“So, being Michael Madsen and all, how intimidated are people when they meet you?” is a question I’ve read in most of the interviews with actor Michael Madsen. It’s understandable, to extent. He’s played some imposing figures during his career, but it’s called acting for a reason.
Walking in the hotel room to interview Madsen, he certainly makes an impression. His back is turned to me, and he’s sporting jeans and cool alligator (or snake?) boots, talking about a man on the rooftop across from the hotel, I can see why people have a certain perception of Madsen, but those people probably haven’t read much of the actor’s poetry – which is full of sensitivity.
We spoke with the forthright and personable – not particularly scary – Madsen at the press day for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, in which he plays Joe Gage, a silent “writer.” Here’s what he had to say about the film, his past work with Quentin Tarantino, poetry, and the strange man on the roof:
Madsen: [To the publicist] Right by the blue circle there was a guy, walking around up there. He was looking over the railings, looking over the edges, and then he walked back and walked front again. Then, in that little umbrella area, he just stood there for a really long time, staring up here. He had a dark suit and a blue shirt. It was just weird.
[Turns around and sees me]
Hey! How are you?
Good, thanks. Yourself?
Good. That guy might be setting up a rocket [Laughs], aiming it at us on the 14th floor.
A comforting note to start an interview on.
It was just weird. For a long time, he was just wandering around. I wish I had a pair of binoculars. I wanted to check him out. Who the fuck are you, buddy?
Well, thanks for making the time today. I saw the film last night, and I think it’s excellent.
It’s pretty good. You can’t wait for them to get out of that goddamn stagecoach, but it’s pretty good. I think it’s a little long in the beginning, but thank you for that. That’s Quentin’s genius. I just happen to be there for the ride.
Are you an actor who’s comfortable watching their own work?
You know, buddy, I’m super fucking critical of myself. I never really enjoy watching a picture I’ve been in until, really, a year later. Honestly, when Reservoir Dogs first came out, I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and I really didn’t think that much of it. Well, I didn’t think much of myself, I mean. I didn’t like my performance, the tone of my voice, and my pants looked like they were too tight. I also had these fucking black cowboy boots on, because I didn’t have black dress shoes. Everybody came to work in their own clothes, because we didn’t have money for wardrobe. Quentin told everybody to show up in black suits with black shoes – and I didn’t have any black dress shoes. When I watched the movie I was conscious of all those things.
I thought Mr. Blonde was incredibly cruel, and I didn’t especially like playing that guy. I wanted to be Mr. Pink, because I had done Thelma & Louise with Harvey Keitel, but my scenes with him got cut out of the movie – for plot reasons or whatever. I really wanted to work with Harvey, and Mr. Pink has most of the dialogue scenes with Mr. White (Keitel). That’s the part I wanted. I even tried to talk to Quentin about getting me out of Mr. Blonde.
When I saw the film, I didn’t think much of it, but when I see it now, it’s a fucking masterpiece. It’s fucking cinema history. And Mr. Blonde is, like, the most memorable character in the fucking thing. Kill Bill was kind of the same thing, because it was cut in half and I’m prominently in the second half, so it seemed like forever until it came out. I was too critical of my performance in it, but if Kill Bill Vol. 2 is on TV or there’s a special screening of it, I’m, like, holy Christ, man, I’m fucking great in that thing. I appreciate what I’ve done, but in the beginning, I’m not, because I was there. If I don’t see exactly what I was thinking [on set], then it throws me off and I can’t appreciate the film.
Similar experience watching Joe Gage?
It’s too much to take in. I gotta see it again. I’m still confused about it – not in a negative way. I gotta watch it again to understand the rhythm of the way he cut it together.
In the film, you never quite know when some characters are lying, but when Joe Gage talks about his mom – and how important mothers are – I believed him.
