In his three decades as an actor, Michael Madsen has played over 200 roles, both good guys and bad. But his ability to play menacing types convincingly has produced his most memorable performances in Donnie Brasco, Sin City and especially in the three films he’s made with Quentin Tarantino: Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
That collaboration continues in The Hateful Eight, where Madsen joins fellow Tarantino regulars Sam Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins and Bruce Dern, plus first-timers Jennifer Jason Leigh and Demian Bichir, to portray strangers whose lives converge in post-Civil War Wyoming during a snowstorm.
Madsen plays the mysterious Joe Gage in the nearly three-hour western tale of betrayal and revenge that builds to a revelatory, explosive—and bloody—twist in the last hour. His character might not say much, but Madsen had plenty of choice quotes as he reflected on his humble beginnings in Chicago, working with Tarantino, raising five sons, and the myriad ways he’s died on screen…
“Lee Marvin once said, ‘If you’re gonna be a bad guy, be the best bad guy that ever lived.’ There’s a lot of truth in that.”
How is it being part of Quentin’s repertory acting company?
If you’re going to be in one, it’s the best one to be in! It’s funny, I’ve made like a hundred pictures and the only ones that anyone ever wants to talk about are the ones I did with him. But I’m glad he keeps calling me.
So he just calls you up and says he has a part for you?
Basically, yeah. I was sitting in my kitchen with the cops when the phone rang. My handyman had stolen some of my wife’s jewelry, and his father called telling me to report him. ‘Hey, Mike, it’s Quentin.’ I hadn’t spoken to him in like a year. He’s like, ‘I wrote a western and I wrote a part in it for you.’ That’s how it happens with him. He doesn’t even have a cell phone. It’s hard getting in touch with him when he doesn’t want to be reached. I’ve gone to his house and climbed over the gate, knocked on the door, and he came out in his underwear. It was the only way I could get him! He’s funny that way.
What do you love about working with him?
He’s at the top of his game, more energetic and more tuned into what he likes in film than ever. You’d think that over time he’d run out of gas or slow down a little bit or get jaded, but he’s exactly the same guy that made Reservoir Dogs. He’s got bigger toys and a bigger check but he’s the same guy. He loves movies and loves to make them. And the fact that he wants me in them means the world to me. We both like a lot of the same things in movies and I know what he’s going to say before he says it when we’re shooting. He doesn’t really have to give me a lot of direction. I know what he wants me to do before he tells me, and he knows what I’m going to do. I have to do maybe three takes maximum, when other actors will do it eight or nine times.
“I asked my son to try to figure out how many times I’ve died on screen. He’s good on the Internet and I can barely work my iPad. I know I’ve been blown up, electrocuted, shot, stabbed to death, run over by a truck, every form of it. He came up with 38.”
Your character Joe Gage is a bit of a cipher.
That was purposely done. Quentin wrote Joe as a man of few words, which I like. I don’t want to be the guy that explains everything. When you find out the truth about everybody, it’s really upsetting. It was upsetting shooting it. I’ve played some really nasty characters in my day but the things that Joe Gage does are very coldblooded and completely without reason. I’ve tried to have a duality in my characters. If you play somebody bad you should try to find a heart somewhere, and if you play somebody nice and wonderful you should remember that the person probably has a dark side. But I never went that far psychologically before. Where’s Joe’s heart? I don’t know if he has one.
How many times have you died on screen?
I actually asked my son to try to figure that out. He’s good on the Internet, as most kids are, and I can barely work my iPad. I know I’ve been blown up, electrocuted, shot, stabbed to death, run over by a truck, every form of it. He came up with 38. No one remembers that I was the dad in Free Willy or the boyfriend in Thelma and Louise, the CIA guy in Die Another Day, because the villainous people are a lot more memorable. I’ve accepted the reality of that. There was a time when I didn’t want to do it anymore. I consciously said ‘I don’t want to do it again.’ I wanted to be the leading man, the nice guy, get the girl at the end and ride off over the mountain like Shane. But I realized it’s better to have that tag than not have one at all. Lee Marvin once said, ‘If you’re gonna be a bad guy, be the best bad guy that ever lived.’ There’s a lot of truth in that.
