Heís the heir to all the Hollywood tough guys, like Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, whose very presence says this is a guy you donít want to cross, but youíd love to have him on your side. Heís played vicious snakes like Vic Vega a.k.a. Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarantinoís breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs or Budd, a.k.a. Sidewinder, in Tarantinoís latest Kill Bill, Volume 2.
Yet Michael Madsenís equally known for a softer side, playing the father in Free Willy, and is the author of three books of poetry. In the upcoming ESPN original television series Tilt, Madsen is Don ďThe MatadorĒ Everest, a poker champion.
We talked with Madsen during a brief Christmas break at his beachfront Malibu home which once belonged to The Whoís former drummer, Keith Moon, and sits next to where Steve McQueen once lived.
Itís a house populated by a beautiful wife, five sons, three dogs, two lizards, some fish, a bird named Marlon, and perhaps a catóitís hard to keep track. One of the dogs, Buftea, is a recent addition. Madsen found it emaciated, wild and roaming the forests of Romania while he was filming the upcoming The Last Drop. Like something out of Jack London, Madsen gradually tamed the dog, adopted it, named it after the town in Romania where they were shooting and whisked it back to beachfront Malibu. Talk about rags to riches. Like the Talking Headsí song ďOnce in a LifetimeĒ it may be wondering, ďWell, how did I get here?Ē
But that could be said of Madsen as well. Before acting he was an auto mechanic, landscaper, hospital orderly and about 15 other job titles. Like his sister Virginia, who is currently nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award for her outstanding performance in Sideways, Madsen worked his way through a series of memorable performances, in films such as Donnie Brasco and the television movie 44 Minutes: Shootout in North Hollywood.
The house is filled with framed movie posters from such classic films as Thunder Road, White Heat, Pickup on South Street, Point Blank and, of course, his own Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill. The stereo plays a random eclectic mix of Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Billy Idol and Bob Dylan. Thereís neon beer lights, a pool table, a couple of pinball machines, a jukebox that plays 78s, a giant bronze of his Vic Vega character made by a fan, and a Spartanly furnished porch workout room that consists of a simple, paint flaking rusty weight bench, a barbell and a well-used boxerís body bag. No fancy, gleaming chrome machines or elliptical trainers here. Just the stuff you need.
5thstmag:How did you pick Tilt?
MM:I like to stay busy, and I like to work a lot, but I really didnít want to get locked into a television series that would be 22 or 25 episodes. It was a good script. The great thing about Tilt is that itís only nine episodes a year. That frees me up for the rest of the year to make pictures which is primarily what Iím still interested in, even though there has been a lack of good scripts coming my way for quite some time.
5thst:What are you talking about, thereís Kill Bill?
MM:Thatís a standout. Thatís a given. That speaks for itself. But you donít get those kinds of things across your doorstep every day.
5thst:But you should. When you look at your past credits, it seems like youíre always working, you even narrate that show on Animal Planet.
MM:Thatís Animal Precinct. Iím in my third year doing that now. I narrate a show about animal cops. Iím a big animal lover. We got a lot of pets in my house and I love New York City so much that I thought it was a great opportunity to narrate a show that takes place in New York and is all about animals. I get a big kick out of it, I really do. It comes on once in a while when I just happen to be watching TV. My kids watch it. I think they [the production team] do a good job with it. I know it does real well ratings wise, otherwise they wouldnít keep asking me to come back.
Thereís some funny stuff on there and sometimes itís kind of hard to record because thereís such hysterical things going on. (Pretending heís narrating) ďSpecial Agents Lucas and Sandano have located 2,500 turkeys in a Bronx two-flat.Ē (laughs) There was this one about some woman in the Bronx who had 45 poodles in her apartment. Sometimes itís very funny. They show me a tape of the show so I know what the scenarios are and then I go and record the voice-over and sometimes I just start cracking up because some of it is so wild. But you have to be very serious when you narrate, and sometimes itís impossible with some of the scenarios that go on. But, itís also really sad sometimes because there are so many tragic things that happen to animals. So, in a lot of ways, I get a big kick out of doing that show.
