“It’s expected that I’m going to have an opinion about things,” actor Virginia Madsen said Thursday in a Midtown cafe. We were meeting to discuss 1985, Yen Tan’s acclaimed black-and-white drama about a man named Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) who goes home to visit his family during the titular year, knowing it may be the last time he gets to do so because he has AIDS. Madsen plays Eileen, his mom who, in the words of Glenn Kenny’s New York Times rave review, is “almost desperately radiating affection.” It’s a complicated role, one that finds Madsen playing a woman who’s playing her own role as cheerful caretaker, while clearly aware that something is wrong.
Madsen’s performance is a highlight, as it is in most of her films. She’s best known for her work in the 1992 horror film Candyman and for her Oscar-nominated performance in 2004’s Sideways. But lately, she’s taken on supporting roles in smaller indies like 1985 and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, as well as television work (she appeared in the first season of ABC’s Designated Survivor).
When our conversation turned to #MeToo and the sexual harassment she experienced as a young “hot babe” in Hollywood in the ’80s, Madsen surprised me with her candor—she had previously mentioned said harassment in a brief Facebook post last year in the wake of reports about Harvey Weinstein. She doesn’t name names, but she did talk about about her experience and the emotional fallout in detail. We also discussed her experience with Hollywood ageism at 56 and her late realization that she’s “kind of slutty.” An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.
JEZEBEL: What did you think when you received the script for 1985?
VIRGINIA MADSEN: You know, I read a lot of bad scripts. I read a lot of bad writing. I try to be nice, but it’s work. This script was not work. It was something I fell in love with and felt very moved by. I felt there was an importance to this story, and I was looking for that. “Send me something with meaning, goddamn it.” I do need to pay the rent, but I need something that has depth and meaning. I’d been doing television. That’s the only place where the money is now, but that’s not satisfying. That’s a job. You make sure at least you’re having fun doing it, but I wanted something that people could feel something and learn something from.
Why do you think it’s important to tell an AIDS story set in the so-called “plague” years in 2018?
That part of the story I think is very current. What I’ve been learning from younger members of our audience is that there are a lot of people that can’t go home for Christmas, or they can’t go home for Christmas and reveal their true identity. This notion that, “Everybody can just be out!” is not really what’s happening. It’s happening in wonderful families and certain cases.
Did you know people who contracted AIDS at the time this movie is set?
Oh yeah, I think everybody did. The first person that I knew, I wasn’t close to him [at that point] because we had moved to different cities. We were like 22. I heard that he was sick and then he died right away. His family told people that he had a rare form of leukemia because he had become emaciated. He was wasting. It was too horrible to think what it was or why it was, and there were people marching, saying this was God’s punishment. A lot of people died because there wasn’t money for research much sooner. But yeah, it was friends, family members.
Did you bring anything from your personal life, as a mother, to this role?
Yeah. I am a mother and it’s the most important thing I do. I understand how to be with my son when I disagree with him, and to be patient. I don’t always succeed with the patience part. My son and I are very close and Cory let me in. He let me mother him. He let me hug him all the time. We hung out all the time, so a natural affection grew from that.
How did becoming a mother in 1994 change you?
I think he saved my life. I had some health problems. I was living a very selfish lifestyle. I was living for me and the center of my own universe. I think I was probably more depressed than I realized at the time. My career was tanking, I think, because of that. A loss of confidence. So when Jack came along, nothing was about me anymore. Everything became him because he was such a miracle. It really fulfilled me and it made my life so much better and I became so much stronger. Everything matters more when you have a kid. The work mattered more: “I have to get myself together physically. I have to get my life together. I’ve gotta figure out how to make money. I have to figure out myself because I’m fucking around.”
To what degree were you fucking around? Was it just partying?
No, I just wasn’t taking care of myself. Smoking, eating a lot of pizza, feeling really sorry for myself, the inability to sleep, and a lot of television. It’s not lazy. I think I was really depressed.
Because of your career, which you said was tanking?
I think there were a lot of things going on with me that I was choosing not to look at. But no, the last thing I was going to do was go to a club. I wasn’t getting invited to those places anymore, anyway. My body was falling apart and it was worse after he was born and I really couldn’t get back on my feet.
