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Michael Madsen secured a place in film and pop culture history with his show-stopping turn as sadistic jewel thief Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarantino's now-classic "Reservoir Dogs" (1992). Not since Anthony Perkin's turn as Norman Bates in Hitchcock's "Psycho"(1960) had a brutal killer's pure evil been offse by such charming malevolence: even when he was hacking an ear off a bound and gagged victim, there was still something sweet about Madsen's smile.
Born September 25, 1958, in Chicage, Michael was the second child, and only boy, of firefighter Cal Madsen and Elaine Madsen (who would go on to become an award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer.) Younger sister Virginia is a renowned actress in her own right. After toiling in such professions as mechanic, pipe fitter, hospital orderly, and landscaper, Michael Madsen followed his childhood dream of acting and went west, appearing in several episodic TV programs and movies of the week, before landing his first feature role in "WarGames"(1983), playing a guard at a missile silo in the film's opening scene. Supporting roles in such films as "The Natural"(1984) and "Racing With the Moon"(1984), "Kill Me Again"(1989), and "The Doors"(1991)followed, with his first substantial role coming with "Thelma & Louise" in 1991, playing the pivotal role of Jimmy, Susan Sarandon's long-suffering boyfriend. After "Dogs" became the controversial sensation of 1992, Michael Madsen hasn't stopped working since, his detached tough guy persona reminiscent of stars of another era: Mitchum, Marvin, Douglas, Cagney, men who said more with their eyes or a quick punch than any sonnet from Shakespeare could express, but underneath it all, seemed to be asking for our forgiveness. Madsen't screen persona seemed so specific, and so unusual in today's climate, that it's tended to typecast him in "tough guy" parts, ironic since in real life, this father of four sons is a published poet whose gentle nature is more akin to his character of the dad in "Free Willy"(1993) than anything in the gleefully twisted universe of Tarantino.
Speaking of, Madsen's latest turn is in old pal Q.T.'s latest "Kill Bill Vo. 2", the second half of last Fall's king-fu flick homage that conquered the box office. Playing the part of Budd, brother of eponymous Bill, a down-and-out assassin with a drinking problem wasting away in a barren Texas town, Madsen is riveting, hilarious and heartbreaking as a broken man trying to right himself. The film, possibly Tarantino's and Madsen's finest work of their careers, will doubtless become a classic ot Tarantino's oeuvre, and should give Madsen the recognition he so richly deserves.
Michael sat down with Venice after a late night screening of "Kill Bill Vol. 2" to discuss his career as Hollywood's most reluctant tough guy.
Venice Magazine: So tell us about "Kil Bill Vol. 2" and the world of Quentin Tarantino>
Michael Madsen: It's a tremendous effort by Quentin, and I don't know how many guys, even the great directors like George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, they made a lot more than four movies before they got the kind of appreciation that they got, but this is only Quentin's fourth movie, and if he stopped now, he'd still go down in history as one of the greatest directors of all time. I don't think I'm overstating that at all.
VM: Not only that. He's also become a kind of cultural icon, even more than just a filmmaker.
MM: Yeah, he has a very strange way of being able to show something in an entertaining way, that's also a reflection of things we all grew up seeing in other movies. You don't even have to be part of the generation that grew up on those movies to appreciate what he's referencing. The references he makes to other genres of film are kind of general, but at the same time, his movies aren't so saturated with them that they ruin the experience of seeing a wholly original work. I guess that makes sense. [laughs]
VM: Yeah, the unique thing he does is he makes films that defy cateqorization in any one genre, mostly due to the fact that his characters are all so well drawn. Your character, Budd, for example, could have easily been a stock villain who was just put in the story as a plot point for the Bride character to have a fight with. But you can really see what a broken man Budd is, both because Quentin wrote some very thoughtful scenes and because he allowed you to take your time with the character and have those moments.
