By Paul Risker.
What is in a number? Well in answer to a self-posed question, something of significance, as Virginia Madsen has or will have donned by the conclusion of next year a collection of guises that reaches into triple figures. So who is Virginia Madsen? There is Virginia Madsen the woman, and then there is Virginia Madsen the chameleon.
It is refreshing to hear a veteran actress speak of affection for horror that has matured and grown with the passing years. All too frequently horror is exploited by Madsen’s profession as a means to launch careers, only for the genre to be shunned once they escape the grasp of what is often perceived as a tawdry genre.
Madsen’s latest cinematic outing, the comedy Jake Squared (2013) is with long-time friends director Howard Goldberg and actor Elias Koteas. The film, centered on one filmmaker’s quest to understand how he has seemingly failed in all of his relationships, is not so far removed from the horror genre. Together these two genres are considered to be the two most difficult, the reason being that to be successful each requires the filmmaker and his creative team to invoke a very specific response from their audience.
In speaking with Madsen one of her immediate qualities is her warmth and receptivity to the questions. They possess an emotional honesty where she allows you to catch a glimpse of how Madsen the person is interwoven into the fabric of her characters. Having had the privilege to interview her, it is not surprising that she has an ability to connect with an audience from across the screen with a humourous, thoughtful and inquisitive nature.
During my phone conversation with her, Madsen reflected on her creative process and her admiration for her close friend and co-star Elias Koteas. She also discussed the challenges posed by genre and the influence of story versus character, film and dream logic, and Jake Squared as a quest for answers.
What initially drew your interest to the project?
Well there are two reasons. Howard and I have known each other for many years – our children went to school together and are now in college. So that’s how long we have known each other, and Elias and I have known each other since the 80s. So in a way I didn’t need to read the script because the idea of working with them was just so much fun. But the most important reason was the opportunity to explore the idea of long-time friends becoming lovers, and whether that was possible?
Picking up on your point of not needing to read the script, is you approach typically built on instinct or time and preparation?
I would rather have rehearsal time or as much preparation as possible. But of course that’s not the way it works in film. It’s a very rare film that gives you rehearsal time, because 1) they can’t afford it and 2) some don’t believe they need it. I always think it’s crucial. But then actors are usually cast right before they start shooting, and are typically the last to join the family. So you do what you can, but Jake Squared was easy because of how well we all knew one another.
When Elias and I are walking in the park a lot of that dialogue is just us talking, although it is within the guidelines of the script. We added a lot to that conversation, and so there was an ease, a natural flow and rhythm to our speech. But that’s how we are in real life. I’m not good at improvisation and I prefer to have a written script. But in this case it worked, and Howard liked it, and I had a good time. Elias is a phenomenal actor, and I knew that whatever we would do that I would be fine with him.
Elias has the ability to make an immediate transition from a trustworthy and sympathetic, to a disconcerting and unsympathetic onscreen presence. Where does that ability come from that makes him able to move between those extremes with such ease?
Elias is an actor’s actor. He’s the ultimate character, and whatever he does is good, and most actors know who Elias is just like we all knew who Paul Giamatti was way before Sideways (2004). He’s excellent at what he does and he just delivers. In my opinion he’s one of the best actors in the world. Elias is of course very grounded, and so he’s certainly not as ridiculous as Jake, but he just as this ability to transform himself into that new character. I don’t know how he does it…. I really don’t, but he’s so exciting to work with. I loved being around him, listening to him, watching him work – I loved just being in his presence. I’m certain that we will work together again, because we have that chemistry and our processes for how we approach the work are similar. There is a real ease that we have with one another, and so we work well together onscreen.
They say horror and comedy are the two most challenging genres because they require you to invoke a reaction from the audience. As an actress do you find genres pose different challenges that stretch you in different ways or does coming to any new character represent a challenge?
Whatever the genre you are working in they are all very different, and so I approach each of them differently. Comedy is something that I was never able to explore in my early career. But in the last five or six years I have been doing primarily comedy, and so I have been having a wonderful time learning about a whole different side of myself as a performer. When I do these films I try to surround myself with people who can teach me. I just finished shooting a movie with Jim Belushi in which I didn’t have to be the straight man – I actually got the chance to be funny, and Jim was so helpful with learning about timing and delivery.
