SXSW 2014 Interview: Virginia Madsen on “The Wilderness of James”
•• The Wilderness of James stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as James, a teenager coming of age on the streets of Portland with the new teenage crowd in with which he falls. Madsen plays his widowed mother Abigail, trying to comfort and support her son, but of course we all know how teenagers are. The film, the debut from writer/director Michael James Johnson, premieres Sunday in Austin.
CraveOnline: Are you an Academy member?
Virginia Madsen: I am. This year though I didn’t go, because I just got back from a job and I wanted to lay low. It takes a lot of preparation to go to that red carpet and I didn’t have time to do the gown and all that stuff. I did go out and I did party ‘til seven o’clock in the morning.
Wow, which party did you go to?
I only go to one. I go to Madonna’s party every year. It was really insane.
Did you vote on the awards this year?
Yes, I did and I was very happy that most of my choices one. The toughest vote is always for the actresses and the Best Picture. I was really bummed out for Martin Scorsese but when you break it down and you look at each individual award, he was up against some really intense competition, especially in editing because I really love that movie but I think his competition was just too heavy when it came to the editing and the directing.
It was even split between Best Director and Best Picture.
It was, it was tough and I was just a big fan of all the movies, so it was very hard to choose. I was happy to see all the people that made it to the big dance. It’s a long, long road to get there. I think everybody’s favorite though had to be Lupita. Lupita Nyong’o I think was the princess of the evening and she was crowned queen by the end of the night. I saw her later at the party and she had changed from that beautiful, beautiful blue gown into this skin tight white dress that just went all the way down to a little train. Oh my God, she was so stunning. Everyone was so happy for her. So Lupita Nyong’o was at the Madonna party too?
Well, that’s kind of where everyone ends up because it goes ‘til morning, ‘til they serve breakfast. There’s about four checkpoints in your car before you get up to the house. So there’s no party crashers. There’s no social media allowed. There’s no picture taking allowed and everyone really cuts loose because it’s so private. People really are very free to be themselves.
Did you sleep at all before talking to me?
Yes, I did. I was good because I got home by seven. I didn’t stay ‘til seven. Yes, I was able to sleep before speaking to you.
Good. Are you generally pretty accessible to first time filmmakers like Michael James Johnson who want to offer you or ask you to be in their film?
Yes. I’ve always made it a rule that when someone sends me a script, if it’s an offer then I’m going to read it. I don’t have gatekeepers. I work with a really, really wonderful team of representatives. I’m sure I don’t read everything but anybody who read this script, it was just such a standout. We didn’t have pink pages, blue pages or white pages. This script was great as is. It was such a standout, was so well written that it came immediately to my door.
Most of my career has been spent in small independent films. I like working with first timers. If I can help them get their film made, I’ll step up to the plate for sure. It’s very, very difficult to find good material, especially for women. It’s worse than it has ever been, but in small, independent films and on television, there’s still good material for us. Now, this one wasn’t my film per se, but it was such a good script and I thought Michael was so interesting and intelligent that I wanted to see what he could do. I thought that Kodi was such an exciting young talent that I was really excited to play his mom. I wanted to watch him work. I was a big fan of Let Me In, and then all of a sudden I get there and Kodi’s like 6’4.” I was like oh, he’s not that little boy anymore.
I spent that last four years doing small independent films, which means you make no money. That’s number one. You better have a nest egg before you decide to be an artist, but it was a very young crew and young actors. It’s wonderful to see them working because for most of them it’s their first time or they’ve maybe only made a few things and they’re so passionate. They’re so excited. I feel like that still. I feel just as excited for my next job as I ever was, so I feel like we have that in common. Sometimes when people have been working in the business for many, many years, they’re a little bit jaded, a little bit bored with the process. So I feel actually more in common with young filmmakers when it comes to how passionate we feel about our work.
Sometimes even people who’ve been working in it a short time are jaded, which is really disappointing to see.
It’s so disappointing. Then you don’t deserve to be in the business. There’s hardly any work going around. We’re in really hard times in my industry, so if you actually get the money together for your movie, oh my God, that process alone is next to impossible. But if you end up with your movie on a set, you better be prepared to have fun. Otherwise, you don’t belong there. Everyone should be very, very grateful to have a job.
