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: Virginia Madsen started her career in the early ’80s, more or less bypassing the teen-movie genre in favor of more left-field fare and quickly compiling a diverse filmography—including a science-fiction epic (Dune), a horror film (Candyman), and even a talking-horse flick (Hot To Trot)—while constantly keeping audiences guessing as to what genre she’d tackle next. Madsen has since taken on the occasional TV role and has recently ventured into the world of web series with Wigs, but she still spends the majority of her time making movies, and she can currently be seen alongside Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, and Eric Roberts in the ensemble comedy The Hot Flashes.
The Hot Flashes (2013)—“Clementine Winks”
The A.V. Club: The Hot Flashes is an ensemble comedy. Were you always set to be Clementine, or was it a case where you were able to read the script and see which character you felt suited you best?
Virginia Madsen: No, everyone was cast except for me! [Laughs.] But it was a straight-up offer, which is always appreciated. It’s always wonderful to just not have to audition for something. They sent me the script, and I had to be there in, like, two days, but… I think I probably said yes before I read it, because of the cast and the director and just that it was a story about all of these incredible women. I mean, all that cast on one script? I was like, “This can’t be real. This is mine? You want me to be in this with these girls? Yes!” So I said yes without finishing the script. I think I read about 30 pages, and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And, luckily, I was in really good shape, so I was ready and up for the challenge.
AVC: What was your familiarity with basketball going into the film? Are you a fan?
VM: Zero. I’m not a fan. I’m not opposed. I mean, you can’t not be into basketball and grow up in Chicago or live in L.A., because people are so fanatical about the teams. You know what’s going on with the games even if you don’t watch. But I’m an artist, so I studied dance when I was growing up. I generally don’t like any sports that involve running. [Laughs.]
But the thing is, when you get a role, actors will do anything to make that role sing. Just the fact that I can have live bees all over me in Candyman proves that we’ll do anything, basically, for a good performance. [Laughs.] So I thought, “Well, I don’t know how to play basketball, but if I look cool, then it’ll be okay.” But that didn’t work, because with this, you really have to know how to dribble the ball, and I couldn’t even do that. They’d all had a basketball clinic, and we had a great coach named Carla who was a professional basketball player, but I pretty much went from the airport to the court, so they all just rallied around me. They just played and played and played. And while shooting, every moment between takes I was learning how to dribble, how to do a layup, and it was really, really hard. It was physically very challenging, which is exciting and appealing to me. I love physical challenge—despite the fact that I don’t like to run! But I do Bikram yoga, which is, like, a 90-minute yoga in a 105-degree room. So I’m up for the challenge, but I just didn’t think I had the coordination. And it turned out I was pretty good at it! As soon as I knew how to do a layup, I was like, “Oh, that’s it! That’s how you do that!” The girls were really badass, and they just helped me to feel confident. That day, we became a team.
Oh, I forgot to tell you: I loved the picture that you put on Brooke’s [Random Roles] interview. I just love that picture of her! She’s the greatest. I’m just so happy, because they always… I don’t know, that’s… more like her. [Laughs.] I don’t mean the character, but just the chances she takes and how much she loves her work.
VM: Oh. Ew. I don’t want to talk about that.
AVC: No problem.
VM: Those guys were assholes. They were really shitty to me. It was bad. Bad memories.
Blue Tiger (1994)—“Gina Hayes”
VM: Oh, wow! God, how’d you find that one? [Laughs.] Well, that was… You know, actually, it was a very similar time in the film industry to where we are now. That was a period of time—around the early ’90s—when a lot of independent films got a green light, like Slam Dance and Reservoir Dogs, and a lot of really cool movies started being made outside the system with very small budgets. And I found that very exciting because, frankly, they didn’t want me in the mainstream. I was not considered… well, for many reasons, that’s just not where my career was. That didn’t make me bitter, because I saw opportunity elsewhere. If I was in a mainstream movie, I was a blond bombshell. I was the chick. Nobody wanted me to have anything to say. In the independent films, I was an actress.
