Actress Martha Plimpton, currently starring in Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic, discusses her work for women's rights group A Is For
“I grew up among New York theatre people; a world that was diverse and accepting, full of odd, funny, different-looking, different-acting kinds of people. And I was raised by women. They were all political and engaged, they were volunteers and activists and debaters. Political conversation round the dinner table was perfectly normal, and encouraged. They were feminists, and believed in a woman’s right to choose. Beatrice Spier, who was like a grandmother to me, was the book-keeper for the New York chapter of the Freedom Riders – the people who went down South to participate in the Montgomery bus boycotts to show solidarity with the civil rights movement there. So ever since I was a teenager in 80s New York, whenever there was a march I’d try to show up. It was an epicentre for political activity. We had the AIDs crisis and Act Up, who were doing major actions all over the city because we had a mayor who was in denial and was really throwing a lot of people under the bus. There was the No Nukes movement. And then in the 90s, abortion clinics were getting bombed and doctors were getting shot at. It got me involved with that issue.
"I do get criticised by people who think I should ‘shut up and stick to acting’. But the first thing I am is a citizen. And I have every right to speak about what I believe in" — Martha Plimpton
The moment that sparked the founding of A is For came in 2010, when we saw a big swing towards the radical right in the States. The Tea Party, an extreme wing of the Republican party, want to impose a specific religious standard on people’s lives. They are against marriage equality, for example, and they don’t agree with the social safety net. And they really, really hate women being able to control their own bodies. There has been an enormous backlash against women’s medical and health rights in the United States in the last few years. It has awakened a latent culture of women who had really been taking their rights for granted. Women are being socially brutalised and verbally attacked in the most disgusting language. We’d like to see more people show a visible sign that they stand with women. Wearing the A is For ribbon is just one way. This is going to be a huge election year in the United States and very important for women’s health rights. We want to remove stigma and get people talking. I do get criticised by people who disagree with me and think I should ‘shut up and stick to acting’. But that’s part of the territory. The first thing I am is a citizen. And I have every right to speak about what I believe in.”
When Richard Avedon cast Martha Plimpton in his offbeat ads for Calvin Klein in 1983 she was just 13, but seemingly destined to act since birth; her parents Shelley Plimpton and Keith Carradine met onstage in the original Broadway production of Hair. Hollywood beckoned in her teens, with roles in The Goonies, Parenthood, Running on Empty and Mosquito Coast (the latter two opposite her later boyfriend River Phoenix). Today Plimpton is a seasoned presence on stage and screen and has been a tireless advocate for women’s rights since adolescence, lobbying Congress, speaking at rallies across America, and recently as a co-founder of non-profit group A is For. Her latest theatrical role is also politically-charged; we met Plimpton in a rehearsal room at the Old Vic, where she’s starring in Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz’s intricate tale of shadowy family secrets. A finalist for the Pulitzer prize, the play unfolds one sunny Christmas Eve in the desert community of Palm Springs, with its echoes of Rat Pack lore and wealthy retiree social lives revolving around elite country clubs. Plimpton plays liberal-leaning author Brooke Wyeth, just off the plane from New York to visit her family for the holidays: an aunt fresh from rehab, a sex-addict producer brother, and two formidable, Republican parents. Her well-preserved mother is an ex-screenwriter turned charity-luncher, her father a former Hollywood actor turned ambassador and buddy of Ronald Reagan. Brooke throws a time-bomb into the festive proceedings with a soon-to-be-published memoir that threatens to shatter their fastidiously cultivated façade. “Brooke’s cracking something open,” says Plimpton of her character. “She’s trying to unravel a very carefully constructed reality that she has found insufficient and lacking.” The cast are electrifying as they circle each other in the pale, mid-century modern luxury of their desert retreat, conjuring all the nuances of Baitz’s shimmering dialogue, and excavating the muddy, complex ambivalence of family history.
Other Desert Cities is at the Old Vic until May 24.
Text by Hannah Lack