On Fox’s Raising Hope, which returns tonight at 8 PM, Martha Plimpton plays Virginia Chance, a housekeeper and young grandmother to the titular Hope, her son Jimmy’s daughter, who he unexpectedly conceived with a one-night stand who turned out to be a serial killer. The show’s portrayal of a multi-generational working-class family is one of the true originals on television, and Plimpton is marvelous as Virginia, who alternates between managing her own aging grandmother, Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), who is struggling with dementia, her job, and managing the misadventures of Jimmy and her husband Burt. And off-screen, Plimpton is a vigorous feminist advocate who’s penned editorials on the War on Women and wears the A Is For… campaign’s scarlet A on her dress at public events and awards ceremonies to call attention to the wave of legislation that would limit women’s abilities to make decisions about their own health. We spoke in August about what makes for good political art, where the rising tide of animosity against women comes from, and the subtleties of Raising Hope’s perspective on poverty and feminism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start by asking you to talk a little bit about your political evolution. I know you grew up in this incredible family of actors and intellectuals. I’ve read interviews where you talk about how Hair shaped your musical tastes…But I was curious if we could step all the way back about where your politics come from.
Well, I grew up in New York, in Manhattan. I was raised by primarily single women–my mother was a single mom, my grandmother was a single mom, my Nana, who’s sort of like another grandma to me.. She helped raise me–she was a single mom. And they were all sort of liberal and, you know, feminist, and you know, my grandmother was a New Deal Democrat, and everyone in my family had been Democrats for generations, that I’m aware of – my immediate, my direct line of descendants…I was born in 1970. My mother was something of a hippie, and she was an actress. And we were surrounded by artists and actors and writers and show people, and these are people who tend to be liberal in their approach to life and in their politics.
And, of course, in the ‘70s there was some exciting shit going on, you know? There was the end of the Vietnam War, and Watergate, and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s rights movement. And I grew up in New York which meant that Bella Abzug was a common fixture on the evening news, and I knew who Gloria Steinem was from the time I was very little, and I knew who Martin Luther King was from the time I could speak, and it was just considered part of being a human being to be politically conscious and aware of the circumstances of others. This was just how to live a decent life, was to pay attention to what was going on in the world and what’s happening to people who are hurting, or people who are struggling. And it’s hard to say what the source of that is in my family, but it’s certainly always been there.
My mother actually worked for Bella Abzug in the 70s and I have some pretty goofy family stories, so I can only imagine what it would be like to see her as an elected official.
Now my Nana was a life-long New Yorker, she was born in the Bronx, and she moved to the West Side with her two daughters, and she was very politically active and she was a bookkeeper of the New York contingent of Freedom Riders in the ‘60s. She worked to get those rubber mats – you know those mats on the playground that never used to be there? Her daughters’ school was the first one to have those rubber mats, and those eventually became standard throughout the city. And Bella Abzug wanted my Nana to go into politics. She said, “You know, you really need to think about running for City Council.” And my Nana, who was a very active and a very passionate woman, said, “No, absolutely not. I’ve got two daughters to put through college. If you think I’m going to run for City Council you’re crazy.” She wanted to work in the background, you know what I mean? She wanted to work from the ground up. But I love that story, it makes me really proud that Bella tried to get her into politics.
That’s one of the things that’s always struck me – that it’s hard to have somebody get into politics when they have family commitments, as well. It’s one thing to do things locally. When you were growing up in New York, the city was full of really terrific, politically engaged art. I was wondering if there was anything you went to, or any of the people you met who were sort of particular inspirations or models of how to live a life as a politically engaged artist?
Well, yeah, the first show I ever did, when I was eight-years-old, was a film workshop of a play called Runaways. It was a musical that was written and composed by a woman named Elizabeth Swados, who was this very interesting theater maker, who came from that world of downtown crazy artists who were making sort of revolutionary, weird work. You know, stuff that was that was like I said avant-garde and sort of bridged the gap between radical, political, and poetic, and historical. Runaways was about street kids. And at the time there was a lot more work being done about people on the margins, you know?
The ‘70s were a sort of peak period for artists who wanted to explore issues of class and culture, and in the theater that was particularly true. And so most of our friends–most of my mother’s friends–worked in that area, and you know, came from that world…I don’t know if they necessarily saw their work as being overtly political, but I think that it was informed, you know, clearly informed by their desire to make people pay attention to political ideas, if that makes any sense.