MM: It's funny, I did this big western in Mexico called "Blueberry" right before I started work on "Kill Bill". I grew my hair out really long, and it was blond. When Quentin first saw me, he said "You've gotta cut all that fuckin' hair off, man. I want you to look the way you did in "Reservoir Dogs." And I really didn't want to do that, I wanted to go for something a little different. So he just let it ride. I had a really good colorist I knew darken my hair, but we left it the same length. Instead of asking Quentin if it was okay, I just walked into the production office one day for a wardrobe fitting, and Quentin looked at me and went "Hmm. Okay, I think I understand what you mean now. Okay, okay, okay." [laughs] "Now I can't think of you not looking this way." So I started out with just the idea of a specific appearance, then that allowed me to sort of crawl inside of Budd as a person. The whole thing with the cowboy hat started because I wanted to wear this Stetson that I had, and Quentin wasn't too happy with the hat, either. So he came up with the idea of the owner of the strip club where Budd worked being unhappy with the hat. So all these elements sort of allowed Budd to have a little bit of pathos. It's really strange how that can be created by a fuckin' hat.
VM: Yeah, but it was everything about him: his body language, his dress, the cadence of his speech. You could see that this was really a broken man.
MM: Well, I know a little bit about being broken, and I suppose a little bit of it slipped out when I was playing Budd, I read a biography of James Cagney when I was a kid, biographies being the only kind of book I can stand to read. They interest me because they're true and tell the story of someone's life, or someone's journey. Cagney said if you play a person who's incredibly malevolent, you have to find something noble in them and let it come out a little bit. And if you play somebody really noble, you need to find something really dark in that noble person and let it come out, or else your character is just going to be one dimensional, and who the hell wants to see that? I think Mr. Cagney was underestimating his own ability to grace the screen with the enormous personality he had. I can't think of a living actor today who had the ability to play such wildly diverse characters. I mean, look at him in "White Heat" and then look at him in "Yankee Doodle Dandy". You will not find two more different characters in the history of movies. That kind of acting ability doesn't exist anymore. Even if it did, I don't think [it would be embraced] within the filmmaking community, at least not on the high end.
VM: Obviously Quentin does, though.
MM: Yeah, he does, definately. You've gotta be careful what you wish for, I guess, because I did have sort of an ulterior motive to bring some sympathy to Budd. That's the great thing about Quentin: he picks up on certain things and he won't let you do anything if he doesn't want you to do it. But you trust him so much that at the end of the day, when the final decision is his, you've just got to show him what you have or what you think and then let him adjust it.
VM: Isn't that what makes a great filmmaker, having that instinct? Trusting your actors.
MM: Yeah. He does for sure. It's funny, you think about someone like Alan Ladd. How many fuckin' pictures you think that guy made? 50? 60? What picture does everyone remember Alan Ladd for?
MM: You know why? George Stevens. He had that same instinct. I sure wish I could have met George...sometimes I feel like i was born in the wrong era.
VM: That's part of what makes your work so interesting. You hearken back to guys like Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Kirk Douglas. You were born for film noir.
MM: Yeah, that's very true. I love those guys. I met Bob MItchum up in Canada, when he was doing a movie with my little sister Virginia. We had breakfast together He said, "What're you gonna do with your life, young man?" At the time I thik I was an auto mechanic. I said, 'I was thinking about being an actor.' He said "Why?!" [laughs] He had this guy with him all the time, and I coudn't figure out who he was, I saw them a day or so later, and I said to them, 'Are you guys working together?' Robert goes, "No, he's my handler." 'Your handler?' "Yeah,he's supposed to keep me off the sauce." 'Oh...' [laughs] The next day I was down in the lobby, and I see the handler, looking around very agitiated. He says, "Have you seen Mr. Mitchum?!" He'd given him the slip![laughs]
VM: Both you and your sister have that 1940's, 1950's quality: you have the stoic, man of few words, world-weary tough guy, and she has the blonde bombshell, femme fatale persona, both of which very few people have anymore.
MM: Yeah, she really does. I so respect my sister's talent and she has shown on more than a few occasions that she really has the goods. I think she can hold her own with just about anybody.
VM: Tell us what it ws about that generation of actors that appealed to you growing up. Either consciously or unconsciously you did emulate their style, and then made it your own.
