Cannes: Michael Madsen on Being Typecast, His Dream Role and the Mixed Legacy of 'Reservoir Dogs'

Michael Madsen in Cannes

The veteran actor of more than 200 films says he's ready to break out of the tough guy stereotype.

From the ear-slicing Mr. Blonde, aka Vic Vega, in Reservoir Dogs and Budd, the sword-swinging slob in Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 to a seemingly endless array of tough guys, mob men and punch-drunk palookas, Michael Madsen is the big-screen epitome of the heavy.

But the veteran actor, in Cannes to promote horror thriller Trunk (which All Rights Entertainment is selling), says he's eager to break out of his typecasting. “I was the dad in Free Willy, for God's sake!”

You've done a lot of movies, do you ever think of slowing down?
Well, sometimes people forget that sometimes you have to pay the mortgage, sometimes you have to put your kids through school. You can't always pick the greatest script. And you pick a project you probably shouldn't be involved in and then you have to live with it all your life.

What do you think is the biggest public misconception about you?
There's an assumption about a lot of things with me, and nobody really takes the time to learn the real story. I remember when Quentin (Tarantino's) script for Hateful 8 got released somehow and for a while it was this great mystery, who did it? It turned out to be an agent or some manager or somebody. And I remember I was doing this interview in L.A., and the woman goes "how does it feel to work with Quentin after what you did?" And I go: you really think I would be in The Hateful 8 if I was the one who did that? And why would I? Why not just take a gun and shoot myself in the foot?

Fame is a two-edged sword. There are a lot of blessings but also a lot of heavy things that come with it. I think it has a lot to do with the characters I've played. I think I've been more believable than I should have been. I think people really fear me. They see me and go: "Holy shit, there's that guy!" But I'm not that guy. I'm just an actor. I'm a father, I've got seven children. I'm married, I've been married 20 years. When I'm not making a movie, I'm home, in pajamas, watching The Rifleman on TV, hopefully with my 12-year-old making me a cheeseburger. I sure as hell had my rabble-rousing days, but sooner or later you have to get over that and move on.

I guess it's part of the whole bad-boy package. But I'd rather have a movie like Reservoir Dogs than not have it. There are a lot of actors that are a lot more recognized or famous that me, who get paid a lot more than me who haven't done even one film that you'd remember. So I feel blessed and lucky that, that whatever I've done, I've done a couple of films that will be around for a long time and are respected. And I still get work from them.

Have you thought of trying to do something completely against type?
That's exactly what I've been looking for. I've got to look at people like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. I guess especially Bogart who was someone who was predominantly a heavy and a villain. And then John Huston put him in The Maltese Falcon and he became a leading man. How the hell did John Huston know that? Well he obviously saw something in Bogie that nobody else was going to give him a chance at. So there's always hope. Or Shane, you know. That was the only picture that Alan Ladd was ever nominated for. And he didn't even win! Look how wonderful (Robert) Mitchum was in Ryan's Daughter. Or Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou.

It's possible. But it's hard to find it. It's really hard to break out of that nest once you've built it. People tend to want to see the thing you've been known for. Madsen is the go-to guy for the mean guy, the mean husband or the bad boyfriend or the hitman. It's all good, and I think I hit it pretty good in Kill Bill, but I was the dad in Free Willy for God's sake! Or Thelma & Louise. I don't get that kind of material and I don't know why.

What was the turning point for you, in terms of typecasting, when you became the go-to heavy?
I think it was Reservoir Dogs. I think it was the Tarantino phenomenon. It hit so hard, it was such a big punch. Quentin is, in my estimation, the best director of my generation. He's up there with George Stevens and Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan. Because of that, because of my relationship with him, it became bigger than anything I ever did. And then Kill Bill put the final stamp on that one. It's a great blessing to have that and at the same time, it is really hard to get out of it. And people don't want you to get out of it.

But if you're an actor, you want to act, you want to try different stuff. But it is becoming a very, very desperate game, it is becoming a very, very hard, competitive industry. And social media is really brutal. The funny thing is if you look for good things you are going to find them. If you look for bad things you are going to find them too. And most people, sadly, want to look for bad things.

But you'll be reuniting with Quentin for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
Yes, I'll be in the western in the film. The TV western. With Leo (DiCaprio) and Brad (Pitt). It's a fictional western TV series that was made in the '60s. And I'm one of the characters in the show. You'll have to have Quentin explain it to you. Believe me. He explained The Vega Brothers to me one time (the planned film about Madsen's character in Reservoir Dogs, Vic Vega, and his fictional brother Vincent Vega, John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction), and I still don't get it. We were supposed to make that after Pulp Fiction, with John Travolta and I as brothers. Vincent Vega and Vic Vega as brothers.

Quentin was going to make a film called The Vega Brothers. And I said: Quentin, we're both dead. We both get killed in those movies. He said: well, it's a prequel. And I said: you know, John and I don't really look that young anymore, I don't think it's going to work. So he said: OK, I've got a better idea: so now he told me the scenario of The Vega Brothers, but it was so complicated I can't explain it.

I did a race car picture with John. Me and Johnny did a picture in Talladega called Trading Paint. It hasn't even come out yet. We shot it last year in Alabama. Where we are adversarial race car drivers. And John comes up to me one day and he says: "You talk to Quentin lately? You should ask him if we are going to do The Vega Brothers." And I'm like: "You're John Travolta! You need me to ask him? Why don't you ask him?" He wants to do it as much as I do. Johnny's a good cat. We had a good time on that picture. I haven't see it yet because it hasn't come out.

How big will your role be in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
No idea. It's a big secret. I've got a bunch of pages. But Quentin is being very protective of his screenplay. I know that when you work with him, anything's possible. Two lines can turn into two months, and two months can turn into one line. But I'd be happy to be the guy in a tollbooth in his movie. I think most actors would be happy to be in his pictures for one second, let alone have a couple of good scenes.

Must be interesting for you, since you have such a deep history of Hollywood, to be in a movie that is trying to create that era of the 1960s film business ... 
I would say that was the roaring '60s. You think of all the stuff that went on at that time, amazing. The brilliant era of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, you know? All those kind of character actors: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin. Wow. There were a bunch of them who did some incredible pictures, some pretty unforgettable stuff. If anybody can recreate that era, it's Quentin.

Is there a dream role for you?
The age I'm at now, I think I'm pretty ripe now for a Maltese Falcon, or a Shane or a Deliverance. Something that's redemptive. I want to be an edgy guy, who isn't necessarily Shirley Temple, but who does something redemptive. I did a cop film with Daryl Hannah called Vice, which was really underrated. I did a boxing picture, playing a prizefighter, called Strength and Honor, and it never got distribution, because it was involved in a big lawsuit with Shoreline. And that might be the best thing I've ever done. And no one has seen it.