Michael Madsen calls movies “pictures” and makes a new one every couple weeks. I happened to check his IMDB page recently, and I noticed something incredible: the man acted in 25 movies released this year. 25*! Sure, they all have dubious titles like You Might As Well Live, Lost in the Woods, and Road of No Return. Sure, Madsen mostly plays characters with names like “The Reverend,” “The Associate,” and “Clinton Manitoba.” But the sheer quantity of Madsen-imprinted cinema in 2009 deserves a special kind of acclaim.
Madsen is philosophical about his workaholic output. “I’m only good when I’m busy. When I’ve got nothing to do, I’m useless. I just go to Montana and sit on my front porch,” he told EW. They can’t all be classics, he explained: “You take the work where it comes. People tell you it’ll be the greatest piece of cinema, and then once you’re in it, you can’t escape. Then there are other times, it ends up being a diamond.”
And what diamonds! The cult of Michael Madsen began with his role as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s endlessly influential debut. “Everyone told me not to do it. Quentin was a first-time director, all the characters were named after colors, and we all kill each other.”
A decade later, Madsen reunited with Tarantino for his finest role yet. “I’ll tell you a story**. Before Kill Bill, I was making a western called Renegade, with Juliette Lewis and Ernest Borgnine. French production, very good movie, too long, too many scenes. When I got to the Kill Bill set, I still had the white cowboy hat I got in Mexico.”
Madsen wore the hat to the first readthrough. “Quentin said, ‘You’re not gonna wear the hat.’ I said, ‘Well, Quentin, I think I am.'” After the third read-through, Tarantino relented: “He said, ‘I’m only used to seeing you in that hat,’ and he let me wear the damn thing.” So, Madsen’s Budd became the revenge film’s white-hatted moral core…though Tarantino eventually got him out of the hat in the most roundabout way possible, writing an entire scene around one character demanding that Budd remove that hat. “It was the only way Quentin was ever going to get me to take off the hat, putting it in the script.”
Madsen’s got literally dozens of movies coming out soon, most of them low-budget B-movies with foreign financing that are still seeking US release. One that he’s most proud of is Strength and Honour, a boxing movie (“fight picture”) which gives Madsen a rare good-guy turn: “No guns, no cigarettes.”
Madsen’s my nomination for the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. In addition to all those low-budget independent productions – “I’ve been offered a picture in Budapest, ‘Men Don’t Lie.'” – he spent the last decade in blockbusters (Die Another Day) and zeitgeist sensations (Sin City); starring in two TV shows, one by David Milch and one by ESPN; and lending his voice to Grand Theft Auto III and The Chronicles of Narnia. He even writes poetry! I can’t think of another performer who’s amassed such a diverse array of credits, can you?
*That number’s changed to 28 since I first looked.
** You get the feeling that Madsen says “I’ll tell you a story” all the time. The man’s overflowing with random bits of knowledge. Towards the end of our interview, I ask him who his icons are. “I’m kind of a sap for the past. I love Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum. Lancaster once said he always felt like he was acting with his hair.” Does Madsen ever feel that way? “You have good hair days and bad hair days. You hope for a good stylist.”
Photo Credit: Everett Collection