Michael Madsen is a man trapped in the wrong era. He's a throwback to a time when men were men and "politically correct" meant punching the right box on a voting ballot. This tough-guy actor has played some pretty unsavory characters in films such as Reservoir Dogs and The Getaway. But he's also in touch with his sensitive side—in nice-guy roles in films like Free Willy, and as a published poet. Madsen's collection of poems, Paradise Burning, is available in bookstores and at his Web site, Michaelmadsen.com.
We asked this brick-and-mortar actor how he wound up in cyberspace.
bLink: Why'd you start your own Web site?
MM: I don't really know as much about computers as I'd like to. It's kind of embarrassing to me—my ten-year-old son knows more about it than I do…I thought I just needed to catch up with the times a little bit. I figured the best way to do that was set myself up a Web site.
bLink: Do you have plans to publish directly onto the Internet, a la Stephen King?
MM: I just finished another book, called Quack, Quack, and I took it around, and so far everyone's thrown it out their door. So I didn't know where to go with it. I did recently have the idea of publishing it on the Internet, but I heard Stephen King was really regretful that he did his book that way because he got ripped off. He wasn't able to produce the revenue for it and a lot of people got it and didn't pay for it. I think that until the technology is devised to set that kind of thing up to protect the author, or until I know more about it, I'm going to have to figure out some other way to get my book out there.
bLink: Do you prefer acting or writing?
MM: I'm a lot more proud of my writing than I am of the acting. The writing for me is a lot more personal. I never really had any intentions of writing a book—that was purely accidental. I was surprised that there was a response to it. A lot of folks did seem to understand what it was, 'cause it's not for everybody, let's face it. I guess because it's more personal, it meant more to me. It seemed like it was more honest. The acting sometimes, to me, is so phony, and all of it is so overblown—I mean, I could go on for hours about acting, but I'm sure not going to bore your readers with it.
bLink: Do you find writing to be cathartic?
MM: Well, I think that what it is, when you think about things to write, you should always write them down. Because if you don't, an hour later you're not going to remember it. You won't remember it the same way. It's funny when you write down a lot of things over a period of time—when you look back at them it ends up being like a chronological scene of your life. And then you go, wow, this is kind of interesting. And some of the things you wrote, you don't even remember writing. And that's interesting, too.
bLink: Ever looked back at one of your poems and wondered who that guy is?
MM: [Laughs] Yeah, there's a few of 'em like that.
bLink: Your writing is edgy and dark. Is it tougher to be dark as a parent? (Madsen has five sons.)
MM: I think that I've been fortunate in that I've been able to understand the dark sides of whatever it was I was living through. And I've also been blessed enough to have these boys and have them be such a major part of my life…It's funny, when you're happy and things are going well, you're not writing as much. A lot of that stuff comes from troubled areas. And when those troubles don't exist anymore, you find yourself wondering what the hell you're going to write about now.
bLink: Who do you admire as a writer?
MM: Well, I really liked Hemmingway when he was really good. But, you know, he wrote a lot of crap, too. And I like some of Robert Frost—when he's not rambling, he's pretty good. I'm one of those people who hasn't done a lot of reading. I've read a lot of biographies, and I read a lot of books about history and stuff like that. But I don't really have any authors that I could hold up and say, 'this is the one that really meant something to me.'
bLink: Have you written any scripts?
MM: I recently hooked up with Billy Bob Thornton and I'm writing a screenplay called Thunderbird Park that he and his cohorts have decided to produce when I'm done writing it.
bLink: Will you be acting in that, as well?
MM: Yeah, I think I will. It's about two brothers, an older brother and a younger brother. I've always kind of wanted to do the older brother part. And I can't really think of anybody else to play the part. I definitely want to do something in it. It depends on how deep I get into producing the project, and how much time I really have when it turns into a reality. But so far it seems like it's going someplace.
bLInk: Any desire to direct?