I thought it was very exciting to work with first-time filmmakers and kids fresh out of film school, and the scripts were all kind of bizarre and stupid. Some of them were good, but they usually weren’t good all the way through, so it was very experimental… and I loved it! I just loved it, because a lot of times you were trying to make it up as you go. They were experimenting with new ways to cover things, and all these really interesting actors were in them. And it’s exactly what we’re doing now, because now we’ve got all this new technology that allows this creative freedom for all the new filmmakers. Back then, they were still shooting pretty much on film, and it was still expensive. Now they can shoot it on a phone! [Laughs.] I haven’t done one of those yet. But I’d probably be up for that because it’s so interesting!
Blue Tiger was definitely experimental, and they were shooting at the same time—it was this American/Japanese co-production—and at the same time they were shooting American Yakuza, with Viggo Mortensen. Viggo was another one of those actors who was just all over these new independent films, because we could do interesting, creative things. But because both films were shooting in downtown L.A., there was one day when we couldn’t shoot because American Yakuza had our camera. [Laughs.] We’re all standing around, waiting to do a night shoot, with no camera, waiting for them to finish so we could have it back! It was the most ridiculous thing—it caused a 19-hour day!
It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s interesting. And you can see what they were trying to go for. And my brother [Michael Madsen] is in a scene in that movie! So that was kind of cool. I just said, “Come over and be in the movie!” He was shooting something, I don’t know where, but he showed up and did that little scene with me. And Harry Dean Stanton was in it. We had some really cool people in the movie. It was hard work, the hours were long, and it was not always fun, but it was an interesting time in the industry.
VM: Oh, wow. You know, that’s the polar opposite of Blue Tiger. [Laughs.] That was sublime. It was extraordinary, because I was working on my little art films, and I wasn’t working that much. It took me 10 years to get that role in Sideways. When I read that script, I had been doing some interesting movies, but the problem was that no one was seeing my work. No one within or without of the industry was seeing what I could really do, the kind of work that I wanted to do and what I was capable of, so I was doing some little independent films so that I could be myself and so that I could be challenged as an artist.
So I was really ready by the time Sideways came up. I was very confident, and I really had my shit together by the time I walked in there and auditioned for that movie. I always tell actors, “Don’t think of it as unemployment when you don’t have a job. You have to think of it as being in preparation for your next job.” You have to be always preparing for success. Like, I wasn’t in the gym trying to lose weight to be skinny for somebody’s definition of what I should look like. I was on the treadmill because I was preparing for my next role… even though I hate running. [Laughs.] No, but it took me a long time to get into shape. And I was studying: I went back to acting school and had a great coach. So when I went in, that part was mine. And that’s how I thought of it. I said, “This part is mine until they tell me otherwise.”
I’d been going to that part of the world for quite some time. I had friends there. It was my serenity to go up to that valley. So I knew Maya very well—not the real-life Maya, I mean the Maya in me—so, you know, it was very comfortable by the time we got to the set. Despite the fact that he’s a genius, Alexander [Payne] is just a super laid-back guy. He’s a real alpha male. Everybody wants to follow him. Whatever he asks, you just… It’s hard to describe, but Robert Altman was like that, and I hear Clint Eastwood is like that. The best directors make everyone feel at ease, so they’re creatively at their best. And he tells everybody. He praises the craft service and the background artists. He doesn’t ever call them extras. You know, he’ll stop toward the end of the day, and he just calls attention to our background artists, how helpful they were, and says to stay focused. Then he does that same thing for the lead actors. So it was just a joy. And, yes, there was a lot of wine drinking. [Laughs.] It was a quite enjoyable part of that movie.
Long Gone (1987)—“Dixie Lee Boxx”
VM: Oh, God, that’s arguably the best time I ever had on a movie. Well, no, it’s not my No. 1 best time, but it’s one of the best times, because it was me and [William] Petersen and just a bunch of guys out of Chicago. Just me and a baseball team. [Laughs.] And a girlfriend! I had a girlfriend to hang out with, and then it was all those boys. And it was so sexy! Oh, my God, the whole thing… It was a hot, sweaty summer in Florida, we had a cool director from Brooklyn, and the guys were just so much fun. It just ranks up there as one of the best.
