When people recognize her these days, Madeleine Stowe notices, they tend to whisper and give sidelong glances rather than come up and chat. “I think they’re a little scared of my character,” she says with a laugh. Fair enough. Victoria Grayson, East Hampton’s lady of the grandest house, a 24,000-square-foot nest on ABC’s hit drama Revenge, is a force to be reckoned with. To maintain her social standing, she must keep the lid on her Pandora’s box of a past, and to that end Stowe’s regal Grayson seems prepared to perpetrate untold wickedness. Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Revenge is a riveting stew of lies, sex, murder and greed smothered in endless reserves of cash—a mix so addictive that in the show’s first season it beat out a long-running Wednesday-night competitor, NBC’s Law & Order: SVU. Stowe’s character, fond of Leger bandage dresses and Louboutin heels, presides coolly over the feast, a gorgeous sphinx whose history has yet to be revealed.
The actress is something of a riddle herself. In 1994, at the height of a movie career that included acclaimed turns as the aristocratic beauty who wins Daniel Day-Lewis’s trapper heart in The Last of the Mohicans and the constantly deceived wife of Tim Robbins’s philandering cop in Short Cuts, she quit Hollywood and moved to a 400-acre cattle ranch in Fredericksburg, Texas. “I’d worked with the best filmmakers on the planet,” Stowe says. “But there were other things I wanted to do, other lives I wanted to live. I just got to the point where I wanted to be somewhere else.”
She has settled into a leather sofa in the lobby of Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar hotel. Wearing a black fitted motorcycle jacket over a black turtleneck and black leggings, and black lace-up heels that fall somewhere between biker chic and nun shoes, the 53-year-old Stowe effortlessly turns heads. As her friend Mudcat Saunders, a Virginia-based political strategist, drawls, “Madeleine is one of those women who are 10 times more beautiful without makeup.” Much like her TV character, Stowe is notable for her penetrating eyes, erect bearing, deliberate diction and thoughtful speech. She and her character have complexity in common, too. Indeed, before the Revengerole came up, Stowe told her agents she was through with acting. But Grayson’s cunning appealed to her, she says, as did “her capacity to love but to be so damaged that she would in essence annihilate herself and the person that she loved at the same time.”
“Madeleine’s character could have been the most one-dimensional, typical villain,” says Emily VanCamp, 26, who plays Grayson’s nemesis. “But she’s brought so much humanity to this woman. As much as Victoria does these terrible things, you feel for her. You really want to know where she’s been.”
When Stowe returned to Hollywood, audiences wondered the same about her, and the answer was simple, if surprising: She’d been living life as a cowgirl. When she and her husband, actor Brian Benben (Private Practice), moved to Fredericksburg (population at the time: under 7,000), they went Western. The couple rode horses, cleaned stalls and raised cattle. They threw Fourth of July barbecues, set off fireworks at their lake and hiked for miles. After their daughter, May, was born in 1996, “Maddy would put the baby in her pouch and take her along, too,” says Carolyn Kyle, who ran the ranch with her husband, Ted. “Maddy was always in jeans, a flannel shirt, a straw hat and sunglasses.”