Margo Martindale on 'The Americans' and Making You Read Her Mind

After a long absence, Margo Martindale's icy KGB agent Claudia returns to The Americans during the show's season finale tonight.

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After a long absence, Margo Martindale's icy KGB supervisor Claudia returns to The Americans during the show's season finale tonight.  During a reprieve in the Emmy-winning actress' busy schedule—she's juggled Americans appearances with her full time job playing Will Arnett's mom on CBS's sitcom The Millers—The Wire got a chance to talk to Martindale last month about creating the mysterious and intriguing Claudia, who this season let on that her personal life hasn't always adhered to the party line. Squirrels are involved.

You’re so busy. Are you done filming The Millers?

We finished two weeks ago, and then we drove across country.

Who did you drive across country with?

With my husband and our dog.

What was the purpose of that?

Yeah! What was the purpose? You tell me. It was to bring our car. One car I will lease out there and the other one is a New York City car so we wanted to be able to inspect it here to drive it back next season.

How long did it take you?

Well, we stayed five days in Texas, because we both are from Texas, so it took us two weeks.

That’s a long drive. And were you doing non-stop episodes of The Millers before then? 

Kindly, they arranged it where I could have off for the premiere of of August: Osage County in December. The press was all over Thanksgiving, and I shot two episodes of The Americans that week. They gave me about a month off.

Still, that’s a lot of stuff!

It was an insane amount of stuff.

Now, you’re back in New York and are you taking a break?

Absolutely. I said, no, don’t even send it to me. We’re going on vacation in June, and then I’m going to do a movie in July before we start back. That’s it.

I read somewhere that you said that Keri Russell and Will Arnett were fighting over you. Did you work out that fight?

It’s worked out that I will get to do The Americans, but not as much as I have been. But you know what? It’s such a fabulous show, I want to continue to be a part of it as much as I can.

Claudia’s storyline is getting more fascinating, with her revealing in this season's sixth episode that a relationship she had may have jeopardized Emmett and Leanne, the illegals that were killed in the series opener.

The thing that was interesting for this year is that [executive producers] Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields] and I talked about it and they wanted there to be a change in Claudia. Not in her ability but her willingness to show more emotion. I think I’ve been able to do that. And then you see a flip to that, I think. It’s fascinatingly fun because it’s such a repressed sort of a—I’m sort of locked in, and it’s fun to see what you can do with that. What it has enabled me to do as an actress is that everything I do is internal. It’s fascinating and fun.

Can you elaborate on being so internal a little bit?

Mostly, I have everything in my head about what’s going on. I’ve only be able to reveal very little in what I say, because mostly I’m giving you information, about instructions. But this year I’ve been able to actually say, I’m concerned, I’m worried. And before I might be thinking that, or you might be thinking that I’m going to kill you. I don’t know.

It’s a thin line! She’s scary.

And I’m afraid it is a thin line. You can use your words so much when you’re not trying to cover. It’s exactly the opposite of what I did in Justified, which was just mean, but pretty much clear what I was doing. Not always, but most of the time. It was a more liberated feeling.

At what point did you have the conversation with Joe and Joel about letting on more about Claudia?

It was all a very complicated situation with The Millers and The Americans because nobody knew that was going to happen, that I was going to end up on another show. Because The Americans wasn’t picked up when I was offered The Millers and I had to gamble. I’ve always learned in show business: you take the job. So that’s what I did, I took the job, and then unfortunately, a week and half later The Americans was picked up. But not unfortunately. Actually, it’s been wonderful. I love doing both of these things. They are completely different things.

You had press for August in the middle, but obviously The Millers is broad comedy. Was there a sort of mindset switch for you?

A mindset switch in that, I had to kind of get back into a different head. It’s taken me a while to really start doing like I want to—I’m talking about the comedy, the drama it comes easily to me. Comedy comes easily, or it used to, to me too, but this is fast comedy. Really fast. And I have to speed up my metabolism. But I’m having a wildly fun time now. It’s taken time, but yes I am, and it’s an easy switch because doing The Americans is all a mind game. The other thing is a physical thing.

