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Michael Madsen on Donnie Brasco, Free Willy, and life in the Tarantino club

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Michael Madsen was originally just fine with letting his little sister Virginia be the designated actor in their family. That’s likely how things would’ve stayed if his decision to tag along to an audition with one of his paramedic-school classmates hadn’t led to a role in a major motion picture. In the 30-plus years since, he has appeared in more than 170 movies. His biggest break came when he found his way into the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which established him as a go-to guy for tough-guy parts. Madsen’s relationship with Tarantino continues—he’s in the cast of The Hateful Eight—but he can currently be seen taking a more comedic turn, starring on Comedy Central’s Big Time In Hollywood, FL.

Big Time In Hollywood, FL (2015)—“Detective Scoles”

Michael Madsen: This kind of came out of nowhere, which really surprised me, because I don’t think I’m predominantly thought of as being a comedic actor. [Laughs.] So when I first heard about it, it was just a random call that I got from my manager, and I was really so surprised at the content of it, that they would think of me for something that funny. I was happy, though. It was very flattering. I couldn’t wait to meet the guys and actually see what I could do with it. I wasn’t sure how they wanted me to play it, and I kind of had to take it spontaneously.

The A.V. Club: Well, it’s certainly a show with a dark streak, so you can see how you could fit in.

MM: Well, it’s got a dark streak, but it is funny. It’s terribly funny. I fought kind of hard to keep a straight face for a lot of stuff we did.

AVC: So who is Detective Scoles in a nutshell?

MM: Well, I think he’s a bit confused. [Laughs.] I think he’s somewhere between Columbo and… God, who would be the opposite of Columbo? He’s stuck between Columbo and Steve McGarrett. I’m not sure where he’s at. Or maybe between Barney Fife and Steve McGarrett.

AVC: That’s a hell of a middle ground.

MM: [Laughs.] Well, you want to leave the door open.

AVC: How well defined was the character when you first got the script, and how much did they let you play with it once you got the role?

MM: Well, I think the genius of the boys—and Ben [Stiller], of course, who’s at the helm of the whole thing—I think they purposely looked for an actor type that could bring what they were thinking about the character, claiming that they were thinking of me from the beginning. It’s always easier for an actor when you know they thought of you personally, because then basically you have to do your thing and what you think they’re used to seeing you do, as opposed to trying to create some otherworldly thing. Or to go into read for something, which is, like, the worst experience in the world. I’ve never been able to read for anything, and every time I have, I’ve never gotten the part. And I don’t know why that is. I just can’t. Reading or auditioning for something… It’s like it’s this mental block in my brain, and I just can’t do it. But when people ask you to do stuff without making you go through that, it’s a much more pleasant experience.

Sometimes I’ll find that I’m called to do a voice-over for a video game, which I’ve done a couple of times, and it’s kind of funny when you’re in the booth and recording, and suddenly there’s silence, and they say, “Uh, you know, that’s a bit dark.” And then I say, “Well, guys, you know... [Laughs.] If that’s a bit dark, why don’t you call Scott Baio?” Or I’ll get, “Can you try to do it a little more threatening?” And I’ll say, “Um, well, I kind of thought it was there.” It’s funny how when people want you in a room, but when you get into the room, you turn into somewhat of a puppet. And then in the end, after you do it 10 different ways, they go back to the way you did it the first time. But it’s all fun. It’s a creative experience.

I had a really good time with those kids. They’re young, they’re excited, and Comedy Central’s a great place to be. When it was over, I asked if I could come back, maybe as another character this time. My evil twin or something. I mean, we’ll see how it goes. But, you know, it’s hard to make a crew laugh, because usually crews are so used to hearing and seeing so many things that it kind of goes right over their heads, or they don’t laugh because it’s rude, or whatever. But, man, I don’t know about the days I wasn’t there, but the days I was there, there was a lot of cracking up. [Laughs.] It’s a good thing they had a video room that was away from the site, because there was a lot of laughter.

Against All Hope (1982)—“Cecil Moe”

AVC: It looks your first on-camera role was in a film called Against All Hope.

MM: Well, that was actually done for prisons, I think. Believe it or not, I think it was made for the rehabilitation of prisoners, guys who were getting out of penitentiaries after long periods of time. Or it was supposed to be used for some sort of message thing for, like, therapy hospitals. [Hesitates.] You know, it was really never defined to me what it was made for. But, yeah, it seems like there were dinosaurs roaming the earth when I did that thing. [Laughs.] That was a long time ago.

I heard that [Sylvester] Stallone did an adult film, and he bought the negative and burned it, and he supposedly sent his friends around to all the stores to get all the copies. Against All Hope is one of those. If I could get hold of it, I’d do the same thing!

AVC: There is unfortunately a clip on YouTube…

MM: Well, God, I… I hope someone will delete it. [Laughs.] I can’t even imagine it what it’s like. There were a lot of interesting things I did, and there are a lot of things that are kind of disturbing. But I’ve learned my lesson over the years about what to say and what not to say in interviews, that’s for sure.

AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?

MM: I was basically an auto mechanic in Chicago, and it was my sister Virginia [Madsen] who was the actress in the family. I kind of lucked into the whole thing through a series of unplanned events. I had thought about acting, for sure. I mean, I loved watching movies. I liked Humphrey Bogart, I was a big Lee Marvin fan, and I liked Robert Mitchum. But the likelihood of one person—let alone two, a brother and a sister—coming out of the south side of Chicago from a blue-collar family and making it in the film industry is pretty astronomical, if you stop and think about it. Virginia was doing it long before I was.