That was a part where I was cast as a blond bombshell, but I got to be Virginia. I got to be the tough girl from Chicago, not playing the victim. She really was a character who owned her sexuality and didn’t give a shit what anybody thought. To learn how to flaunt it was very difficult for me, because I was modest, so sexier roles for me at that age were really hard for me to pull off, because I wasn’t comfortable. My sexuality was not overt, so to play it… When they would cast me in roles like that, I felt awkward. I felt totally unsexy. Like, I knew I looked sexy in Slam Dance, but I didn’t feel sexy. But when I was Dixie? Aw, man, I was a bombshell. [Laughs.] It was great. I had a big smile on my face for that one.
The Astronaut Farmer (2006)—“Audie Farmer”
AVC: Since you offered the caveat that Long Gone wasn’t your No. 1 best time on a movie, what was?
VM: The Astronaut Farmer. Because that was Billy Bob [Thornton], you know? And I like these guys. I like men who are real manly men. I like being around a lot of testosterone. But the real stuff. Not the misogynistic, self-conscious guys who don’t really have confidence but who are trying to pretend. Like, if they’re mean to women or demeaning to women, that somehow makes them manly? No. I mean like Harrison Ford, Billy Bob, Petersen… These kinds of men just make you feel at ease, because they like women. They’re not threatened by women, and they like them strong. And Billy Bob, I just completely fell in love with him. Granted, in that kind of safe actor way… [Laughs.]
But oh, I just love that man. He’s just one of my favorites ever to work with. We were in New Mexico, and we had these really cool artist twins who were our directors—the Polish brothers—and they had these little beautiful daughters who played our daughters in the movie. They weren’t professional actors, so they were lovely and sweet, and I got to play with them all day long and do arts and crafts. And I got to dance with Billy Bob Thornton! I mean, God, how much better could it be? [Laughs.]
Hot To Trot (1988)—“Allison Rowe”
VM: God, I actually don’t remember much of that. That was a real low point in my career. But I’ll tell you why I did that movie: Because my sister had three little kids, and they knew that Auntie Gina was a movie star, but they could never see Auntie Gina’s movies because they were too grown-up. I really wanted to make a kids movie for them, and I purposely sought one out that they would love. This was with a talking horse and animals and Bobcat [Goldthwait]… I mean, it couldn’t have been more tailor-made for them. Although it could’ve had a better script. [Laughs.]
But, I mean, Steve Tisch was producing it, it was a studio film, and Tim Kazurinsky and all these wonderful comedians were in it. And they loved it! That movie actually came out in movie theaters, so they got to go to the movie theater and see Auntie Gina with big ’80s hair with a talking horse, and they just thought it was the coolest thing ever. I got big points at their school for being in that movie. So, yeah, that was specifically for them. It was not a career movie. It was a family movie.
Frasier (1999)—“Cassandra Stone”
VM: Oh, that was… God, you picked a good one, because that was… I think you’re choosing these turning points in a very long career. When I did Cassandra, I wasn’t quite to the point where I was when I did Sideways, but I was just starting to turn my life around. I was still a good deal heavier than I wanted to be, but I was starting to get really healthy, Jack was a little bit bigger at that point, and life was all coming together, but I wasn’t getting any work. I wasn’t really getting movies that were… well, they were sort of pay-the-mortgage movies. So I decided that I would try and guest star in shows that I really liked, so that I could continue learning as an actor. Star Trek: Voyager was one of those, because I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and Frasier was another one, because I’m a huge fan of that show and because I wanted to learn about comedy. I’d never really done any comedy before.
