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First Lady

First Lady

Canadian actress Martha MacIsaac gets politically incorrect in 1600 Penn. By David Peisner. Photographed by Clarke Tolton

Martha MacIsaac hardly remembers a time when she didn’t want to perform. “My mom says that at six, I came up from the basement, having watched a movie and was like, ‘I’m going to be an actress!’” says MacIsaac, who grew up on Prince Edward Island. “It has a population of 150,000, so there was no film and television industry there, but my plan—at six—was to go to Julliard.”

The Julliard thing, she adds, never actually happened, but the rest has gone more or less to plan. This January, she debuted in her first starring role on a major network television series, playing the recently impregnated daughter of the President of the United States, in the new NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. The show, created by Book of Mormon star Josh Gad, former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, and Emmy-winning director Jason Winer, also stars Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman as the President and First Lady, respectively. Just landing the part feels like the culmination of something for the 28-year-old MacIsaac, who has been a working actress since she was 10 and did a series of tourism commercials for Prince Edward Island, becoming the cherubic face of the province in the process.

“The next year they happened to be shooting a new TV series there,” she says. “I thought I’d get to be an extra or something, but while they were scouting locations, my picture happened to be on the map because I was the tourism spokesperson. The writer/producer saw it and was like, ‘That’s who I’ve pictured my entire life playing this character,’ so I ended up with the lead.” The resulting show, Emily of New Moon (based on the books by Lucy Maud Montgomery), ran on Canada’s main network, CBC, for four seasons. Once it ended, she spent two years largely away from the entertainment business just being a normal high school student, though she admits that was “not particularly by choice.”

“They were my awkward years,” she says. “I was still auditioning for things but living at home. I got braces, so it was not the best-selling look.” Having had such a fortuitous start to her career, this interim provided a painful lesson about the realities of life as a struggling actress. “I would put myself on tape for auditions and I remember after one I was just crying in my room because I hadn’t gotten it,” she says. “My mom said, ‘Listen, we won’t continue to send these tapes off if this is how you react. You have 24 hours to be sad then you have to move on.’ I’ve used that through my last 10 years. Now I’ve whittled it down to about 20 minutes.”

Eventually work picked up, and after a run of roles, mostly in TV movies, MacIsaac scored a huge breakthrough in the hit 2007 comedy Superbad. Her portrayal of Becca, the seemingly good girl who gets raunchy with Michael Cera’s character after a few too many drinks, literally changed her life. “That’s why I live in L.A.,” she says. “That movie got me my visas and all my paperwork. It gave me that ‘in’ in this industry and has given me most of the friends in L.A.” It also exacted a price. “A whole lot of people come up to me and talk about blowjobs and that sort of thing,” she admits.

1600 Penn is MacIsaac’s most high profile work since Superbad. NBC is putting a big push behind it and with a little luck, it may offer MacIsaac something she hasn’t had much of in the last decade: stability. “Honestly, in five years, if I’m still doing 1600 Penn I’d be totally satisfied,” she says. Ideally, she’d like to be able to toggle between comedy and drama, TV, films, and theatre, but ultimately, she still feels much the same way she did when she emerged from her basement at age six with her original plan.

“I love nothing more than the feeling of acting,” she says. “So I just hope I get to do that forever.”

Stylist: BETH HOPPE
Hair: STEPHEN LEWIS
Make up: AGOSTINA