Throughout her 50 year career as an actress, writer, producer and director Sandy Martin has portrayed more than a few self-described “crusty, old” or “disgusting” characters (Mac’s mom from FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Napoleon Dynamite’s Grandma and Selma Green from HBO’s Big Love) but the actress behind these “kooky” characters couldn’t be more pleasant and charming. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sandy about her extensive career and the uniquely unforgettable characters she’s presented to the world.
BLANKMANinc: How did you first get into show business?
Sandy Martin: Well, my aunt took me to my first show ever, which starred Martha Raye (who was a big comedian back then), and cut to three or four years later and I was on tour with her. I went into summer stock and lo and behold she showed up. I idolized her. I thought she was a fantastic comedian so I found a way to work for that company and they gave me a little role in her Goodbye Charlie. So thank you, my aunt, for taking me to summer stock shows.
BMi: Summer stock used to be a huge way for a lot of actors to get their start but it seems to have kind of gone away a little bit.
SM: Yeah, it is surprising. They used to have these big tent shows. I don’t know what happened with that. They just sort of went away. It was a good way for television actors to be seen during the summer when they were on hiatus from their shows.
BMi: You’ve been in countless productions over the years but does one stand out above the rest as being your favorite experience?
SM: Well, I have a couple favorites. I used to be the person you wouldn’t recognize from one thing to the next because, I guess, I was versatile enough to trick people. They didn’t know who I was from job to job. Napoleon Dynamite, of course, was the big hot seller and suddenly I could get into auditions that I couldn’t get into previous to that, which is hard to believe since I’ve been on TV and in films for over thirty years in Las Angeles. It really opened the door wider, let’s put it that way. A couple years after that I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could have a reoccurring role in a drama as well as a reoccurring role in a comedy so I like to keep it that way. One of those shows was HBO’s Big Love… have you heard of it?
BMi: I have.
SM: I was very happy to have that experience on Big Love. I played a freaky Mormon religious woman who went underground in total drag. The hierarchy of the Mormon Church is all men so … the only way she could get in on all of the action was to be dressed as a guy. That was one of most amazing characters I’ve ever played and I loved her. I was actually quite sad to hang up my three piece suit and my wing tipped shoes after eight seasons of that.
BMi: The first thing that I saw you in was Napoleon Dynamite. How did you first get involved with that movie?
SM: Well, the casting director is a guy named Jory Weitz and he was very generous with me and he would bring me in on a lot of indie films. He brought me in to meet Jared Hess, the director of Napoleon Dynamite, and I guess, because I’m such a character, he was amused by my interview and I didn’t even have to read for it. He just gave me the role of that grandmother. It was an interesting shoot bringing in a bunch of real “dyed in the wool” character actors from New York City and the other half of the cast from Preston Idaho. We made a pretty funny movie and that’s all we cared about. Everybody always asks me “What happened to the parents, why was it you?” and I say “I don’t really know what my backstory is”. The backstory I made for my character is that my daughter was maybe a ne’er do well and hit the road with some boyfriend so I took care of the kids. That’s what I came up with.
BMi: That movie was humongous for an independent movie at the time. Did you have any idea that it would get that big?
SM: Of course we thought it was fun and funny to make but the first time we all went to Sundance, I had been to Sundance a couple of other times with some pretty big named actors in movies, now I’m going with this little indie film and I’m sitting there with the cast and all of a sudden the place went ballistic. When the movie was over people were cheering and screaming for us to come down to the front of the theater to talk to people. I have never seen anything like that in my life. I was like “oh my gosh, they really seem to like this”. After we gave the little talk in front the theater people were chasing us. We couldn’t believe it. Then it just really took off.