Michael Madsen: The King of Cool

By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

IFQ Magazine recently spoke with actor Michael Madsen regarding a film that is both near and dear to his heart, Mark Mahon’s directorial debut Strength and Honour, which is an Official Selection for the 32nd Cairo International Film Festival. The film, which stars Madsen as an ex-boxer living in Ireland forced to fight again to literally save his son’s life, has had a rough road since completion which Madsen discusses frankly as well as his dismay towards industry indifference towards both it and the film’s director. As an actor, he’s been known for his constant stream of work, both good and bad which he himself is upfront about and in telling why he takes certain jobs. Over the course of our conversation, Madsen discussed many other subjects in his trademark, laconic tone and easygoing manner. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, Michael Madsen doesn’t pull punches and will tell you what’s on his mind. In today’s media-savvy society where answers are carefully manicured, it’s a welcome relief.

IFQ: A film of yours that I recently saw and was intrigued by is Strength and Honour, the Irish boxing film you did with director Mark Mahon, and that last I saw has yet to pick up major domestic distribution outside of Mark putting it into theaters himself on limited runs. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the character you play, Sean, and how the film in general turned out upon completion?

Michael Madsen: Well, I’m mystified why we’re having trouble getting the word out there on the movie; the thing won Best Picture and Best Actor at the Boston Film Festival and it also just recently won Best Picture and Best Actor at the Los Angeles International Film Festival and [chuckles] we can’t even get the Hollywood Reporter or Variety to mention it. It’s really strange to me and almost seems like people just want it to go away in the release, in a funny, funny kind of way. It’s odd to me and sad because the movie is very good and is a huge departure for me; it’s very different from the kinds of roles I usually play. I’m pretty much known for all these nefarious villains and things like that, and I tried to make a turn and do something different.

I can tell you the reaction of most of the audiences I’ve sat and watched it with; I’ve sat and watched it in Spain at a big film festival in Seville and I’ve seen it in Ireland at the Cork Opera House with a thousand people and when you hear people around you crying and nobody leaves the theater, it’s kind of an indication that the picture is standing on its own. Yet we’re having an awful lot of difficulty finding anybody for distribution and like I said, you’d think the Hollywood Reporter or Variety would want to mention the fact that it won Best Picture at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, but I’m really mystified.

IFQ: Well as I said earlier, I like the film. It may not be Gone With The Wind but it’s not supposed to be and for what it is, it’s great.

MM: No, [laughs] it’s not Gone With The Wind but you know what? It’s no worse or better than films that were nominated for Best Picture last year. It’s a traditional story with a plot that always works if it’s done correctly. It’s important for Mark because it’s his first directing job and if your first film doesn’t make it, you have a lot of trouble getting back up there again. Tarantino is so successful because his very first picture turned into a cult film. A little movie that was only in a couple theaters that turned out to be what it is today and Mark needs that kind of a groundswell for Strength and Honour.

IFQ: How was it working with Mark as a first-time director? Since as you said you worked with Tarantino when he was doing his first feature.

MM: Well, when they first came to me with the script he wanted me to play The Smasher, the Vinnie Jones part. I didn’t want to do it and kept saying so. I told Mark I wanted to play Sean and he obviously came up against a lot of resistance from the financiers because they certainly had never seen me do anything like that and didn’t think it would work. Basically, I just hung in there with Mark and kept saying, “I’m not going to do it.” And then I was in Paris shooting Boarding Gate when Mark called me from Ireland. He said, “Listen buddy, you know what? I think I’ve convinced the money guys that you can play Sean.” And I just said wow because I never thought it was going to happen. It was the furthest thing from my mind because I thought as soon as I said no to the other part that it wasn’t going to happen.

But then I realized that he had been on my side the whole time, and if he hadn’t convinced them to let me do it then it wouldn’t have happened. And so I walked into it knowing he believed in me and that’s a big thing. You don’t want to think your director has doubts about what you’re going to do. The guy’s like a machine though; he’s just an unstoppable force and that’s the way he was shooting the movie. Every single day he was the first one on set and the last one to leave. He wore everybody’s hat, did everything, and now he’s doing the same thing trying to release the movie. He’s taken it to all these festivals where it’s won awards. He’s been the one who’s submitted it, talked to people to try and get it out there. He’s a really amazing guy. I always try to give first-time directors a chance when I can. Sometimes they don’t work out so well. But as with Quentin, I think it worked out well with Mark. The only difference is he needs to get it out there. People have to be made aware of it and see it. The picture needs a big chance and if he can get that, he can get a lot more work. It’s sad to think that as we speak he doesn’t have a directing job; he should be doing something, you know?