So my agent called and asked if I could meet the show creator, and they said, “Well, we have an episode for her!” I was like, “What?!?” [Laughs.] I just got offered the part! And it was a three-episode arc for a season finale… or, rather, I did one episode, then they turned it into that. But I just couldn’t believe it. Those people on that show, it was like they were a theater company, and they made me feel like I was a part of the cast, not just a guest star. I’m sure that they could see that I was still very vulnerable at that time. I was not very confident. But I really wanted to learn, and they were just like, “Here, Virginia, we’ll show you how to do it! Come on the stage with us, we’ll teach you how to dance!” And they did! And that did so much for my self-esteem. To perform in front of a live audience was just icing on the cake, and I will always be grateful to those actors and the showrunner for giving me that chance, because it really created momentum for change… very big change…in my life.
Star Trek: Voyager (1998)—“Kellin”
AVC: You mentioned that you also did Star Trek: Voyager. Was that a fun experience for you?
VM: Oh, my God, yes! That was a dream come true, because I was a huge Star Trek fan. I mean, I still am, but I was a fanatical Star Trek fan. I had a giant life-sized cutout of [William] Shatner well into my 20s. And my first live-in boyfriend was like, “Darling, are you really going to bring Shatner into our new home?” I was like, “Oh, uh… just for fun?” “No, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea…” [Laughs.] I’m just kidding. But not much.
That was the earliest call time I’d ever had on a show. It was at 2:43 a.m., because I had to put on those… well, they were kind of like Vulcan ears. But it was cool! I got to be on the bridge during a battle, doing the thing where you bob and weave, I got to beam in and beam out, I had my own phaser, I had my own quarters, I went to sick bay and was scanned by a tricorder, and in one scene that got cut out? I went into a Jefferies tube, thank you very much. [Laughs.]
AVC: When I asked Alfre Woodard about Star Trek: First Contact, she said that she knew so little about the franchise that she asked, “Who’s Jeffrey? It says I’m in Jeffrey’s tube.”
VM: You have to know, man! That’s one of the most dangerous places on the ship that anyone ever ventures into!
AVC: You’re going to make so many points with The A.V. Club readers by knowing that.
VM: [Laughs.] Good! I just went to my first Star Trek convention, and I just can’t believe the people I got to meet, all the people in costume. I thought you had to be invited, I didn’t know you just got a rep and then you can just go. If you’ve been in Star Trek, you can go. So it took me ’til then to get there, but… [Whispers.] It was so awesome. I mean, I almost got my Instagram shut down because I had so many Star Trek Instagram pictures. Unfortunately, I took them all down when Instagram said they were going to own all of them. So I did the big “fuck you” to Instagram and deleted them. But first I found out how you could download all your pictures, so I still have ’em all.
Boomtown (2003)—“Erika Ashland”
Wigs: Jan (2012) / Wigs: Susanna (2013)—“Mel”
VM: That was really cool, because I got to get together with Jon Avnet, and I liked that show. I ended up working on the whole Wigs project with Jon Avnet as well. I met Jon when I auditioned for Risky Business when I still lived in Chicago, when I was, like, 18 years old. So it was really wonderful to team up with him again, and that started a really fruitful creative relationship from doing Boomtown with him.
AVC: Since you brought up Wigs, what’s the web-series experience been like for you? Is it intrinsically different from anything else you’ve done in front of the camera?
VM: It’s very similar to my work experience, because it feels like the little indies. Things go very fast, and we have total creative freedom because there’s no suits around. [Laughs.] I imagine it probably feels like it did when people were making early shows like The Twilight Zone, doing something with Rod Serling in the early days of TV. Nobody quite knew what they were doing with TV, so they got all these cool, interesting actors and writers and just did all kinds of amazing experimental things. I think that, even though it’s not in that sci-fi genre, it’s sort of the same. There’s so many women flocking to it because Jon is still telling our stories, so we’re still collaborating on making another one. I went from the series Jan and then came in at the very end of Susanna, so now we’re talking about what the next one we’re going to make will be.
Jon’s just an incredible person to work with, because he understands the new media. He’s not running away from it, he’s embracing it, as are all of us who are working with him. I feel like we’re on the ground floor, and there’s so much of our industry that’s just being dragged kicking and screaming into the new century. They’re just being so square about it. [Laughs.] They really are! It’s the best word I can use to describe most of them, who are still just making all the wrong moves and not realizing what you can do with this, still underestimating how much people are on their computers for entertainment. And they’re really, really underestimating the female audience and the young audience.