Well, I certainly am. I love being a writer.
Oh, that’s great. You know, things could be worse. My dad always said, “Things could be worse, kid. You could be working at Walmart.” And he’s right. Not that I’m sure some people may feel passionate about that job but I wouldn’t. If I wasn’t able to live my dream, it would be very difficult for me to work in another job so I always remember my dad telling me that.
Walmart was his example? Were they around more than 20 years ago?
Well, before he used to say Kmart. Now he says Walmart.
Abigail’s situation must be frustrating that no amount of love can force James to open up. Was it frustrating even to act that conflict?
Yes, because I just got done raising a teenager and I went through that. There is a period of time when your kid starts teaching you to let them go. That’s a hard lesson because they seem way too young to let them go and you have to walk that fine line between letting them believe they have more freedom than they actually do, and being the strict jailer. Let’s face it, when you have a teenager, part of you has to be a jailer. It’s very hard when they go through their independent phase and they start pushing you away and being angry and going into their private life. They go into this very small, dark private world and it’s so hard as a parent because I believe it’s harder for them than it is for us. They’re the one going through all the pain.
So my son had come out of that. He’s 19 already but he was just out of that phase when I got the movie so I really felt like I understood this role and I felt like she was very similar to me in her mothering. I’m single, I was trying to let him go, trying to let him do his thing but at the same time very, very worried. Girls are very emotional when they go through it and hormonal. Boys are too but they’re more private and when they do it, it’s more dangerous because boys are reckless. So sometimes what they do is life threatening. I’m laughing about it now, so I think Kodi really brought that kind of dark emotion to this boy. He allowed him to have a real innocence as well as this dark complicated young adult that’s emerging. He brought both of those elements into his performance and it was just so beautiful to watch him do that.
I always like to talk about your classic films also. One of my favorites is a horror movie, probably not the one you expect me to bring up, but The Prophecy.
Oh my God! [Laughs] Elias [Koteas] is still a very, very good friend of mine and we’ve kept in touch all these years. We were friends before we did that film. That’s how long we’ve known each other.
So when you did The Prophecy, did it strike you as interesting or potentially controversial that religion was the basis for this horror?
No, that was kind of a ridiculous situation actually because the script was not complete. The director was the writer of Backdraft [Gregory Widen] so we thought he was going to write this extraordinary script. We all knew each other and once Walken signed up, who’s going to say no? We all sort of arrived and kept expecting new and exciting pages, and he was not forthcoming with these new and exciting pages. We were in fact writing the script as we went.
I didn’t really look at it as a question of religion. I loved the conflict between the angels and God. I always thought that was a very curious thing about the Old Testament, that these were angels that could be jealous of humans. The fact that angels didn’t have a soul, those kind of questions had always been interesting to me since I was a child and I knew a lot about the Bible. Just that Gabriel could be a fallen angel is really interesting to me. Walken knew a lot about the Bible as well, and Eric Stoltz was really into it. They were all into this investigation about these supernatural beings. So there was a lot of cool discussion about that. I don’t know if it really accomplished much in the film.
Viggo Mortensen came, he wrote that scene where he came in to play the Devil. That was just beautiful, and I didn’t know Viggo until he got there. I just sat there watching him tell me this beautiful story. It was incredible what he came up with. That was an amazing performance. I was like, “Who is this guy?” Of course, then I had a big old crush on him but never saw him after the movie. Isn’t that weird? Don’t you think Viggo and I should work together?
I could see that. Well, it certainly made an impact on me, and the other horror movie of course is Candyman. Of all the horror remakes they’ve done, are you a little gratified they haven’t touched Candyman yet?
Well, what I was disappointed in was that when they wanted to make part two and part three and part four, I thought what was really insulting to Candyman was that they made him a slave in part two. I was really, really and still to this day really upset. Now, I’m going to see Tony [Todd] this weekend. We’re actually having a reunion at one of those autograph shows, Monster-Mania. It’s going to be the first time Tony and I have ever appeared together, but Tony was already signed to do three and I wasn’t. The only way that I would do part two is if Bernard Rose was going to write the script and direct it again.
