He has more than 100 screen credits and has had rave reviews for his poetry… yet he is still best known as the psychotic lobe-lopper from Reservoir Dogs. Sanjiv Bhattacharya talks to Michael Madsen about his two dogs, his three wives, his five sons and how Quentin Tarantino (who else?) is set to breathe life into his brilliant career
By: Sanjiv Bhattacharya
A fortnight before the American release of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 2, its star, Michael Madsen, sits on the upper deck of his Malibu beach home, smoking Chesterfields and watching the dolphins. There are four in the distance, jumping happy arcs through the waves. This morning, though, they’re the only ones leaping for joy.
‘It’s hard, man. I got a big overhead,’ says the actor, shaking his head. ‘I’m taking care of three different families at the moment. There’s my ex-wife, then my mom and my niece. And then there’s all this.’ He indicates the four-bedroom house behind him where he lives with his third wife and his five sons.
It’s a great place – bright, white and tall, every wall filled with old movie posters, lovingly framed. He bought it from Ted Danson, who bought it from Walt Disney’s daughter, who bought it from the man who built it – Keith Moon of The Who. Since the boys are at school (the eldest is 16) the house is relatively quiet. Besides the whoosh of the Pacific on to his private beach below, all you can hear is his beautiful wife Deanna on the phone in the kitchen, his parrot Marlon squawking merrily downstairs, and Madsen’s own quiet, whisky rasp, bemoaning his hard times.
‘I’m trying to downscale,’ he says. ‘I already let two of my motorcycles go and I sold three of my cars – a Corvette, a little Porsche that I had and a ’57 Chevy.’ He sighs and shrugs. ‘I’m flat-busted man, I need a job. If I don’t go to work soon, I could lose all this. We’re going to be living in a trailer park.’
Judging from his CV, which shows over 100 credits, Michael Madsen has never wanted for work – rather, he has outworked most of his peers, sometimes making more than 10 films in a year.
But appearances are deceptive. His credits mostly lack quality or clout. Ever since his career-defining Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs – the psychopath who hacks off a cop’s ear to the sound of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ – Madsen has floundered, making a series of poor choices. Others were scarcely choices at all.
For years, a combination of Malibu overheads and a draining custody battle with wife number two forced him to grab the first offer on the table rather than patiently plot his ascent to the realms of a Crowe, a Pitt or a Del Toro. It wasn’t long before ‘the Guy from Reservoir Dogs’ – which would make a good epitaph, he jokes – slipped into the quicksand of dismal B-movies as a typecast rent-a-heavy, whittling down what Hollywood stock he had inherited from Mr Blonde. There were daisies among the weeds – his portrayal of mobster Sonny Black in Donnie Brasco, for example – but the embarrassments are sometimes the hardest to forget.
‘You get these horrifying straight-to-video things for very little money, then you go to the Cannes Film Festival and they got some poster of you, 40ft high, in the worst movie in the world. You’re like, “Oh my God. Take the fucking thing down!”‘
So for Madsen, a lot hinges on Kill Bill Vol 2 – nothing less than his resurrection, in fact. Since it was Tarantino that first thrust him into prominence with Dogs, he now senses a second chance, a shot at reviving ‘my once promising career’.
In ‘my best role since Reservoir Dogs’, Madsen plays the part of Budd, the brother of David Carradine’s Bill, whom Uma Thurman has resolved for two movies to kill. More dimensional than Mr Blonde, Budd not only harnesses Madsen’s gift for violence, he also serves as the social conscience of the movie, a part he’s better equipped to play now that he’s 46, a little older and weathered. He remains a big 6ft 2in, rangy and lantern-jawed, and his signature squint – peering between the rim of his Ray-Bans and his furrowed brow – remains menacingly intact.
It has been a long 12 years since he worked with Tarantino. It wasn’t supposed to take this long. For years, Madsen might have become De Niro to Tarantino’s Scorsese, were it not for a few near misses along the way. First came True Romance, a Tarantino script, which Madsen tried to get made, but without any success. Then in the wake of Dogs, he was tipped for the lead in Natural Born Killers, another Tarantino script. ‘Oliver Stone [the director] wanted me, but the studios offered him an extra $20m to cast Woody Harrelson.’
It was Pulp Fiction, however, that proved the pivot to their relationship. Tarantino wanted Madsen for the part of Vincent Vega – the part that went to Travolta – but in a decision he rues to this day, Madsen made Wyatt Earp instead, a dreary Western that tanked at the box office. ‘It was like three hours of nausea,’ he says.