MM: I guess I just understood what they were about. I saw this movie called "Lonely Are the Brave", starring Kirk Douglas and Gena Rowlands, in her first movie. In the opening of the movie, you see Kirk Douglas sitting at a campfire with his horse, and it's very peaceful and you think, 'Oh cool, a western picture.' Then suddenly you hear the roar of a jet going overhead and he looks up, and you see from his p.o.v. the jet stream in the sky, and you realize that you're watcing a man who doesn't fit into the world in which he was born, and is committed to being an individual and living a non-comformist life. And watching Kirk Douglas in that role, I figured that he must have a certain amount of that quality in himself, otherwise he wouldn't be able to play that role so well. Then I started reading some books about him, and saw some interviews that he did, and could see his personaltiy coming through the character when I thought back on the movie and when I saw it again later. So I knew that it was a very personally driven role for him, and when it comes down to it, you can't hide very much of yourself when you play a part. Then I figured it was time to stop studying in scene class and go get a job! [laughs]
VM: I know your mother, Elaine, was a big influence on you and Virginia to pursue careers in the arts.
MM: She would always encourage me to write, which I didn't actually start doing until I was 32 or 33. My mom is a great reader, has read just about everything you could imagine, and is one of those people to whom you could ask a question on any subject, I don't care what it is, and she'll know the answer, and if she doesn't know the answer, she'll know where to get it. She's completely self-taught. And she passed that on to me, along with a love of painting and sculpting, although God didn't bless me with a talent for painting. My paintings are pretty pathetic. I guess mom just let us know that it was okay to go that way. You know, most of the guys I grew up with in Chicago are dead now, most not from natural causes, so I've been very lucky, and I do owe a lot of that to my mom. I tried to be so many other things: a mechanic, a hospital orderly, a landscaper, and I could never seem to last very long in any normal job I had, so acting really was the only thing that seemed to be left. I just kind of fell into it.
VM: How did you fall into it?
MM: I went with a buddy of mine who was an actor, I don't know whatever happened to him, to a casting session. On the way out, the director, Marty Brest, stopped me and asked me why I didn't read. I said I wasn't there to read, I was just keeping my buddy company. Marty convinced me to read some sides with him one-on-one, because I didn't want to do it in front of everyone, and he said he thought I should go out to California and pursue a career in acting. That was the first time anyone ever said that to me. It was kind of accidental and also something that had been in the back of my [mind] since I was a kid, because I loved old movies so much.
VM: There are no accidents.
MM: Well, I don't know. It's a rough life. It's a lonely life. I wouldn't recommend it to my sons. I really hope they pursue something else. I've been through so many ups and downs...there's been a lot of wonderful things and great times, and I've had experiences that I wouldn't have had in any other line of work. I've also been able to provide a lot of goodness for other people and my family and people I care for because I've had the means to do so. But it can be a very painful, very lonely and transient life as well, It's troubling sometimes when you realize your whole game is in other people's hands.
VM: When I interviewed Virginia she said that you guys never quite fit in when you were in school or in the communities where you grew up.
MM: Yeah, we moved around a lot, becuase our mom was working a couple jobs, so I was always "the new guy," or "who's that?" I remember in sixth grade, I started school in the middle of the year because we'd just moved from somewhere and I thought I was getting along pretty well with everybody and the teacher stood up in front of the class one day and said, "Alright everybody, we have a big problem in this room. Does anyone know what it is?" And everyone raised their hand, except for me. She pointed to this blond-haired girl named Marilyn, who had this very short, straight, cropped blond hair. So everyone put their hands down and Marilyn said, "It's the new kid." The teached went and sat back down and i just sat there going, 'Oh fuck! What did I do? What did I say?' It was never clarified to me what I'd done. It was just like "Figure it out, kid." I had befriended this kid in the class who was mentally challenged and I noticed that nobody ever had anything to do with him. I was the only one who ever talked to him. I guess he was a freak and I was a freak and we got together as freaks and we were pointed out as being freaks by all the normal people. In the end, I don't think we ever really did fit in anywhere. [pause] It's funny: I never want to get psychoanalyzed because I'm afraid that I won't want to create anymore if I'm "cured."