The Prophecy (1995)—“Katherine”
VM: Well, that was another one of those weird movies. And Viggo was in that one! Viggo came in for a day to play Satan and wrote this really, really cool scene. He just came in and did it. I wish I could do a real movie with him. [Laughs.] That was not a real movie. That was, like, one of those completely ridiculous situations where they didn’t even have a whole script when we went in to shoot. But it was a good idea. The movie was a really, really good idea. And the director [Gregory Widen] was the writer of Backdraft, so we thought we were in good hands. Like, “Oh, he’ll be able to write it if it’s not done!” But it’s impossible to write as you go. That’s just something that never works, no matter how talented people may think they are.
But Elias Koteas is a great friend of mine. We actually just finished our third movie together, called Jake Squared, so Elias was already my pal. And [Christopher] Walken, of course! I was almost going to do this movie with him right before The Prophecy, and the movie got canceled, so when The Prophecy came up… I was so disappointed, because I was about to work with Walken! [Laughs.] And then two weeks before the movie was to start shooting, the financing fell through, so I was super-disappointed. So when The Prophecy came up, I sort of immediately said yes. And then it was… kind of amazing to be around him.
First of all, he’s a beautiful man. You know, he’s physically beautiful, and he’s also, like, a really beautiful man personally. I think he got into character, so he showed up with his hair super black, and he was constantly eating raw garlic. Just constantly. So he reeked. I mean, you could smell Chris from, like, six feet away. You knew when he was coming around because people would go, “Oh, God, Chris is here!” [Laughs.] I think he was doing it on purpose for that role. I never confirmed that, but I think he wanted people to have a kind of revulsion around him.
But then people wouldn’t say anything! I don’t know why, but when someone smells, people won’t say anything. So I said, “Well, I’m going to say something!” And the producer is like, “Virginia, you can’t! You just can’t do that! That’s terrible! I’m sure it’s just for health reasons.” But then one time we were in the car, and he was not smelly, so I said, “So, Chris, man, what’s up with the garlic?” I was in the front seat, and he leaned toward me with this really wonderful smile, and he says—and I’m one of the few people who can’t imitate Christopher Walken—“Well, you see, Virginia, I’ve done a lot of very naughty things.” It was very sexy. So I was like, “Oh, so it’s, like, a health thing?” And he goes, “Yeah, you could say that.” And I said, “Well, what if we had a love scene that we were doing?” And he leans forward again, and he goes, “Well, in that case, Virginia, I would abstain.” [Laughs.] He was so great. He could really make you laugh, but people were so afraid of him. I don’t know why. He’s just so remarkable, even just to watch him walk around and to listen to his stories. And he’s also a gourmet chef! Did you know that about him?
AVC: I did not.
VM: He’s an extraordinary cook. And he cooked for us one night. We were all staying in this weird little rundown resort, like a golf resort, that no one was in, but the rooms all had kitchens, and his room always smelled so good because he was always cooking something fantastic. So one night he made a meal for me and my friend, and it was just extraordinary. Just amazing. He’s a lovely man. Just a lovely, lovely man. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie A Late Quartet, but if you haven’t, the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award is as bad as Paul Giamatti not being nominated [for Sideways]. You’re not going to believe that he wasn’t nominated. It’s with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, and it’s just a stunning, stunning movie. It’s the best performance of his life, in my opinion. You must see it if you’re a Walken fan. You must.
Electric Dreams (1984)—“Madeline Robistat”
VM: Oh, God… [Starts to laugh.] I always thought that was the weirdest last name. I don’t know why she had such a weird name. Was it German? I don’t know! Well, that was the beginning of everything… or, at least, it was my first leading role. And I was very spoiled on that movie, because it was such a lovefest that I now believe that every movie should be like that. And I’ve tried to maintain that, and I’ve tried to make every movie I work on the most fun. I want every movie to be like a big family, and I want every movie to be a great adventure. And for the most part, I’ve succeeded at that.