I was pumping gas in Beverly Hills at the Union 76 and, Jesus, everybody you could imagine went through there. Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire, Cicely Tyson and Warren Beatty... every day I’d be squeegeeing the windshield of somebody I’d seen in a movie growing up. It was pretty surreal. And I ended up meeting a young lady who got me an agent, and they started submitting me on episodic television shows. So I did Miami Vice, Cagney & Lacey, Tour Of Duty, Jake And The Fat Man, St. Elsewhere, and did I say Cagney & Lacey? Because Tyne Daly won an Emmy for the episode that I did with her, and she didn’t even mention my name when she accepted it. That was… interesting. Yeah.

But it was a slow, unexpected thing that kind of evolved, and then I started getting movie offers. It’s a much longer story than that, but it didn’t happen in the usual way, put it that way.

WarGames (1983)—“Steve”

MM: That was what actually brought me to L.A. in the first place. I had met a casting director by accident. I was going to school to be a paramedic. I was making $2.50 an hour pumping gas and going to school to be a paramedic, and one of the guys in my class was an actor, and he went to an audition. We used to ride the train together to go to school, so I went to the audition with him, just to wait for him to get finished. And after he got done reading, I was walking out the door with him, and one of the people who was there was from L.A., and he goes, “Where are you going?” And I’m, like, “Um, I’m leaving?” He said, “Why didn’t you read?” I said, “Well, I didn’t come here to do that. I’m just with my friend.” And he goes, “Have you ever considered being an actor?” And I said, “Well, no, not really.” It was a very odd experience. And then he said, “Well, would you be willing to read?” And I said, “Um... Well, yeah!” Meanwhile, my friend, I realized, wanted to choke me. He could’ve killed me at that minute. And I understand now why he was mad, but I didn’t know then.

So we went and sat on these little chairs, and he gave me a piece of paper, and he goes, “Here, read this.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “You’re this guy and I’m that guy.” I said, “Okay.” And I read it with him, and then he was, like, “Hmmm…” I just remember him staring at me for a good five seconds, and then he goes, “You know, if you went to L.A. or New York, you could get work as an actor.” And I said, “Well, buddy, you know, me and my $400 that I have to my name probably couldn’t get me that far, so I doubt that’s gonna happen.“ But he asked me if I knew what an agent was, and I said, “Well, yeah, my sister has one.” And he said, “If I was to call her, would I be able to reach you?” I said, “Yeah, probably.” And that’s how I got Steve in WarGames.

They brought me from Chicago to L.A. to do that. But I actually came to California about a week before I had to start, and I went and got a job at that Union 76 I mentioned in full service, pumping gas and towing cars and changing flats and that sort of thing. Because I didn’t want to go back. I mean, there was no way I was going to go back to Chicago. I would’ve slept on a bench in the park if I had to. But I made sure that I had a job, so that when the movie was over, I wouldn’t have to leave, you know? So, yeah, that’s how that happened. That’s a true story.

Straight Talk (1992)—“Steve”

MM: Well, I can tell you for sure that the myth or the amazement or the wonderment of whether they’re real or not? They are. [Laughs.] They are real. And I got to knock out Jimmy Woods. With one punch! But he’s my buddy. We had lots of fun a couple of years later on The Getaway. Oh, yeah, and I remember going bowling a lot in Chicago, where we shot that thing.

AVC: And how was Dolly Parton?

MM: She’s a good bowler. [Laughs.]

The Getaway (1994)—“Rudy Travis”

AVC: Since you brought it up…

MM: Along with what I’m working on right now, The Getaway is probably one of the best times I’ve had making a picture. You know, fun-wise. Things like Donnie Brasco are serious and have to be done a certain way, but to use the word “fun,” that thing was just nuts. I’d just been divorced, and it was a great part. It was a remake of a Peckinpah film, and my character was completely out of his mind, and I had Roger Donaldson at the helm. It was a pretty good movie. I don’t think it was really released right. I think it should’ve been a wider release. I think they should’ve left it out a little bit longer.

AVC: Did you feel any intimidation at the prospect of remaking a Peckinpah film?

MM: Well, I thought it would be more difficult for Alec [Baldwin] than it would be for me, because he’s trying to redo a [Steve] McQueen picture. That was a big tack to hold on your back. But, you know, there’s a lot of movies that should never be touched. Like, they should never try to remake Bullitt, which I heard they were gonna do. They shouldn’t try to do On The Waterfront, which I heard, too. You know, there are certain things that you just can’t do better, and they shouldn’t even try. And I think The Getaway was… I mean, I couldn’t say “no” to it. Who would? But Roger was a great director, and he handled it very well. Looking back on it, I do think Alec did a pretty damned good job. All the shootout stuff was good. It’s an exciting picture.

You know, it’s funny: When you watch something like now, so long afterwards, it seems so much better than it was when you first saw it. I mean, there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman! I kill him. We’re driving down the freeway, and I shoot him and kick him out of the car, or to the side of the road. He was a completely unknown actor, and I don’t think he even had more than two or three lines of dialogue in the film, but it’s funny to watch that scene and realize that years later he’s going to win an Academy Award for playing Truman Capote. It’s so funny how these things evolve. You never know what’s going to happen with people down the road.

