Margo Martindale doesn’t care what you call her.
The 66-year-old Emmy winner has built a stunning career on both stage and screen, transforming from strong-willed matriarchs to a shrewd spy handler with relative ease. Diverse roles contribute to her reputation as “character actress Margo Martindale,” the full name of the character she portrayed on Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” an inside joke in a show set in Hollywood. But she wouldn’t use the term to describe herself.
“Really, I’m just an actress who plays characters,” she said in an interview, laughing.
The definition of the term is blurry in this era of peak TV. An ever-expanding landscape demands a wider array of personas, upping the diversity we see depicted on screen. So-called character actors, long relegated to playing secretaries and goofy sidekicks, are often cast in meatier roles because of it.
So what’s the difference nowadays between these actors and their fellow performers? They’re not sure.
“Do you have to have warts on your face and, like, a limp?” asked Judy Greer, best known for her turns as the quirky best friend.
An exaggeration, perhaps, though not entirely off base. Character actors have historically been those who were “not a leading man or leading woman in terms of beauty,” according to casting director Sharon Bialy. In Hollywood’s earlier years, this often sidelined the performers into playing stock characters.
“Like, ‘Get Thelma Ritter, the one who plays all the secretaries! Get the one who plays the tough mom,’ ” Martindale said. “Usually it was in westerns and comedies, stuff like that.”
Ann Dowd, 61, nominated for Emmys for both “The Leftovers” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” recently penned a piece for the Hollywood Reporter condemning the character actor term, stating that she would “never accept” a label she hadn’t placed on herself.
“Labels confine the image, they cut short, they dismiss the greater dream — whatever that may be,” she continued. “I once thought I was being placed in a lesser-than category by being called a character actor, which of course is absurd.”
Bialy, who worked on “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Better Call Saul,” added, “If everybody was open to casting an actor regardless of their label, you’d be surprised what comes out of it.”
“Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk is a prime example of a character actor who jumped to a lead role. Viola Davis, now one letter short of an EGOT, told IndieWire last year that the smaller “character actress” roles had left her “wanting more,” before she became the lead in “How to Get Away With Murder.” Melissa McCarthy, the fourth-highest-paid actress in the world, went from stealing scenes with “character work” in “Gilmore Girls,” as Variety noted in 2014, to playing the latter half of “Mike & Molly” for six seasons.
Greer, who published the personal essay collection “I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star” in 2014, has been pegged as a character actress since early in her career — and she’s over it. “That’s what people call me,” she said, sighing. “I don’t know. I would never introduce myself that way.”
Note the use of “co-star.” Greer, 42, argued that the character actress label could soon disappear altogether.
“My feeling when I first started was, if you don’t look like Charlize Theron, then you’re a character actress,” she said. “I think that line is blurring, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case anymore.”
(Greer insisted on clarifying that she admires Theron’s work, adding, “She is a character actress and happens to have the face of a character who’s hot at all times, apparently, and is never not hot.”)
Even people within the industry have different ideas of what the label means. Bialy defined a character actor as “an actor who can assume a variety of roles [and] disappear into those roles,” whereas “Ghostbusters” actress Annie Potts opted for “a delineation of actors who are willing and anxious to play someone outside of themselves.” Martindale simply described the roles as “the interesting parts.”
You know who that sounds like? Meryl Streep, according to both Potts, 64, and Martindale.
“Isn’t Meryl Streep our greatest character actor?” Potts asked. “I bet she’d say that of herself.”
The label is especially problematic for women, as it’s tough for longtime supporting actresses to snag roles on Streep’s level, largely because of limited opportunities. A study published in September by San Diego State University found that women represented only 38 percent of major TV characters in the 2015-2016 season. Bialy noted, “When you’re going over 40, men can become character actors and age as much as they want. There’s a pressure on women that they can’t.”
But, according to Bialy, a push for diversity and complex story lines has aided character actors in pursuit of larger parts. As she put it, “When you are involving an audience deeply in your story, they’re much more attracted to a cast of characters that looks like people they come into contact with.”
So even if the label itself is expendable, the accompanying skills are more valuable these days. Viewers often turn to TV to see a reflection of themselves, and character actors are well-equipped to play the part. Many trained in theater, which, according to “The Blacklist” star Harry Lennix, helps develop chameleon-like abilities.
“I think that being able to play multiple characters in one play by, for example, putting on a wig or easy contrivance, tends to make you flex more as a thinker, as an inventor, as a person who is creating a character,” Lennix, 52, said.
Elizabeth Marvel, who recently played Marc Antony in the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar” and hopes to one day portray Richard III, has been attracted to this freeing quality since her days at Juilliard.
“One of my favorite things I did at school was playing the 87-year-old rabbi in ‘Angels in America,’” she said. “I never felt constrained.”
Marvel, 47, feels no ill will toward the character actress label, largely because it no longer defines performers in the “plays all the secretaries” way it once did. She plays the president-elect on “Homeland” and will appear as an “extremely introverted, awkward woman” in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” Essentially, opposite roles.
“In the ‘Bourne’ movie, I played this intense assassin,” she added. “On ‘Fargo,’ I played a ridiculous hairdresser. I have the good fortune of being able to move all over the map.”
Greer, who has racked up an astounding 120 credits on IMDb, would agree.
“All these different experiences I’ve been having,” she said, “it’s making me feel so thankful that whatever kind of actor I am, I’m still acting and I still get to do it on this level. It’s like a weird dream.”