Virginia Madsen PhotoThough she'd been acting for two decades, Virginia Madsen's career took off after her Oscar-nominated role in the 2004 indie hit "Sideways." Since then, she's snagged several high-profile roles and now stars in two films opening on the same day, Feb. 23. In "The Astronaut Farmer" she plays the supportive wife to Billy Bob Thornton's farmer, obsessed with building a rocket ship and experiencing space travel. In "The Number 23," she again plays the wife to a man obsessed, this time to Jim Carey, who becomes consumed with that numeral and what he believes it portends for his life.

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.

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Listen to Virginia Madsen talk about:
"I Have Five Guardian Angels"
Dreaming About Angels
On Being a Professional Actress

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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.
Do you believe in angels?

"I Have Five Guardian Angels"
Oh, yes. Of course, I do. I had somebody tell me once that I had five guardian angels. And I was like, really! Five of them, eh? Okay, I'll take it.

My son is 12, and he knows that I believe in angels. I think they're all around us. Maybe that's magical thinking, but it's just something that I grew up believing in, and I think I sense it. I think they're there and I think that we have--whether they're guardians or guides. I don't know. These are kind of wonderful questions that will never be answered.

What is your image of one? Is it similar to the one that you played?

Dreaming About Angels
I try not to have real images because in my generation in growing up, we saw all these fantastic pictures of beautiful angels with long, flowing hair and big white wings and flowing white gowns. And I don't really know that it's that specific. I think it's more--it's a spiritual energy.

I had a really funny dream one time, where I saw three of them in this dream. You know, sometimes you have really involved dreams that go on and on and on. And I was at Notre Dame in Paris and I had been taken back to the past, to the Middle Ages, because I wanted to see what the Middle Ages looked like. And, so, I woke up with these three images of these beings that were there. And they were not flowing, not in big white--well, they did have wings, but they were more like people. I thought, oh, I wonder if that really was them.

And what do you think?

Well, I try not to think about it too much. I try just to feel what I was supposed to learn from that.

Turning to "The Astronaut Farmer," is there anything in your life that you've dreamed of so badly, like Charlie Farmer's dream of going to space; anything that you just couldn't let go of it, despite whatever obstacles you'd face?

On Being a Professional Actress
That's how I've lived my life. My dream was to be a professional actress. It wasn't about fame or money, because I knew that that would sort of come along with that if you were going to act in movies. Money I knew would be sporadic. I was kind of prepared for that. But I loved movies. And that's what I wanted to do. And I think that's one of the things that I came here to do, was to communicate through that medium and to be creative in that medium.

And so, I've attained that. And I just want to be able to keep doing that as long as long as I can. It's a career. You know, I want it to be a life-long career.

And the other was to have children. I really wanted to be a mother. I only had one, but that's fantastic.

So I have my dreams. It's a matter of maintaining them and nurturing them. Because you don't just get your dream and then you move on. What do you do with it when you have it? So, you have to nurture it and maintain it.

You found your biggest fame in the last few years. Looking back, how do you think your perspective is different now than when you first started out? Is your attitude toward finding fame is different having done it, you know, after 20 years of acting?

It's pretty much the same. I always thought that you'd have to be a good business person to protect the artistic side of yourself. But I think I'm a better business woman now, certainly, than I was then.

The thing is, you can't really seek fame. You know, it's not really [something] that comes along with it just because of the medium. It can't be your driving force because it doesn't really do anything for your artistic side. It does something for your film if it's widely popular. And that's great for not just me, but for everyone involved in making the film.

But that's why I love film, because it's not just about the actor. I like working in groups. I always have, since I was a child. I like working as a team. And making movies is an enormous team effort. And I like that I'm just a small part of that.

If you do theater, theater, in the end is just about you. It's just about the actor and the writer. But the performance is about the actor and the audience. But film is about all these different craftsmen that all go into making that image that you ultimately see on the screen. And I love that.

So, that's more my focus. Your focus can never be fame. You have to handle that in a really healthy way. You can't ever let that be your focus or concern.

In "The Number 23," Jim Carey's character becomes obsessed with that number and believes a book called "The Number 23" forecasts his future. Do you believe in that sort of numerology or the power of numbers?

No. No. I have no belief in numerology at all. Perhaps I don't know enough about it. Jim [Carey] has an interesting theory about "The Number"-- it's that he's not haunted by it or obsessed with it. He thinks it's delightful. And perhaps it's just like a little tap on the shoulder, sort of letting us know that there's something much larger than us at work. There's maybe a higher power.

But I think it's just a wonderful mystery that will never be solved. And my mother has a wonderful saying that she says, "God has a wonderful sense of humor." And I think that perhaps this is just God's little wink at us. It's true. He does. God has a great sense of humor.
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