This was like a year after Candyman, right?
Yeah, but I really wasn’t working. It wasn’t a thing then to do a horror film like it is now. It didn’t help my career. I could be No. 1 at the box office for three weeks in a row, and the movie could make a ton of money, but it was genre, so it didn’t get me another job. Today it would.
Things eventually started to come together. Because of my son, I became very motivated and it was a matter of getting my mind, my body, my spirit—all that stuff together. It was the only way out for me and it worked. Part of it is getting older. I’m more confident now. I feel stronger and I feel more myself and I don’t feel like I have as many roadblocks in front of me from other people. It’s expected that I’m going to have an opinion about things, whereas when you’re 25 and you’re a hot babe, nobody wants you to have an opinion about anything. God forbid you open your mouth when you’re at work.
Did you get into trouble for that?
Yes! Even if I knew I was right, I was easily manipulated and I was a people pleaser. That’s my Midwestern side. If I really knew that something was wrong and I would express that opinion, it was a problem. Managers would be called; I would be disciplined. When I watch young actresses I work with now, I’m like, “Wow, they don’t have to go through that. They’re not going to be chastised for that.” That has changed a great deal for them. It’s not a surprise that this has now moved into the #MeToo thing.
Are you talking about expressing an opinion about misconduct or creative stuff?
Creative differences were mostly where I was shut down. I’m more at ease with myself in my 50s. I’m not worried about being liked. I hear that from a lot of older women. We spend a lot of time as the peacemaker, the people-pleaser… I wasn’t necessarily a subservient person. I was pretty strong, but I had that element of wanting to be a team player and [thinking] people would like me because of that. But it was a lot of times to my own detriment and I wouldn’t do that now. I don’t like confrontation still, I can’t stand it. I avoid it at all costs, but if I have to, I will come out with it. I just don’t think we should have to.
Is it heartening to watch #MeToo unfold, to witness the sea change?
I don’t think it’s a sea change. A lot of people found their voice, some of them men. A lot of people started sharing and it was great to see women supporting women. But the hashtag is really, #WhatNow. Yes, #MeToo, but #WhatNow. I think also being older, I’m skeptical until I see action. That’s really important. I’m glad there’s a legal fund. Has anyone successfully sued? Has it worked for any of the women who have brought lawsuits? That’s a place to start and I think they are. Equal pay? If you’re really famous. If you can demand an inclusion rider. I don’t know if that would work for me. If I asked for it, I don’t know anyone would listen to me. I’m not really in that position. I think that the fact that some people are starting to get rehired that had really serious charges against them… I don’t know.
And the other thing is, in all this discussion, have we taught our younger sisters to stand up for themselves? Have we given them the language to say, “That’s not okay”? Are we supporting them. When I was that age and things were happening with me all the time, I would say 80 percent of the people that told me to shut up were women—either the ones who were the gatekeepers, or the ones who were just didn’t believe me. “Oh, you’re so dramatic.” Or, this was the best one: “You’re so sensitive.” Yeah but… that just happened! That was almost worse, to not be believed and for someone to make a derogatory comment. I want to give the tools to women who are being harassed. How are we going to help them to defend themselves? What recourse do they have if they aren’t believed? I’m not seeing that.
How comfortable are you with specifying what you went through?
It was everything from groping to demeaning comments to making me feel bad about myself. Talking about me like I wasn’t there. Threatening me. Threatening my life. Threatening me that if I didn’t go over and blow him, I wasn’t going to work or, “I’m going to kick your head in.” That guy’s dead. [Laughs] It was a tragic thing, but I was relieved because nobody believed me about that guy and that guy was dangerous. A lot of times as people get older, if they’re bad guys, they’re not going to be successful. A lot of them had to leave the industry.