Die Another Day (2002)—“Damian Falco”

MM: I was friends with Pierce [Brosnan] because we lived on the same stretch of beach, and our kids played together, and I joked around with him one day about being in a Bond film. I thought it would be pretty interesting to be on a resume. And Barbara Broccoli flew me to London just to meet her and talk about this little part. My mother and my sister are completely in love with Judi Dench, and Pierce is my buddy, so I went to meet Barbara, and the next thing you know, I’ve got the part. Doing a Bond picture is one of those experiences that’s there forever, you know? It was great. We shot at Pinewood Studios, and they gave me a Jaguar to drive around in London. [Laughs.] It was nice. I used to ride my bicycle around inside the studio. It was a big set, put it that way. Bond pictures are big movies. And Lee Tamahori was also in there, and I had done Mulholland Falls with him. To get into something like that, you’ve got to know more than a few people involved to get you in the door, but I loved it. It was cool being in a James Bond film.

And I got to light a cigarette! I know not many people smoke cigarettes in movies anymore, especially not in a Bond film and the way they are nowadays. To be able to light up a cigarette—I’m still amazed that they let it stay in the film. Because I pulled it out to light it, and everyone’s, like, “Whoa, hey, hey, hey, oh, no, no, no…” And then Judi Dench, she said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with Michael’s character smoking a cigarette. It’s quite apropos for him.” And then Lee was like [In a British accent.] “Yeah, I think that’s right. Yeah, that’s a good thing. All right, Michael, we’ll let you have that cigarette!” But I thought that they for sure would not leave it in the movie. But it’s kind of a funny, nice little thing that happens at the very end of my appearance.

AVC: Was there ever any talk of Damian Falco becoming a recurring character if Pierce had continued on?

MM: Well, if Pierce had continued on, I would have also. But, you know, when the new guy took over, that was it for me, too.

Mulholland Falls (1996)—“Eddie Hall”

MM: You know, that was a Lee Tamahori picture, like I said, but the problem with Mulholland Falls is… You know, it’s just not edited right. It’s just not. Because it was a great story and a wonderful cast. I mean, the damned thing was shot by [cinematographer] Haskell Wexler. It was more of an editing nightmare, I think. When they put the story together—it’s like when Nick [Nolte] and Chazz [Palminteri] go off to meet John Malkovich, what the hell happened to the other Hats? I mean, why weren’t me and Chris [Penn] on the plane? The whole story took this radical change: We were all supposed to be together, the Four Hats—and suddenly there’s big parts of the film when we’re not together! [Laughs.] Everybody seems to be an independent contractor. It was great to shoot it, and it was a good-looking movie, but, hey, it lost me in the way that it was cut.

Tilt (2005)—“Don ‘The Matador’ Everest”

MM: You know, I have to say that, in honesty, after doing 10 episodes of that show, I really don’t ever want to play another game of cards or see another poker chip or make another bet for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] We had to shoot two versions of every single moment. There had to be the virtual dramatic filming, and then they had to do everything again as if it was being done as a video replay for a television show, which is supposedly was at certain parts. So you’re basically playing the same hand over and over, making the same bet over and over, and it just got to be so repetitive that it made me crazy.

They built a casino on a soundstage in Toronto. We weren’t anywhere near Las Vegas! It was just kind of funny going there early in the morning, before the sun comes up, in the wintertime, stepping into a soundstage, and suddenly you’re in a Vegas casino. And then once a month we’d go to Vegas and do an exterior shot, where I basically pull up in front of the Flamingo, I get out and go inside. Meanwhile, they pull a different car out in front, I change my clothes, and I’d come back out the front door and get into that different car and drive away. That’s how they did all of the establishment shots of me supposedly being in Vegas… and that was the best part of the show! [Laughs.]

Vengeance Unlimited (1998-99)—“Mr. Chapel”

MM: You know, there again is a perfect example of a great show with a great character that had a huge following, and to this day it still does. There are people on the internet who are trying to bring it back! Mr. Chapel was a great character. I enjoyed it a lot. That thing could’ve went five or six more years if they would’ve given it a chance. It was well-written and fun to play. The writers, they went off and did The Fugitive after that, which I would’ve liked to have done. I would’ve liked to have been Dr. Richard Kimble. That would’ve been pretty cool. But they, uh, went another way with that. So it’s a mystery. A lot of people liked that show, and to this day it gets brought up. I mean, you just brought it up! [Laughs.] It could still come back, you know? I’m still young enough, the story still works. That thing could be brought back in a second if anybody had a brain.

Quantum Leap (1989)—“Blue”

MM: Oh, my God! That is so… [Starts laughing.] My character was missing a few chromosomes in that thing. I was driving around a forklift in a stocking cap, and that’s about all I remember. No, actually, I remember being in San Pedro and mostly listening to Scott Bakula playing the piano. For some reason, they had a piano on the set, and he was constantly playing that thing. I was friends with Dean [Stockwell]. I got along good with Dean because I was friends with Dennis Hopper, and that was all good and nice, but that’s one where, when it comes on, I either have to change the channel or I have to explain to my family that I was young and dumb and happy to have a job. But it wasn’t really that memorable of a performance.

Donnie Brasco (1997)—“Sonny Black”
My Boss’s Daughter (2003)—“T.J.”

