Interview: Virginia Madsen talks about “Jake Squared”
•• Finding a person who powerfully fuels your creativity and passion can be a thought-provoking and intriguing challenge. That desire to find someone who undoubtedly accepts who you are is relatably presented through the life of the title character in writer-director Howard Goldberg’s new independent comedy-drama, ‘Four Squared.’ The film not only chronicles Jake’s determination to find a meaningful relationship and the purpose in his life, as portrayed by lead star Elias Koteas; it also also highlights supporting actress Virginia Madsen’s gripping working relationships with the actor and filmmaker, both of whom she has long-standing personal connections with off-screen.
‘Jake Squared’ follows the title character (Koteas), a 50-year-old film director who decides to evaluate his past troubled relationships with women. He embarks on his journey into his past mistakes by shooting an autobiographical film in his own home, and casts a handsome actor (Mike Vogel) to play a younger version of himself. But Jake’s plan spirals out of control when he discovers unexpected guests are surprisingly showing up to the party, including his dead father, a younger version of his mother, his kids and his ex-wife. The party’s attendees also somehow include Jake’s 17-year-old self (Kevin Railsback), as well as his 30- and 40-year-old incarnations (both also played by Koteas).
In the process, Jake is also looking to settle down, and tries to find the woman who he perceives to be the one. He explores past relationships, including a distant cousin, Joanne (played Liana Liberato as a teenager, and Jane Seymour as an adult); a girlfriend in Chicago, Sheryl (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and his smitten best friend, Beth (Virginia Madsen). Jake also struggles to find a reasonable explanation of what he perceives to either be a mystical experience, a nervous breakdown or both.
Virginia Madsen generously took the time to talk about portraying Beth in ‘Jake Squared’ over the phone. Among other things, the actress discussed how her long-standing personal relationships with Goldberg and Koteas, who she has co-starred with in several previous films, convinced her to take on the role of Beth; how it’s a challenge to film a movie on a shorter shooting schedule, but how independent movies offer the cast and crew opportunities to be more creative; and how she’s drawn to films that are about complicated relationships, as it’s more interesting as an actor to showcase tension between people, as opposed to uninspired connections.
ShockYa (SY): You play Beth in the new comedy-drama, ‘Jake Squared.’ What was it about the character and the script overall that convinced you to take on the role?
Virginia Madsen (VM): Well, the number one reason was the director (Howard Goldberg) and Elias (Koteas), are both long-term friends of mine. (Howard’s) children went to school with my child, and that’s how we met, 20 years ago. I’ve known Elias for even longer, and he’s been a great pal for many years. That was kind of what the story was in the movie, so I couldn’t resist.
SY: Speaking of the film’s director, Howard, he also wrote the script for ‘Jake Squared.’ What was the process of working with Howard on the film? Do you prefer working with helmers who also penned the script?
VM: Well, that depends on the director. With some, it can make it more difficult, because they’re very attached to their script. So they’re very hesitant to change anything about it. But Howard was very open to that change. He didn’t mind if we wanted to play with the dialogue and improvise a little bit. That delighted him, which made it fun to work with him.
SY: Speaking of the improv, do you feel that added an authenticity and creativity to the characters’ histories and bonds with each other?
VM: For me, no, because I’m not very good with improv. (laughs) So if I improvise too much, it just sounds like bad writing. I really had to stick to the script, with a few exceptions.
Like when Elias are walking through the park, a lot of that dialogue came out of him and I talking. But that was easy improv, because Elias and I know each other so well. Howard liked it, so he kept it as part of the scene.
SY: How did you bond with your co-stars, including Elias, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jane Seymour? Did you have any rehearsal time with them before you before you began filming?
VM: No, there wasn’t any time for us to rehearse, but to have that time for a film is very unusual now. Usually the filmmakers just can’t afford it, or they just don’t have the time for it.
But Elias and I are very comfortable with each other, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. In fact, we have worked together before (including on the 2009 horror thriller, ‘The Haunting in Connecticut’). We made a film called ‘The Prophecy’ together, which was a terrible movie (laughs) that came out many years ago.
Elias is one of the best actors around. Most actors know who he is, just like most actors knew who Paul Giamatti was before ‘Sideways.’
One of the most interesting things with Elias is that we had to kiss (for ‘Jake Squared’). But we had never kissed before in real life. Not that I didn’t want to, but that’s not who we are, as we’re just good friends. So all the dialogue about our feelings for each other over many years was different from the fact that Elias is like my brother. So that part was making us laugh.
So I told Howard, “We’re not going to rehearse the kiss, because we’ve never kissed in real life. I want you to have on film what really happens between Elias and I on a personal level.” I have to say, it was one of the best kisses I’ve ever had. (laughs) It was really good. (laughs)
The film was shot independently in Hollywood. Did shooting the comedy-drama independently pose any challenges on the set, or do you feel it helped with the story’s creativity? How does making independent films like ‘Jake Squared’ compare and contrast to shooting bigger studio films in Hollywood?
