•• Sometimes a particular bit of casting in a movie is so on-target it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before. Take for example the actress Virginia Madsen playing mother to the title character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the new film “Joy.”
Madsen and Lawrence have the same spirited, spiky air about them, part kooky, part soulful, part dangerous. They seem made for each other. “I was waiting for someone to figure that out,” Madsen said recently in Los Angeles. “From when I first saw her I had thought, ‘I should be her mother.’ It was just a really perfect fit.”
Directed by David O. Russell, the film (which opens Dec. 25) is based partly on the real story of Joy Mangano, who created an entrepreneurial empire, transformed into a multi-generational family tale that touches on the quintessential modern American values of aspiration, ambition and self-invention. The cast includes Robert De Niro as Madsen’s ex-husband/Lawrence’s father, Isabella Rossellini as De Niro’s girlfriend, Édgar Ramírez as Lawrence’s husband/ex and Bradley Cooper as an executive who gives Joy’s products an early push. In another nice piece of cross-generation savvy, Diane Ladd plays Madsen’s character’s mother.
As Lawrence’s Joy struggles to hold the family together while also building her business, Madsen’s character is meek and beleaguered, many of the things Joy fights hard not to be. At one point in the film, Madsen lies in bed watching a soap opera while bemoaning her daughter’s striving as “Joy the do-er.” As prelude to a heated argument, De Niro says Madsen’s character is “like a gas leak; we don’t see you, we don’t smell you, but you’re slowly killing us all.”
A longtime admirer of Russell, now a five-time Oscar nominee off his recent films “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” Madsen remained convinced they would one day work together. She finally received the call in a most unusual way. She was on a film festival jury in Dubai when she received an urgent message that Russell wanted to meet with her via Skype.
“He said, ‘Do you have any problem with playing the mother of Jennifer Lawrence?'” Madsen recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve never had a problem with aging.’ And I went on to tell him how much I liked her and how without knowing her I felt motherly toward her and I felt proud of her for what she’s done at such a young age. Well, I didn’t realize that Jennifer was sitting there.”
Even so, Madsen went through a series of auditions in which Russell began to shape the character for her until she was finally officially cast. She soon found that she had a lot to discover.
“Most of the roles I tend to do now are very much like my personality, and this was not my personality at all; this was a complete character role for me,” she said. “David could see that he was going to sculpt me into something I’ve never been before.”
She had to get used to the director’s unique on-set style too. Madsen recalled how in one scene he sat under a table, another under a bed, all to be closer to the actors. Lawrence, De Niro and Cooper had all worked with Russell before, and so as Madsen said, “I thought, ‘They’re going with it, I should go with it.'”
Still, it was hard for the veteran actress not to get a little rattled by her situation. “There’s still a part of me that was going, ‘Oh, my God, Robert De Niro is throwing things at me. This is so cool!'” she said. “I grew up admiring him as one of the greatest living actors ever. And there he is and such a dream come true to not just meet him but work with him. The fact I got to scream and yell and have an on-screen fight, I was so high at the end of that day — I could do it, I could fight Robert De Niro. That’s a pretty cool thing to find out.”