5thst:With all the extra peopleó cast, crew, etc.ó that you donít find in a narrated reality-like show, what was it about Tilt that convinced you to do the grind of a regular series? Are you a poker player?
MM:I knew absolutely nothing about poker before I got involved with the show. That was kind of what my agent told the producers. She said, ďThe good news is that Michael wants to do the show. The bad news is that he doesnít know a damn thing about poker.Ē So they decided it was probably something I could pick up. I got up [to the location] early, and started early, and discovered that itís an interesting game. Iím learning very fast about a lot of it.
I think itís really all about people. Itís as much about the cards as it is about the people holding them. There are a lot of different characters that play cards and a lot of peopleís lives revolve around it. I was interested in playing a character that has a life outside the casino. I play a character that has won the fictional World Poker Championship, so I pretty much have to know what Iím doing in every game scenario. Iím not too much of a gambler. Moneyís too hard to earn and Iím a good witness to that, thatís for sure.
5thst:Did you go through any kind of poker boot camp to prepare for the role?
MM:Itís kind of a thing that happens just in the doing of it.When I started as an actor, I didnít really last that long in acting class because I just wanted to get on with it. I donít think I would do to well sitting in a room practicing chip tricks, or card tricks. I think I do better just by playing and getting involved in games, learning all the ins and outs of the rules of the game, whatever game Iím playing at the time. And I count on the [production] people around me to know what theyíre doing and tell me whatís going on. After that, you pretty much have to build your own character and decide where your character is coming from and why he is doing what heís doing, or why heís playing the way heís playing. Itís a very individual thing. Itís personality. You read the other card players, looking for how theyíre playing.
The guys who created and are producing the show [Brian Koppelman and David Levien] are the same guys who wrote and produced the movie Rounders, which is considered to be like the Bible of poker movies. So Iím getting pretty good advice. So I figured that Iíd take this thing. Thereís also the possibility of moving this show to Los Angeles (for the interiors). That would be great for me. Right now theyíre shooting the interiors in Canada. Itís set in Las Vegas.We do all the exteriors at the Flamingo. Thatís why ESPN sent everybody to Vegas. I used to like Las Vegas back in the í80s when the Sands was there and the Desert Inn, all that glamour. Thatís what I remember Vegas as being like, back in the old days. But that time has come and gone for a lot of people, I suppose, but not for me. Thatís what Iím going for, thatís what Iím leaning for as far as the attitude of the character I play.
5thst:Did you do research for the character of Don ďThe MatadorĒ Everest?
MM:I met a few of the professional poker players once Iíd started the show, and I started watching an awful lot of poker shows on television. Obviously, I watched the film Rounders and I spent a lot of time with the creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and they really helped a lot. They gave me a lot of inside information about what we were doing. There are so many things that go into playing a character like that. It has to do with the actors that youíre surrounded by. It has a lot to do with wardrobe, props; itís all about subtlety, nuances of those kinds of things. But if you spend too much time thinking about those kinds of things, it can really confuse the hell out of you. I think itís better to just walk in straightforward and play it flat out letting the story tell it. You have to depend on yourself for certain things to come out that you donít have to force. If someone calls you up and theyíre interested in you for a role, nine times out of 10, the reasons theyíre interested in you doesnít have anything to do with what youíre conscious of. So you just have to trust that they made the right choice in picking you for the part and then just walk in, play it and be yourself as much as you can.
Movie sets are make-believe, but it seems like there might be an advantage soaking up that Vegas atmosphere.
