Michael Madsen is a favorite actor of writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill: Volume One). He appeared in Thelma & Louise and on the television series “24.” And he is a published poet, about to release his second collection. I had a wonderful time talking to him about growing up in Chicago, meeting his idols, and the two movies he just made back to back. In “Loosies” he plays a cop chasing a pickpocket played by writer/director Peter Facinelli of “Twilight.” And “Infected” is about the spread of a deadly Lyme disease-like virus.
We both grew up in Chicago — do you get back there often?
Well my father still lives in Chicago. He’s a retired fire-fighter. He was a Chicago fireman for thirty years…and he made lieutenant and he retired, so I go once in a while to visit him.
As an actor, you are especially good at the quiet moments, at listening and at waiting. Is that something that comes naturally or are you very conscious of it?
I think what it is, is that I don’t know. If I knew what it was, I might not be able to do it. I don’t think it’s an actable quality. I just think it’s something that is or isn’t. I can tell you that when I was a kid, I noticed that in Steve McQueen, and I read a lot of books about Steve, and I know he used to cut a lot of dialogue out of his movie scripts because he didn’t like to talk a lot. And I noticed that in Robert Mitchum. I met Mitchum and I know he was very much like that in real life. Humphrey Bogart had that. I don’t know, but I consider it a compliment.
You remind me of Mitchum. What was it like to meet him?
Well, he was making a picture with my sister, he was doing that Hearst and Davies thing in Toronto, and I really wanted to meet him, because he made this movie called Heaven Knows Mr. Allison directed by John Huston, with Deborah Kerr, he played a marine that gets washed up on an island.
And she’s a nun.
I don’t know, his performance in that movie is about—I would say—75% responsible for my even fantasizing about being a film actor. And I had always wanted to meet him because of that movie, and I actually went to Toronto under the guise of visiting my sister, but the real reason I went is because I wanted to meet Robert. And so, you know, there he was, eating breakfast [laugh] and he was sitting there eating his waffles, and my sister brought me over and introduced me, and I sat down—and he kept eating…[laugh] and he didn’t even look up at me! And I was sitting there thinking, “Well, ok, that’s it,” and I was just starting to get up to leave and I suddenly heard him say, “What are you going to do with yourself, son?” And I realized, he was actually talking to me, and I sat back down and I looked at him and I said like an idiot of all the things in the world I could’ve said, I said, “Oh well, I was thinking about…I’m an auto-mechanic and I’ve been doing a few things here and there, but I’m working on a film-career. I was thinking maybe I could make it as a film actor.” And he put his fork down, put his knife on the plate, and he looked up at me and leaned forward and he said, ‘Why?” [Laughter] It was kind of funny, I started laughing. It was just so ironic that he was so much the way that the character that he plays—he really was like that! And we had a good laugh about it, and I’m just glad that I got to meet him that day.
Oh, he was good. He was really nice to me. I asked him if he had any advice for me, and he said, “Yeah…Smirnoff!” [laughter] Ok, alright. And he goes, “Forget about all that working out stuff, don’t start trying to turn yourself into Hercules, just get a padded jacket.” [laughter]
Tell me about the characters that you played in “Loosies” and “Infected.”
I did “Loosies” because of the kid Peter Facinelli, from Twilight. He wrote the part for me, and when I met him he was such a great kid, I couldn’t turn it down. I mean, I’m a New York detective, and he plays a pickpocket, and he gets my gold shield, and he’s running around New York with a gold shield, and kind of making a fool out of me in the newspapers, because I’m the pretty big-time New York detective. So, I’m basically chasing him throughout the movie trying to get my shield back. Vincent Gallo is in the movie, and he’s a great, great kid, a good actor, and it was great to have him on the set and Michael Corrente directed it and we shot in Rhode Island. The fact that he wrote the role for me, and I’m not a villain in the picture — it worked out pretty good and I ended up making “Infected,” another film for the same production company.