MM: Well, you know, Donnie Brasco… I guess if you wanted to pick my top five, that’d be in there. It was a pretty damned good film, and shooting in New York City wasn’t bad, either. When you play a character that’s someone real, when you’re playing a true story, it’s really great, ’cause you’re not pretending to make up some silly thing. I wanted to dignify it. I wanted to give it as much respect as it deserved.

You know, speaking of auditioning for things, that’s a perfect example, because they asked me to come in and read for it, and I said, “No.” And they said, “Well, then you’re not gonna get the part.” I said, “Well, put it this way: If I come in and read, then I definitely won’t get it.” And they’re, like, “Michael, you’re perfect for this.” And I said, “Well, if I am, then why don’t you just give me a contract? Because I don’t understand what the whole reasoning is.” For about two weeks, I didn’t hear from them. Finally they said, “Would you be willing to go to New York to meet Al Pacino?” And I said, “Well, yeah, of course. But if you’re trying to bait me in there to go read, please, it’s not gonna happen. I’d love to say ‘hi’ to Al, and I understand he would probably like to meet me, considering the material, but I’m not gonna read for you guys. It’s not gonna happen.”

So they put me on a plane, they put me up at the St. Regis, and I went to meet Al. It was like meeting some kind of diplomat. I mean, he had guys with earplugs in and bodyguards walking up one hallway and down the other. It was a very secretive trail to get to Al. And then when I finally got in his office, he was just standing with his back to me, looking out the window. I came in and I closed the door, and I was just kind of standing there. [Laughs.] And he didn’t even really turn around! So there was a bookshelf, and I figured maybe he was deep in thought about something, so I turned around and pulled a book off the shelf and started looking at it… and all of a sudden I hear that voice. [Does a Pacino impression.] “You like that book?” “What?” He goes, “You like that book?” And I’m, like, “Uh, well, uh…” I hadn’t even looked to see what book it was! But I said, “Yeah, it’s great.” And he goes, “So, you like the script?” And I go, “Yeah! Yeah, it’s a good script.” “Whaddaya like about it?” “Well, it’s a good story. It’s a good story.”

I wanted the birds, though. Because Sonny had birds that he kept up on the roof. He had pigeons, and I wanted to have the pigeons. And I asked Al, “How come the pigeons aren’t in the screenplay?” And he said, “Well, because if you have the birds, then your character will have too much sympathy. And nobody wants to have sympathy for Sonny Black, you understand? So you can’t have the birds.” And I said, “Okay, well, then, I guess I won’t have the freakin’ birds, but…” [Laughs.] And he goes, “Okay. Okay, okay, okay. Okay!” And I’m, like, “Is that it?” He goes, “That’s it.” I said, “All right.” So, you know, I was escorted out, I went back to the hotel, and I was pretty convinced that it was not gonna happen. And then they said, “Oh, Michael, geez, Al likes you. You’re in. You’re gonna do the film.”

So I was very happy that I didn’t read. I was very happy that I kept my position, because it’s such an uncomfortable, horrible thing to do. But that’s one I didn’t read for, that I refused to read for. That movie’s also sad, because Bruno Kirby’s in it, and he’s since died. But I got some good buddies, like Jimmy Russo.

You know, later on, a couple of years later, I was in Vancouver, and I was making a picture called My Boss’s Daughter with Ashton Kutcher, and Al and I were both staying at the Four Seasons. He was staying there while he was making a film called Insomnia. I had three days off, and I wanted to go home for Father’s Day. I wanted to see my son. And I ran into Al’s assistant in the lobby, and I hadn’t known that he was at the Four Seasons, but he goes, “Oh, Michael, you know Al’s here.” And I said, “Oh, really?” He says, “Yeah! What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’ve got about three days before I gotta go back to work, and I don’t know what the hell to do. I can’t afford a plane ticket.” And he goes, “Oh, well, I’ll tell Al.” And I’m telling you, a half hour later, I was in my room when the phone rang, and it was Al. And he’s, like, “Michael! I got a jet!” And I go, “Well, that’s great.” [Laughs.] “Good for you! I’m happy to hear that you have a jet. Did you call to tell me that you have a jet?” He said, “No, do you want a ride?” I’m, like, “A ride?” He said, “Come on and take a ride!” I said, “Yeah, that would be great!” And he actually let me hitchhike with him to L.A. and back.

You know, every time I see Donnie Brasco, I appreciate it a little bit more. It was very, very well done, and Al’s performance is really underrated. It’s a damned good movie. It really is.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (2005)—“Maugrim” (uncredited)
Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)—“Kilowog”

MM: [Uncertainly.] “Maugrim”? No, actually, I was the voice of the wolf.

AVC: That’s the name of the wolf.

MM: The wolf had a name? [Laughs.] All I remember about that is that they flew me to Vancouver, and I recorded that in a production office up there, and then I literally flew back that evening, I believe. But the odd thing about that is that, if you watch the credits of that film, I don’t get credit for doing the voice of the wolf. It was the name of another actor. And I’ve always been kind of not happy about that. It was explained to me that it was some sort of a snafu or some sort of an overlooked thing, because I had recorded in Canada, and it was something that happened to them contractually.

But everybody who’s ever seen that film, they know that’s me. Even my kids! And it was great. I never get asked to do stuff like that, and I wish it would happen more often, ’cause I’d love to do the voice of Batman, or be the villain in some of these animated things. Like, my 9-year-old is all into Legos, and he says, “How come your voice isn’t one of the Lego guys?” And I say, “Well, you know, I don’t know why.” I would think I would be called more often to do stuff like that, but I don’t. It’s a mystery.