VM: That's exactly why Olivier never went to a shrink, did you know that? He ws afraid he'd lose the compulsion to act.
MM: Well, I understand exactly what he meant. [laughs]
VM: Do yu think a lot of the fuel that drives creative people ocmes from their demons?
MM: Oh, for sure. A lot of it's demon driven and a lot of it is trying to chase immortality, trying to outrun the inevitable, outrun gravity.
VM: The first movie I remember seeing you in was "WarGames".
MM: Yeah, that was Marty Brest. Then he either quit or got fired, and John Badham took over. Marty asked him to keep me in that part. We shot it at MGM studios, now Sony. Back then it still had the big lion on the gate. I would go over there during the week and I'd go up to the weight room in the old Thalberg building, which was like this executive weight room that was always empty. At night I'd walk around the lot, through these great, cavernous old sound stages. It just seemed surreal.
VM: Your first substantial role was in "The Natural".
MM: Yeah, unfortunately, most of my work in it was cut out, and I've never been able to find out why. I had one really great scene with Robert Redford where I hide his bat, Wonderboy, in a laundry basket. And I had no idea that all this footage had been cut, until I went to the premiere of the movie! I remember "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was playing over the speakers in the theater, and I was thinking that being an actor was the greatest thing and how I'd made the right choice...and then most of my owrk was gone! It was a valuable experience in that it was a real wake-up call for me. It broke my heart and really made me become kind of cold, too. I forced my self to distance myself from it, because it was a very uncomfortable feeling, letting something bother me like that, like it was too kind of pretentious to be mad that my scenes were cut out of a movie. But everything I've worked on from that day forward, I've never counted on all of my work making it to the final cut of the picture. A director needs to be brave enough to keep you in the picture. And the only ones who've ever been brave enough with me are Quentin, Roger Donaldson, Peter Medak, and a few others, but overall not too many.
VM: "Thelma & Louise" was a change of pace for you.
MM: Yeah, that was great because I was able to play a romantic lead, a guy with a conscience. [laughs] Ridley Scott originally wanted me to play the guy who tried to rape Geena Davis in the parking lot. And I had no desire to play that guy at all. Ridley just shook his head, laughing, and said, "Well, what character does interestyou?" I said, 'I really like the character of Jimmy.' So he said he wanted to think about it. A few days later the casting director asked me if I'd go out to lunch with Susan Sarandon. So Susan and I went out to lunch, and talked about everything but the movie and the roles. Just had a terrific time. Then I drove her home and the next day they called me up and said I was playing Jimmy. I guess she just wanted to make sure I wasn't an idiot. And she deserved that, the kind of talent she is. But that was a gret experience, working on that. Got to be great friends with Harvey(Keitel), also.
VM: How did "Reservoir Dogs" come to you?
MM: Through Harvey. We wanted to work together again. I think it was some sort of mutual choice between Quentin and Harvey. I remember the first time I read it, thinking it was one of the best things I'd ever read. It was just so tough. I wanted to play Mr. Pink, because he had all those gret scenes with Harvey. When I found out they wanted me to play Mr. Blonde, and I didn't want to strap a guy in a chair and torture him...but they said that was the role they wanted me for. Finally I convinced them to let me read some Mr. Pink scenes for Quentin. So I really studied it, and got together this whole presentation for Quentin. Harvey was there, and he had bare feet. [laughs] I don't know why I remember that, but there he was, fully dressed in bare fuckin' feet! So I kept looking at his feet, very strange. So I read, and Quentin says, "So Michael, that was great, that was gret, that was really great...So...have you taken a look of the role of Mr. Blonde?" [laughs] Aaagh! So I just acquiesced, and said, 'Okay, I'll do Mr. Blonde.' I found out later that the whole damn thing was cast already, and if I hadn't decided then and there, I wouldn't have been in it. I guess it turned out alright. [laughs]
VM: You got your own action figure out of it.
MM: [laughs] The funny thing about that is seeing the toy of yourself lying in a corner, missing a leg after your kids have destroyed it!
VM: Tell us about Lawrence Tierney. It sounds like he was a piece of work.
