Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Since the early 1980s, actor Michael Madsen has defined the notion of "gritty," quietly stealing scenes in films from some of the most dependable leading men in some of the most heralded films of recent times such as "Reservoir Dogs."
With a sympathetic performance in "Thelma & Louise", Madsen began to establish his presence as something more than gorgeous actress Virgina Madsen's brother. Once he broke through as the memorable "Mr. Blonde" in Quentin Tarantino's seminal classic "Reservoir Dogs"—just replay that incredible ear-cutting scene in this modern Los Angelean noir classic—Madsen has appeared in over 100 films becoming an in-demand character actor.
Since then, he's become a cult film favorite, landing parts in movies that are on every genre geek's best-of list from "Kill Bill" to "Sin City." Though he's done nearly every kind of genre, he's been in a raft of crime and horror films from a creature flick like "Species" to the noir-ish "Mulholland Falls" to "Scary Movie 4" to a TV version of "Frankenstein."
In Madsen's recent theatrically film, "Boarding Gate"—now on DVD as part of the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures Magnet (www.magnetreleasing.com)—he stars as a hard-boiled corporate executive with a dark past and taste for S&M which he shares with the always-provocative Italian actress Asia Argento (who seems to be in a new release every other month such as the erotic "The Last Mistress").
Madsen likes to give it and get it and Asia, of course, provides it to him in spades. He's ultimately knocked-off, and the story then spins along the oblique spirals that director Olivier Assayas is known for—especially in his earlier film, the sci-fi-like "Demonlover." Assayas likes to use genres to make post-modernist commentary on the film medium itself and though "Boarding Gate" is the French auteurist most straightforward story, he still reflects on the genre through this film. Madsen offered his own spin on his career, this film and its director to a quartet of interviewers earlier this year.
Q: You're usually playing a tough guy; did take on the role of Miles Rennberg in "Boarding Gate" because of the challenge of playing against type?
MM: Olivier is a great guy. He gave me a chance to play somebody that I don't usually play. I didn't have any guns and I didn't do any harm to anyone.
Q: Was this character one of the most vulnerable you've played?
MM: It's the most vulnerable character I've ever played that actually made it into the theaters. I played an Irish-American prizefighter in a movie called "Strength And Honor," shot in Ireland, that I was extremely vulnerable in. I think it was one of the best roles I've ever had in my life but the picture kind of got lost and swallowed up by the whole publicity-driven money machine of Hollywood.
It got drummed out of a chance to make it out there. It doesn't have foreign distribution yet, so it's still out there. I'd say that "Boarding Gate" is probably one of the few times where I've been able to be asked to play somebody who is essentially non-threatening and gets to kiss a girl.
Q: How was it working with Olivier and collaborating with a director from another country?
MM: Well to be an American actor and to go to Paris and shoot a movie is pretty good. The whole mentality of somebody like Olivier is so artistically balanced. He's a quiet man. He's a collaborative man. Underneath it all you see that he knows what he's doing. A lot of American directors are just up their own asses and they're so formulaic about things.
He was willing to let me make stuff up and go my own way on certain things much the way Quentin [Tarantino] would let me do certain things. There are not many directors who would allow you to come up with something at the spur of the moment and not think that you're just fooling around but to realize that you actually intend for them to be in it as your character. Olivier let me do that.
Q: Like your S&M scene with Asia. What did you think about that scene?
MM: Well, when you have to do stuff like that in a movie, there's nothing erotic about it because you're surrounded by a crew. You have a microphone sticking into your face. If you're making a porno it's one thing, but that whole pretend, making love thing is kind of complicated and it's really not easy. It all depends upon who your co-star is and you've got to have somebody that you can really trust and you've gotta trust each other.
Early on, the two of us got together and we said "We have to do this stuff and we might as well be comfortable about it," and obviously we were, but that's a big thing with Asia. She's such a cool chick. Like I say, it's not too often I get a chance to kiss a girl in a movie. She was just so tremendous to work with.
The thing I like about her is that she just doesn't take anything too seriously but at the same time she takes it very seriously. There's a duality of conscience there where she's like casually "Ah, ok," but underneath that there's dedication. I think me and her are the same in that way, and we met each other on a common ground and it was what it needed to be.
Someone should find a screenplay for us to be like a "Bonnie & Clyde" type of thing or some sort of a thing like "Casablanca" where we could really be romantic with each other but have some heartbreaking kind of an ending. I'd love to work with her, that's what I'm saying. I think we had such good chemistry on screen.
Q: Was that your idea to use the belt in bondage scene an example of being able to be creative?
MM: It was just one of those things I thought of. I was sitting on the set and we were laughing and fooling around. I just took my belt off and I was whipping Asia with it. We were just playing like kids and I was sitting there and for whatever reason I put it around my neck and was wearing it like a necktie. I was joking that I would hang myself.
Then we suddenly realized that it would be an interesting thing to do in the movie, a sexual moment to have her hold the thing. It was something that accidentally came up that turned into something we used in the scene.
