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."
Faith in the Present
On this afternoon, cross-legged on a black leather chair and wearing blue jeans and a batik T-shirt and a tattoo on her left arm that says "Faith," Madsen is 100 percent mother as son Jack buzzes around her. So far their topics have included Jack’s appraisal of Candyman, a 1992 cult horror classic starring Madsen ("God, it’s a good movie!" he gushes). After that comes a back-and-forth about The Number 23, a psychological thriller starring Jim Carrey and Madsen.
The famously focused Carrey was the third in a recent succession of leading men (first, Harrison Ford in last year’s thriller Firewall, then Thornton) who Madsen says have helped create a new niche for her in Hollywood. "I’m the actress who can work opposite intense men," she says. A born-and-bred Chicago girl with a tough-guy character-actor older brother, Michael Madsen, she never worried about forging a bond with Carrey. "He’s Canadian; I’m Midwestern. We’re down-to-earth." Then, in the midst of a story extolling the virtues of Billy Bob Thornton, her hands fly up to cover her bright pink cheeks. "I’m blushing," she says, genuinely embarrassed. "Can you tell I haven’t had sex in so long?"
Is she looking to be in a relationship?
"I’ve been happily, happily single for a long time," says Madsen, who shares custody of Jack with his actor father, Antonio Sabato Jr. She went through a being-fixed-up-a-lot-by-friends phase and has moved on to trusting that when the right man walks in, he’ll sweep her off her feet. Her life is so full, she is content to wait.
"I like everything about the age I am right now," she says, though how old her great love will be is unclear. "Men my age or older are intimidated by me," she says. "Younger guys are not! I mean, they’re ready!" The richly experienced actress laughs, adding, "But I don’t have a lot in common with them."
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2007.