She’s been a prominent film actress since the 1980s, but there’s still more of Chicago than Hollywood in Virginia Madsen. In a telephone interview, the “Haunting in Connecticut” star was refreshingly candid about the ups and downs of her life and career.
Madsen, 47, debuted as a space bombshell in David Lynch’s “Dune,” became horror film icon with “Candyman” and an Academy Award nominee with 2004’s “Sideways.” She appeared in Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2006, but noted that she’d been out of circulation for a year before making her new film.
The Haunting in Connecticut
Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 27 Mar 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 27 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)
Madsen is a single mother and between film roles she has an active second career as a cartoon voiceover artist.
Q. You have parallel careers, it seems, appearing in indie films like “Sideways” and “Prairie Home Companion,” and then appearing in horror films. Is that a matter of going where the best role is or a conscious decision to diversify?
A. Oh, I like that more. I’ll go with that one. In the case of “The Haunting,” I’d been looking for a good horror script since “Candyman” in 1992. I don’t know how many of them I read. I’m so particular about what I want to do in that genre that I figured I could wait. If audiences care about the people on the screen things become much more frightening. And I wanted it to be real terror, not slice and dice. When I was growing up, television would show classics like “The Mummy” and “Dracula” and “The Wolf Man.” How they would photograph things was so beautiful and artful and the actors were so good. I always thought it would be fun to be in one of those.
Q. The film claims it’s based on a true story. Really?
A. When I first got this script, I knew this story. It was a based on cable channel TV documentary called “A Haunting in Connecticut.” Of course, we embellished and made it much larger, but it’s inspired by the things this family said really happened to them in their house next to a cemetery.
Q. Your character just can’t catch a break. Her son has cancer, her husband’s an alcoholic and her house is haunted. What’s it like to play a character that suffers and suffers and suffers?
A. I looked at her as a very strong mother who is going to save her son. A mother who is battling against God or the devil to keep her son with her. It would be a fight to her own death if necessary, and I understand that. I have a 14-year-old. Sometimes I feel like I’m battling against the forces of evil!
Q. You’ve got quite a voiceover resume as well with superheroes, and now you’re Queen Hyppolita in the “Wonder Woman” animated movie just released on DVD. Is it true you took up vocal acting when you were pregnant with your son?
A. I did. I started out with a book on tape and when you’re that pregnant you can’t sit for that long, you have to roll around. But I stuck with it. Most of the jobs you do, you’re not going to make a lot of money. Later you might if you get a running series or do something for Disney/Pixar ... There are a lot of actors who think it’s really easy and it’s not. They get surprised when they get in the booth and realize you can’t use your arms. You have to learn how to work the mike. But it’s so creative. I get to play characters no one would ever let me play onscreen. Once I played a giant brain, this power-hungry evil brain. I kept growing larger and larger as I took in more data and I exploooooded. I actually got to say, “Curse you,” before I exploded and I made all these horrible noises.
Q. Your next role is in a biography of Amelia Earhart directed by Mira Nair. You play the first wife of Amelia’s husband, opposite Hilary Swank and Richard Gere. Does that mean you’re the evil other woman?
A. We’re all friends, actually. The marriage between Dorothy (Madsen’s character) and George (Gere’s) was over for many years and she actually left him and went on to have a long relationship with a much, much younger man. I liked that part. I hint to Amelia that she should be with George. I’m glad that they didn’t simplify that relationship and make me catty, because that’s often the only way women are portrayed. We’re mothers or we’re catty.
Q. You’ve been an actress since you were a teenager. How has the industry changed?
A. There’s more of a greenlight for independent films now, which is always healthy for the industry. “Frozen River” went all the way to the Oscars and that’s a movie they made for half a million dollars. That’s exciting. As women, we’re still limited in the roles we’re given. I haven’t worked in a year, and that’s frustrating. It’s not that I couldn’t work but there was nothing worthwhile.
Q. Last year you opened your own production company, Title IX. What kind of films will it make?
A. We’re not going to make all female-centered films. The statement we’re making with the name is that it’s time for a change. It’s our turn to play. We should be allowed on the playground now. The first film we’ve got going into production is “The Bell Jar” starring Julia Stiles. We’ll start filming in July in upstate New York. I’m going to play a small role in it because it helps to get financing if I’m in it as well.
Q. Do you have any particularly fond memories of working in St. Paul (Minn.) with Altman on “A Prairie Home Companion”?
A. Oh, I loved that Fitzgerald Theatre. Everybody came to work and hung out all day long even if you weren’t working and just stayed in that beautiful theater watching everybody else work. It was such an incredible atmosphere in there and no one ever dreamed that would be his last film. It was a very homey atmosphere there, and being from Chicago, I loved that there was White Castle.
Q. Was it poignant to play the Angel of Death on the old maestro’s final film?
A. I know, I always feel kind of strange about that. He really designed that character from head to toe. He was so specific on what he wanted me to look like, what he wanted me to move like and sound like. It was strange but I wanted to do it just the way he wanted me to do. I thought he was very close to the other side and this to him is what an angel looks like. And I hope that she was there waiting for him.