I recently went to Arizona and played Wyatt Earp in a British production about outlaws of the Old West, so I might be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only actor who has ever played two different Earps,Wyatt in this one and Virgil in Wyatt Earp. Iíve got a pretty good memory of old movies and I donít remember seeing any actor who played both Virgil and Wyatt. So, I got a big kick out of that. And when I did Wyatt with Kevin [Costner], that was in Santa Fe, New Mexico.When I played Wyatt, it was actually shot in Tombstone, so I got to walk down the street that Wyatt walked down with his brothers, the real street, the actual OK Corral. That made it a little bit more interesting.
5thst:As an actor, do you feed on that?
MM:Thatís happened to me a couple of times. It adds a lot to your imagination. It brings a lot to the whole idea of being Ö When I played Sonny Black in Donnie Brasco I really wanted to Ö I mean, I think you have a responsibility when youíre playing someone who was once alive, but you really have a responsibility to do what was written for the character and present it the way it was meant by the author. Obviously, you are going to come through in every character you play.
I read in a biography of Spencer Tracy that someone said that Spencer always plays himself. He replied, ďWell, who am I supposed to be?Ē I think that you just put yourself in the circumstances of the character. Say, what would I do, or what would I do if this were happening to me or happening in my life? I think thatís a lot better way of bringing some truth across. Then you can find something that you have in your soul. I was in New York auditioning for Death of a Salesman, and Dustin Hoffman told me that you should never try to play a role of someone where part of their personality doesnít exist somewhere inside of you. I think he was right to a certain extent. Robert Duvall urged me to play the moment. He said, ďMichael, just play the moment. Just be alive with the given moment. Donít try to think about whatís going to happen five minutes from now.Ē So, Iíve been lucky enough to work with some good actors who have told me some good things that made a lot of sense to me.
5thst:You told me that you first felt you wanted to be an actor when you saw Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison because he was a tough Marine, yet he also had this other side when he interacted with Deborah Kerr who played a nun he was stranded with on this Japanese held island during World War II. You met Mitchum early in your career. What was that like?
MM:Robert Mitchum was working with my sister in The Hearst and Davies Affair. He was playing William Randolph Hearst and my sister was Marion Davies. I went to visit Virginia and I got to have breakfast with him. At that time I was an auto mechanic. I didnít know what to do with myself and had seen a lot of films of his growing up and he asked me, ďWhat are you going to do with yourself, son?Ē And I said,ďWell, I was thinking about being an actor.Ē And he just looked me right in the eye and said,ďWhy would you want to do that?Ē I thought that was very funny. I said,ďWell, I wish I had an answer for you. I guess Iíve been hanging around a bit. Iíve been in and out of trouble all over the place. I donít know what to do with myself. Iíve worked in 15, 16 job titles and I donít know what Iím suited for in this life. Iím liable to be locked up somewhere.Ē Robert Mitchum then told me that I shouldnít worry about exercising. I should just wear a padded coat. He also told me to drink a lot of Smirnoff. He said that was the key to success. So I got some strange advice from a lot of different actors. Over the years Ió
5thst:óDrank a lot of Smirnoff?
MM:(laughs) I think what he was trying to get across to me was that you shouldnít take yourself too seriously. I guess that was really good advice and I appreciate that a lot. You know, coming from someone who gave some of the performances he gave, when you look at Night of the Hunter, Ryanís Daughter, I guess you can be humble when youíre that talented. Maybe that was part of what I learned from him. Having a great talent like that you can afford to be humble and not take yourself too seriously.
5thst:And youíre also a poet.
MM:I have three books of poetry floating around out there, and I think the publisher is interested in putting them together, and Iíve got another half of a book finished, but itís going to be a while before Iím done with that. One of the things I learned from reading Charles Bukowski is that you can write about anything. Thereís nothing you canít write about. And once I figured that out, I mean, I had been doing it long before I had read any book written by Bukowski. I have been writing things on napkins, matchbooks, shopping bags, ever since I was 12 or 15 years old. I never thought it would be in a book, and I never planned on writing a book. It was just things that I collected over time and for one reason or another.
