Martha Plimpton: ‘I was wrong the first time but Trump isn’t getting anywhere near that White House again’

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

It was during Martha Plimpton’s second stint in the West End, in 2018, when she was starring in Lynette Linton’s production of the incendiary play Sweat, that she decided to live in London. Now, after four years largely spent in the capital, and another play looming here, the US star is to apply for indefinite leave to remain here.

“I love the city, I love the culture. I love Sunday roasts,” she says with a grin. “I love the pubs. I love the history… but also I love the people, I really do.” There’s also, she says, something great about working in the arts here. “It feels like people take the work seriously, so they don’t have to take themselves seriously.”

The actress, who is about to take to the stage at the West End’s newest theatre @sohoplace on Charing Cross Road in Josie Rourke’s new production of As You Like It, has settled not far away in West London. “I’ve got my favourite pub, where I can bring my dogs,” she says. One of those dogs, Walter, sits serenely on her knee throughout our conversation; the other, Jimmy Jazz – she is at pains to point out he’s named after The Clash song, not the chain of American shoe shops – is currently with her mum in the US.

“I still have a place in the States, my family is there. I will go back and forth but it is my hope to live here, have permanent leave to remain, to continue working here and seeing my friends and enjoying my life here. That’s the hope.”

London, it seems, is equally keen to keep her. She is regularly approached by fans with fond memories of her in work including legal seriesThe Good Wife, film thriller The Mosquito Coast and family sitcom Raising Hope. Mostly though, she’s stopped because of The Goonies.

Martha Plimpton and Walter (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Martha Plimpton and Walter (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

The 1985 film, produced by Steven Spielberg, about a group of kids searching for lost treasure, is remembered with great nostalgia-laced fondness by many who grew up in the Eighties (i.e. me). And despite playing the character of Stef 37 years ago, aged just 14, Plimpton is still regularly asked about it.

“It’s wonderful to be a part of something like that. There was a time when I was like, ‘Please don’t ask me about this, there’s nothing else I can say.’ But now I’m in my 50s I’m a bit more sanguine about it all. Now it delights me.” She pauses. “Well, delight is a strong word, but it makes me happy.”

Plimpton is delighted, however, about her new role as Jaques in As You Like It. She is no stranger to Shakespeare, having appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles and Cymbeline in the US.

The play, in which characters escape a hostile court to hide out in the Forest of Arden, includes one of the most famous speeches in English theatre – “All the world’s a stage” – spoken by Plimpton’s character.

“Oh God, don’t remind me,” Plimpton says throwing her arms in the air in mock exasperation. When I ask how an actor approaches such an iconic monologue, she exhales, making a sound somewhere between an “Ahhh” of resignation and a “Grrrr” of annoyance. “You can quote me,” she adds with a laugh.

From left, Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse (Johan Persson)
From left, Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse (Johan Persson)

“I just have to not think about it that way,” she says, “but I won’t know until I step out there. I imagine it’s like asking someone playing Stanley Kowalski [in Streetcar Named Desire] what it’s like to scream the iconic, ‘Stella’… My God.”

The show’s talented, mostly young cast includes Alfred Enoch, an alumnus of the Harry Potter films; Leah Harvey, from Apple TV+ show Foundation, and Rose Ayling-Ellis, the first deaf contestant to win Strictly Come Dancing, who created one of the TV moments of last year when she and her partner Giovanni Pernice danced in silence in tribute to the deaf community.

Plimpton watched the former Eastenders star on Strictly in awe: “She’s really impressive and she’s an absolutely beautiful actress.” The play incorporates British Sign Language – Ayling-Ellis won’t speak in the show – and Plimpton says, “There’s an extraordinary, visual, expressive language happening that is so beautiful to watch.” She pauses. “Even talking about it makes me well up.”

To say Plimpton has acting in her blood is an understatement. Her parents – actors Shelley Plimpton and Keith Carradine – met on the original production of Hair in 1969 and her mother performed in the show while pregnant with Plimpton. She continued to perform after her daughter was born. “I heard the show eight times a week for the first three years of my life.”

Her parents split up around that time, “My father left the show but my mother stayed and toured with it. She took me with her. Every word of it is seared into my consciousness.” She didn’t get to know her father properly until her 30s.

Plimpton started acting at the age of eight; her career now spans four decades. Following a string of memorable screen appearances including The Goonies, Parenthood and The Mosquito Coast – with River Phoenix, whom she briefly dated, though she doesn’t talk about him in interviews – she focused on theatre, joining the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. She points to shows such as Coast of Utopia and Hedda Gabler as having changed her life.

