“There’s a huge snow blizzard. Holy shit.” Michael Madsen is getting snowed in at his ranch in Montana. Married with six kids, I ask him if his entire family is with him. “Yes, except for my two older ones. They’re 16 and 18, back in L.A. pumping pussy. I don’t blame them.”
With most actors, you can get a sense of what their real-life, off-screen personas are from talk-show appearances and the like. But Michael Madsen, while a fine actor and a modern day icon for badassity, isn’t exactly a mainstay on the celebrity circuit. So the only thing I had to go by was his on-screen personas, most notably Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs, the guy who methodically cuts a duct-taped cop’s ear off with a straight razor, forever associating Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” with muffled cries of horror. Or it could be Budd, the no-good, lazy bouncer in Kill Bill 2 who buries Uma Thurman alive—but only after shotgunning her chest full of rock salt. Understandably I was mildly intimidated, more so than usual. But when I hear Michael Madsen use the phrase “pumping pussy” so casually, before I even ask him one of my prepared questions, I laugh, uncomfortably at first until he joins in. And then I’m relieved because I realize despite all of his characters, he’s not a psycho. He’s sincere, almost too sincere, a nice guy. And with that phrase, delivered in that trademark Madsen “I’ve-smoked-too many- goddamn-cigarettes rasp” (actually it’s the result of a botched tonsillectomy in his youth), I understand why he plays such a believable villain. It’s his honesty. His sincerity. Some villains are played out with an intense psycho pretense—a lot of chest pounding, eyes bugging, and lines delivered through clenched teeth. Madsen’s villains on the other hand are calm. Eerily calm. He knows what he’s going to do. He doesn’t need to intimidate because he knows he’s going to get it done. He’s not trying to fool you. And that’s what makes him scary.Becoming an actor happened rather serendipitously for Madsen. While growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, he would act the big brother and accompany his younger sister, Virginia Madsen, on train voyages to meet with her talent age. “She had an agent because she was a singing telegram. It was the real deal, she would drive my mom’s Camaro around with the back filled with balloons.” On one visit, the agent, being an agent, asked to videotape Michael. He reluctantly agreed to it. Virginia suggested he tell a story. He told one about a scuffle that he got into at a restaurant. Somehow, the tape ended up in the hands of the master of the ultra-tough-guy Spaghetti Westerns, such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director/producer Sergio Leone.“For whatever reason, he decided he wanted to give me some counsel and paid for my plane ticket to visit him in New York. He brought me over to his brownstone, and he walked around in a big robe, eating pasta out of a huge pot with a fork,” Madsen recalls. “He was right next door to Katharine Hepburn, and in the morning he would take me outside and we would stand up on the top of his place and look over into the yard next door. He would explain to me in Italian that he was waiting for Katharine Hepburn to come outside. He was amazed by her. And sure enough she appeared with a little babushka tied around her head, picking up all of these little sticks in her garden. She didn’t know we were there watching her, but I remember Sergio pointing his finger and just looking at me and saying, ‘Hepburn! Hepburn!’ And I said, ‘OK man! Alright, that’s her, that’s her!’” Growing up watching tough-guys like Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart, Madsen always dreamed of acting. The surreal meeting with Leone gave him the confidence to pursue it. “I mean, for me, being a kid outside of Chicago standing up there with Sergio Leone looking down into Katharine Hepburn’s garden? It was kind of amazing, you know? I was pretty much a hoodlum who didn’t really care about school. All I really wanted to do was build race cars, get stoned, and run around with my nefarious friends. I was thrown in the clank a couple of times; it was a nightmare for my mother. But I realized that sooner or later I had better change my course or I was just going to end up, well, you know.”
Leone told Madsen that he reminded him of Henry Fonda, that he had a remoteness about him. “He goes, ‘Son, listen, you’ve got screen presence. You can’t be taught that. You’re born with that. You don’t realize it, and it’s probably a good thing that you don’t realize it, but that’s what you have.’ I still don’t know what he’s talking about, and I still don’t understand what it all means. But he went on to say that I didn’t need to study, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m going to be doing that.’”
Michael Madsen is called upon to play many a bad guy, but he didn’t start off playing bad guys, nor did he necessarily want to. He once said, “I’m a leading man trapped in a bad guy’s body.” It’s something that he still believes today. Leone wanted to use Madsen in a Western, but he unfortunately passed away soon after their meeting, so Madsen returned to Chicago. The director Marty Brest approached him when he tagged along with a friend who was going to an audition. Brest asked him if he’d like to audition for a film entitled War Games, and he ended up liking him enough to offer him a role in the film if he ever made his way to Los Angeles.So, like how many Hollywood stories begin, he moved to L.A. Brest was eventually replaced by director John Badham, but he convinced Badham to use Madsen. In the end, Madsen was paid 600 dollars to be a soldier who worked in a nuclear missile silo in the opening scene of the film. He used that money to get his Screen Actors Guild card, and worked at the Union 76 gas station in Beverly Hills, while working the audition circuit.
Soon after, he landed a role in what he thought was going to be, and should have been, his big break. But when he attended the opening night of The Natural with Robert Redford, he realized that most of his scenes had been cut. “I was frustrated. It was a big learning experience for me because I figured if you shot something that it was going to be there. But I learned the hard way.”Unfortunately, this would also happen to most of his scenes with Harvey Keitel in Thelma and Louise, where Madsen played Susan Sarandon’s kind yet rough-edged boyfriend, Jimmy. But that experience with Keitel, who would later become godfather to one of his sons, was so affecting that it became the main reason Madsen got involved in the movie that would end up changing his life.