AVC: You are also the voice of Kilowog in Green Lantern: First Flight.

MM: Yeah, but that was a short-lived thing. I was supposed to come back and do more, and it never happened. I love stuff like that. It’s fun. But I don’t get enough of it.

The Natural (1984)—“Bump Bailey”
Hawaii Five-0 (2014)—“Roy Parrish”

MM: I got offered a picture called Buckaroo Banzai and The Natural in the same week, and I couldn’t really make up my mind. I’m a big fan of Peter Weller, and I really wanted to do the picture with him, but, you know, given the chance to play a baseball player in a film where it’s based on a novel and I’m with Bob Redford… It was not that hard of a choice, really. We got to play some good ball, you know, right at War Memorial Stadium, and it was really fun.

I was mercilessly cut out of that film, by the way. A lot of my stuff didn’t make it into the final cut. But it was a good lesson for me, because it was one of the biggest pictures I had done at that point, and I got burned pretty badly. But I realized that the reality of making films is that what you do might not necessarily make it on the screen. Still, you know, it’s a memorable film. And like I said, I got to play ball, and that was fun.

AVC: Do you happen to recall what part you were originally going to play in Buckaroo Banzai?

MM: I think I was gonna be Perfect Tommy, if I’m correct. Yeah, I think I was Perfect Tommy. But, you know, I just did an episode of Hawaii Five-0, and Peter Weller directed it. So it was kind of weird: We ended up working together after all!

Kill Me Again (1989)—“Vince Miller”

MM: Yeah. Oddly enough, I had been married to Georganne [LaPiere], who is the sister of Cher, who at that time was dating Val Kilmer. And Georganne and I lived out on Val’s father’s ranch, which he got from Roy Rogers, and our house was on Trigger Street. [Laughs.] And I got the part in the movie with Val, and it was a strange thing. You know, it’s a picture that gets better over time. Like, every time you watch it, it’s more and more interesting. I had a lot of fun with that. It was a cool character. It was fun to play guys like that. I didn’t realize I was creating a stereotype of myself. I didn’t realize that it was going to indelibly affect my future. But I like the film. I liked what I did in it, and I had fun with both Val and Joanne [Whalley]. And a few years later, I did The Doors with Val, and we’re still buddies. We run into each other now and then.

The Doors (1991)—“Tom Baker”
Death In The Desert (2015)—“Ray Easler”

AVC: Speaking of The Doors, we did this feature with Frank Whaley recently. He said he just saw you in his friend Josh Evans’ new film and that you were tremendous in it.

MM: Oh, good! Yeah, that’s Death In The Desert. It’s a good movie. You know, his father is Robert Evans, for God’s sake, and his mom is Ali McGraw. You’ve got to realize what effect that would have on you growing up, with those kind of parents, that dynamic and those personalities that would form you. He made a film that’s the reflection of what that is, and I don’t think a lot of people are going to understand it. You can’t just look at it simplistically, or you’ll think it’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen. But there’s a lot deeper message to it. I ended up doing a voice-over for it, and I think I fixed it. Because I had seen it, and I realized that it needed to be narrated. So I wrote my own version of the narration, and I got together with Josh, and we recorded it, and he supposedly put it in the film and told me that it changed the whole movie and made it a lot better. So I’m hoping the version that Whaley saw has the voiceover, because I heard that it repaired the film. I like Josh, though. I had fun shooting in Vegas.

AVC: The Doors seems to be regarded by everyone as a completely epic shoot on many levels.

MM: Well, it was epically proportioned. Oddly enough, my first son, Christian, had just been born at the time, and I was actually in Cedars [Sinai] in the hospital on the elevator, going up to see my baby son, and there were two nurses on the elevator who were saying that Billy Idol was in the emergency room, that he had gotten in a motorcycle accident and crushed his leg. I had gone in to meet with Oliver [Stone] about a month before that, and I actually went in to read for Jim [Morrison], because in my ridiculous mind, I honestly thought that I could play Jim Morrison. At the time, Oliver mercifully told me that he already had somebody to play Jim, but I hadn’t heard back from him, and I figured, “Well, that’s it for that.”

But the morning after I’d heard these nurses on the elevator, Oliver called me, and he said, “Listen, I had Billy Idol in this movie to play Tom Baker, but he’s been in a horrible motorcycle accident. Would you be interested in taking the part?” I said, “Well, Jesus, Oliver, I don’t want to be cast in the movie based on somebody getting fucked up!” [Laughs.] But he said, “Well, Billy will still be in the film, but he’ll be on a crutch, and I don’t know what condition he’ll be in. It’s not much of a part, but it’s eight weeks of employment.” And that was all I needed to hear. So, yeah, I took the part, and it was a lot of mayhem, but, you know, back then, that kind of mayhem was considered to be normal. Put it this way: everything that everybody was doing, everybody was doing it, so it wasn’t considered to be out of line or irresponsible or insidious. It was just what we were doing in the middle of making this movie about this person.

I respect Oliver’s movies a lot. They’re very detailed and very interesting, and they have a very solid way of recreating history. It’s one of those things where it was terribly fun that I was in it, and it was an interesting character, but my character overdoses in the park—in Duane Park, in New York—and that scene was omitted from the film, and I don’t really know why. Oliver claims that, at the end, the movie gets too dark, and he said that one more person dying was just too much in the movie, so he decided to remove my—Tom Baker’s—death scene, which I kind of regretted. I wished he would’ve left it there. I thought I had performed it well. But, you know, you can’t win ’em all.

