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.