VM: Of course it’s always a challenge to make a film with very little money. But on the other hand, there’s no suit coming in and telling us what to do. The independent film world is far more creative. We have more creative freedom as artists on a lower budget film.
Even though we have less time and money (than bigger studio movies), it becomes a total creative atmosphere. Actors, directors and the people behind the camera can really flourish in that kind of environment. so I prefer working on these kinds of films, as they’re more fun. Yes, I would love to make more money. (laughs) But this is the world I enjoy the most.
SY: ‘Jake Squared’ was released in theaters and on VOD on August 15. Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand, and do you think the platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
VM: Oh yes, I love it. I do love going to the theater, but they’re two different experiences. I love watching movies in my home, and watching television shows on my computer wherever I am.
The great thing about VOD and Netflix, iTunes, Hulu and all those platforms is that they put a spotlight on smaller films. A long time ago, in the ’80s and ’90s, independent films either received a theatrical release, which was unlikely, or you would go straight to video. Then your film would disappear.
Now these films can be seen internationally. There are so many wonderful films that are now available, whether they’re narrative stories or documentaries, that would have never been seen years ago. But now they’re available for everybody, which is excellent for filmmakers.
SY: ‘Jake Squared’ was recently the centerpiece film at the 2014 Downtown Film Festival of Los Angeles, where you won the Best Actress–Feature Film award. What was the experience of bringing the comedy-drama to the festival? What does it mean to you that audiences positively received your performance, and that you won the award?
VM: Well, I love film festivals, as they’re the life line of independent films. Sometimes the festivals are the only time you can see an independent film on the big screen, as it was intended to be seen. For young filmmakers, it’s their chance to network and see their movie with an audience.
Film festival audiences are very generous. They’re there because they love films, so it’s a very supportive environment as an actor.
It’s always excellent to win an award. I don’t think you can really compare performances and films. It’s a funny thing we did when we give statues to people. But no one would deny it feels good to get one. I was very honored.
SY: Do you think audiences can relate to Jake’s determination to find out why his relationships, including with Beth, haven’t worked out throughout his life? What do you hope they can take away from the film?
VM: Well, I think this film is a character study about a really interested, complicated guy. It’s also really funny, so I think they’ll walk away with a smile on their faces. I also think people will see themselves in the story, as there’s something for everyone.
Younger audiences can enjoy it, because they’ll laugh at the older people. Older people will laugh at the younger characters in the film. So it’s a wonderful slice of life
SY: Besides films, you have also starred on several television series, including ‘Witches of East End,’ ‘Hell on Wheels’ and ‘Monk.’ What is it about television that you enjoy so much, and are you interested in appearing on another series in the future?
VM: I’ve always said, it’s more about material than medium. I’ve always bounced back and forth between the two throughout my career. I’ve done feature films, television movies, television series and Internet series. I like to experiment, and work with first-time directors and young filmmakers and actors.
Most actors are out of work, and that’s the bottom line. I feel very fortunate that I can be one who can pick and choose my projects. It’s always a struggle to find your next job, and I didn’t work for a long time. I struggled for many years after I had my son (who’s now 20). So I understand what it means to be down, and now that I’m up, I’m grateful.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you enjoy working with first-time and up-and-coming directors, would you be interested in helming in the future?
VM: No, I would never want to direct. I have been producing for the past six years, and I hate it. (laughs) But I’m in it now, and I’m producing a couple projects. I just sold a documentary I made.
It’s very difficult and not creative. It’s all business, and I’m an artist, so I don’t do well with it. (laughs) But I have some partners, and they try to do the heavy lifting.
As far as directing, I like to sit down sometimes during the day. The director is constantly working, and they’re always juggling. They have to handle all the personalities on the set. Acting is what I do best, so I’ll stick to that. For me, it’s the most fun. Directing would not be fun for me. (laughs)
SY: Since ‘Jake Squared’ follows Jake’s reflections on his life and relationships, are you interested in continuing with projects that explore characters’ bonds and choices?
VM: Oh, certainly-that’s what I do all the time. I specifically look for stories that are about complicated relationships. Human beings are complicated, so it’s much more fun to play that than something that’s boring. There are a lot of things that are boring out there.
But thanks to the online media that’s available, as I was saying before, there are a lot more independent films that can be made now. I have four of them that are in development right now. I finished one in New Mexico (earlier in the summer), and I have two other ones that are about to come out. They’re wonderful, and we had a lot of fun making them.
SY: Besides ‘Jack Squared’ and the projects you just mentioned, do you have any other films or television shows lined up that you can discuss?
VM: There’s one called ‘The Wilderness of James,’ which is the one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever been in. The other one I have coming up is called ‘Walter.’ They’re both coming up in the fall. They’ve both been sold, but now it’s about when and where they’re going to be released.