MM: Larry was mentally disturbed, he really was. Quentin must've fired him half a dozen times during the shoot. The funniest thing that ever happened to me with him was, he called me up and asked if I wanted any patio furniture. I said 'No thanks, Larry. I don't need any patio furniture.' "Yes you do, goddammit. Come over and get it." 'No larry, I don't.' "It's in a bunch of shoppping carts in front of my house. Come over and I'll load it up in your car." 'I'm not coming over, Larry. I don't want it!' "I kow where you live. I'm bringing it over." he hangs up. [laughs] So I'm thinking, 'Oh God...' A week or so goes by, and he never shows up. A while later, I'm out with Chris Penn, and Larry's name comes up. Chris says, "Larry dropped a whole bunch of deck furniture at my house, just dropped it off. He told me you said to give it to me!" [laughs]He was nuts. There's a guy who warrants a movie being made about him. It would take about six movies to do him justice.
VM: "Free Willy" was another change of pace for you.
MM: Yeah, the first time I read the script, I figured there must've been a scene where the guy goes berserk. [laughs] But (director) Simon Wincer just wanted me to play the dad. And of the handful of films I've done that I think are any good, I think "Free Willy" is definately one of them. I liked the role and liked the part and wish I could do parts like that more often. It's ironic that poor Keiko is dead now. The whole film was about him being freed, and when they freed him, he was out in the ocean for a little while, looked around and said "Fuck it! I've tasted the good life. Why should I hunt? Get those buckets out and put me back in the circus!" He was just fine where he was. The irony of that is so tremendous, isn't it?
VM: "Donnie Brasco" must've been a great experience.
MM: I met (FBI agent) Joe Pistone and all the guys that used to know my character, Sonny. And Johnny (Depp) and I hung out with some of those guys in New York, and they were very generous and helpful to us. Al Pacino was just an amazing guy. He was always full of ideas. He was actually doing a play at the same time we were shooting the film, so he was gone sometimes when we'd be shooting our scenes. This one scene that we had together, Al had to be gone when they were shooting my stuff, so I had to act with a light stand, which isn't easy. Al came to the set after the play was over, we were finishing up, and said to (director) Mike Newell, "Please set up that shot again, so I can be there for Mike." And that's the kind of guy and the kind of actor he is, just a real gentleman. He's also a real clown. A lot of people don't realize that about him. He loves telling jokes, which unfortunately are really bad jokes. There's always this uncomfortable moment after he's told it where there's this silence when everyone's thinking "That's Al Pacino that just told that joke. Uh..."Then they go: "Ha, ha, ha!" [laughs]
VM: How was it being in "Die Another Day"?
MM: That was great. It was just an amazing feeling being part of such a legendary franchise like the Bond films. They do everything first class. I spent a lot of time in London working on it, hanging out at Pinewood Studios. I met all these old grips who'd worked on every single Bond picture. They'd tell me all these great stories about Connery and what went on during the shooting of the old classics. It's funny because Pierce Brosnan and I have been friends for a while. We're actually neighbors and our kids play together. During the first scene we shot together, he gave me his "Bond face," and when I had to call him "Mr. Bond," i just couldn't keep a straight face! [laughs]I'd look at Pierce and try to say "Mr. Bond," and I'd just crack up. But that was great. Supposedly my character is going to be recurring, so we'll see. I'd love to do more.
VM: You're going to be making your directing debut soon, with "Pretty Boy Floyd".
MM: Yeah, originally I'd wanted to do a picture about John Dillinger, but couldn't get anyone interested in it. In the course of doing research for it, I kept reading about Charlie "Pretty Boy" Floyd, who was another bank robber of that era. He would jump over the counter during a robbery and tear up people's mortgages, so they didn't have to pay the bank. Once during a chase with the cops, he ran over a chicken. He stopped, knocked on the door of the farmhouse, told the lady of the house that he's just run over her chicken and threw a pile of money at her. Then he got back in his car and took off with the cops right behind him! Very interesting character. So yeah, I'm hoping to make that happen sometime soon.
VM: Any final thoughts?
MM: I hope we both live to be 100! [laughs]