His idea for part two was so exciting. He was going to have Candyman in the underground in London. That’s where Candyman was going to emerge, and he was going to have the prequel. We were going to do the whole love story between Candyman and Helen. We were going to do their whole story in flashback, forward to Candyman in the subway, in the Tube as they call it. And it was going to be so cool! But, the powers that be did not want to tell an interracial love story.
Also the whole thing about Candyman was he was raised in polite society. He was the son of a free man. He was not a slave and neither was his father. If you remember, Candyman is an artist and he went to art school. He went to schools in Europe and he has those beautiful clothes. Then all of a sudden they put him in the slave quarters. I was like, what? I thought that was a really terrible twist of fate for that character and I was very, very against it. There’s no way that I would be a part of it.
Now I regret that we didn’t see that sequel idea.
Oh, it would have been outrageous because we got away with a lot in the first movie, but the second movie was going to be so dark, and also very beautiful. It was going to be a lot more with him painting. He was going to paint inside the Tube. It was going to be so cool. It would’ve been great. He didn’t have a complete script but it was a beautiful idea.
I have to wonder about Hot to Trot, because that was never going to be a critical darling.
But did it seem like a fun idea to do?
The reason I did that movie is my sister had three small children. These were my babies. I loved these little kids and they loved their Auntie Gina. They knew that Auntie Gina was a movie star but they could never see any of my movies because they were more adult in content. There was The Hot Spot. These were not movies that they could see or understand because they were too little.
So I told my people, “I need to do a kids’ movie. I pretty much don’t care what it is but I need to do a movie that the kids can see.” I’d worked with [producer] Steve Tisch, who we all know now, on a couple movies. He said, “Well, I’ve got one. It’s about a talking horse.” And I was like, “Done!” And Bobcat [Goldthwait] was such a famous comic at the time. Tim Kazurinsky and all the “Saturday Night Live” people were in the movie and John Candy doing the voice. It seemed like it was a great thing for them, and it was. They actually got to go to the movie and see me on the screen, so it served its purpose for my family. [Laughs] But it was a terrible movie! Dabney Coleman too, man. Dabney Coleman’s awesome.
And Bobcat turned into such a good director.
Yes, I know, and he was such a sweet guy. We had kind of an outrageous time filming with that many animals. It took a long time to get most any scene shot. That’s why I did that one.
Now it’s come to light that Alejandro Jodorowsky had plans for a Dune movie. Were you aware of any previous incarnations when you did David Lynch’s Dune?
I was not aware of that book until I got the part. At the time we were filming, I knew they wanted to make that, but I didn’t really know who. It was such a huge undertaking, one that almost succeeded. Now of course it’s kind of a classic. There’ve been remakes but I think for what they had to work with I think it was quite an accomplishment. The first version was five and a half hours. I’d like to see that version.
I think the longest has been a three-hour version.
Yeah, I think that if David had been given a better budget on special effects, like if the worms had been better, I think the movie would have worked. Unfortunately, his hands were tied. He did what he could with the technology that we had at that time.
I don’t think the special effects are a problem. I actually like the way those old school effects work.
Well, now it’s kind of cool but at the time it got criticized for the worms not looking good.
I think there’s just a lot of plot to explain and it can be tough in a movie.
So by cutting the movie, by cutting that three-hour version, the story is Paul goes from boy to man to messiah. In the movie he went from boy to messiah. It was very hard to follow, and also because everyone’s speaking another language. David really successfully created this alternate universe and so much of it was cut out that it became hard to follow.
When you did “Moonlighting,” was that a big show to do back in the ‘80s?
Oh, it was the show. It was the only show to do. I did the finale. I was in the very, very end and I knew Bruce [Willis]. He was a friend of mine so it was kind of amazing to walk on and work in between those two that were really at war at the time. It was a long-running show. It was really cool. I was very happy to be part of it.
Do you mean at war, the characters, or are you talking about the backstage drama?
You know, there was that whole thing that those two hated each other. I don’t think they hated each other. I just think they were over each other. They’d been working for so long and they made it no secret that they did not enjoy one another’s company. That was apparent.
Now they speak more highly of each other, bygones and all.