The Millers is physical thing?

It’s a youthful energy, physical. It’s good for somebody my age.

When you say it’s a mind game, what are you playing with when you are approaching Claudia?

I’m playing with a bunch of different things. One thing I’m playing with is that—and I don't know that this is anything Joe and Joel wanted us to do, but it’s something I did for myself—because we are supposed to be so clearly integrated into the American society that you never should even think about accents. But what I’ve tried to do is to speak in the way that I learned formally, so that only somebody like Henry Higgins could understand that I wasn’t speaking my native tongue. I’m actually speaking the way I learned to speak English, which was formally. And what I’m really doing is trying desperately not to speak with a Texas accent, which works beautifully. I am speaking in a different language.

And the other thing is to let, which is my favorite kind of acting to do and to see, you read my mind, instead of read my lips. I have to have very clear images of what I’m thinking.

Did you talk about her intentions with Joe and Joel? There are so many questions about her for the audience.

We talked a lot about it. But I thought the most important thing was to be a mystery for the audience. I thought that it was important for you not to know actually where I was coming from. I think it makes for better storytelling.

Which is why her turn this season, her reveal of her relationship, is something that comes so out of the blue—

I did know last year what my personal life was. I had in my head how I lived, what kind of life I had. I even travel with one little collection of things that I brought from the homeland. One collection is squirrels. Squirrel pins. Every time you see me I’m wearing a squirrel pin. The idea came from Jenny [Gering], the costume designer. We talked about how wildly fun it would be. Because I talked about Justified and things I had decided that made the character, inspired me. Why did I wear a belt around my waist? What kind of shoes I had on? All these things I brought, but I kind of created with the designer. And Jenny and I did that with these squirrel things. And maybe I should have kept it a secret, but I collect squirrels. They are a symbol of something good in Russia. So check it out. I’m always wearing a squirrel.

Now it will be definitely something I look for!

And it also says a lot about who I am and how quiet my life is. This is just my own imagination, but I didn’t want— and I know that if I had been there this whole season we would have done this, we would have shown how I live, I believe—but I have a very quiet existence, very quiet, alone and lonely. I’ve not always been alone, but I would say a lot of time I’ve been alone and I’ve been alone for many years now.

So what was your reaction when you learned that perhaps Claudia’s relationship with somebody had jeopardized these two agents?

There was a crack in the armor I guess. The crack in the soldier. There are mistakes that can’t be made in our line of work, but mistakes do happen, slip-ups do happen. As good a soldier as I believe I have been, I believe I slipped up. And that gives me great pain. But we’ll see a little more, just so you know.

That moment puts her on the same plane as Elizabeth.

Always I believe that we’re on the same plane. Always I think I see myself in Elizabeth. I see my young self in Elizabeth. I think she’s really a pretty brutal soldier. She’s screwed up too, but I may be seeing better things in Philip now.

Her line about how Elizabeth is “lucky to have" Philip is heartbreaking.

They are lucky. Emmett and Leanne weren’t so lucky, were they? Oh, how horrible. It’s a fabulous show. It’s so much fun to watch.

Is it as fun for you to do as it is to watch?

No. I love Matthew [Rhys] and Keri and we absolutely love each other. It’s great, wildly fun to be with them. The circumstances of shooting that show have always been brutal. No matter when I’m there, usually it's raining or snowing. And that was all of the first season—10 episodes. And it hasn’t changed for this year. Brutally cold, always by water, always windy and the dialogue is not easy. I’m not talking learning it, I’m talking about the phraseology is very stilted, which I think is fascinating and fantastic, but not easy.

Is the stiltedness of the dialogue connected to the formality of how you are speaking it? 

Yes, they are totally connected. And I think that is actually where she kind of formed. You know what I mean? That was a great help to me in creating that character.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.