Virginia Madsen

Virginia Madsen speaks to MORE magazine about her comeback in films like Sideways, The Number 23, and The Astronaut Farmer.

By: Margy Rochlin
Virginia Madsen on MORE's April 2007 cover
Photograph: Photo by: Art Streiber

Don’t Call It a Comeback
To Virginia Madsen, who has been acting in films for almost 25 years, there is a cozy predictability about the fraternization of a cast and crew on location. "The drinkers find each other," she explains. "Pot smokers find each other. The druggies get fired." Madsen, who has a 12-year-old son, Jack, says she scans the crowd on set, searching for nesters. "I look for family people, people with kids," says Madsen, a self-described homebody who likes to lure guests to her trailer with the promise of a big pot of soup and a bottle of nice wine.
What Madsen doesn’t mention right away is the seismic change in how she is now perceived when she arrives on a set. Back in 2002, her capsule profile could have been: there-and-gone 1980s blond ingenue, onetime wife of directing legend John Huston’s son Danny. Then in 2004 came Sideways, a bittersweet road picture in which Madsen appeared as Maya, a waitress and divorcee who could look at Paul Giamatti’s Miles — a depressed, lumpish wine connoisseur — and detect a sweet soul struggling to emerge. Her Maya was all layered complexity, vulnerable yet able to protect herself, sexually interested but ready to leave the minute she detected a hint of insensitivity in Miles — in other words, a believable, multidimensional woman, not a mere love interest. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I knew it was, and I told myself, ‘Just drink it in!’" Madsen says of the enthusiastic reviews, multiple film critics’ awards, and affectionate newspaper profiles detailing her triumph. If she had a quibble, it was a tiny one: calling what she went through a comeback.
Madsen, who was never idle during her decade-long Lost Years — mostly just toiling in the cultural dark of made-for-cable and low-budget movies — says, "Some people called it a ‘come-forward.’ I liked that."
Now, post-Sideways, critics and colleagues assess Madsen as a leading lady whose Nordic beauty has somehow been enriched by having survived life’s ups and downs. "She brings a certain humanity," says Billy Bob Thornton, who in the moving family drama The Astronaut Farmer plays an ex-NASA dreamer husband to Madsen’s steadfastly supportive wife. Madsen’s role here is the kind that shows off her natural sturdiness, a square-shouldered quality that makes it seem as if Thornton’s character would fall apart without his wife, but that without him, she’d be fine. "She’s so outgoing; there was never an awkward moment," Thornton says. "When I watch the movie, even I think we’re married."

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