5thst:Itís rare to see a brother and sister do so well in acting. Especially since you didnít have those ins, like nepotism, your father was a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. And you said your mother had a drama scholarship, but she married young and didnít pursue it, though she is a producer and writer now.
MM:I guess we did it the old-fashioned way. I think my sister and I are not, by any stretch of the imagination, overnight successes.Weíve both been around for 15, 16 years. I couldnít have been happier for Virginia to get that Supporting Actress nomination for the Golden Globe. I just watched her on The Tonight Show. Itís one thing to be working all the time and to be considered successful, but itís another thing when people get nominated for their work. Sheís waited for a very, very long time for something like that and I couldnít be happier. Itís almost like itís happening for the both of us.
Sheís always been good, surviving some pretty crappy movies.
MM:That goes for both of us. Both of us have made a tremendous amount of clinkers. Thereís a handful of good ones out there. I think it just comes down to Ö itís what you do for a living. If youíre a bricklayer, you build a building. If youíre a swimmer, you go swim. If youíre an actor, youíve gotta act. I think you canít always be blessed with a great script. You canít always be blessed with a good director. A lot of productions you get involved in, people make you promises about this and about that and how itís going to be and how it isnít going to be. Once you get involved and realize itís not going to go that way, thereís nothing you can do about it. You canít just throw up your arms and walk off the set. You have to finish the building. You have to finish what you signed on for even if you know itís going the wrong way. Thereís nothing you can do to change it. Every once in a while you can hope that youíre getting involved in something thatís being done by the right people and in the right way. For someone like Virginia, someone like myself, itís been a long, long road. Itís hard to say. You have to stay busy and you have to work. What am I going to do? Go to the speedway and start working in a pit crew because I canít find a good script? You always hope that thereís a great project right around the corner.
5thst:I think of Michael Caine who has been in a slew of awful movies, yet he was always good in them.
MM:Sure. Thereís nothing wrong with being good in a bad film. I donít think Iíve ever been bad in a good film. (laughs) A lot of people, though, have been blessed with time to make choices. I donít think Virginia and I have ever been blessed with time to make choices.Weíve had to take care of our families. Weíve had to keep the machine going and it wasnít always easy.We often had to take films that for other reasons we never would have done. God, I could make quite a list of the ones I should have stayed away from.
5thst:Which are the ones then that youíre most happy you were involved with?
MM:Yes. Kill Bill, Volume 2 was one of the best experiences I had making a film. It really was. It was just a great set, a great atmosphere. Everybody was so happy to be on the set with Quentin that everybody was at his or her best. Youíre surrounded by people who are good at what they do and theyíre at their best in doing the job. Itís quite infectious.
MM:Oh, I think maybe Donnie Brasco, Reservoir Dogs, The Getaway, the first Free Willy, the first Species, Kill Bill.
5thst:How does he get that from people?
MM:Because of his confidence and because of his enthusiasm. He walks onto the set and you can just tell that heís very happy to be there. He loves what he does. You also know, when heís standing there, that youíre going to be involved in something thatís going to turn out interesting because of what came before. So thereís kind of a built-in anticipation that youíre going to make a picture thatís going to be remembered and something thatís not going to sit on the back shelf of Blockbuster. Thereís nothing worse than working for many weeks on a filmó14, 15 hours a day, six-day weeks, for 12 or 13 weeks and then it comes out and doesnít go anywhere, it doesnít do anything, nobody ever sees it and it just disappears into oblivion. You feel like youíve just wasted a major portion of your life for no reason. I mean itís terribly disheartening, which is why itís just the opposite when something works out well. It makes up for all the downtime.
5thst:The team that did Tilt, theyíve got a track record of success, so it bodes well?
5thst:And then thereís Orly Anderson, executive producer of ESPNís Playmakers, Hustle: The Pete Rose Storyó
MM:óShe just did 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story too.
