SXSW 2014: Virginia Madsen On “The Wilderness of James” & dancing with Oscar winners at Madonna’s Afterparty

•• Virginia Madsen’s latest film, The Wilderness of James, is a coming-of-age story about an isolated mother and a withdrawn teenage son still struggling to cope with  as Madsen aptly describes it — the “wreckage” left behind by the family patriarch’s suicide years earlier. She stars opposite 17-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In), and Danny Devito.

Austinist spoke with Madsen the morning after the 2014 Academy Awards: right on time to hear a mixture of fresh and fuzzy memories from Madonna’s extravagant and star-studded afterparty.


Were you at the Oscar’s last night? 

No, I just partied all night long [laughs].

At the Vanity Fair party, maybe?

No, I go every year to Madonna’s party.

How was that?

Oh God, it’s the best. That’s why it’s called ‘The Party’: four different check points out of your car — they’re party fascists. There’s no cameras allowed. There’s no social media allowed and everyone really lets their hair down. Everyone is, you know — oh God, there were like four people dancing with their Oscars. It was so exciting! But people really cut loose at this party because it’s so private. It was really, really fun.

Who did you see dancing with their Oscars last night?

I saw Lupita [Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress winner for 12 Years a Slave] — she’s the belle of the ball this year. I mean that was just… it was incredible. Cate Blanchett — I got to see her, that was really cool. Um, Meryl Streep. And then Jared. Jared Leto. And he was letting everyone dance with his Oscar, which I thought was so cool [laughs]. Oh, and Matthew. Matthew McConaughey was of course giving everyone advice.

Sounds amazing. Let’s launch into The Wilderness of James. Your husband in the film — who we never see — commits suicide, leaving you and your son behind. Do you think that suicide is, as some people say, a fundamentally selfish act? Or is there a lot of gray area in there?

I think it’s far more complicated than that. I think—the reasons why people do that are myriad, but there’s so much wreckage left behind that there is a selfishness to it. It is fundamentally a selfish act — it’s only about you and your singular pain, but there’s so many different reasons for that. I think for that man there was no other way out; but the wreckage he left behind was a wife and a child, and a very, very sensitive, unusual child. So, these are two very lonely and isolated people in this movie, doing their best to get through this difficult time, but not really facing it. I mean, this boy saw his father jump off a bridge. He saw him do it and he’s lived with that since he was eight years old; he kept that information, carried that information, internalized that until it turned into not only this tremendous weight, but it turned into many kinds of fantasy, many different visions, and it became this very, very dark world within him. And I thought Kodi portrayed that so beautifully—and so did the director. He didn’t tell a story of just ‘The reckless teen, goes out and gets high and finds himself.’ There was nothing stereotypical about this film, and this story. I think Kodi and the director really worked hand-in-hand to create this very secretive world that that boy lives in.

It seems to me that the film heaps most all of it focus on James’ inner turmoil and basically none on yours, as the single mother, as a way of demonstrating your character’s devotion to at least outwardly keeping it together in the face of tragedy for James’ benefit. Is that an accurate reading?

Yes, I think so. It is The Wilderness of James. The focus is his self-discovery and his world and what he’s going through and the adults are there to help him — which is what we’re supposed to do. You know, these two people aren’t in fresh grief, you know, they’re long past that intensity of grief, and both of them have internalized this.

It’s not often that raising teenagers looks to be a whole lot of fun — whether on screen or in real life. What was your relationship like with your parents when you were that age?

Well, I was very close to my mother—all of us were, I have two older siblings. I wasn’t as distant, but I internalized my issues and my pain. I had a single mother and so I was more trying to help her, but she knew what I was up to [laughs]. But my older siblings were wild and reckless, and so, it was, by the time my mom got to me she was really good and it — and so I didn’t get away with a lot [laughs]. But I did raise a son; then I, like my mother, then I went through it, and we all go through it.

And I think, what really I loved about this movie was they didn’t stereotype anyone: these were young characters but they were three-dimensional people. Yes, they were teenagers, but they were young people; and a lot of times in films the teenagers will just be a smart-aleck for no reason It’s so lame, and it’s not realistic, and it’s also not fair, and this was, I think, a very realistic portrayal of that private world that they’re all in — and they’re all in it together in different ways.

You’ve been directed by some of the best in the business: David Lynch (Dune), Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker), Alexander Payne (Sideways) and Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion) to name a few…

[laughs]

In The Wilderness of James you worked with a first-time director, Michael James Johnson. So, if there’s a comparison to be made, who does he remind you of most?

I would say that he’s somewhere between Alexander Payne and Altman. And the reason I say that is because he makes the set a really comfortable place for his actors. He likes actors. He enjoys our process. And even though this was his first time I was really surprised at how well he worked with actors, because, I think that’s a huge challenge; because I’ve worked with so many first timers, and I enjoy that process; but they don’t have the language of actors, they’re intimidated by us. They don’t really understand what we’re doing and they don’t really know how to ask us for something that they want; and Michael just knew, I don’t know how he knows that, but he really knew how to get what he wanted; he really knew how to talk us.

Wilderness of James
Directed by Michael James Johnson
Premieres March 9, 8 p.m., AMC Theatre, 434 W. 2nd St.
Additional screenings March 10 & 11

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