Big Apple (2001)—“Terry Maddock”

MM: That’s David Milch. The mysterious David Milch, who’ll basically walk up to you with five pages of handwritten dialogue that’s completely different from the dialogue that you’ve memorized, and he’ll hand it to you about 15 seconds before you’re supposed to go on camera. And he does it to everybody! And you just stand there, and you can’t believe it. It’s just completely and totally… “Really, David? Honestly? Can I look at this for a minute?” “Nah, come on, we gotta go, we gotta go!” Oh, my lord. [Laughs.] He’s a good guy, though. He’s an interesting fellow. He’s certainly a genius of a writer.

It was a good show, but I think the problem was that Ed O’Neill was so powerfully put in people’s brains as Al Bundy that people had a really hard time taking him seriously as a serious cop guy. And, you know, I think that’s what happened to the show. It’s not his fault. He was just so good at Al Bundy that I think people just had a hard time understanding what it was about, what the story was supposed to be about. But I worked with Donnie Wahlberg, who had a smaller part, and of course now he’s got his own show, and now he’s got his own hamburger joint. [Laughs.] But he was just a character actor in those days, struggling along just like me. That was a better part of my job: working with Donnie.

But my biggest regret of that show was that Ridley Scott called me and asked me to do Black Hawk Down, and I couldn’t do it because I was under contract to do Big Apple.

AVC: You’ve had many a near-miss in your time.

MM: Well, yeah, but I think my better luck overrides pretty much all of that. People tend to go to the negative, and “What about this and what about that,” but, Jesus, I’m pretty lucky, man. I’ve got quite a long list of good things that’ve happened. You focus on something like that, the “what he could’ve done,” the “what might’ve happened,” and it’s really grim. I’d rather focus on what did happen.

Free Willy (1993) / Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995)—“Glen Greenwood”

MM: I’m glad I wasn’t in Free Willy 3. That’s all I can say on that. I think it was an exhausted subject by then, and nobody wanted to hear from the wholesome Glen and Annie anymore. It was pretty much over. [Laughs.] Plus, you know, now, if you watch Blackfish, that kind of exposed the reality of Sea World life.

Keiko’s actually dead. I don’t know if too many people know that, but they tried to free that poor animal. They towed him out into the ocean and let him go, and I think he took one look around and said, “Holy Jesus! Fuck this, I’m going back to the tank, man! I’d rather have some nice clean water and a pretty girl in a red bathing suit giving me fish! What the hell am I doing out here? Oh my God!”

So, you know, it’s kind of funny, really: You think about the power of the film, and people crying at the end of this wonderful story of this little boy, but then if you actually try to really recreate it in reality… It isn’t like that, you know? He didn’t want to be free. He didn’t like it out there. He had nowhere to go, he had no friends, he wasn’t accustomed to being free, and the whole thing was absurd. And then he actually caught a virus from being in the ocean that killed him! So you find out about all these confinements and the way they’re treated, and that one killed a couple of people, and you see a movie like Free Willy. If they tried to make that in 2015, it would never get made.

But I’m glad to have been in it. It was one of those things that kind of balances out my bad guys, you know? [Laughs.] Anybody who thinks that I’m just a villainous character… Well, hey, how about Free Willy?

Beyond The Law (1993)—“Blood”

MM: I’ve done two motorcycle pictures: I did Beyond The Law, and I did one produced by Tarantino called Hell Ride, with Dennis Hopper and David Carradine and Vinnie Jones. And I just think Hell Ride was a lot more of what a biker movie should be. But the good part of Beyond The Law was that I had a good time with Charlie Sheen. It was fun making a film with him. We were the leads of the picture, and there were a lot of genuine bikers out there in Phoenix. The movie was kind of—you know, some of it is really good, and there’s a following for it, I know that for sure. But there’s other parts of it that were just way too homogenized, and the movie was just a little bit too nice where it didn’t need to be nice. I look at it now, and I’m fine with it. Charlie and I had a good time, and I kept that bike. And it holds up, you know? But I’d say that Hell Ride is more up my alley.

Blood Red (1989)—“Enzio”
The Last Days Of Frankie The Fly (1996)—“Sal”
Hell Ride (2008)—“The Gent”

AVC: You mentioned Hell Ride, but you first worked with Dennis Hopper on Blood Red, didn’t you?

MM: Well, I don’t think I even had two words of dialogue in Blood Red. [Laughs.] But I made Frankie The Fly with Dennis, and then of course we became really good friends. He wrote the forward to one of my books, and we ran around and took a lot of photographs together. And then we did Hell Ride. The last time I saw him was at his Walk Of Fame thing, when he got his star. He passed away, like, two weeks later. But we were friends for 20 years.

Blue Tiger (1994)—“Gun Salesman” (uncredited)
The Florentine (1999)—“Whitey”

AVC: When we talked to your sister Virginia for this piece, she mentioned that you were briefly in Blue Tiger with her, but you appeared in The Florentine with her, too.