5thst:Of course, many of us will always remember you as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs.
MM:Yes, that film has been following me around for many years. I donít think Iíll ever be able to get rid of that tag.
5thst:Itís one of those great vicious characters like Mitchumís in Night of the Hunter or the original Cape Fear.
MM:And itís funny, because while we were doing it, I wasnít really conscious that we were making a film that was going to be memorable. It was just a low-budget movie I was doing with a first-time director and nobody really thought that much about it. I just wanted to do it because I thought it was a cool script and I thought it might be fun. Who knew, right?
5thst:Now whatís this story about patio furniture and your Reservoir Dogs co-star Lawrence Tierney, who played the crusty old guy that hired this mob?
MM:(laughs) He took a big, roundhouse swing at me one time. He missed me by about two inches. Lucky he didnít connect because that big old fist might have sent me over a chair. He was just kind of a big, giant, crazy, loveable grizzly bear. He was his own worst enemy because he was such a lunatic. But he also had another side to him that was just filled with talent. He had just a great big heart and was an endless joke teller. He was one of those guys who could tell jokes from seven oíclock in the morning to five oíclock in the afternoon and never tell the same one twice. It was fun for a while, but then you had to say, ďAll right, enough already.Ē
He actually got fired during the pancake-house scene in Reservoir Dogs. He got into a big shouting match with Quentin the day that we shot that scene. He got fired, then rehired the next day to come back.
But, years after I did Reservoir Dogs I was at the Hollywood Athletic Club, and I was shooting pool over there, and Lawrence Tierney came up to me. I hadnít seen him in a long time and he gave me a big hug and he asked me if I wanted some lawn furniture. And I said, ďNo, I donít need it.Ē He said, ďNo, no, no, yes you do, yes you do.Ē I said, ďNo, I really donít.Ē And he said, ďI got to give you this lawn furniture, god dammit, youíre going to take it.Ē I said, ďNo, Larry, I donít need any lawn furniture, OK?Ē He said, ďFor Christís sake, I already got it loaded it up and Iím going to send it out to your house.Ē I said, ďNO, I donít want it! Please, Larry, I donít want the lawn furniture.Ē And he said, ďAll right Ö whatever you say, kid,Ē and that was it. So I thought, ďThat was kind of strange.Ē
About a week later I ran into [actor] Chris Penn at a restaurant and he comes walking over to me and says, ďHey, whatís up with the lawn furniture?Ē I said, ďWhat are you talking about?Ē And he said, ďLarry Tierney pulled up to my house with a truck full of lawn furniture and he dumped it on my lawn.Ē Apparently Chris ran out and said, ďWhat the hell are you doing?Ē And Larry said, ďMichael Madsen told me you wanted this lawn furniture.ĒÖ
Iíll never be able to figure that one out. He was quite a character. The letterbox special edition of Reservoir Dogs has a whole section with behind-the-scenes stories of the making of the film. If you havenít seen it, you really should because itís really cool.
5thst:Absolutely. Howís the reaction been from fans to that film over the years?
MM:Ah, man, Iíve met people with tattoos of me on their body. Itís impossible to get away from it.
5thst:Isnít that strange?
MM:Sometimes it can be, because Iím not always aware of my recognizeability. Iím just going about my day-to-day life and suddenly Iíll just run into some person and Iím not really sure why theyíre starting a conversation, then suddenly I realize they have a tattoo of me on their leg and, depending upon if youíre late for wherever it is youíre going, I mean, you really hate to be rude to someone like that whoís taken the time to appreciate what youíve done. You canít always have time to sit and talk with everybody as much as youíd like to.
5thst:Iíve been hearing that from a lot of poker players. Now that theyíre recognized because of ESPN and the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, theyíre saying, ďI didnít get in it for the rock star fame. I just want to play poker.Ē
MM:And I just want to make films. So I understand the logic behind that.