It was while she was part of the cast of Sweat, which started at the Donmar Warehouse and transferred to the West End the following year, that she decided to live in London. Written by Lynn Nottage, the work (which won Best Play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2019) looks at the de-industrialisation in America’s rust belt as jobs disappear and communities collapse, and has been described as the first to really explain what became Trump’s America, though it was written before his election and never mentions the former president’s name.

Martha Plimpton in rehearsal for As You Like It (Manual Harlan)
Martha Plimpton in rehearsal for As You Like It (Manual Harlan)

Plimpton says, “I think of that play as being an extraordinary examination of the economic reality of being manipulated politically, and the ways in which that is happening in my country – and in yours as well; the way that fractures and damages people.”

She calls Trump’s intention to run for the presidency again, “a ridiculous joke”. “It’s my sincere hope he will be indicted before that has a chance to happen,” she says. “I have no doubt that even if he does run, he isn’t getting anywhere near that White House again. I was wrong the first time, but this time, I’m positive.”

Her optimism doesn’t last long though; she fears “someone more dangerous” could become president, such as Florida governor and Trump’s rival Republican candidate, Ron DeSantis.

“That is more scary to me, because Ron DeSantis is not a malignant narcissist with borderline personality disorder who is literally not in touch with reality. He’s a politician, and knows how politics work and that’s scarier to me than Trump, at this stage anyway.”

When we speak it’s the day after a mass shooting has taken place at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado, and days before another one in a supermarket in Virginia. It’s an issue Plimpton has thought a lot about this year, especially following her role in the powerful film Mass, about the fallout among parents in the aftermath of a school shooting. It’s a film she’s immensely proud of, and hopes more people will find on streaming services.

“It’s a multi-armed monster,” she says of the shootings and what drives them. “It’s guns, it’s white nationalism, it’s the Christian right – extreme fundamentalist evangelicals. Those three things make a really toxic mix. It’s the manipulation of those segments of our culture, who are really easily terrified.”

She blames politicians for using fear in their messaging. “They want to make people terrified to have healthcare, to not have guns, to go and see drag queens reading stories in libraries; to make people terrified of modernity and infrastructure, of everything. And when you’re terrified you’re paralysed and when you’re paralysed you’re angry.” She adds, “When you have people living in that state, there is going to be violence and people are going to be killed.”

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

While Plimpton says she doesn’t have the answers, she will continue to speak out against such divisive political tactics, and will continue her pro-abortion advocacy, something she has been involved in for years. The movement took a huge blow in the US this year, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.

“We all knew it was likely to happen, so I can’t say we’re surprised. But it didn’t make it any less horrifying or upsetting or angering,” Plimpton says. “But I think we also live in a very different time from 1973. There are different options available to us now that weren’t available back then. There are period pills, abortion pills – whatever name you want to give them. There are options for getting those medications that didn’t exist.

“On the one hand I’m enraged because there are still going to be deaths and still very dangerous things happening to pregnant people in my country. People are having their lives played with by politicians. But I want people to understand it’s not the same as 50 years ago. It’s not a good thing, but there are ways we can take the power into our own hands instead of having some medical establishment or a judge make the choice for us.”

Her next role is in an eight-part Sky drama called A Town Called Malice. As if to burnish her growing London credentials, Plimpton plays “the matriarch of a south London family of baddies in the Eighties” complete with British accent. “I had a blast. It’s campy and it’s funny, it’s dark.”

She’s had an extraordinary career, but she says she would have loved to have been asked to do an action film – “It’s partly to do with looks. I’m not symmetrical; not a Lancôme model” – and still thinks she would make a good action villain. Maybe she should call Keanu Reeves, who played her boyfriend in 1989’s Parenthood, and is making the John Wick action films into his 50s.

Plimpton hints at what might be another reason for heading to Britain. “There is a different sort of appreciation for mature actresses in this country that America is a little slow on the uptake on.” She points to the adulation for figures such as Harriet Walter, Sharon D Clarke and Juliet Stevenson.

“These actresses have extraordinary talent and maturity and perspective and all of these things that make a person interesting; that tell a story about life. Those stories told by women or about women who are older, who have some life under their belts and in their skin and in their face… those stories, you guys over here, you appreciate them more. I’d love some of that to go across the pond. In America it’s been really slow.”

Over the course of As You Like It, Jaques realises that out of the court, in the wild of the forest, he “has the freedom to tell it like it is”. In that, it seems, he has more than a little in common with the woman playing him.

As You Like it runs at @sohoplace until January 28; buy tickets here