Madeleine Stowe's Second Act

Nearly two decades ago, she abandoned an A-list movie career to live on a Texas ranch and raise her daughter. Today, 'Revenge' star Stowe is the toast of TV, performing heroic deeds in Haiti—and showing that the best of life can begin at any age

by Margot Dougherty
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Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Stowe commuted for Hollywood projects—The General’s Daughter with John Travolta, The Propositionwith Kenneth Branagh—but left celebrity decorum on the tarmac. One night in Texas, Ted Kyle, now 75, saw her drive past with Benben in her white Ford pickup and “noticed something in the window,” he says. “I couldn’t make it out. Later Maddy told me she’d thought it would be funny if she mooned me. She’s a fun, fun person.” When a gaggle of cowboys dared her to snack on a pair of bull testicles, freshly harvested and briefly seared in the branding fire during a castration roundup, “well, she jumped right in and ate them,” says her friend Kellie Macy, the Kyles’ daughter. “That is so her.”

At night on the ranch, the Kyles would sit on the back porch and tell stories about the area, including one about Quanah Parker, a famous Comanche chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped by the tribe as a young girl. The abduction of white children by Native Americans was common in Texas in the mid-19th century, and Stowe became obsessed with the phenomenon. “I started doing research,” she says. “If these kids survived, they’d often become so acculturated that when their parents finally found them, they never wanted to come back.” The experience of being caught between two worlds resonated. “I guess,” she says, “I always felt that way myself.”

The eldest of three, Stowe grew up in Eagle Rock, then a working-class L.A. neighborhood. Her mother was Costa Rican, from a well-to-do family that counted presidents of that country in its lineage. Her father, born into a poor Oregon family (his father was a gravedigger), was a self-taught civil engineer prone to rages. “Sometimes he would come home at night and destroy everything in the house,” says Stowe. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 28 and forced to retire when Stowe was six, he was eventually confined to a wheelchair. “He would fall off chairs and his bed, and my brother would have to pick him up,” she recalls, adding, “He was six foot one.” The disease also took his memory, making communication rudimentary. “He’d answer questions monosyllabically,” she says. “He watched one television station and smoked two packs of Winstons a day. But as a child, you have great devotion to your parents.” Stowe would hover over him with water lest his lit cigarette fall into the sofa. “I don’t want to go dark,” she says, “but it was full-time care.”

She didn’t bring friends home. “I was always afraid of being deeply humiliated,” she says, and that fear left its toll. “I don’t think, Oh, I wish I’d had another life, but it did create a split in me,” she admits. “I always had a recessive quality. I could never come out of the shadows too well. When I did and my film career was really going, it would create a certain stress level, and I would sort of disappear. It was as if I didn’t want to be exposed too much.”

Fredericksburg afforded her privacy and freedom but didn’t erase her anxieties. “As a mother, I was always looking under my daughter’s bed and checking her closet every single night with the idea that somebody might take her from us,” she says. “It was my worst nightmare.” It was also the genesis for a passion project. With her thirties behind her, Stowe found herself “unmoored.” She made a few movies—Impostor with Gary Sinise, a TV version of The Magnificent Ambersons, the destined-for-video Octane—but “it was a lost period for me,” she says. “The pieces weren’t coming together. In your thirties, you’ve come into your own. It’s a glorious era—most women now have children in their thirties. When the forties creep up, unless you’re so crazy driven, they just knock you on your behind.”

First Published May 22, 2012 First published in the June 2012 issue

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