IFQ: I’ve read that amongst the large body of work you’ve amassed over the years, there’s only a small number of them, films like Free Willy, Kill Bill, Donnie Brasco, etc., that you’ve stated as being actually proud of. Which leads me to wonder if you had your choice over what kinds of work you’d like to do, what would they be? Not ignoring of course the need of an actor to work in order to first and foremost keep the bills paid and put food on the table, which is something that many people forget unfortunately.

MM: Sure, well I got six kids, you know? Six boys and [laughs] I got a pretty big bill at the market let alone school supplies, cars and motorcycles now that they’re getting older. It’s an awful lot [laughs], there’s an awful lot to take care of. I think though that I’ve put together a little triangle of movies lately that I think are pretty good; each one stands by itself. There’s Vice, which is this very dark cop drama that I made with Daryl Hannah. I produced it and brought in Andrej Sekula to shoot it, he was the DP on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It’s a really good, dark, edgy cop drama. And then there’s Strength and Honour which speaks for itself and then there’s Hellride, the great, big Tarantino motorcycle picture that just came out. So that little triangulation of movies, to all be out there at the same time, is really a kind of reflection of all the things I’m trying to do. It’s an interesting group of movies with three very different people and I gotta put that on my list of watchable. [Chuckles.]

IFQ: I remember hearing about a website where you would list all the films you did alongside the reason for doing each one.

MM: [Laughs.] I did. Well, there came a time when I was doing a lot of B movies, a lot of independent B stuff because there just wasn’t any work out there and studios have never, for some strange reason, taken favor to me and I’ve never been able to be on that list of actors who are in big films. Which is why I think they’re scared to death of Strength and Honour because they couldn’t deny that it’s of that caliber. I think there’s been some effort to bury it. I think that film came along last year and a lot of people got nervous about it and wanted to make sure we didn’t get into the spotlight, but Mark’s not going to give up on that. Back in those days when I was doing that though, basically I was just trying to explain to everybody that I was just trying to pay my rent. An actor acts. An architect builds houses, a firefighter puts out fires, and an actor acts.

I mean, I had done so many things before that; I was an auto mechanic, a pipe fitter, I had worked as an orderly for a hospital and for a construction company, drove a tow truck. I did an awful lot of stuff before I ever got into acting and I just thought of it as a job. And then when I started getting criticism about being in low-budget films and turning up in this show and that show, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand what the criticism was all about. I thought it was good that I had a job and was working. I wasn’t going to sit around waiting for the right role because then I’d have a long, white beard and it’d be over. I wanted to try and stay busy. But during that time, I noticed that there were a lot of people watching things I did and I kind of figured I had to answer for some of the projects that I showed up in. [Laughs.] And so that’s when I went onto this site and started rating them as ‘watchable’, ‘unwatchable’, ‘forget it’ or ‘pretty good’, and in the process I realized that I picked my favorites and tried to spare everyone else from the trash. [Laughs.]

But a guy like me, I’m always going to work and I’ll always be on the outside and there’s always going to be somebody who comes along, a Tarantino or a Rodriguez or those fellows like that who will give me work. And then people like Mark come along and give me a picture like Strength and Honour. That’s why I’m still doing what I’m doing. I mean, if people could walk through the front door of my house and see my clan they might realize that I’m not going to move everyone into a trailer park so I can wait for Steven Spielberg to call me, because Steven Spielberg is not going to call so I got to take work when I can get it. Somebody comes along and offers me a job on a film I’m going to take it. I mean, I draw the line certainly to some extent. I do have some respect for myself and have turned down quite a bit of things that were questionable, but, you know, seven times out of ten if I’m out of work and somebody offers me a film, I’m going to take it. If it’s a difference of keeping groceries in the refrigerator and a roof over everybody’s head or moving into the airstream, I mean, what are you going to do, right?

IFQ: That’s why I don’t begrudge the work an actor gets because despite the project at least you can see him or her on screen as they then can afford to make rent and take care of themselves rather than being out of work and broke.

MM: What are you supposed to do nowadays when all your kids want laptops? Those things are like $1500. They need a new pair of shoes—what are you going to do? It all adds up when you have as many as I do and then there’s always Uncle Sam, you have to make sure you pay your taxes too. These extras don’t mean I’m in the life of luxury. I’m not getting $20 million a picture. If I was, there’d be a lot fewer Michael Madsen movies that’s for sure. [Laughs.]

