Michael Madsen has made a lot of films in his life, a good portion of them rather terrible. All too often, he plays intense scummy psychopaths or sociopaths. Seldom is Michael Madsen asked to play Chekhov. Or Tom Hanks' best friend. "I probably made a few pictures I shouldn't have done, but I have four sons and I have to pay the rent," he said. "If you have a decision to make about whether or not you can buy groceries at the market or whether or not you're going to make a bad movie, you're going to make a bad movie."
No matter. And for a very simple reason: Michael Madsen is probably the primal actor in the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. He plays Bill's unflappable homicidal brother, Budd, in "Kill Bill Vol. 2" but, far more importantly, it is Madsen who is featured in the scene in Tarantino's first film, "Reservoir Dogs," that came to define all the rest of Tarantino's work in its singular combination of violence, humor, horror and pop cultural overkill.
It was Madsen, as "Mr. Blonde," who drenched a cop in gasoline, sliced his ear off and pranced around him terrifyingly brandishing a lighter and singing Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You."
"For a long time I couldn't understand what the conversation was about," said Madsen of that scene's walloping impact. "I never considered it to be all that violent. If I had lit him up, then I would think, oh my God! That would have been a horrifying moment in cinema. . . . That scene kind of gained over time."
Nor did he have any idea how he was going to do it either, before the afternoon it was filmed, even though the rest of the movie was meticulously rehearsed. "I was very leery of it. . . . I remember saying to Quentin, "I just want to do it on the day. When the time came to shoot it, I'll figure out what I'm going to do on that day.' He's insightful enough and intelligent enough to realize that was probably the best way to go about it. Every time we tried to do the dialogue and every time we tried to stage what we were going to do, I would just get mentally blocked, you know?"
Nor did he even know what the music - so memorable in that scene in "Reservoir Dogs" - was going to be. Tarantino was also thinking of using a Blasters song called "Baron Blitz" for it.
"I said to him, "Which one would you rather have?' He said, "I really hope to get Stealer's Wheel.' So I asked if I could have a transistor in my ear (playing the song during the scene). If you look real close in the wide shot, you can see it in my ear."
Madsen and Tarantino, then, are provably good for each other. That's what happens when an emerging actor takes a chance and hitches his wagon such a prodigiously gifted filmmaker. "When I first read the screenplay (for "Reservoir Dogs'), I knew it was one of the best I'd ever read. I knew that it was a phenomenal kind of script. And I so much wanted to work the Harvey Keitel because I had worked with him in "Thelma and Louise.' Our scenes in "Thelme and Louise' had been cut out of the movie. I had become very close with Harvey. He's now godfather to my son Max."
What he didn't know about Tarantino back then in that larval career stage was "what he was going to do with the music. I had no idea what he was going to do with the slow-motion stuff. I had no idea what the mood was going to be in the movie. That was a nice surprise. . . . I knew that I initially thought he was a very interesting man. I'm a great lover of films. And Quentin loves making his. We hit it off pretty good from the beginning as far as talking about movies we liked growing up."
When he was sent the script for "Kill Bill" (which, back then, was planned as only one film), he says, "I didn't think it was possible to make it. I even told Quentin. I said, "You can't make the film.' How're you gonna do that? How are you going to get everybody believable in these roles? How are you going to tell this tale? He just laughed. He knew everything he was going to do."
So Madsen signed on. And his fictional fate in the movie is sure to be another scene in both men's highlight reels.
Madsen is the son of an Emmy-winning, documentary-making mother and the older brother of actress Virginia Madsen. A theatrical and artistic family to be sure - none of which causes a rush to cast him in any but the most intense roles.
I'm bewildered by it," says Madsen. "I was in "Thelma and Louise.' I was the dad in "Free Willy.' And I walked down the streets to the O.K. Corral with Kevin (Costner in "Wyatt Earp'). To be honest with you, I would much rather be the guy who rides off into the sunset. I would much rather be the romantic lead. I do think I have a lot to offer in that area."
But then in the one role he's so often in, he's one of the great character actors in current movies.
Things could be worse.