Tarantino was none too pleased either at Madsen’s choice, and for years they didn’t speak. Only when he was finishing off the Kill Bill script did they become friendly again. Then, one day, Madsen was over at Tarantino’s house, reading the script by his pool over a bottle of Icelandic schnapps and right there Tarantino cast him as Budd. And, as far as Madsen is concerned, that changed the course of his career.
‘I’m pretty sure we’re going to make more pictures together,’ he says. ‘I know he’s walking around with, like, four, five screenplays in his mind, so I just gotta hang in there,’ he laughs. ‘Quentin’s the only one that’s ever going to give me a job!’
Madsen is flummoxed by the patchiness of his career. ‘Maybe I was just born in the wrong era, man,’ he shrugs. ‘I’m a bit of a throwback to the days of black and white movies. Those guys back then, they had a certain kind of directness about them. A lot of the screenplays, the plots were very simplistic – they gave rise to a type of anti-hero that maybe I suit better.’
Madsen is not a ‘new man’. He belongs to that tradition of aggressively manly actors who regard acting as not exactly a manly profession. ‘All the putting on make-up and dressing up in clothes,’ he says. ‘And you got to be a bit self-centred to pull it off. I guess it’s just the way I was brought up. For me, it’s more masculine to dig ditches or drive a tow truck.’
A friend of such American originals as Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Nick Nolte, Madsen is cut from a classic mould – a straight-shooting, blue-collar individualist, with a passion for classic cars, Harleys, unfiltered cigarettes and guns. He was raised in Chicago by a fireman father, Cal, who didn’t stop worrying about his son’s frivolous choice of profession until after Donnie Brasco, in 1997. His mother, Elaine, became an Emmy-winning writer and producer, but they divorced when Michael was nine, and he spun off into a tearaway youth, culminating in a couple of juvenile jail terms for stealing cars, assault, disorderly conduct and burglary. Madsen freely admits ‘I’ve been in a few brawls in my time’ and he is proud to speak up for bikers. This is a man who worked as a car mechanic, a landscaper and a hospital orderly before turning to acting. Madsen is also a poet, with four books published – Beer, Blood and Ashes, Eat the Worm, Burning in Paradise and The Blessing of the Hounds, the last two of which feature glowing introductions by Dennis Hopper and Tarantino respectively. It’s poetry in the riffing, beat sense, more of a collection of thoughts and sketches, a memoir of a travelling actor in his mid-forties with a career to resurrect and too many families to support. Many were scribbled on to the nearest thing he could find. ‘Hotel napkins, bar bills, beer mats. I wrote a poem on my leg once, on the skin,’ he laughs.
Whatever his poems lack in polish, they make up for with stark, evidently cathartic honesty. Take Tuesday, from The Blessing of the Hounds: ‘I am lost. Alone. And suicidal. Although not likely to act upon the latter./I am some sort of freak. Admired by other freaks because I play freaks.’ Yet, though Madsen leans to the dark – he has a machine that plays him storm sounds when he’s away on tour – there is levity of sorts. Like his throwaway poem Hammerhead: ‘Man, I think the hammerhead shark is the/most bizarre looking creature I’ve ever seen./What is the deal with that head?’
From his poetry, Madsen emerges as a likeable raw nerve – a dude curmudgeon, unprecious to a fault. He is depressed by strip clubs and phoney news anchors and by the fact that people still send the Osmonds fan mail. He misses Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio – any death disturbs him deeply – and he’s pretty sure ‘acting is not what it’s cracked up to be’.
For the most part, his poems are anecdotes – he’s a natural storyteller. This morning, he’s on a roll, reminiscing about his earliest career in Hollywood right up to the time they found a gun in his bag at Cannes – ‘it was only a little .32,’ he chuckles. ‘They locked me up for a few hours.’ He recalls his first job in Hollywood, as a pump jockey. ‘My very first customer was Fred Astaire,’ he says. ‘He gave me a $100 bill to change his tyre. I thought, “Wow, I’m in Hollywood now!”‘ He remembers his first audition for Thelma & Louise, and how Ridley Scott laughed at him for refusing to play the part of the rapist, and insisting instead on playing Sarandon’s loyal boyfriend, Jimmy (it worked).