MM: Strangely enough, I've been asked in the last year or so by people to come and direct a movie. And, you know, it's not something I ever consciously thought about before. But then, when I thought about it, I thought, I've kind of been doing it in my own mind for a long time. I'm kind of self-directed in just about every picture I've ever made. And I was thinking, I've got pretty good instincts about stuff like that—about actors, the whole vibe of it. I think I've got a good take on stuff like that. But it hasn't been the right situation. The time wasn't right, or the project wasn't right, or the money wasn't right. Somehow or another, when it's come up for me, it hasn't been the right situation. But I'm definitely thinking about it. I'm definitely moving in that direction.
bLink: Are there any characters that you haven't played that you'd like to? For instance, your father was a fireman—ever played one?
MM: No, no I haven't. And that was really a drag for me because several years ago they did that fireman picture (Backdraft). My father is real old-fashioned, you know. He's from Chicago and he gew up in the depression. He knows I'm an actor and in the movies and he just couldn't understand why I wasn't in Backdraft. I tried to explain it to him—well you know, Dad, they didn't call me. They weren't interested in me. It's stuff like that I really regret. It would have been nice to have been in that picture. And it would've been nice to have been in Saving Private Ryan. My father's brother was killed in WWII on the beach. That was another one my dad said, 'why weren't you in Private Ryan?' And I said, I don't know, Dad. Ask Steven Spielberg.
bLink: You once said that you wish you'd been part of the studio system from years ago, where actors were nurtured along. Still feel that way?
MM: I guess what I mean by that is, I kind of feel like a thowback. I kind of feel like I'm a Kirk Douglas, or Robert Mitchum—a Humphrey Bogart type of an actor…It could just be my own nostalgic view of the way things were back then. I could be completely wrong, but I just have often felt that I would've liked that. I would've been able to make a lot more memorable pictures, and had quite a few behind me by now.
bLink: Do you prefer playing good guys or bad guys?
MM: I don't really have a preference. I figure that if you play someone really, really dark, that character needs to have a sense of humor. And if you play somebody who's really nice and together, then that person should probably have some sort of baggage somewhere that they carry around. Just so it's not one-dimensional.
bLink: Have your kids seen any of your grittier roles?
MM: They like the action stuff and think that's cool. And they love Free Willy, Wyatt Earp, and the TV stuff…But the heavier stuff like The Getaway and Reservoir Dogs, they're not really old enough to see those pictures.
bLink: Any truth to the rumor that you'll be teaming up with Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta to make The Vega Brothers, the prequel to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction?
MM: Quentin and I have talked about that several times. You know, it's something he wants to do, something he keeps saying he's going to do, but I think he just hasn't gotten around to writing it just yet. He's been really busy writing his WWII thing. He's gonna do it—I think he's going to call it The Vega Brothers. It would be myself and John, being that we're brothers in the story line. I know he's going to do it. I'm wondering when myself. But I think he'll get around to it sooner or later.
bLink: When Mr. Blonde gets capped by Mr. Orange at the end of Reservoir Dogs, does he realize Mr. Orange is a cop?
MM: That's a good question, and one I brought up when we were doing rehearsals for the movie. In the way that he (Tarantino) wrote it, and the way he was going to shoot it, Orange was going to just blast me right out of the scene. And then you would come back to him and he would drop the gun and start the conversation with the cop. But I thought that I really needed that moment to realize Orange was a cop and that he was screwing everybody over. So that's why after I get shot there's a couple of frames of me kind of up on my elbow, leaning on the garbage can. Quentin gave me a couple of beats there before Blonde expires. He's looking over there. And that's the purpose of that shot.
bLink:You've been told on more than one occasion that you should smile more. Good or bad advice?
MM: [Laughs] A couple of years ago I read in a book that MGM originally wanted to take Somewhere Over the Rainbow out of The Wizard of Oz when they saw the first cut of the movie. Because they thought Judy Garland was coming off as some kind of hayseed singing that song in the barnyard. I guess what it really comes down to is, over the years I've come to realize that all the people, you know, the "geniuses" who are running things aren't really the geniuses that you think they might be. And thre's a real lack of imagination out there about what kind of actor someone might be, or what kind of fate is possible for whatever project. So I guess you have to just keep it somewhere in the back of your mind that somehow you'll prevail in whatever it is you think you're doing.
bLink: If you could fight anybody in Hollywood, who would you fight?
MM: [Laughs] Wow. They'd have to get in line.
bLink: Could you take them?
MM: That's hard to say. Sometimes people surprise you.