Virginia Madsen had plenty to celebrate this Thanksgiving. Last month, she was an official honoree of Hollywood’s LA Femme International Film Festival, an annual celebration of films written, directed or produced by women, for her achievements during 27 years in TV and film, and also for her recently formed production company’s maiden offering: I Know a Woman Like That, an acclaimed documentary about the lives of women 64 and older whose youthful vigor remains defiantly undiminished.
In March, she will be seen starring opposite Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke’s live-action adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. Later next year she’ll be playing Aidan Quinn’s goddess-worshipping wife in the romantic drama The Art of Love. Yet on this evening, the Chicago-born Madsen, 49, has not come to the city’s Sundance Kabuki Cinemas simply to discuss the future, but to revisit her Oscar-nominated turn in Alexander Payne’s 2004 comedy Sideways.
In person, Madsen is friendly, forthright and refreshingly candid about a career that’s had its share of highs – including award-winning performances in Candyman (1992) and the heist drama Artworks (2003) – and lows. Tonight, as part of a Chase Sapphire rewards program that entitles cardholders to participate in unique meet-and-greets with stars of stage, screen and sport, she seems eager to talk about the movie that landed her back in the spotlight, and which has made her a magnet for autograph seekers.
On Sideways, and its effect on her personal life and career:
“It’s a wonderful film, but the fact that the movie was successful, too – what are the odds? These days, it seems like one in a million. Was it the most memorable experience of my career? It was one of them, but it certainly stands out the most in terms of how it changed my life. It brought me opportunities, and I was at a place in my life where I knew what to do with them. I made the right choices. And as an actor, to be given opportunities is so rare.“I was aware how fortunate I was – not lucky, because luck had nothing to do with it. It also gave me something on a personal level. It allowed me to travel a lot, but to travel in a meaningful way, not just supporting some bad movie. It gave me the chance to meet new people and to talk to them, to do press, just like I’m doing tonight. And it allowed my son and I to move out of L.A. to a cool new place.
“Most of all, it gave me confidence. Getting that kind of recognition, if you’re prepared for it, can bring confidence. With other people, it makes them self-conscious and breaks them down, but I wasn’t 22 when I had this experience. Having a lot of people praise you when you’ve been unsuccessful for a long time, it didn’t make me bitter or indignant or conceited. It made me feel confident, and I’m still so grateful for that. It made me stronger.”
On the challenges women of a certain age face in Hollywood:
“Nobody was going to discard me because I wasn’t going anywhere. You can’t be discarded if you refuse to go – they might shut the door on me, but if you want to get somewhere, you have to be willing to kick that door down. I have no control over what anyone thinks of me or who casts me, but once I get in that room, I bring a lot to the table. The one thing I do have control over is my product and myself, what I can bring to a meeting and a movie.
“It doesn’t matter if they – the collective they – don’t want me right now. I don’t care. I’m going to create myself. I got stronger and better, and I did a lot of work to get back through those doors that were closed. So I don’t buy into that idea of being discarded. It’s up to me, not anyone else.”
On running her Title IX production company:
“Our first mission was to get I Know a Woman Like That made, and secondly there were movies I wanted to make, movies that deserved to be made, that didn’t necessarily involve me as the star. You have to be extremely patient, and you have to have balls to produce – I can see why most actors don’t want to do it. But it’s a process that I really came to enjoy, and I’ll keep doing it as long as it makes sense because it’s a major financial commitment. If I can afford it, I’ll do it.
“I know what I do best, and besides being a mom, it’s acting. I’m not kidding myself that I’m the kind of producer who’s going to make that the primary focus of my career. I’m always an actress first. I have to surround myself with true business people – suits – because I’m a creative producer, and I’m very much hands on and very, very involved. I’m not just wearing a producer’s hat. But I’ve never lost sight of what I do best.”
On the upcoming Red Riding Hood:
“It’s a dark thriller and it’s absolutely beautiful. It was sometimes difficult being on the set because the movie is all about technical shots – the camera is the real star, not the actors. But I play Amanda’s mother, and Gary plays a wolf hunter. Everyone realizes that the wolf is someone in the village, and I’m a suspect, but I’m bound by contract not to tell you the wolf’s secret identity.”
On the aquamarine ink stains on her index finger:
“That’s so typical Virginia – I got this signing an autograph, which I always appreciate doing. That’s another thing Sideways brought me. Nobody ever asked for my autograph before that, except for the sci-fi fans. [Madsen previously starred in David Lynch’s Dune (1984) and Russell Mulcahy’s 1991 sequel to Highlander.] Any kind of acknowledgment of your work is wonderful.
“When you do theater, you receive applause, and it’s a direct relationship between the actor and audience. When you do film, you don’t have that. The best you can do is sneak into the theater and feel the reaction. So when someone asks for an autograph or wants to talk about a movie like Sideways, I bow to them. That’s my applause, that’s the connection and how I feel it. Sure, there’s an occasional weirdo, but I know how to freeze them out. I can be pretty mean, without saying much. Otherwise, I can’t really articulate, though I’ve tried, how deeply I appreciate it.”