Well, it’s a first-time director, Glenn Ciano, and Quentin Tarantino was a first-time director, and a lot of times, they don’t want you to get involved in movies with first-time directors because you never know, but if you don’t give somebody a chance, you’re never going to know. Like if I had turned down “Reservoir Dogs” because Quentin was a first-time director…you know, that would’ve been a big mistake. And so, it taught me a lesson. You never know the way that these things are going to go, and Glenn Ciano, it was his first shot…and I had never done a horror picture before and it was a horror genre of movie about a family that goes off into the woods and stay in a cabin and everybody gets this crazy Lyme disease that turns everybody into cannibals. I end up having to shotgun everybody with a Winchester pump.
Oh my gosh! [Laughter]
And plus you get to shoot everybody!
Yeah, plus I get the pump. It was a nice gun, it was an older shotgun, it was really a highly effective weapon, let’s put it that way. I don’t know if you saw Vice, but there was some shotgun action in that movie—it was my idea—I rewrote the whole beginning, I rewrote the whole ending of that movie. I like shotguns.
Would you like to write an entire screen play? Would you like to direct?
Well, I’m going to do a movie with a woman director, her name is Heather Ferreira. She used to work with Quentin a few years ago, and we’re doing a picture in New York City, it’s called “The Little Matchstick Boy,” and it’s about a Vietnam vet, and I’m excited. I’ve wanted to work with a woman director, I think it really kind of changes things up a little bit. I’m looking at stuff all the time, now, for directing and producing. I produced “Vice,” and you know, most people can write it off as a B-genre movie, but if you really watch it closely with attention to boot, maybe watch it twice…there’s a lot going on in that movie. There are a lot of subliminal, subtle things that are happening in that film that could easily be not recognized because it wasn’t theatrically released. I was really involved in locations, I wrote and rewrote the beginning and the ending, I cast the whole thing. Getting involved in all this other stuff, just besides playing a character—it makes it a lot more fun. It makes me feel a lot more responsible for the end product. I can’t take responsibility for some picture that’s horrible, that people wouldn’t take my advice on certain things, you know?
What got you started writing poetry?
When I was still in Chicago, I was painting houses and working at a car wash. Like I told you, I saw “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” I must’ve been around seventeen or eighteen years old. So, I got curious about actors and I was in a library with a friend of mine and I found myself in the biography section so I read the biography of Clark Gable, I read Spencer Tracy’s biography. That’s the first time I read Hemingway. While I was there I got For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was Hemingway, and I guess after reading the biographies and reading the Hemingway book, I realized that I think about a lot of stuff. I started writing it down. When you’re making pictures, you’re often on an airplane or in a motel, and you have a lot of down-time in travel, or sitting around in your camper waiting for something to get set-up, and I would just start writing down poems and short stories and events that have happened in my life. I never really intended for it to be a book, but I spoke to a publisher and now I’ve just finished another one—it’s coming out in September. It’s called, Expecting Rain. It’s a book of photographs and short stories and poems. Jerry Hopkins, who wrote the biography of Jim Morrison, he wrote The Lizard King—he’s going to write the foreword.
Are there poets that you like, that inspired you the way that Robert Mitchum inspired you as an actor?
I would say Loren Eiseley and Hemingway was a terrible poet, but some of his books, though, his way of writing inspired me, his early stuff. And of course, Charlie Bukowski, you know, I can’t really think of anybody else. Robert Frost, maybe a few of those. Kerouac—I’d love to play Jack in a movie, but nobody’s ever asked me, which is bewildering, because I think I’d make a pretty good jack.
What else would you like to do?
To be honest with you? A long time ago, what I really wanted to do was drive in Nascar. Richard Petty was my big hero, I wanted to drive a Nascar and that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I was thinking I was going to do. I built a couple of cars, and I actually ran a few quarter-mile drag cars, and I drove a Nascar when I was making The Getaway. James Woods’ character has a race car, and we shot a couple of scenes up in Phoenix International raceway, and I got to drive the Citgo Dirt-Devil Nascar. I did five laps in that thing on an open track and it was one of the highlights of my acting experience. By the third lap, I did about 160, and the car is so well-built and balanced that it really does all the work for you. I was so happy I got to do that. It was so exciting. I was having a lot more fun doing that than I was shooting the movie. I’ve been convinced for years that some day I’ll be able to take advantage of that, but as time goes by it seems less and less likely that that’s going to happen. I would like to do a movie about a Nascar driver.