not your average-looking actress, you know? I mean, I clean up all right, but there was a time when it was hard for me to be seen as anything other than the wisecracking best friend." Her Raising Hope costar Garret Dillahunt disagrees. "I think she's gorgeous," he says, "but she'll do everything she can to convince you she's not, and that's incredibly sexy somehow."
So what brought Plimpton back to the mainstream? After scene-stealing guest spots on The Good Wife and Fringe, she jumped at the chance to work with Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl). "Not only is he hilariously funny but he has a generosity of spirit that's really rare," says Plimpton. So now she's Virginia Chance, a former teen mom whose twentysomething son surprises her with a granddaughter he conceived during a one-night stand. Yep, at 39, Plimpton is the youngest grandma in prime time.
"It is a bit strange, because she's young and looks even younger, but the math makes sense," Garcia says, though it may still freak out anyone who grew up in the '80s watching her in Parenthood and Running on Empty.
"Freak them out?" she laughs. "Well, it was really weird to me, too, until I talked to Greg and he said, 'That's the joke!'" And as jokes go, Virginia's a smart, wry one — great with a one-liner but also multilayered. "She's not like those long-suffering, judgmental, always-pissed-at-her-husband-for-doing-something-wrong moms you normally see on family sitcoms," says Plimpton." And I love that she's just as much of a screwup as everyone else." Like when son Jimmy first brings home her new grandchild, Virginia suggests dropping the kid off at the fire station: "Only make sure to hand it to someone. You can't just throw it in the bin out front. I think that's for canned goods and puppies." (Attention, TV writers: Lines like those are what snag the good actresses.)
Still, after so many years at the edge of the spotlight, is this serious character actress ready to be a bona fide prime-time, fodder-for-the-gossip-machine TV star? "Let's hold off on that!" she says, bristling at the S-word. "First, I don't wanna count my chickens just yet. I want the show to be the star — to run and run and run." So it's no surprise she deflects questions about her personal life. "Nowhere in the constitution does it say that your private life becomes public property just because you're on TV," she says firmly but sweetly.
"She doesn't pursue glory," explains Dillahunt. "She just wants to be good and for the project to be good," which has pretty much been Plimpton's style since she first went down into those tunnels looking for adventure. "I want to go where there's material that can challenge me," she says, sounding like a kid again. "Because if you're not having fun as an actor, really, what's the point?"
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