Of course you approach the character in the same way as you would approach any story, although whilst at the same time continuing to keep it real the way you perform it is a little bit different. The horror, fantasy and sci-fi genres are probably the most fun, although horror is the hardest genre to find good material in because there are so few good stories. But when you find one it is so much fun. It’s like playing make believe or dressing up for Halloween like when you were child, and pretending to be scared of things that aren’t there – things that go bump in the night. The fake blood and gore… I love doing horror.
I think actors love drama the most because maybe there’s life [laughs]. But screaming, crying and all of that stuff is fun to do, although screaming and crying is almost the easiest. Being yourself and being real onscreen is another story, and being subtle came more slowly to me over many years. I had to learn to not hide behind the character, but incorporate more of my personality into the character. So I have been exploring that for a long time now, and ever since Sideways I am comfortable with working in that way. Now I have more of an ease onscreen; more of a natural quality than I did when I was a young actress.
If you look at films as a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state, then there is almost a certain dream logic to film, which relates to Jake Squared. How do you perceive the connection of dream logic to this film or more broadly cinema and stories.
You’re absolutely right, and many films strive to do that across all the different genres, although not many succeed. But this one in particular is like a long strange dream. There is even an existential aspect as he’s trying to explore these different aspects of himself, of his life, and why he’s so unsuccessful in relationships. I think many of us take stock around this age; around the idle years where you begin to take stock of where you’ve been, and why it is you are where you are now. You ask yourself the question, how did I get here? How did I mess things up so badly or did I?
In order to prepare to go into the next phase of life, if you’re a healthy person then this is a process you will undertake, although I think it is a must for the individual. Those years in your fifties are better than anything, and they have been the best years of my life. But there is definitely an assessment that goes on, because you have a perspective in this period of time where you can look back and review. I think I did alright [laughs].
At the beginning of the interview you said, “The most important reason was the opportunity to explore the idea of long-time friends becoming lovers, and whether that was possible?” Listening to you discuss the film it seems that the exploration of this and other fundamental questions was significant.
I don’t think I’m exploring in the way that Jake explored. This is a man who is deeply complicated, and always gets in his own way. I think what I did identify with along with many other people is the question of whether you can fall in love with your best friend. In most cases I don’t think you can, because when you have that kind of friendship it has to remain platonic. Once it becomes sexual everything gets messed up, but it is interesting to explore the idea of what if?
As I say in the film, why can’t I and the person I know and love more than anyone else in life just get together? It should be good, and yet it just can’t be because the chemistry is different – it is either or. I’m fortunate in my real life that I have a best friend who is also my lover. I don’t know how that happened; I really don’t [laughs]. He was a friend, and it just evolved into something different. But it evolved through first writing letters and then e-mails, to sending music, and all of a sudden I found myself very unexpectedly there. But in most cases it just doesn’t work that way, even though life would be better if it did [laughs].
With your company and the documentary credits as producer, are you hoping to continue to expand your creative horizons? How important have the experiences in front of the camera been in supporting you to make the transition into these other roles?
Well I don’t think I am very good at producing. I’ve been doing it for six years, and I’ve been successful in selling my documentary, and I currently have another project that is well under way. But it’s not creative. There is an aspect of producing that is creative, of which I am very good at, but the business side of things is arduous, tedious and I fear that I’m not patient enough. But acting is my passion; acting is what I am best at, and so that’s primarily what I want to do.
We are in a time in the industry where it’s necessary to generate your own work, and where it’s necessary to bring people together in groups in order to get a movie made. That’s essentially the producing way. Now finding the money is the other side that I am not good at, because artists are not good with money. So I think that we should have $8 million for every film, but that’s not going to happen now. You will perhaps raise $1.2 million, but even that is incredibly difficult, and the process is excruciating. So I’ll do it if I have to, but I’d rather stay in front of the camera. Directing – I would never want to direct as I prefer to be directed. I don’t want to be at the helm – I’d rather be one of the crew rather than the one steering the ship.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.