We started out in San Francisco, and I had a mad, crazy crush on Lenny Von Dohlen. God, we were so… we were head-over-heels for each other. Nothing happened, and at this point, I admit it: I wanted it to happen. [Laughs.] But we both had other people in our lives. We were very young, so our pining for each other was great for the movie. And I’m still friends with Lenny to this day. I just had dinner with him about a month ago. He’s still one of my best friends. We never left each other’s lives. That’s how important the beginning of that relationship was.
Dune (1984)—“Princess Irulan”
VM: Do you know that Helena Bonham Carter was going to do that role? And she was doing another movie—which I think was A Room With A View—that overlapped the Dune schedule, because something got wrong with the schedule. So they had to recast her, and… well, it’s a pretty famous story that David Lynch picked me for the film from a Polaroid, and I was brought down to Mexico and suddenly had to do this monologue on the spot. And I didn’t know the language. It all sounded like gibberish to me. Luckily, Kyle MacLachlan said, “You probably don’t know anything about this.” And I said, “Well, I haven’t even read the book!” And he said, “I want you to have mine.” And he gave me this dilapidated, dog-eared paperback of Dune, which he would carry around with him all the time, and he said, “Read it.” And I don’t remember how long the book was, but he explained to me what everything meant, what I was saying, so I would understand. God, he saved my ass that day. He really did.
Then I was in the makeup room getting ready, and I had my long, long hair that they were putting up in those braids, and into the makeup room walks Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was filming Conan on the same lot in Mexico. And… I’d never seen an undressed man with a body like that in my life. All he had was the loincloth thing. He was next to naked. Like, he was Conan. He walked in, and he almost looked like a savage, and I almost fell on the floor. He said, “Hello, Virginia,” and I was just [In a flustered voice.] “Oh, hi! Hi!” And I just turned the brightest shade of red in front of everyone. There was no way of hiding it. And he thought it was delightful, of course. I, however, was mortified.
So then he gave me all kinds of advice on my taxes! [Imitating Schwarzenegger.] “I’m going to tell you now, Virginia, you’re going to be a big star. I can tell you now, looking at you, that you’re going to be a big, big star, so you need to know how to save your money.” And I was, like, “Uh, okay…” And then he said, “You have to find the right people, and you have to pay your taxes, and you have to find out everything that’s going on about money, because you’re going to be very rich!” I was like, “Oh…” And I wish I had listened to him, because I went broke over and over and over again during my career! [Laughs.] But he was right: I did become a success.
AVC: I can’t help but notice that, although you may not do a Christopher Walken impression, you aren’t afraid to do a Schwarzenegger.
VM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I can do Ah-nuld. It’s, uh, kind of an indelible memory… and a funny one!
Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)—“Louise Marcus”
VM: Oh, my God, that was such a ridiculous movie. But I’ll tell you why I did that film. It’s funny because it was between me and Sharon Stone. Me and Sharon were up against each other for at least five movies. I would get one, she wouldn’t, and then she would get one and I wouldn’t. So, of course, she ended up winning the lottery, and I got Highlander II. [Laughs.] But I’ll tell you why I did that movie: I got to go to Argentina for three months and work with Sean Connery. That was my entire reasoning for doing that movie.
Oh, it was heaven. It was a great adventure. And I loved Christopher [Lambert]. He was such a sweet guy. He was a real bad boy in those days, but he wasn’t with me. He was very sweet, and it was wonderful to watch him work because the material was so silly, but he had so much action he had to do. I saw him work a 23-hour day one time, and he never complained. I was coming into work as he was finishing a night shoot, and he was going to sleep in his trailer for two and a half hours and then do another whole day of shooting… and he did.