MM: Yeah, I think I sold her a gun in Blue Tiger. I was a pawn-shop guy, and I sold her a pistol. She played my sister in The Florentine. I did that as a favor for Chris Penn, who was a really good friend of mine at the time. One of those favors where they need certain people to get financing, so they put this group of people together. Hal Holbook was in that, who’s such a wonderful actor. And to play with my real sister as my sister was great. The movie itself… wasn’t good. But it was fine. I loved Chris. He was one of my closest friends.

Strength And Honour (2007)—“Sean Kelleher”

AVC: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

MM: Yeah, actually, I’d say Strength And Honour. I thought that was a great film. It’s a boxing film, and I sat with audiences around the world at different festivals and saw the reactions people had to the movie. It’s a good film. But it never got its fair distribution. I think it’s still involved in some sort of lawsuit. It was finished right around the same time as The Wrestler, and I know there were a lot of people who looked at it and were looking at The Wrestler, too. They’re both fight films, but that was a big comeback for Mickey [Rourke], and I think Strength And Honour kind of slipped through the cracks. But it’s one of those things. What are you gonna do? I mean, I’ve had a lot more good luck than bad, and I’ve made a lot more good pictures than bad ones, and I’m pretty happy with what I have. I don’t walk around regretting too many things. But if you want to put me on the spot and ask me, then, yeah, I’d say Strength And Honour should’ve gotten a lot more attention. It just didn’t get a shot.

Being Michael Madsen (2007)—Himself

MM: Well, that’s probably the worst film I’ve been involved in in my entire life. [Laughs.] I actually despise it. I think it’s just a horrendously misorganized—I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be about! It’s just such a horrendous mistake. I agreed to do that with those fellas, and their original idea seemed like it might be kind of funny, and then when we actually did the film, it was just an atrocity. It’s not about being Michael Madsen at all, I can tell you that for sure! I don’t know who it’s about being, but it ain’t anything to do with me! They should change the title to Being In A Bad Film!

UKM: Ultimate Killing Machine (2006)—“Major Blevins”

AVC: Regarding some of the straight-to-DVD stuff that’s on your resume, it seems like you’re a guy who’s like, “If there’s work to be had, then I’ll do the work.”

MM: Well, I have five boys, you know? And I live in Malibu. It’s not like my lifestyle is... I mean, it’s not for me so much. It’s for my family. I like my family to have a good life. If you’re a bricklayer, you’re gonna go lay bricks, and if you’re a film actor, you’re gonna go act in films. I wish I could pick and choose sometimes, but it just isn’t like that. Now, unfortunately, things like the IMDB are really irresponsible, and they’re really not nice, and they really make you look like a buffoon. It’s, like, you know, you meet somebody on an elevator and they say they have a screenplay that their brother-in-law wrote, and you say, “Wow, that sounds interesting,” and the next thing you know, it’s on IMDB that you’re in it or that you’re in post-production. Or you go and you do two days for some young kids to help them out, and they put your name above the title, and they put it on the IMDB, and suddenly it looks like you’ve done 75 films in the last 10 minutes. But a lot of them never got finished, some of them never got released, and the rest of them are in limbo somewhere.

I don’t get the IMDB. I don’t understand what its purpose is. It’s a lot of misinformation. They put things on there that shouldn’t be on there, or you lend your name to something so you can put some groceries in the refrigerator or pay for your gas, and suddenly it turns up on there like it’s some great thing that you wanted to do. Either that, or it makes you look like a complete idiot. I’ve called them several times myself and said, “Guys, look...” I’ve given them specific titles that should not be on there. But they won’t take them down. They claim it’s a public service. But whatever it is, I personally don’t get it. I don’t get the point of the existence of it. It’s very unreliable, and they don’t give you a chance to explain why there are certain projects on there that shouldn’t be on there.

Ultimate Killing Machine was... “Time to pay the mortgage, Mike. Time to pay for your children’s education. Time to buy the wife a Range Rover. Time to put some groceries in the fridge.” But listen: I’ve got the Comedy Central thing, and I’m working on a great cowboy picture, and I would go so far as to say that there’s not gonna be a lot of strange titles turning up on the IMDB next year!

BloodRayne (2005)—“Vladimir”

MM: That’s one of those things where I got to go to Romania and to Transylvania. I went to where the bones of Vlad Dracul are buried under the monastery, you know what I mean? A lot of people don’t realize sometimes that you get to go to these places that at no other point in your life would you ever have any reason to be able to see. I thought the character was a heroic character. He was a vampire hunter! So I got to sword-fight and ride around on horses. It was an adventure picture. It was more about the experience than the great desire to play Vladimir. But, you know, they stuck Ben Kingsley in there, and I’m sure he was handsomely paid for his few days he was there. [Laughs.] I brought my sons over there when I was shooting that film, so my boys and my wife, they all got to experience and see a part of the world that they’d never have been able to do otherwise.

