The go-to Goonie for tomboy or lesbian parts since her 1985 big-screen breakthrough, Martha Plimpton has balanced mainstream films such as The Mosquito Coast and Parenthood with queer-friendly art-house fare, including Pecker and I Shot Andy Warhol. Now a member of New York’s theater circle (she earned a 2007 Tony nod for her role in Tom Stoppard’s epic The Coast of Utopia), the 37-year-old Emmy nominee currently stars as a legendary cross-dresser in the Broadway production of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s 1982 feminist masterwork, and proves once again that, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, what’s good enough for us is good enough for her — unless, of course, that includes Facebook.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: In Top Girls, how are you approaching Pope Joan, who, according to legend, became pope in the ninth century by posing as a man?
Martha Plimpton: Very gingerly. Mainly, I’m just trying to learn the Latin. She’s a fictional person, which is a benefit to me, but also a slight impediment, meaning there’s not a whole lot of research material on her.
How does your own feminism manifest itself?
I don’t let it get in my way. I don’t even think about it that much, and I have the benefit of not having to, considering all of the women who did before me.
What’s your take on the feminist backlash against Hillary Clinton?
I once wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to an op-ed story about Bill Clinton and his then-Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The writer of the piece took issue with Albright’s lack of a position on Clinton’s dalliances, and the idea was that she should have some sort of feminist response and be willing, as a woman, to take issue with her boss for his behavior. I just thought that was really dumb. Her job renders her sex irrelevant, and I sort of feel that way about Hillary, too; I feel like if she became our President, I really wouldn’t be thinking about her gender all that much.
In Top Girls you also portray Angie, whom I’ve always considered a lesbian character.
No. People think that or ask that, but I remember Caryl Churchill saying she really never understood why that was. She’s just a teenager, and she has a young friend that she has a strange, oddly bullying relationship with.
Your first lesbian role was in 1992’s Inside Monkey Zetterland. How did that character’s sexuality inform your performance?
Honestly, I haven’t seen that movie in a really long time, so I don’t remember if I made use of that at all, but I don’t recall that I did any really heavy thinking about it.
In that film you played a lesbian terrorist, opposite Rupert Everett, who outs closeted gays in the entertainment industry. How do you feel about the media’s obsession with outing celebrities?
I feel like people’s lives need to be their own. The whole point of liberty means being able to make your own choices in terms of how you live your life and who you want to talk to about it. Who am I to tell anyone what to do?
Do you know any closeted homosexuals in the industry?
If I do, I don’t know about it. I have friends who’d rather not have their sexuality be the first thing on everyone’s mind, and I think we’re all like that.
Did you make use of your character’s lesbianism for your performance in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol?
She was one of the few characters in the movie who was an amalgam of a couple of different people. And the character was a prostitute, a hustler, so she had a sort of detached relationship to her sexuality. I didn’t have any love scenes or anything like that. It’s funny, I’ve never had to play a character for whom that was something that needed to be grappled with, delved into, or understood on some deeper level.
What about David Mamet’s off-Broadway play Boston Marriage, in which you shared an onstage kiss with costar Kate Burton in 2002?
We kissed, but I had a fan in my hand, and we kissed behind the fan. I’m trying to remember if we actually made contact — but I should just say that we did and that it was wonderful!
What draws you to these tomboy or lesbian roles — or is it that these roles find you?
When I was younger, those were the kinds of roles that someone like me would naturally be cast in, because I was kind of precocious and not terribly genteel. Also, those were the roles that seemed the most interesting for somebody like me.
Do you feel more feminine now?
I always have, but I don’t think other people see that. I’m obsessed with products, I love creams — please, I could get lost in Sephora. Ultimately though, on a daily basis, it’s too expensive — in every sense of the word.
Have you ever been mistaken for a lesbian because of your résumé?
[Laughs] No one’s ever asked me if I was gay or come on to me in that way. But I don’t think I’m the type of person that people come on to. You have to be very, very brave to come on to me. I’ve gone to some lesbian bars a few times with friends, but I never got hit on. I think they look at me and go, "Ugh, she’s totally straight." I’m very nerdy and provincial.
