Tarantino’s go-to bad guy might give Mr. Blonde a run for his money in his next film. But he’s a nice guy in real life—honest.

It’s time to stop thinking of Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, the ear-slashing psychopath he played in Reservoir Dogs. If you check out his warm and fuzzy parts—Susan Sarandon’s boyfriend in Thelma And Louise, for example—you realize that Madsen is much more than just a tough guy. The 45-year-old actor who began on the Chicago stage is the father of five sons, the author of three books, and is often cast as lovable characters such as the dad in Free Willy, for God’s sake. So why does Hollywood have him pegged as a villain? It could have something to do with that deep, dark, relentless stare. “I have a great understanding of the squint,” Madsen says with a chuckle. “Photographers are constantly asking me to relax my forehead, and I say, ‘You know, I am.’” It’s not surprising, then, that he’s often cast as men with the social skills of, well, Mr. Blonde. “I understood Mr. Blonde, but I’m certainly not running around cutting people’s ears off,” Madsen says, reluctantly discussing the character for what he swears is the last time. “I read a biography of James Cagney, and he said, ‘If you play someone who’s really bad, look for something noble in their character, and if you play someone really noble, look for something dark.’ Mr. Blonde had a sense of honor and he didn’t rat anybody out. There’s a lot to be said for that.” Coming off this summer’s My Boss’s Daughter, Madsen will play the brother of the guy Uma Thurman’s out to exterminate in Quentin Tarantino’s much-awaited female revenge flick Kill Bill. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Madsen says. “When Kill Bill comes out, I think I’ll finally escape the Mr. Blonde tag.” How so? “Because my character, Budd, is a lot more reprehensible.”

—Andrea Meyer