IFQ: We’ve touched on this a little bit but to dive in further, you’ve worked with many well-known directors from Quentin, Olivier Assayas in Boarding Gate…

MM: Yeah, he’s a wonderful guy; working with someone like that is a great pleasure. You see, a guy like Olivier Assayas, I’d never dream in a million years that someone like that would call me up and offer me the part that he did in that movie. But you see, it’s the grace of the man that he would think of me for something that no one else would have. It kind of shows you where his head was at and it keeps me knowing that I have a future because somebody like that will come out of nowhere.

IFQ: What was it like working with him? He’s always been this interesting French filmmaker that serious cinéphiles have known about and to many others the first question is “how do you pronounce his name?”

MM: I first met him at the Cannes Film Festival; I was actually staying with Nick Nolte and we were having a conversation. Nick then introduced me to Olivier. I looked at him and he’s got that great smile of his and I knew that he understood me in a minute. He then offered me that part in Boarding Gate. It took a while to get that movie made, but good lord, he put me on screen with the likes of Asia (Argento) and that was pretty good. I think me and her were a pretty good combination. The funny thing about Boarding Gate is that it’s almost two different films; it’s like the whole beginning of the film with me and her is different than the second half.

Like I said, he understood me and just let me do my thing. Someone like him, someone like Quentin, someone like Mark, somebody like Roger Donaldson who I did Species and The Getaway with, you know, there are certain directors who look at you and don’t have to say anything. Because they know what you’re going to do, and they’re going to go let you do what you do and you know that they know so there isn’t a lot of conversation necessary. There isn’t any debating or contemplating going on. And that was with Olivier too, he just had that simplicity about him that we worked really well together. That picture, you know, they figured it was going to come out in the UK and that would be it. But it actually ended up coming over to America and getting released over here. They had a big premiere for it at Lincoln Center in New York and it did very well. Olivier flew to New York and we did a Q&A after the movie. I’d love to work with him again. I hope he calls me.

IFQ: Touching on Hell Ride before, you co-star in that with Dennis Hopper. What were your impressions of him as we recently interviewed him as well and he’s another actor who’s led a fascinating life and done so many things that most people don’t even realize, i.e. his art patronage, photography, etc. Plus he’s one of the easiest, most personable guys you’ll ever meet.

MM: Yeah, he’s pretty good that way but you gotta figure here’s a guy who rode around on motorcycles with Peter Fonda and now he’s in his 70s and he’s riding motorcycles down the street with me. I mean here’s a guy who was friends with James Dean. There are kids nowadays who don’t even know who James Dean is, they’ve never heard of him. I was on the set with these two girls who play my daughters on the movie I’m working on right now and one of them had never heard of The Godfather. The other one didn’t know who James Dean was, and one of them even went so far as to say “Brando? Is that that big guy? That old fat guy?” And you just go [laughs], “Oh no, oh my God.” There was a kid on the set and I told him that he reminded me of James Caan and he goes, “Who’s that?” And I said, “You don’t know who James Caan is?” He says no and I say, “OK, he played Sonny in The Godfather” to which he replies, “I didn’t see that one.” That one? [Laughs.]

Here’s something funny that happened with me and Dennis. We were both up at Sundance where they were doing a screening for Hell Ride and went out to the lobby together. We were wandering around the lobby and I went to buy some popcorn. Dennis was in the men’s room; he came out and saw me and was like, “Hey you know I’m gonna get some of that.” I said OK, so he walks over and the guy gives my popcorn; I pay for it. Dennis asks, “Hey can I get one of those?” The guy goes yeah and he gives it to him then says, “OK, that’s four bucks.” And Dennis is like, “Four bucks for popcorn? Hey man, four bucks?” The guy says, “Yeah, well you know it’s four bucks for popcorn.” So Dennis gives him the four bucks and we both walk away and right as we walked off the kid who had just sold us the popcorn says to this other kid, “I heard that Dennis Hopper was supposed to be here tonight, has anybody seen him?” I turned around, walked back over to him and said, “What did you just say?” He says, “I heard Dennis Hopper is going to be here.” I said, “Pal, you know what? You just sold him the popcorn. Alright, what is wrong with you?” He says, “Oh, is that him?” to which I say, “Yeah man that was him.” The kid freaks out and says, “Holy Shit! Holy Shit! Oh man, tell him I’ll give him back the four dollars.” And I said [chuckles], “No man, it’s too late.” [Laughs.]

IFQ: That’s why it’s hard to really talk movies with people these days. There’s just so much that people never see or learn about and then you end up with situations like that.

MM: Robert Mitchum, right before he died, in one of his last interviews that I read in a magazine, they asked him to sum up his career. And he said, “Acting is a humiliating and embarrassing profession. They pay you to do nothing and in the end, it all means nothing.” [Laughs.] What a parting statement, you know?


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