MOVIES: Long after 'Reservoir Dogs,' Madsen still has an ear for Tarantino

By Sean P. Means

Michael Madsen never understood why people sometimes walked out during his big moment in "Reservoir Dogs," until he watched "Kill Bill, Vol. 2."

For those who haven't seen Quentin Tarantino's debut film, "Reservoir Dogs" (if you had, you'd know instantly what I was talking about), the scene involved Madsen's character, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde, entertaining himself by torturing a hostage police officer -- culminating in slicing off the guy's ear -- to the tune of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You." "I remember hearing all these stories about 'Reservoir Dogs,' and how people wanted to go out with the ear thing," Madsen said over the phone this week. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, that's silly. Nobody would ever leave a movie theater because of a scene.' "

But seeing one of his scenes in Tarantino's latest, "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" -- in which his character, Budd aka Sidewinder (his code name in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad), buries Uma Thurman's The Bride alive in a cemetery -- genuinely freaked him out. "I got physically uncomfortable watching that the first time I said that," Madsen said. "I was like, 'Oh my God -- I gotta wash my hands, I gotta comb my hair, I gotta make a phone call, I think I gotta have a cigarette.' I came up with all these excuses to leave the screening. It made me really uncomfortable. So I finally got it -- now I understand what people were feeling about the ear thing."

And it's an ironic tribute to Tarantino's talent that in both scenes, the camera doesn't actually show the worst of it. In "Reservoir Dogs," the camera pans away to a wall when Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop's ear. In "Kill Bill," the buried-alive scene is shown from the Bride's point of view -- pitch darkness, with the horrifying sound effect of dirt hitting the top of the pine box.

With sound effects and no visuals, Madsen said, "you go inside your mind, and that's the most dangerous place of all."

"Kill Bill" marks the first time Madsen has worked with Tarantino since "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992. In the interim, Madsen made "Species," "Wyatt Earp," "Donnie Brasco," and a ton of films where he usually played a heavy (though he also played the dad in the "Free Willy" series), while Tarantino made two films -- "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" -- and dabbled in a bunch of side jobs (writing and co-starring in "From Dusk Till Dawn," acting on Broadway in "Wait Until Dark," backing the U.S. release of "Iron Monkey," etc.)

What brought them back together? "I moved, and my garage was too small for this '57 Chevy that I had," Madsen said. "So I called Quentin and I asked him if I could keep it in his garage for awhile, and he said, 'Yeah.' I ended up putting a couple of cars up there, and in my comings and goings to work and play with my cars, I kept running into Quentin. One day he asked me to read a screenplay that he wrote, and he gave me 'Kill Bill.' "

Madsen said Tarantino described Budd as someone who "was kind of retired from the Assassination Squad, kind of guilt-ridden about certain things, that he was down on his luck, that he was lost in a bottle. He was interested in seeing how I would play it."

Madsen's vision for Budd didn't always jibe with Tarantino's. "He wanted me to cut my hair, then later he thought the hair was a good idea. Then he didn't like the hat, but then he decided the hat was a good idea," Madsen said. "I knew how I wanted Budd to look. After that, all I had to do was convince Quentin. It wasn't easy, but he finally felt the same way."

Though it's been a decade between films with Tarantino, Madsen said, "he hasn't changed at all. He's still the same guy he was when we did 'Reservoir Dogs,' from my point of view. I think he has much bigger toys to play with, he's got a lot more time to shoot stuff. But look what he did with it. . . .

"If anybody was thinking Quentin was a one-hit wonder, or what would he ever do if he got ahold of a lot of money -- would he go crazy, or would he make something terrible -- but obviously he didn't. Obviously he did something great."

Madsen has a full schedule after "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" -- the Internet Movie Database lists him in nine movies either completed or in the works. Madsen said he wants to start producing films, to find roles with more variety than the gun-toting baddies he usually plays. "I'd like to make some of the pictures like [Robert] Mitchum made," he said. "I don't want to make a career playing villains."

He also wants to work with Tarantino again. The director is working on a script for "The Vega Brothers," which would pair Madsen's "Reservoir Dogs" character Vic Vega with John Travolta's Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction." "He gave me the parameters of the plot, and I really couldn't repeat it because it's very confusing," Madsen said. "Believe me, it makes total sense. If [Tarantino] told you, you'd go, 'Oh, OK.' "