But there remains a sense that something’s eating at him, that he is battle-scarred. His first two marriages exacted a heavy emotional toll. His first wife was Cher’s half-sister, Georgeanne LaPiere, a bizarre match, given their backgrounds. He recalls once taking his father Cal to Cher’s house and Cal saying to him, ‘Michael, what the fuck are we doing here?’ The second marriage, however, to Jeannine Bisignano, yielded two sons, and the divorce became a wounding custody battle. ‘It was a living nightmare,’ he says. ‘Five years. It really did me in. I mean, if you want to fuck with someone really bad, go after the kids, you know?’
Just as he was trying to avoid typecasting as a Mr Blonde-style heavy, his reputation as an icon of screen violence leaked into his custody hearings. ‘They said, “Oh he’s an actor, so he’s always going out of town” and, “He plays all these vicious characters.” You got to turn into Joseph of Nazareth to be considered redeemable. You got to rise from the fucking dead.’
For a year during this time, he moved to the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard, with his two Rottweilers. ‘That was mayhem,’ he grins. ‘Bungalow four, man. Crazy times. The room-service guys wouldn’t come in, because the male would always attack them.’ He laughs, but there’s a sadness there, because the male, Blue, died. ‘It was one of the saddest things that ever happened to me. I was crying for about three days. I had him for 14 years. I still have dogs, but after Blue died, I find it hard to invest myself emotionally in animals. Sooner or later something’s going to happen. And I had enough grief in my life.’
He might have said the same for marriage – certainly, after such a bitter experience, he swore never to tie the knot again. But then he did. He married Deanna, a girl whom he was introduced to by his second wife, and then later by his friend, the actor Elias Koteas, who had designs on her himself. Madsen is adamant that nothing happened until his second divorce was under way, and he had told his friend Koteas that he was in love with Deanna, too.
They married in 1996. He was shooting Donnie Brasco in Miami, when he found himself with a couple of days’ leave. So he whisked Deanna off to Ocho Rios, Jamaica for a break.
‘Deanna was driving me insane. She wanted to drive into town and get jerk chicken, and I wanted to stay at the hotel. I needed a plan to keep her at the hotel, so I said, “Let’s get married!” She had a gold bikini on, I had my Donnie Brasco wardrobe. It wasn’t planned at all, I had no idea. It wasn’t till the jerk chicken thing came up.’ He laughs. ‘And you should have heard Al [Pacino] when I told him about it. He was disgusted with me.’
He slips into a perfect Al Pacino impression, gruffly admonishing Madsen for his impetuosity. Memories of Donnie Brasco, however, are discoloured: ‘Great film, sure, but not a payday. Al and Johnny [Depp] got all the money. There was none left for me.’ There are other grievances, too: ‘I should have at least got a meeting with Spielberg for Private Ryan.’ for example, and ‘LA Confidential was written with me in mind, but Russell Crowe got the part. Go figure.’
But beyond this lurks a deeper sense of betrayal. ‘When I was really down and out, and I was just fucking ready to flatline, you would think that an element of Hollywood would try to hold you up, just keep you going. I mean, everybody pretty much knows that I’m a father. A lot of people have made a lot of money with me involved in their projects, so if only for that reason. But no – nothing was happening.’
The dark ages may yet be over for Madsen. Tarantino’s epic may usher in a new dawn for Hollywood’s nearly man. He feels good at 46 – ‘it’s a good age for an actor’, and Madsen’s desk is full. He’s the executive producer of a crime caper, set in London, called Red Light Runners, starring Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel. It hit funding troubles recently, but it should be on track soon. Then there’s a project he’s looking to fund, about Pretty Boy Floyd, the Depression-era bank robber, not to mention the possibility of resurrecting the entire Dirty Harry franchise. ‘I could pull that off; I could be son of Harry,’ he says. Most tantalisingly, however, Kill Bill may well lead to more work with Tarantino. The movie that has long rattled about in the mind of the director is the story of the Vega brothers, a prequel to Reservoir Dogs. It would star Madsen as Vic Vega, aka Mr Blonde, and Travolta as Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, and, if it ever happens, it will be a huge event. A payday is guaranteed.
Perhaps this is how it should be for Madsen – a triumphant final act to his own hero’s journey. After years in the doldrums, struggling valiantly against a tide of dross, he returns, all the more deserving, to his former glory. Madsen is philosophical.
‘You know, if I did Pulp Fiction, the Vega Brothers could never exist, because I’d have been playing my own brother. So you have to convince yourself to look at the bright side of things sometimes. I’m a bit of a loner, you know. I’m not easy to live with, ask Deanna. And if you’re that way, you’re prone to focus sometimes on the negative. And you can’t.’ He looks again at the dolphins leaping out at sea. ‘That’s why I’ve really tried hard to stay in the sunshine.’