What would you like to do next? Is there a genre you haven’t done?
I’d like to play a cop, maybe a Bad Lieutenant type—something that has some guts to it, not just one dimension. I did an interesting film called Vice with Darryl Hannah, a cop picture that didn’t do very well, but I liked that movie a lot. I played a complicated guy who wanted to do the right thing but he kept running up against a wall. Or that show Ray Donovan, I could do something like that.
“I took time to make sure each of my sons knows how much I love them. I think that’s the most important thing because I want their story to be, ‘My dad was a tough guy but he really loved me and I know that he did. He was a good man and took good care of me.’ ”
You’ve published three books of poetry. Do you also write screenplays or novels?
I don’t have the patience. I used to write stuff on napkins and paper bags, that’s how it all started. I never planned to be a writer but I enjoy writing. That’s the reason Joe Gage is pretending to be a writer. It was Quentin’s idea.
What got you into acting?
My father was a firefighter and wanted me to be one, but I wanted to drive racecars like Richard Petty, my role model. I even built a drag car. But to make my father happy I went to school to be a paramedic and worked as an orderly in a hospital. There was a kid in my class who was an actor and we rode the El train to class. He asked me to go to an audition with him.
Did he get the part?
No, and as we were leaving some guy asked me where I was going. I said I was just here with him, and he asked if I ever thought about acting. He took me aside and gave me pages to read this scene with him. He told me if I went to L.A. or New York I would get work as an actor. I told him I had $400 to my name, how am I gonna get there? My sister Virginia had an agent—she was doing singing telegrams and auditioning for television commercials while studying acting—and it turned out that the guy knew her, and asked if he could reach me through her. Two weeks later they called her and asked if I wanted to go to L.A. to play a small part in the movie War Games. I’m in the opening scene before the titles in the film. I have about four lines. That was my first thing. I came out a week early and got a job pumping gas at Union 76 in Beverly Hills, because there was no way I was going back to Chicago.
“For a kid from Chicago who was a mechanic and a tow truck driver, going from that to this, the odds have to be a billion to one. I get a decent table at a restaurant and other nice things happen.”
How long before you got your second role?
A year. I pumped gas for a year and while I was there everybody in the world came in—Jack Lemmon, Fred Astaire, all these actors. I met a girl who befriended me and she knew an agent, and he submitted me for a television show called St. Elsewhere and I got the part. After that, I did Miami Vice and Cagney and Lacey, Jake and the Fat Man, Tour of Duty—endless episodic television shows. I had to quit pumping gas.
You have five sons. Are any of them following in your footsteps?
Two out of five. My oldest son Christian was in Divergent and just finished playing Tex Watson in a TV movie about the Manson women. My son Max just graduated from film school, where he studied directing, producing, acting, everything.
What have you taught your boys about being gentlemen?
I’ve taught them to have good manners, to respect women, to understand that they have a responsibility in life as men. It’s important, and I think I’ve been successful. I’ve seen them go through the various stages of growing into men, and not having a good role model myself I didn’t know what to do a lot of times but I think I did a good job. I said a lot of prayers and I took time to make sure that each one of them knows how much I love them. I think that’s the most important thing of all because I want their story to be, ‘My dad was a tough guy but he really loved me and I know that he did. He was a good man and took good care of me.’ My dad died recently and you think that you know how you’ll feel and handle these things, and when it happens it’s not how you feel at all. Just when you think you got over it, it keeps coming up again emotionally. Raising those boys has not been easy. It’s a huge responsibility and it’s especially hard when you’re on the road a lot. And when you’re a recognizable person it’s another cross to bear. It’s a double-edged sword.
But is it worth it? Does the good outweigh the bad?
Yeah, of course it does. For a kid from Chicago who was an auto mechanic and a tow truck driver, going from that to this, the odds of that happening have to be a billion to one. I get a decent table at a restaurant and other nice things happen. I’ve traveled all over the world because of making movies and I’ve seen people and places most people will never see in a lifetime. I’m blessed and privileged and happy.