Some really wonderful stories came out of that. I got to bring my best friend to Argentina, I got to bring my boyfriend, I got to bring my mother, and I got to dance with Sean Connery! On more than one occasion. [Laughs.] I would go out to tango bars with him. This one particular tango bar that was off the beaten path, where only local people went. It was just really terrific to be around a man like him. He’s another one of those really manly men who like women, and he was very supportive of me. My career was kind of inching along at that point, I was a little bit worried about what I was doing, and he was kind of like, “In the end, it doesn’t matter. Just do it and have fun. Have fun with your life!” I was like, “Thanks, Sean!” He was very sweet to me. A very nice man. Very gentlemanly.
But all of us were told by production that nobody was to mention the B-word, that he didn’t want to talk about or be referred to as James Bond. If you did that, you could be fired. It was a really, really serious thing. And I was like, “That’s bullshit! Are we not supposed to talk about Tarzan with Christopher, either?” And they’re like, “Listen, just be respectful.” I was like, “Of course! Don’t tell me that! Of course I’m going to be respectful! But those are some of the greatest movies in movie history! How can I not ask him about James Bond?” They’re like, “Virginia, it’s the rules. It’s been decided. And if you make trouble…” So I was incensed because I didn’t like these people very much. So I made a T-shirt that said “Jane” on the front and “Moneypenny” on the back. [Laughs.] And the first day that Sean came to work, I went up to the set and I said, “Oh, my God! James Bond!” And he turned around, a big smile, and hugged me. I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but they instructed me not to say that, and I just don’t like to do what I’m told.” And he said, “Then we’ll be friends.” That’s what kind of guy he was.
Fire With Fire (1986)—“Lisa”
VM: I’m becoming one of those older people who has way too many stories. [Laughs.] But I will say that more people ask me about Fire With Fire than any other movie I’ve done, including Sideways. And that movie, like Electric Dreams, is not yet on DVD. No, actually, Fire With Fire just finally came out on DVD last year. But for some reason, no one ever knows what Fire With Fire is called. They always say something like, “Oh, you know, that movie where you’re floating in the pond?” “Yeah, that’s Fire With Fire.” But the movie was originally called Captive Heart, which is a much better title, but then we were given the song “Fire With Fire” [by Wild Blue] for the end credits, so they named the film Fire With Fire, too. That was an ’80s thing to do: You’d have your soundtrack and your movie at the same time. But, yeah, that was a beautiful experience. I loved making that movie.
Candyman (1992)—“Helen Lyle”
AVC: You mentioned the bees in passing a bit ago, but how was the overall experience of making Candyman?
VM: Well, it’s really fun making horror films—anything horror, sci-fi, fantasy—because it really is playing make-believe. That’s when it’s like you were a little kid and you decided to play cops and robbers—you’re reacting to things that aren’t really there, and you’re trying to pretend that you’re scared when there’s really nothing behind the camera except a light pole, and that’s supposed to be a demon. [Laughs.] But Candyman was a really beautiful script. And it’s the hardest thing to find a really good horror script, which is why it took me so long to make another one after Candyman: I couldn’t find a really good story. And I love working in that genre. I love what it does to an audience. And I’m good at it! But that movie got really creepy.
It was sort of around the holidays, and it was a longer shoot, and there was this sort of two-week period where everything had to do with blood. And the director [Bernard Rose] was quite maniacal. I mean, he would go around smoking with one hand and twisting his hair into a little horn on top of his head with the other, and then he’d pace, walking around in a little circle. And that’s when he would come up with ideas. And he would always just say, “More blood! More blood!” He had his own canister of blood, and he would add blood here and there… even if it was on me! One day, Kasi Lemmons was getting disemboweled, the next day the doctor’s getting disemboweled, the dog’s head is on the ground, I’m covered in blood… It got to be very, very dark and unpleasant on the set, and everyone kind of got a little fed up. People got very short-tempered, and it just got… well, it was just very unpleasant. So they took a longer break over the holidays. They took a full week off, and everyone was greatly relieved when we came back, so we could start having fun again. Fun with bees! [Laughs.] Did you know that the animal-protection people show up on the set to make sure we’re not hurting bees? It’s so ridiculous. Yeah, let’s make sure we’re not stressing out the bees.