Madsen recently spoke with Beliefnet about playing the Angel of Death in Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," her own beliefs about angels, and finding her biggest success in her 40s.
Every year we run a feature called the Beliefnet Film Awards. It's kind of our version of the Oscars. And this year, you are one of the nominees for your role as the Angel of Death in "A Prairie Home Companion."
Oh, my goodness! Thank you! It's always nice to be acknowledged as an actor.
How did it feel to play an angel in that movie?
It was quite daunting, actually, to begin with. I mean, how do you play an angel? I just didn't know how to go about it. But Robert Altman had such a specific idea of his angel even, specifically, down to how I would speak. And he kind of created me day to day.
There was a lot of discussion about [how] he wanted this sort of floating quality. And so, we talked about, maybe I was going to be on a platform with wheels, and that didn't seem very safe. Should I be on strings? And, no, he didn't want that.
And so, he wanted this very, very slow walk, so that I would appear to be gliding. He didn't want me to disappear and reappear. He didn't want special effects because he wanted her to be more real. And so, I would do take after take of going slower, slower, slower, walk slower, speak slower. He was so specific with me, and he usually isn't. Actors [usually] have free reign when it comes to portraying their characters.
And so, it was very interesting. It became fascinating. And he would sometimes just look at me for a long, long time and then go back to his work. And then he'd come up with an idea and he'd put me into the scene. And he was very, very happy with what I was doing. It always felt strange--always felt strange playing that character.
Strange in what way?
Just strange to move that slow and to talk that slow. And I was so separated from all the other actors, because everyone had this kinetic energy and everybody was dynamic. And they all got to move at a great speed, and I couldn't. And it was so silly, because at one point I said, "Well, why am I going so slow?" And he said, "Because you're dead." I said okay. "All right, Bob."
And of course I was honored to be directed by him, and I would do whatever he said without question. But now I think about it a lot, because I guess he was very close to moving on. He was such a powerful man. He was very tall. He could be very imposing. He had a powerful personality. And therefore, he had a very powerful spirit. You could feel it.
So you never had the feeling that this man would ever die. Even though he had cancer and a heart transplant and a hip replacement. And he was 80 years old. But it still just came as a shock; not just a surprise, but a shock that he would die. I was like, "But I just saw him and he was great!"
That's so sad.
You just didn't ever believe it because he was so full of life. But now, I realize, wow, he really was close to the other side, and this was his personal vision.
I was thinking of the irony and kind of the sadness that you played the Angel of Death in his final film. It's a really powerful thought.
I spent a lot of time after I first saw the film wishing that I had played it differently. I wish I had put more life to her, I guess. I wish I'd been able to be a little bit more spontaneous, like the other actors, so I would have fit in, because she seemed to really stand out. However, now I realize that that was really important. And there was a--I still don't really know what it was--but there was something very specific that he wanted in that film. And he didn't want me to blend in. He didn't want me to be a part of the other characters.
So, I think about it a lot. I think about what he meant by it and was it deliberate or was he just having fun? I don't know.