There was a lot of trying to convince me to take my clothes off in movies when my contract said I shouldn’t. I remember there were five men that stood in a circle around me with the director in the middle, saying, “You have to be naked in this scene.” I said, “No I don’t. You’re asking me to do what my contract protects me [from].” And they would talk behind me and in front of me, specifically to intimidate me, and I did it. I was afraid. I thought that it was better to just get it over with, you know? I felt really shitty about myself that I allowed them to bully me into that. They were very insulting. It was my choice, I take responsibility, I made that choice, but I think had I known a little better about how to stand up for myself, I might have walked away.
Other things just catch you by surprise, like somebody suddenly just grabbing your ass or pushing you up against a wall. It amazes me that we just go, “Wow, what’s up with that?” We kind of move on, and then you realize that you’re shaking afterwards. Why did we put up with it? Why were they allowed to do that? Why would they want to do that?
What was it like to live with that and carry those experiences with you?
The thing is, you just move on. If no one’s going to do anything about it and it’s over, I’m just going to move on and you’re not going to ruin my life. If I was attacked by somebody or if somebody scared me, it was like, you’re not going to win. I felt like, “You’re not damaging my life. You’re not damaging me.” I think that’s how I thought about it: “I still win, because I’m still standing.” But certainly, you live with things that are happening all the time, and you just kind of get through it the best that you can. One could argue whether that was good, but it would be nice if that happens less. It would be nice if I didn’t have to be afraid to go to my car at night by myself. I’ll always have someone walk with me.
You aren’t naming names or specific projects. Why is that?
One, because it was a really long time ago. And I didn’t have a situation where… I wasn’t raped by Harvey Weinstein. I think it was important to name him because the castle came falling down. But it just was a long time ago and those people are not in any way part of my life. And in fact, I view them as being an unimportant thing. They didn’t get to be my focus. If I was in my 30s, I think it might be different. And I don’t necessarily want to affect someone’s children. And some of them, I don’t even know what they are now.
Isabella Rossellini said something quite beautiful. She was raped, but she said, “It was so long ago that I don’t want to name that man because he’s old now.” She said it more eloquently, and I was like, “Wow, yeah.” She said something like, “That incident is not part of my life today.” I was like, “Yeah, I feel that way.” It’s not a part of my life today and a lot of those people aren’t around anymore. Plus, I think I was kind of fortunate because I didn’t have that kind of attack. A lot of people were really afraid of my brother [Michael Madsen]. So was Harvey. I was around him plenty of times. I was never aware, I just thought, “Oh he’s got a great wife.” But now I’m like, “I bet he wouldn’t dare.” Michael’s a dangerous guy—not really, but he’s viewed that way. Nobody would ask me out on dates ’cause they were so scared of Michael. I think in many ways he protected me from something much worse that could have happened. I think he would have sought out justice if someone had raped me.
You said you’ve gotten more confident as time as gone on. How does that square with the notion of Hollywood’s ageism? Have you found it to be ageist?
Yes. But I don’t think of it that way, and that’s the only thing that I can control. Also, I’m not trying to play 35. I play in my 50s, and since I’m not defining myself as necessarily anything other than what I am, I think it helps people and gives them more understanding. My mother said, “When you’re in your 40s you’re free, but when you’re in your 50s, you fly.” And she was right. I don’t know how I feel about 60. I’m not there yet. But the closer I get to it, I’m like, “It’s all right.” I have some role models I can look at and say, “I like the way that looks. I want to emulate that.”
It wasn’t an issue in my life because it wasn’t for my mother and my older sister, so I didn’t see age as a barrier and I still don’t. There are roles I’m just not going to be able to play and it doesn’t make me sad that I’m not going to be able to play the hot thing. I didn’t like playing that. I was uncomfortable being the sought after sex symbol. It didn’t have very much to do with me and it made me objectified. I was shamed. There was always someone who would make some lewd comment. Or if I was proud, I’d get taken down a few pegs for feeling comfortable with my sexuality. If I wanted to sleep around, boy, you had to be secretive about that because it was like, then you’re a slut. And then I got to an age where I was like, “Yeah, I’m kind of slutty.” But nobody could say anything because I was in my 40s then. I’m not going to get condemned for that; I’m going to be thought of as adventurous, open-minded, knowledgable. So as you get older, you get seen in different ways. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad.