Michael Madsen is one of those actors who, as soon as you see him on the screen, you invariably know he’s gonna be playing kind of a tough guy…but that’s what happens when you sign up for Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and play Mr. Blonde, the black-suit-wearing, straight-razor-wielding psycho who knows just the right steps to dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You.” One part like that, and it’s easy to forget that the guy also starred in “Free Willy.” Madsen helped celebrate the 15th anniversary of “Reservoir Dogs” (albeit a year early) by contributing to the recent DVD reissue and, believe it or not, a video game based on the film, but he’s also the star of a new straight-to-DVD flick called “UKM: The Ultimate Killing Machine.” Madsen spoke at length about both films, as well as his fondly-remembered TV series, “Vengeance: Unlimited” and the loss of his good friend, Chris Penn. Although it took a few weeks to get our schedules coordinated – when we finally caught up with him, it was at 8:30 on a Sunday evening! – it was definitely worth the wait.
Michael Madsen: Oh, hi, it’s Michael Madsen calling.
BE: Hey, how ya doin’?
MM: Pretty good, pretty good. I’ve just been, uh, inundated today with too many things…six kids, two magazine shoots, and I just got back from Thailand less than 24 hours ago, so, uh... (Affects a tough-guy voice) …it’s a bit complicated, sir!
BE: (Laughs) Sounds like it!
MM: Yeah, but you know, it’s okay, because I like it that way.
BE: Well, I’m very glad to talk to you…and since Lionsgate is the one who set this up, I guess we should probably talk about “Reservoir Dogs” first.
MM: Whatever you want. Whatever’s on your mind, just ask.
BE: Okay, well, I’ve got a few things, but I’ll start with that. How did you come to be involved in “Reservoir Dogs” in the first place? I mean, since Tarantino was an inexperienced director at the time…
MM: Well, I made a picture called “Thelma and Louise” – great film – and all of my scenes with Harvey (Keitel) were cut out of the movie, for plot reasons and various things. It happens, y’know. Some of my best stuff has been extricated from a few pictures. But when I heard that Harvey was attached to “Reservoir Dogs” as Mr. White, that’s the reason I read the script: because I wanted to work with Harvey, because we had gotten along pretty good. We later went on to become pretty good friends; I mean, he’s godfather to one of my sons. But when I read it, obviously, I knew that it was something outstanding…and I held out ‘til the end, because I didn’t want to play Mr. Blonde. I really wanted to be Mr. Pink, because he had a lot more scenes with Harvey. I tried to convince him…in fact, I even auditioned for Quentin for Mr. Pink, even though I already had the role of Mr. Blonde. (Laughs) I was trying to convince him to give me the other part because…well, I wanted to work with Harvey more. I wanted to have more scenes with us together. But in the end, they finally said, “Look, you know what? You’re either in or out. You’re Mr. Blonde, or you’re not gonna be in the fucking movie!”
MM: So I said, “Okay, okay, okay, I’ll be Mr. Blonde!”
BE: All things being equal, would you just as soon never heard “Stuck in the Middle with You” again?
MM: Well, y’know, I really…it’s something that’s gonna be there forever, and to be truthful, I’m glad that I was able to be in a picture that everybody remembers, y’know? (Indeed, Bullz-Eye ranked the “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene #6 on their list of best uses of a song in a movie. Making a memorable picture is a tough thing to do. I mean, movies come out every day, and movies come and they go, and people fucking forget ‘em ten seconds after they see ‘em. And if you make one picture that sticks out in people’s minds, I think that’s a good accomplishment. I’ve had that song played at some very bizarre times in my life, but it’s cool. I’m glad. Originally, that scene was written…he was gonna use the song “Ballroom Blitz,” and he didn’t have the rights to “Stuck in the Middle” when we shot the movie, so I guess I’m glad that it’s not “Ballroom Blitz” that everybody’s connecting me to!
BE: I’d read that Kurt Baltz (who played Officer Marvin Nash, the guy Mr. Blonde tortures during the infamous “Stuck in the Middle” scene) ad-libbed a line during the scene – about having a child – that really disconcerted you at the time.
MM: Well, it was an ad-lib, y’know? You let an ad-lib fly in the middle of a rehearsal, and you just…I dunno, you play somebody who’s psychopathic or who’s violent, you try to draw the line somewhere. I mean, I don’t really believe in killing children or women! You have to be…playing a bad guy’s one thing, but turning it too far in the wrong direction doesn’t make me happy.
BE: Obviously, you mentioned that you knew it was a good piece of work from when you first read the script, but would you ever have believed they’d make a video game out of it?
MM: No, that’s one that I never saw coming. I don’t think anybody else on the planet ever did, either. I mean, there were no such things as video games, as far as I know, back when we were making that movie...or, at least, it wasn’t at the frenzy that it is now! And it was pretty bizarre going into the studio and recording the dialogue for the character… (Laughs) …standing in front of a monitor that’s digitalizing my face for a video game! I mean, it was…look, man, I can’t think of anything more bizarre. But what’s even more funny than that is watching your sons sit there, playing the game, and they’re controlling their father! It’s a pretty strange experience.
BE: I’d heard you were supposed to play the role of Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction” that eventually went to John Travolta. Is that true?
MM: Well, I was in New Mexico, shooting “Wyatt Earp,” y’know? I was walking down the street of the O.K. Corral. I could’ve done both pictures, but my agent at the time and (director) Larry Kasdan were not going to let me out of rehearsal for “Wyatt Earp” in order to do “Pulp Fiction.” And all I can say about that is that the rehearsal for “Wyatt Earp” was a complete, utter, and total waste of time. It was a mindless exercise that didn’t change anybody’s performance for worse or better in that fucking movie, and I had a hard time watching “Wyatt Earp” without falling asleep. And I think a lot of other people had the same experience. If I’d have known how far it was to the O.K. Corral, I’d have recommended that we take horses. Or a taxi.
BE: Now, when you worked with Quentin again on “Kill Bill,” did you notice any differences in his directorial style over that time?
MM: No. No, he’s the same. You’ve got a guy like Quentin…it’s been said before, and I know it’s a clichéd statement, but they broke the mold after he came out. He’s one of a kind, but when you’re that strong of a personality, you don’t change. Guys like that are who they are, and they stay who they are. He’s the same guy that he was when I first met him. He’s a great friend and a great supporter of what I do, and he always has been. He’s great. He’s the best influence on the set.
BE: Is he still talking about hooking you up with the lead on “Inglorious Bastards”?
MM: Well, the last time we talked about it, he was. There are a couple of different projects we might be doing. I think we’re doing a big motorcycle picture called “Hell Ride” that he’s going to executive-produce, so I’m looking forward to that next year. Plus, I know I’m doing the sequel to “Sin City”…
BE: Excellent. Yeah, I’d heard about that.
MM: …and I’m sure he’ll have something to do with that, ‘cause him and (Robert) Rodriguez are pals, y’know?
BE: I checked out your website, and I applaud the section where you go through and rate each of your films as good, bad, or unwatchable. (Laughs)
MM: Well, you know, I was sitting around one day, and I figured, y’know, anybody who looks this thing up is gonna say, “Jesus jumping Christ, this guy made a lot of fucking movies!” And I think I owed it to my film-going…I think I owed an explanation to the universe for some of those pictures, so I decided to just be blatantly honest about it. (Chuckles) You know, you always go into a movie with the best of intentions, and it’s impossible…people will promise you the fucking world, they’ll promise you anything to get you in the movie. “This is gonna be this way, and this is gonna be that way…” And then, seven times out of ten, it’s not that way. And then you’re stuck in the middle of…ha, that’s stuck in the middle of a different kind…then you’re fucked. Because once you’re in the middle of a bad film, it’s not like you can just say, “Okay, forget it,” and walk out. You gotta finish the damned thing…and then it’s there forever. You can only really be as good as the talent you’re surrounded by.
BE: Um, you know, I got a copy of “UKM: The Ultimate Killing Machine” to check out.
MM: (Bursts into laughter) Oh, God! Yeah, well, see, there’s a good example. Something that was described to me as being this military story, with these young actors, these up-and-coming actors, and this young, independent film company who really had this high regard for me and were going to structure this film around me, and it was this great challenging role, and it was somewhat of a heroic character. And I’ve been trying to get away from playing the villain for awhile, and I’ve been wanting to play the leading guy…the one who rides into the sunset, y’know? I wanted to make a change. So I get attracted to these projects, and these people are saying that they’re going to do this or do that in a certain way, and “Ultimate Killing Machine” is a perfect example of being involved in a situation that you look back on and you go, “Oh. My. God. Oh. My. GOD! How am I ever going to explain that one?” But, I mean, my check cleared, so it put food on the table, fed my children, and kept a roof on their heads, and ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s what it means.
BE: And, you know, I was going to ask you about that, because you look at your resume, and…
(Apparently, Michael’s kids’ ears were burning, because only moments after referencing them, he abruptly but necessarily drops out of interview mode and into his stern father voice to chastise one of them.)
MM: (Off-phone) You’d better take a shower downstairs before you come into this house! (Back to phone) He’s completely covered with sand, from head to toe. So, I’m sorry, what were you about to say?
BE: I was just going to say that you’ve obviously done a lot of films that have ended up going straight to video, so are you one of those guys who just feels like, “Hey, work’s work, as long as I keep busy”?
MM: I believe in longevity. And I believe in doing this for as long as I can. And I believe in taking care of my family…and, y’know, that’s an ongoing job; I’ve got six children. You can’t sit around and wait for your dream role to come. There’s a rumor that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have purchased every script ever written…
MM: …and not only that, but they’re gonna be in ‘em! So that’s bad news for me, ‘cause I can’t get either one of them on the phone! And that’s a joke, but it’s not a joke. I mean, I gotta take a job where I can get it. No studio is chasing me down the block. It’s a very aggressive, very competitive industry, and you gotta make it happen on your own or it’s not gonna happen. I learned my lesson, believe me, the hard way. I did a couple of pictures this year that I think are a lot more in the area that I should be. I’ve been producing my own stuff. I did a picture with Daryl Hannah called “Vice” that’s gonna be introduced at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s kind of like “King of New York” or “Bad Lieutenant.” It’s a very dark police drama, and…it’s disturbing. It’s a disturbing film, but it’s one of those pictures that I should’ve made ten years ago, and I’m real happy with the way it’s turned out. And I played a fighter, a prize fighter, in Ireland. I played an Irish boxer in a picture called “Strength and Honor” that’s also coming out in the south of France in May. But, y’know, with two films like that, I think I’ve moved a long way from “Ultimate Killing Machine.” Believe me, nobody’s gonna be thinking about “Ultimate Killing Machine” when “Strength and Honor” comes out.
BE: So no sequel, then?
MM: (Bursts into laughter) If there is, then they’d better call Tom Sizemore, ‘cause I’m not available!
BE: I was at a conference recently about TV shows being released on DVD, and (writer/producer) John McNamara was asked what shows of his he’d like to see released on DVD. At the top of his list was “Vengeance: Unlimited.”
MM: Well, you know what? It’s a big mystery to me why “Vengeance: Unlimited” hasn’t been released on a DVD set like every other fucking television show that’s ever been produced in the history of the world. You can walk into Tower Records (well, not anymore, sadly) and buy these great disc sets, these really cool, great shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “The Rifleman,” and all these great TV shows. I mean, you can buy ‘em now, a full set of every episode…and where is “Vengeance: Unlimited”? Where in the hell is it? Why is Warner Brothers not releasing it? Why? And no one can answer that question. Even John McNamara can’t tell me why. That was a great show. It had a huge following. You tell me, what was the mentality of the network executive who took that thing off the air? That thing was a great show, and a great character. If they just would’ve given it one more season, it would still be on. I know it would. The only other series I ever would’ve wanted to do in my whole life was “The Fugitive.” If they would’ve put me in “The Fugitive,” I guarantee you it would still be on. But they went the safe road. (Confidentially) They’re not the geniuses that you imagine them to be.
MM: They went the safe way, and now the show’s cancelled. It’s over. It’s too bad. I am very mystified by the choices that are made.
BE: John had visions of sitting down with you to do the audio commentary for the show, and then he did what I’d say was a pretty passable impression of you…
BE: …saying, “Yeah, I gotta tell ya, John, I don’t remember doin’ this scene.”
MM: Well, I probably would say that about some of it, but most likely I’d be sitting there, wondering in amazement why it didn’t go on. Because I still have people come up to me to this day, going, “Whatever happened to that show? That show was so great. We watched it, we always watched it, we’ve seen every episode.” I mean, Quentin Tarantino watched every single episode of “Vengeance: Unlimited.” He can quote lines that I said…that Richard Chapel said…from that show. I mean, it’s just…you’ve got a show like that, with the level of writing that that had, and the following that it had, and what was the sense in canceling it? Just because a reality show was the big thing or something. It’s…it’s a pity.
BE: And your sister just went through that herself, with “Smith.”
MM: Oh, I don’t think Virginia’s crying about that one.
BE: Oh, really?
MM: Uh, no. Virginia’s a lot of bigger fish to fry. I don’t think she’s missing it at all. She was very disappointed with the way her character was being portrayed in that show, and she was actually quite relieved when they pulled the trigger.
BE: You’ve actually showed up on two DVD sets that I’ve recently gotten to review. One is “The Hitchhiker.” Your episode of that show is on the latest collection they’ve released…
MM: Oh, Jesus Christ, that was like three hundred years ago.
BE: (Laughs) And I also got Season One of “St. Elsewhere.”
MM: Well, that was one of the very first television shows I was ever on. I was pumping gas in Beverly Hills when I got that job. I went in to audition for that in my Union 76 gas station uniform, and they gave me the part, and my agent calls to tell me how brilliant it was that I showed up as a blue collar person to audition for the role. And I’m, like, “Do you think I went out and bought a costume? Jesus God in Heaven, I came from work! I went from work to the meeting!” And I realized then and there that I was in Hollywood.
BE: I didn’t realize you dabbled in both poetry and photography until I checked out your site.
MM: I’ve written a couple of books, and they’ve done very well. Dennis Hopper got me interested in photography, so I started taking pictures. I just published a book of my photos, so I’m still doing it. It’s something to do on the side.
BE: And you dedicated the book of photos to Chris Penn, I saw.
MM: Well, that’s true, I did. And it’s nice that you mention that. He was a very, very dear, dear friend. He was a tough monkey, and I loved him as much as a guy can love another guy without going to Brokeback Mountain. I really miss him dearly. I miss him more than I can even say. It was a devastating loss to me. It shattered me for quite some time, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. (Pauses) Sean (Penn) called and invited me to be a pallbearer.
BE: That’s nice.
MM: Sean didn’t have to do that, y’know. He did it for Chris. He said, “Chris loved you, Michael, and that’s why I want you there.” And that was a big thing for Sean to do; I really respect him for asking me to be there. It was a hard, tough, tough thing to do. It’s one thing to lose somebody, but then to actually be the person who carries them up the aisle is quite another thing. It just…I dunno, it broke my heart in half. It was just one of the saddest days I think I’ve ever had. He was a hell of a guy.
BE: (After an appropriate few moments of silence) So, uh, did you have any other upcoming projects you wanted to mention?
MM: Well, like I say, I did “Vice,” the cop thing, and executive-produced it, and Andrzej Sekula (“Reservoir Dogs”) was the director of photography, and I think that’s gonna make a big splash at Cannes, if we can get it into competition. And I did the boxer. Vinnie Jones is in the movie with me, and Patrick Bergen. I think that thing’s gonna be a real tearjerker. Definitely more in the heroic direction that I’ve been trying to get myself into. And I played a stockbroker in a film that was shot in Paris that might be interesting. It’s directed by Olivier Assayas, and I was in it with Asia Argento, who was in “Marie Antoinette.” She’s wonderful. To be able to work with someone like that was good…and, y’know, I rarely get to be onscreen with a girl unless I’m hurting them in some way! It’s more of a love story, which was good. I did a couple of smaller films, but I don’t know how they’re gonna eventually gonna do. I just played a crocodile hunter, for God’s sake, in Thailand. But then again, I’m the guy who kills the croc, not one who gets eaten.
BE: Well, there you go.
MM: There you go. I’m moving in the right direction. But for the most part, I think “Vice” and “Strength and Honor” are the ones I should probably be talking about right now. I did a little picture called “Deep Winter” where I played a helicopter pilot that I think has a pretty good chance of getting into Sundance, and that one turned out pretty well. It was done with some really good young kids, independent filmmakers.
BE: All right, well, I really appreciate you calling me on a Sunday evening.
MM: Sure, sure.
BE: And, again, great talking to you. I’m looking forward to checking out the new flicks.
MM: Well, it’s time for me to have a beer.
BE: Do it up. I think I’m gonna go do the same thing!
BE: Have a good one.
MM: You, too.