Billy Bob Thornton, left, and Virginia Madsen talk about
their new movie, The Astronaut Farmer at the Ritz
Carlton in San Francisco, California, February 13, 2007.
(Michael A. Jones/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Virginia Madsen has two big movies coming out Friday.
In one, she plays the too-patient wife of an eccentric dreamer. And in the other, she’s the too-patient wife of an eccentric obsessive.
“Could they be more different?” she says, laughing.
Her role in “The Astronaut Farmer,” as Audie, long-suffering spouse to would-be cowboy astronaut Charlie, isn’t exactly the same as her turn as Agatha, the spouse who gives her husband (Jim Carrey) a book that soon has him fixated in “The Number 23.” In “23,” she plays two characters. She’s also Fabrizia, the sexy femme fatale in the Carrey character’s fantasies.
“I hated playing her, actually,” she says of the showy vamp role. “She’s a little too ... ” Her voice trails off.
But we know what she means. There’s something that doesn’t say “femme fatale” about her. She has this “nurturing thing,” says Billy Bob Thornton, her “favorite movie husband” (she says) in “The Astronaut Farmer.” “You meet her, and you’re at ease. She’s mothering you without even trying to.”
At 45, she certainly can play sexy. But sexy-nurturing is her forte. Think of her angel of death in “A Prairie Home Companion,” her downtrodden insurance examiner in “The Rainmaker,” or the worn-down but still yearning, still sensitive waitress in “Sideways.”
It may be her niche, but it’s not a broad niche. “Sideways” earned her an Oscar nomination. But it made Paul Giamatti a leading man, a star. It was a comeback for Thomas Haden Church, who has followed that with a lucrative turn as a “Spider-Man” villain. Sandra Oh got a hit series (“Grey’s Anatomy”) out of the film.
And Madsen? She pauses to consider the question, the three years since her second big break. She was a rising starlet in the `80s, after “Dune.” But by the time she turned up in 1988’s “Hot to Trot,” she was already reduced to supporting-player roles in most films. A critical and commercial success like “Sideways” can add years to an actress’s career. She landed a short-lived TV series (“Smith”) out of the film.
“Professionally, it brought great opportunity, success,” she says. “And personally, I gained a lot of confidence during that whole awards season. That movie brought me that experience of going through an awards season. I certainly had never been praised like that before.
“A great experience, I highly recommend it.”
Her phone was ringing again. “You start seeing better scripts,” she says.
And best of all?
“I got to do a film for Robert Altman. That was what I wanted from `Sideways.’ It was great to be working for the studios, to be back on something like `the A list.’
“But to be on the Altman list, that’s what I really wanted.”
She’s been an actress who always kept one foot in indie film. Check out her work in Wayne Wang’s “Slam Dance,” or in “The Florentine,” the one time she had the chance to work for her tough-guy brother, Michael Madsen. But none of that prepped her for taking a role as the angel of death for Altman, who was dying even as he filmed “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“I’m still trying to figure out what he wanted from me. He was so specific with the way I was to move and speak. And he’s not like that with actors. You get to improv and have a lot of freedom to find the character.
“Not with me. Every physical move I made was directed by him, even to the way I spoke, slow and quiet. That’s how he saw his angel. I’d have been a fool to not listen to Robert Altman.
“He was very close to death, going through chemo during that movie. He had rallied, put on weight and he seemed so happy. I guess there was just the feeling that we couldn’t allow him to die. We haven’t even had a big memorial service for him. How could we? How could you get all those people who worked for him into one place? You’d have to rent the Coliseum.”
Madsen sets goals for herself - working with this director or that leading man. She had, by her own confession, “stalked, stalked Jim Carrey,” for years, until “The Number 23” came along. She got to make a movie with Altman.
She played the femme fatale in “Number 23,” “but I still haven’t played an out-and-out villain.”
You start your career with David Lynch and Peter O’Toole, chances are you’re always going to be a little picky. “Creator” (1985) her under-rated romantic tragi-comedy with O’Toole, has her wistful, thinking of his chances as a best-actor nominee this Oscar season. She was all of 22, and remembers trying to talk O’Toole into leaving his trailer to show up on the set, and being regaled for “45 minutes with tales of what happened when he was filming `Becket.’ The director pats me on the back and says, `If Kate Hepburn couldn’t get him out of his trailer, what makes you think you could?’”
A girl could get a reputation, trapped in a trailer with O’Toole.
“I don’t mind that rumor a bit, not then, not now,” Madsen says, laughing. She was married from 1989 to `92 to actor Danny Huston, son of director John and half-brother of Anjelica. In a small town like Hollywood, naturally she wound up playing scenes opposite him in “The Number 23.” Huston plays a college psychology professor.
She has a 12-year-old son with actor Antonio Sabato Jr., and has just started home-schooling him. An actress famous for playing nurturers on the screen, she’s determined that her off-camera mothering measure up to the mothering she does on screen.
“You know Jim and Billy Bob are both taken,” she says, laughing. “You just fall in love with these guys, in that actor way, when you work with them.
“But if they were single? I don’t know if I’d be in the mood to mother anybody.”