Thelma & Louise (1991)—“Jimmy”

MM: Again, there’s a nice little part for anytime that people think that I’ve been put in the corner as the guy with the cigarette and the gun. I can say, “Well, what about Thelma & Louise? I got to play a nice guy, a romantic guy, and a gentleman.” I rarely get asked to do stuff like that, so I was happy. I like that film a lot. It’s one of those ones that over time has turned into a cinema classic. It’s something that’s remembered very fondly. I know that they wanted Ridley to shoot a different ending. The studio was really kind of convinced that when the car goes off the edge of the road, people were gonna stampede out of the theater. [Laughs.] But he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t shoot an alternate ending—because he knew that they would use it—and he stuck by the script. And that was where I met Harvey. That’s the first time I met Keitel, and that’s one of the reasons I did Reservoir Dogs: because he was Mr. White.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)—“Mr. Blonde”

MM: The weird thing is, when I read the script, I didn’t want to play Mr. Blonde. I wanted to play Mr. Pink, because he had a lot of scenes with Harvey. But Quentin was pretty, pretty stuck on me as Mr. Blonde. In fact, I tried so hard to convince him that he actually let me come in and audition for it, to read for Mr. Pink, even though I was already technically cast in the film as Mr. Blonde. [Laughs.] So it was very gracious of him to let me do that. But I went in and I did it, and I was turned down. I was told, “It’s Mr. Blonde, or you’re not in the movie.” So I said, “Okay.” And little did I know, of course, that that would turn out to be a pretty memorable part.

AVC: When you read the script and saw what was going to be happening between you and the cop, did you wonder how it was going to play, and if it was going to be too intense?

MM: Well, you know, honestly, when I see the film, I kind of don’t understand what the big deal is. I really, honestly, truly never saw why people were so affected by it. I kind of thought it was kind of tame. I mean, if I would’ve lit him on fire, well, good lord, that would’ve been pretty horrifying. Imagine being shot by Tim [Roth] while the guy is burning and on fire. That would’ve been pretty horrendous. But I basically get killed before I do anything. No, I didn’t have any trouble with it.

I remember in the script it said, “Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around the manacled cop, singing ‘Stuck In The Middle With You,’” but I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know to do it. And in the rehearsals, whenever we got up to that point, I would just look at Quentin and say, “Listen, let me do it on the day, because I have no idea what I’m going to do.” And I honestly didn’t! And I still don’t know why I did what I did do. [Laughs.] It was rather strange. I asked him to play it for me, and I had a little earbud in my ear, and they played Stealers Wheel to me while I was doing that little dance, which… I don’t know where I came up with that. I’m obviously not a dancer. It’s obviously some bizarre psycho dance that I came up with on the spur of the moment. But it worked! And it’s a great film. You watch it now on the big screen, even after all these years, it’s really disturbing.

AVC: There’s been this and that written about how there was talk of a possible Vega Brothers film with you and John Travolta, but how serious did those talks actually get? Was it ever beyond the wishful-thinking stage?

MM: Well, I thought it always was in the works. But like anything, too much time went by. I said to Quentin just in May—I was in Cannes with John and Quentinand I said, “Are we ever going to actually do The Vega Brothers?” And Quentin looked at me, “Yeah, if someone invents a time machine!” [Laughs.] And, well, yeah, I guess that was the answer, because obviously The Vega Brothers would have to be a prequel to Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and how is that even humanly possible? John and I don’t exactly look the same anymore. But, you know, you never know. It’s one of those things where you really, truly don’t know. Because when it comes to Quentin, he could suddenly in one afternoon come up with a theory of how to do it. Maybe we’re the twin brothers of Vincent and Vic who have been in prison or something. I mean, when it comes to the movies, there’s always a way. I don’t know. All I can say is that I honestly don’t know. But I’ve become pals with John, and I think it’s something that will have to be rethought, but there’s only one person in the world who knows, and that’s Quentin.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) / Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)—“Budd”
The Hateful Eight (2015)—“Joe Gage”

AVC: Was the character of Budd in Kill Bill written for you? Tarantino seems to have a history of writing his scripts with specific actors in mind for the roles.

MM: Well, that’s very true. And it’s lucky for a lot of guys that it’s true. He’s a very noble guy. He gets a certain thought in his head, and he knows who he wants to do it, and that’s the way he’s going to do it, and nobody’s gonna talk him out of it. So I’m happy to be in that bunch.

AVC: I’m guessing you can’t say so much about The Hateful Eight at this point.

MM: Well, you know, the reality is that you’re right, I can’t say much about it. It’s not time to say anything. But I would say that it’s probably the best role that I’ve had in quite awhile, and… it’s happening. I’m about halfway done, and the stuff that we’ve shot has been pretty incredible. And Quentin’s at the top of his game. It’s a very complicated film. It’s a Western, but it’s not like any western that anybody has ever seen before. I’ve had a lot of great days, let’s put it that way. I went home at night many times feeling pretty good about everything we were getting, and… [Laughs.] It’s pretty wild.

Wyatt Earp (1994)—“Virgil Earp”

AVC: Given what you said earlier about people dwelling on the “what might have been” scenarios, what about the experience of doing Wyatt Earp (as opposed to asking about having to turn down Pulp Fiction because of being signed to the film)?

MM: Well, you know, it was a long walk down to the O.K. Corral. Had I know it was going to be that long a walk, I would’ve grabbed one of the horses or I would’ve got a taxi or something. You know, it was fun. That’s the only reason I did the film: because of the Western history of the Earps walking down the street. But honestly, and I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings who were the makers of the movie, but I thought it was long and boring, and it was pointless. And I think that Tombstone was a far better picture, and I think that’s what happened: It came out first, and everybody was kind of, like, “Well, we’ve seen the story of Wyatt Earp,” and by the time the one I was in came along, nobody cared anymore, so...

But, you know, it was great being there, it was great doing it, it was great playing Virgil. It was all good. I would rather have played Doc Holliday. If a time machine existed, I would’ve liked to have played Doc Holliday. But it was fun. I just like to live in the present. Hey, I’m in The Hateful Eight. I’m a happy man!