[Laughs] Yeah. When you play a bad guy, you kind of have to know he doesn’t think that he’s bad. They usually think what they’re doing is absolutely the right fucking thing – and that’s the mentality you have to have when you play somebody like that. I understand that way of thinking, and that’s why I can play it. If anything, I try to bring a duality to guys that I play, and even Mr. Blonde.
I learned that from James Cagney. He said, “If you play somebody really noble, you should probably try to find the flaw in the noble guy. If you’re playing somebody really bad, deep inside that guy, there’s probably something really sweet and good – and don’t forget it.” That’s always stuck in my mind – the duality of character. I don’t know if it’s an actable quality, because you can either do it or you can’t. I consciously try to bring that to stuff that I do, especially with Quentin.
Touching on that duality, when I think about Kill Bill, one of the scenes that immediately comes to mind is Bud telling Bill they all deserve to die, but that won’t stop him from killing her.
I added that line myself: “Well, then again, so does she.” Originally, in the script, it says, “That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die.” [Laughs] But then I said, “Then again, so does she.” I threw that in, and God bless Quentin, because he’s let me do that numerous times. Trust me, he doesn’t usually do that. You’re right about that scene, though – the duality of it all. That’s what I was thinking, and I kind of just spoke out loud.
Obviously Joe Gage isn’t the biggest talker.
No, Joe doesn’t have a lot to say. I had a little more to say that’s not in the film. I had a big scene with Walt [Goggins], where he decides to make a toast to General Smithers (Bruce Dern). I’m the one with the Brandy, so Walt has to come over and ask if he can have some of my brandy – and it was a really nice scene with me and Walt. I hope it’ll be in another version someday or on the DVD. I miss that scene. I had a good energy with Walt.
When Joe Gage says he’s writing his life story, do you think he’s actually writing his memoir?
Well, see, I am a writer. I’ve written four books, and Quentin’s the only one who gives a damn that I write. To most people, their curiosity is because I’m a movie actor. My books haven’t exactly become bestsellers. Nevertheless, I do think they’re good and have a lot of merit, and Quentin does appreciate me as a writer, and that’s why he made Joe Gage a writer in the movie, or so he says.
Quentin said, “Well, Michael, you’re a writer, so Joe Gage is a writer.” That’s where he got the idea. It was kind of fun to pretend to be the guy doing that, when, in actuality, I don’t think Joe Gage would ever be writing his life story [Laughs]. I wish I would’ve kept that book, man, because I wrote some funny shit in there. I think Quentin probably has it.
Do you recall some of what you wrote?
I would just write these really goofy things about Tim [Roth]. I would watch everybody and just write down what I thought they were all doing. I actually wanted to write stuff – not just pretend and scribble shit. I wrote different things that were going on. You know, Quentin still has the razor I used as Mr. Blonde – and he gave Uma that same razor, and she uses it to free herself in the coffin in Kill Bill Vol. 2. That’s Mr. Blonde’s razor – the same one. Quentin’s funny that way; he keeps a lot of famous props. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has it.
Last night I read some of your poetry.
You did? Oh wow.
When did writing become an interest for you?
You know, early on when I was first starting as an actor, I was an auto mechanic, in Chicago, man. Let’s face it – the chances of me becoming a film actor were 10 billion to one. I realized early on there’s a lot of downtime, sitting around in hotels, fucking motels, trains, and fucking airplanes. You know, I had a lot on my mind, so I started writing down a lot of short stories and mostly reminiscences of my youth and being a kid and my dad. You know, my father just died two weeks ago, and it was pretty devastating to me, but I wrote a lot about my childhood and memories growing up. I wasn’t writing it because I wanted to be a writer. I was just compelled to write it. I don’t really know what the genesis of it was.