It really wasn’t, nobody was fighting. There was definitely a truce but there was a silence. They weren’t speaking. Then it’s the the last episode, they were joking around and more huggy. It seemed that it came to a very nice conclusion, as an outsider looking in. God, they were so talented.
I think it’s interesting that now the theatrical cut of Highlander II no longer exists. The only version on Blu-ray and DVD is his director’s cut. Do you miss the theatrical cut?
No, I had no idea.
Did you enjoy making that film?
Oh yeah, I made a T-shirt that said “Jane Moneypenny.” I was working with Tarzan and James Bond. In Argentina! So excellent. That was the whole reason for doing that job. I got to go to Buenos Aires for three months and live there and work with these two extraordinary men. I really loved both of them. Chris[topher Lambert] was so sweet and Sean [Connery] was so manly and I just got to stand in the middle and flirt with both of them. It was a great.
It’s great to hear you’re such a fan of all the people you work with.
Yeah, sometimes I would just do a film just for that, just to be around them. I got to work with Sean Connery. That was so exciting to me. There was a note that went around on the call sheet that no one was to mention the B word, that Christopher didn’t want to talk about Tarzan but Connery, you must always call him Mr. Connery and you must not talk about James Bond, ever. I was like, how can you ask me to do that? He is James Bond. That’s cinema history. They were like, “Virginia, you’re not allowed, no one is allowed.” And if you did, you were threatened to be kicked off the set. I was like, “Well, that’s ridiculous. I’m sure he’s not like that.” They’re like, “He’s very professional, does not like to discuss it.”
So anyway, lots of warnings were all over the place and everyone was very quiet. Everything got very, very intense when [we heard] Mr. Connery is arriving on the set. He walks in, he went up to this seamstress to fix a button for him. He took her hand and thanked her for her work. So now everyone’s like, “Oh my God. He speaks. He’s really nice.” Then I went up and he walked towards me, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s James Bond!” That’s the first thing I said to him and he had a big smile on his face. I threw my arms around him and I said, “I’m sorry. They told me I was not allowed to say that and I usually don’t do what I’m told.” He said, “Then we’ll get along just fine.” So he was a great guy. I took him out to Tango in Argentina, to a little Tango bar. He was a great guy. I really felt very privileged to spend so much time with him.
With The Hot Spot, did you have a good experience being directed by Dennis Hopper?
Oh yes. He was what you would call a mensch. He was just an all around sweet, wonderful, creative artist. He always wore a suit every day to the set. He was so well dressed. I imagined he was not always like that. [Laughs] He was very kind and he was very respectful of me at a time when a lot of men in the industry were not. I was very young, a very voluptuous actress who was considered a sex symbol, so a lot of times I was not treated with respect. But Dennis was the opposite. Dennis was a real man about it.
He just thought that I was a great talent, so I loved being around him. I just did what I was told and I was not happy with my performance. I was very upset when I saw the film because I was such a sexual being in that movie. He had given me the freedom to play that part without repercussions. That’s a time, and most young actresses have this experience, when they become more sexual, there is always repercussion. There’s always someone that’s going to punish you for being that way. There’s always someone who’s going to belittle you, make fun of you, take advantage of you, try to cut you in pieces and use you. I was pretty tough so I could take it but Dennis gave me the freedom to be that way without trying to take advantage of me.
When I saw the film, I was very upset because I thought I was terrible and I thought I was ugly. Not physically. I knew that I looked very beautiful in that movie, but my character was ugly. I remember he put his arms around me and said, “You have no idea what you’ve done. There’s such power in your work and you don’t even know it, but ten years from now you’re going to see this movie and you’re going to understand what you’ve done. This is really important work, Virginia.”
And did you?
He was right. He was absolutely right. I really miss him. He became a good friend of my brother’s so I got to see him on occasion. I was very, very, very sad when he got sick. Very sad when he passed away.
I actually got to see him a year before he died when he was doing “Crash” the series, so I’m really grateful for that time.
Oh, that’s excellent.
Thank you so much for spending this much time speaking with me.
Thank you so much. You really did your research, but thank you. I really, really appreciate it and I’m glad you enjoy your writing.