Q: So it wasn't like you just said, "Hey I have this idea, let me tell
you about it."
MM: When I cut that ear off in "Reservoir Dogs" I didn't know what to do with it. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. We didn't rehearse that scene because I didn't want to rehearse it. I knew what the parameters of the set were. I knew where I could walk and not walk and that's what I wanted to know.
So Quentin, being Quentin, said, "OK, let's shoot it," and we did. The first time I had that thing in my hand I walked off to the side with it and I just was looking at it and I was thinking in my mind, "OK, what am I to do with this fucking thing," and I know that they're rolling so I can't say it. So after telling you this now if you watch the movie and you look at me you can tell that's exactly what I'm thinking at that time, going "What the fuck am I gonna do with this ear"
Meanwhile, Quentin's over at the side of the camera going "Toss it! Throw it Michael! Throw it away! Toss the ear!" I didn't want to toss it. I was trying to think of something else to do, so I went "Hey, can you hear me," and I just spoke into it because the cop was sitting right there and I knew it would make him go crazy if I did that. Then I threw it, then I tossed the ear.
Quentin obviously didn't appreciate it at the moment and he said, "What are you doing," but then the next day after he saw the dailies he said to me, "Oh my god Michael, I watched this fucking stuff and you were talking into the ear, so it's staying in the movie." I said "Well I hope so, that's why I did it."
At the time they thought that it was something that wasn't going to be in the film, they saw it as being silly. It was an accidental thing. Olivier is like that, he let me do a lot of stuff. Those are the kind of things that make movie moments.
Q: How were you approached to do "Boarding Gate"?
MM: I got a call. I don't have agents because the whole thing is just insanity but I have a manager. From what I remember they called him to offer me the part and then I talked to Olivier because I couldn't believe he wanted me for the part. Then it took a while though, from what I remember it was almost a year from when I first heard about it until we finally got together to make it.
I love the guy. Seeing him again made me think again what a sweet man he is. I'd love to work with him again. It's better when you know each other, when you make another picture with somebody you've already worked with, things turn out well. It means you can do it again so much better because you already are over with all of the silly, get to know each other things that people go through. That shit's over with and we can just go on with it. That's why Ridley Scott probably uses Russell Crowe so many times because they know each other.
Q: Quentin and Robert Rodriguez use you a lot so does it get more familiar with each project?
MM: I just want some longevity, that's all I want. The trophies are not something that's come my way. Maybe that's not meant to be and that's fine with me.
Q: So what's the status of "Inglorious Bastards," Quentin's next film after The Grindhouse project?
MM: I was just at Sundance with "Hell Ride" and Quentin was there. We sat together at "Hell Ride" and I said to him in the dark, "What the fuck is going on with "Bastards?" He just said, "I'm writing it, I'm still working on it, don't worry about it." When it comes to him, it is Quentin's world, I'm just living in it so when he gets around to it, that's when it will happen. With him, you can't force anything to happen. He may never do it but then again he may start shooting it tomorrow, who knows with him [laughs].
Q: And what is happening with "Sin City 2?"
MM: That's up to Robert Rodriguez. I don't know what his status is right now. He had some troubles with some personal matters. I don't know. The only reason I did the first one was when he gave me the part at the premiere after party of "Kill Bill," he asked me to be in "Sin City." I told Robert, "I have only three scenes in the film, that's ridiculous, and I certainly don't need to get punched by Bruce Willis." Then Robert goes, "Yeah but you get to shoot him," and I go, "That's right, I can shoot Bruce" and he told me if I do it, I'd have a bigger role in the sequel. I said fine and that's why I did it.
I hope he follows through with that promise because I'd like to be in the next one but I told Frank Miller that I don't want Bob to get killed though. I drive Frank crazy. He came over my house and we drank a lot of tequila trying to convince me why Bob should not die in "Sin City 2." I think I talked him out of it. I hope so anyway.
Q: is being an actor something you've always planned on doing always been in your head?
MM: I wish I could say that I was some kind of genius and that I had a crystal ball, that I've always known it. All I can do is tell you the truth.
I wanted to be [legendary NASCAR driver] Richard Petty when I was growing up [laughs]. I did, I wanted to be a NASCAR driver. I don't think I've told anybody this before but I wanted to build race cars and me and my pals built a quarter mile drag cars with a road runner, we had a Super B with 440 Horse speed. We would do drags in that fucking thing. I was a gear head in high school. I dropped out of high school. I was an auto mechanic around 1976 and I worked at a Texaco station. Cars were everything to me, I lived it. I loved going to sleep with greasy hands, I could smell them on the pillow. I smelled of gasoline, it was heavenly to me. Then I wrecked a car, I had a really bad accident and one thing led to another.