Which role do gay fans respond to the most?
The role I played in Pecker , where I was this bartender in a “trade” bar. I remember I had to have John Waters explain the concept of “trade” to me, but I still didn’t fully understand. I’m like, “So, you have sex with gay men, but you’re not gay…” It’s too complicated for me. There are too many colors on the spectrum — I can’t identify every single one. Let’s just have the rainbow, and that’s enough for me. I don’t need to know how many shades of purple there are!
My circle of gay friends also enjoys your harried party hostess in 1999’s 200 Cigarettes.
You know, at some point in the ’80s, a gay man came up to me and said, “Oh, honey, the gays love you.” I thought to myself, Well, that’s great. But how does he know? He’s only one of them. [Laughs]
Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, what was your introduction to the gay community?
My mother [Shelley Plimpton] was an actress, and I’ve been raised around people in the theater. Obviously, the creative professions are a magnet for people who, for whatever reason, feel they don’t fit in in a straight world — and I mean straight in every sense, 9-to-5, whatever. Growing up surrounded by theater artists, it’s just the norm. It’s like, the sky is blue, and there are gay people everywhere. I feel like there’s a desire to make a clear differentiation between people, like it’s somehow helpful. Maybe it’s because I’m this bourgeois, shiksa straight girl, but I just don’t think about it.
In Shining City, on Broadway in 2006, your character’s ex-boyfriend was arguably questioning his sexuality. Have you ever fallen for a gay man?
Oh, my God, are you kidding? When I was 12, I was in a musical that wasn’t terribly successful — in that I was eventually fired, along with about half the cast. There was a guy in it, a dancer, who was super-duper, could not be gayer — obviously 100-percent gay. And I was madly in love with him. I had the crush of all crushes. I just thought he was dreamiest. He was cute, hilarious, had a gorgeous mouth, beautiful eyes, and a body to die for. I don’t even think he knows to this day how much I was in love with him I was.
What do you think became of your Goonies character, Stef Steinbrenner? Did she finally come out of the closet?
[Laughs] See? I love it — you give a girl short hair, make her the “friend,” and she’s automatically the lesbian. She probably grew up to take over her father’s fishing business. I would imagine, actually, that she would probably be one of those lesbians who gets married to a man — you know how they have those? But it’s not because they’re closeted lesbians; they’re just women who are obviously dykes, but get married anyway. They have a lot in the Midwest — they wear tracksuits and gold jewelry, feather their hair back, and they have eight kids, but they’re clearly lesbians. That’s probably what Stef would’ve turned out to be.
How did you avoid the unhealthy path that so many of your child star contemporaries traveled?
I partied like everybody else did; I just did it in moderation. But I wasn’t famous like they were, and I wasn’t interested in being famous like they were, so I didn’t attract attention to myself in that way. Had I been wealthier and had more fame, maybe I would’ve been just as bad.
What do you make of today’s Britneys and Lindsays?
I feel really sorry for them. I feel sorry for anyone who has to live with constant attention on them. It seems like a miserable life. But far be it from me to judge other people. I don’t know what I would be like if I had people following me like that. I might go crazy, too.
Finally, do you have a girl-crush?
I do! I have a total girl-crush on this actress that’s in Top Girls, Mary Catherine Garrison. I adore her. But I only heard that expression for the first time last year. I’m kind of a dork. It takes me a long time to catch up.
Is that why you have a MySpace page but haven’t yet advanced to Facebook?
I went to Facebook for literally two days and it nearly ruined my life. MySpace doesn’t announce to the entire fucking universe every goddamned move I make. MySpace doesn’t send e-mails to people without asking my permission. Facebook is horrible. People can write how they know you — or how they think they know you, which I hate. It’s a constant barrage of fucking pointless noise. It made me so stressed out for two days that I honestly felt like, If I don’t get off of this thing, I might end up in an institution.
The Advocate, May 2008; extended online version.