I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, when I was making Wyatt Earp, because I didn’t want to be in L.A. anymore. I had that whole thing of, “I’m not going to be in Hollywood. I’m going to be the guy who gets out.” I went through that whole ridiculous state of mind, so I moved to New Mexico. When the movers came with my shit from Los Angeles all the boxes and crap were left in the living room. It was in the wintertime, and those houses in Santa Fe are heated by Adobe fireplaces, and if you don’t have a fire in there, you’re going to fucking freeze, man. I needed something to burn, so I went outside, trying to get some trees and limbs but everything was frozen, but then I found this box – full of the shit I had written on fucking matchbooks, hotel stationary, shopping bags, or anything I could write on.
I took the box and was going to burn it, because there was nothing else to burn. I was with a certain young lady at the time, and as I was putting them in the fire, she picked up one of them and said, “My God, Michael, what are you doing?” I go, “Well, I’m trying to warm up this house.” She said, “That’s insanity. This is really some interesting stuff. You know, you could get a publisher to publish this.” I said, “Come on, that’s ridiculous.” She wanted to help me out, and she knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a publisher. I ended up giving it to a publisher, and they took it, and it was my first book, “Beer, Blood, and Ashes”. I was surprised, but when I saw it in a book form, it seemed legitimate – and much more so than it would look on a napkin. All the sudden I realized, Gosh, I guess I can write.
It inspired me to keep doing it, so I wrote more and more. Eventually I did “American Badass,” the collected works, “Expecting Rain,” and “Eat the Worm”. I haven’t written a single fucking word in over a year now, and I think it’s because I’m a more happy person these days. Even losing my father, as tragic as it was, was a strange, bizarre release for me, in a really weird way. I don’t know how to explain it.
I used to be one of those guys with a lot of angst, you know? I just don’t anymore. I’m not angst-ridden anymore. I’ve faced reality of what I am and what I have to do in life. I don’t love being an actor, but I’m not qualified to be anything else. I was an auto mechanic and drove a tow truck and tried to go to school to be a paramedic. If you open a car from this year, I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at. I can fix something up until 1977, but after that, it’s over.
Outside of being a trash collector, I don’t know what the fuck else I would do, besides making pictures. It’s funny about the writing thing, because I don’t think I’ll write no more. I think I’ve said everything I wanted to say, in book form. I don’t want to start repeating myself. And I love the stuff that I’ve written, especially when I look back now. I really appreciate it, and I’m so happy that I did it. A lot of it is very personal and important to me, so I’m really glad it’s there for whoever interested.
Just now, when you said that you read some of it, that’s startling to me when someone says that. I don’t imagine anybody reading what I wrote, but, in fact, a lot of people have – and they’re a little more popular than I give them credit for. You gotta be inspired to write. I can act. If you got a part and a camera, even if I don’t feel like it that day, I gotta do it, man, because that’s my job. You can’t just suddenly say, “You know what? I’m going to write a poem.” If it’s not in your brain, it’s not going to be there. I haven’t written anything in a long time, but I appreciate you even mentioning it.
Of course. You said you don’t love acting. Any particular reason why?
It’s a good job, a privileged job. I’m blessed I’ve made some good films. I don’t know if there’s anything sadder than an actor who hasn’t made a good picture, and at least I got a few good ones that will stand the test of time. I feel very fortunate about that. Also, it’s an emotional roller coaster; it’s hard to have a stable personal life when you’re an actor. Sometimes the people around you don’t understand what it takes to rise to the occasion, to make it or be recognized.
I don’t walk around the street thinking, “I’m Michael Madsen,” but then again, I am that guy, and sometimes people do take notice of me. Sometimes it’s really not comfortable. It can be really odd, if I’m in a restaurant and every single fucking person knows I’m there. With the digital age, you can see everybody on their phone – and I know they’re looking me up. They’re actually googling me in front of me, and do they not think I realize that? It’s kind of unsettling. I either get, “[Excited] Oh man, it’s him! Fuck. Whoa. Goddamn, man,” or else I get, “[Less Excited] Oh, man… oh shit… aw fuck.” I never know which way it’s going to go [Laughs]. It’s very bizarre, man, and very unpredictable. People are funny, man.