I worked as an orderly as a hospital. I was a pipe fitter. I tried painting houses for a while. I tried to start my own house painting business. I worked for a landscaper. I worked construction. I drove a tow truck for two years in the snow in Chicago. I even shoveled snow off the roofs. I tended to run around with the wrong type of people and I got in trouble a few times, got locked up a couple of times. Sooner or later you had to come to your senses. I was really going nowhere fast. I even enlisted in the Marine Corps to get out of jail and they wouldn't even take me.
I had a history of asthma when I was a child. I also had recurring migraine headaches so bad that I couldn't see out of my left eye. I had a bleeding ulcer in my stomach. I tore cartilage in my knee from playing football, so I had all these health issues and the Marine Corps would not accept me. Then I figured there was nothing left but the hangman's noose for me, which I considered a few times.
I had this goofy idea in the back of my head because when I was a little kid I saw "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison" with Robert Mitchum. He's a Marine trapped on an island with Deborah Kerr. John Huston directed it. You know, that fucking movie just really did something to me. I don't know, I so related to Mitchum in that film. Then I had an idea that I could do that and I thought "What a job that would be."
My sister Virginia, she just got nominated for God's sakes a couple of years ago, she was taking acting classes. She was studying acting. She had Marilyn Monroe posters up on her wall in her room. She was fully into it. She was doing high school theater and everything.
I started remembering how much I liked Humphrey Bogart in "The Petrified Forest" and watched him play all these killers for Warner Bros, then all of a sudden he did "The Maltese Falcon" and he quickly turned it around. All of a sudden he wasn't the bad guy anymore. He made that switch from a heavy to the leading man.
I thought that was pretty cool. He got to kill Edward G. Robinson in "Key Largo," and you can tell how happy he was about it too. Jimmy Cagney of course, my God, remember when Rocky Sullivan goes to the electric chair at the end of "Angels with Dirty Faces" and Pat O'Brien tells him to turn yellow so the boys don't glorify him as a gangster? He just lets out that wail, "Don't kill me! Please don't kill me, no, no!"
Then you see the shadow on the wall and the lever going down. Oh my god, it would make the hair on my neck stand up. It is even now talking about it. The thing of it is did he chicken out for the boys so they wouldn't think he was a big shot or was he really fucking scared to die? That's the whole thing in that movie and it would make me crazy.
I went to the library and I got a biography of his. I read every book I could find about Jimmy Cagney and I finally found a book where somebody asked him about Rocky Sullivan and they went "OK, what's the truth when you played that scene? Were you doing it for the boys or were you really scared?" And he wouldn't answer it. He said, "I can't answer that question because if I ever did, it would defeat the purpose." I thought "My god, I can certainly make movies," but actually getting the opportunity to do that coming from my background was probably like a million to one.
My father reminded me of that back in the first days I told him when I first told him I was going to be an actor. It just kind of happened accidentally and I feel very fortunate to have found something to do with myself but I never had any formal training whatsoever.
I did go to Steppenwolf Theater for maybe two months. A lot has been made out of that but the truth is I didn't stay there long. I moved to California and was working at a gas station. I didn't realize I was working in Beverly Hills until I saw Jack Lemmon driving in for gas and Cicely Tyson and Warren Beatty. I met a girl who knew an agent and they took a chance on me. I auditioned for a television show and I got the part.
Q: What was the television show?
MM: It was "St. Elsewhere." I was the bad brother. It was a racial episode. I don't want the hospital to know that it's my father who was beating up my little brother so I say it was the black guys, they beat up my brother. Denzel finds out and catches me when I was about to say this bad thing. I say "He was beat up by the…" and Denzel walks in to cue the music. It was the big moment and I was caught in having to give up my father. Denzel was so cool, he couldn't have been nicer to me. David Morse was also cool.
These guys were veterans and who was I? I was a punk from Chicago. I was a fool kid. What the hell was I doing on this television show? I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I didn't know what a mark was. They were just so nice to me and accepting of my circumstance. I was lucky to be working with guys like that from the very beginning.
Q: You have such a distinctive voice, literally…
MM: Yeah, I've been trying to figure that one out for years [laughs]. I sound a lot like my father. My dad has the same kind of voice but my mother claims that they accidentally cut one of my vocal cords when I got my tonsils out when I was a kid. I don't know what the hell it's from honestly. I smoked for twenty years. Maybe that did something.
Q: When did you start to develop that voice?
MM: I think it started when I was ten. I remember people coming to me when I was 10 asking me, "Jesus are you sick? What's wrong with you?" I thought I was fine.
Q: Have you ever thought about directing?
MM: I executive produced a cop movie called "Vice" that's came out in April, 2008 directed by Raul Sanchez Inglis. I got Andrzej Sekula [who did "Reservoir Dogs"] to shoot it for me. Andrzej is the man, I mean Jesus, what did I have to worry about when he was on set, absolutely nothing.
I want to direct. I've been directing myself for years. It doesn't seem to be a very difficult job. If the right
project comes along and the right situation, then yeah I would do it. I'll say it on the record.