•• Virginia Madsen is one classy lady! The veteran actress made her film debut in the early ‘80s movie Class, and went on to work with such iconic directors as David Lynch (Dune), Rob Reiner (Ghosts of Mississippi), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker). But it was her role in Alexander Payne’s Sideways that earned her an Academy Award-nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Madsen would eventually work with legendary director Robert Altman on A Prairie Home Companion, and then appear in a string of high profile films including Firewall, The Astronaut Farmer, and The Number 23. Her latest film entitled Walter will open in theaters on March 13th.
Walter stars Andrew J. West (TV’s The Walking Dead) as the title character, a ticket-taker at the local cinema that believes he is the Son of God. He has agreed to decide the eternal fate of everyone he comes in to contact with. But when a ghost in purgatory (Justin Kirk) starts to haunt him, Walter begins to question everything he thought he understood about his world. Madsen plays Karen, Walter’s brokenhearted mother. In addition to West, Kirk and Madsen, the movie also features performances from Milo Ventimiglia (WildCard), NeveCampbell (WildThings), PeterFacinelli (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1), Jim Gaffigan (ThreeKings), and William H. Macy (Rudderless), and was directed by first time feature filmmaker AnnaMastro.
I recently had the honor of speaking with the absolutely delightful Virginia Madsen about her work on Walter, as well as her memories of making Sideways and A Prairie Home Companion. The Oscar-nominated actress discussed Walter, how a first time filmmaker gets an Oscar-nominee to be in their movie, what she looks for when she is choosing projects, shooting her scenes with Andrew J. West, our shared experience on Sideways, working with the great Robert Altman on A Prairie Home Companion, and the truth about director Paul Thomas Anderson’s contributions to that film.
Here is what Virginia Madsen had to say about Walter, Sideways, and A Prairie Home Companion:
IAR: To begin with, how does a new filmmaker like Anna Mastro get an Oscar-nominated actress like Virginia Madsen to appear in her first film?
Virginia Madsen: Well, you know she had the goods. She had such a wonderful script and that’s hard to find. She spent a few years just trying to get people to read it and she made it into a short film. That came along with the script and I knew there was something there! I was interested in the quirky humor and the tone of the film. The script was really wonderful and I was so interested in the short film that I was said I’d love to come aboard. She said, “I’ll get back to you when I find the money.” It actually didn’t take that long. You cannot believe how hard it is to try and raise money for a film. I did it for six years and it was such a failure. I just admired her for getting it all together and for believing in her project. Other actors really just started climbing on board after that. It’s a roll of the dice when you’re a first time director so I prefer to work with people that know more than I do, but that happens less and less as you get older. I’ve made more movies than anybody now. I hoped that she was going to keep it together and she really did. Once your acting job is over, you just hope they have a good editor and they put together a good film.
What are you looking for when you’re choosing projects to work on?
Madsen: I tend to look for a great script. I’ve spent the last few years just really actively pursuing comedy and that’s something I always wanted to know how to do. When you’re the ingénue no one is really interested in you for that. I didn’t have enough experience until I did a movie called Sideways. I was really kind of a straight man in that. I said teach me how to do it and they were very open to that. Then more and more I started getting that opportunity. On this one it was more of a challenge because I got to be the quirky, eccentric one. I just thought it was a great opportunity. But yes the script always what I look for first. For me if it’s an ensemble piece, I’m usually always going to read it.
All of your scenes in Walter are with actor Andrew J. West. What was your experience like acting with him?
Madsen: I’m sure you saw him in The Walking Dead. I can’t even believe that’s the same guy. It was really hard tell how the film would turn out because I didn’t get to work with any of the other actors. It was just the two of us. He was just so open to the working experience. He’s very relaxed and seems very confident. I enjoyed working with him very much. It seemed like he had a very clear idea of his character and how he wanted to portray him. So I didn’t have to walk him through anything. It was a very good experience with Andrew.
You mentioned Sideways earlier, and I have to tell that I was actually editor Kevin Tent’s assistant on that movie.
Madsen: You were? That’s so cool!
My job during production was to drive the dailies from Hollywood to Santa Barbara every day so that director Alexander Payne could screen them. Then at the end of the day I would pick up the film from set and drive it back to L.A. to be developed.
Madsen: Wow! You had precious cargo my friend.
I have very fond memories of working on that movie. What are your memories of making Sideways?
Madsen: I do know how lovely it was and how beautiful my experience on that movie was. I remember the scene when we were having the picnic. That was the first thing we all shot together. That was one of the first scenes that we shot. We had fifteen minutes, the camera was really far away, and the sun was setting. The hills went from green) to gold and it was just perfect. It was so beautiful, quiet and warm. That scene is how it felt for me to make that whole movie.
I will tell you that Sideways is the only movie that I ever worked on where I knew from the first time I saw the dailies that it was going to be a very special film.
Madsen: That’s so cool! I spent a lot of time alone on that movie. I didn’t have a lot of location experience and everyone said that they were always hanging out. I figured Maya spent most of her time alone, but actually that became a problem. When I first arrived they left me a giant basket with five or six bottles of wine. So I was alone in a hotel room with six bottles of wine! Five o’ clock was wine o’ clock.
Finally, you got to work with the great Robert Altman on his last film, A Prairie Home Companion. As an actress, what was it like being directed by Mr. Altman?
Madsen: Part of it was frustrating because of the role that I was playing. I didn’t get to work with the rest of the cast. But the best part of it was that Bob would have me come in in the morning with everyone else and you never knew where he was going to put the angel. So I would stand behind Bob and Paul (Thomas Anderson) and I would just watch them direct all day. I never left the set. I never wanted to be away from Bob. I got to watch him do everything. I got to watch all the fantastic people work. Then I’d just go stand on the side of the cage, float around and be really weird. Then Bob would say, “No that doesn’t look good, come back out.” So I really felt like I was the angel in a way that I was always kind of floating there next to him. It was really a blessing. I feel so blessed that I got to be there and know him.
What exactly was Paul Thomas Anderson’s role on that film? Was he on set to assist Mr. Altman?
Madsen: No. Paul was very much directing with Bob. Paul was an admirer of Altman and Bob really loved Paul. The truth is they would not insure Bob as director because he was older and he was going through chemotherapy, which was a big secret at the time and certainly it never affected his ability to work. But they wanted to make sure as he would say in his words, “In case I kick the bucket I’ve got a pinch hitter.” So on the back of his chair it said “director” and on the back of Paul’s chair it said “pinch hitter.” Sometimes Paul was directing other cameras because one time we had four or five cameras going. Sometimes they would direct in tandem. But Bob was certainly our fearless leader in every way and Paul was working with him.
Have you seen Anderson’s recent film, Inherent Vice? It seemed to me like that movie was Anderson’s love letter to Mr. Altman and specifically The Long Goodbye.
Madsen: You know what? You’re absolutely right! I love that movie. He’s just such an interesting director that you know he’s always going to be growing and changing. He will be one of the most important directors of our time.