What are the chances of bumping into Michael Madsen in one of the most beautiful terraces in Rome, Villa Medici? One. During the launch event of the new reality show on SKY Arts, Master of Photography, I found myself trying to get a better look just to make sure that it was really him. When I got closer he suddenly asked me if I had a pair of sunglasses that he could borrow as a photographer was taking a few pictures of him for a magazine or whatever.
A couple of witty remarks, Lidia Carew asking him with such great ease – not to forget to give her back her sunglasses before he leaves.
No need to list his filmography for you. It’s very long. He’s played memorable characters in more than 170 movies. You’d likely know that he’s one of Tarantino’s most favorite actors: Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Sin City, and the latest, The Hateful Eight – I bit my hands when I told him that I haven’t seen it, yet.
I’m not sure if I met him on his “yes day;” I don’t know if he’s really a down-to-earth kinda guy – it seemed that way to me – or if he’s just in that phase of his life where he wants to share something real about himself and his life with people who are interested in listening to what he has to say, and don’t want to promote only your product.
Anyway, whatever the reason, in a chat that lasted an hour, glimpses of his past, present and future life came to life: his family, his mother, his father, his five children: “Oh my, all boys?! Were you trying to have a girl? ” I asked him. “Probably so, but fortunately she did not arrive. I don’t think I would be able to raise a girl,” he replied. “Because you know what goes through a man’s head, right?” “Right.” Viewpoints on the America of yesterday and the America of today. Reflections on failure, concerns about the Kardashian dynasty. His love for an Italian village of 150 souls, Fallo. In short, stuff that you won’t read anywhere else.
But what he didn’t tell me (I found out on Wikipedia) is that besides being a great actor, Madsen is also an accomplished photographer – in 2006, he released his first book of photography entitled Signs of Life – and poet. He has been writing since the early 1990s, when he scrawed notes on match books, napkins and hotel stationery in between his time working on movie sets and traveling around the world. He has cited influences for his style of poetry such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski. Actor Dennis Hopper described his poetry as a throwback to the Beat Generation and liked him better than Kerouac. I have to remember that besides some book titles by the legendary, immense James Baldwin, I need to add Madsen’s The Complete Poetic Works of Michael Madsen, Vol I: 1995–2005 to my book list. I wonder if I will be able to find it. Maybe I’ll write and ask him.
Madsen doesn’t go unnoticed; his raspy voice goes well with his face. He was wearing a colorful shirt that seemed to tell the story of America: cowboys, Indians, meadows, Donald Duck and perhaps a president of the U.S. – I imagine it’s a piece of his wardrobe that he really cares about because he has worn it on many occasions. Light-blue jeans and a pair of cowboy boots to complete his outfit.
Anyway, I was saying that we chatted for an hour becauase at one point I asked him,”Can I get an interview?” And he replied. “You already have it.” I said “Yes, but I would like to record it,” and Madsen said “OK.”
GRIOT: What are you doing here?
Michael Madsen: I did an episode of Master of Photography with Isabella Rosellini. It’s basically a show where you go and spend the day with young photographers who want to be legitimized by being on a show. So they take pictures of you all day, and at the end of the day you go and look at them, you tell them what you think and critique them based on the ones you like and don’t like. And at the end the winner gets 150.000 €. I wasn’t involved in the picking of the winner even though if I appear as a judge of the television show. So, I wasn’t actually a judge but I did do one episode and it was very charming. I didn’t like all of them but a couple of kids took some great pictures of me and it was fine. We did it here, in Italy. I was flattered to be asked to do the show and now here I am, back here. I got a trip to Rome, to promote the show.
How did you feel in the role of being a judge?
Well, I don’t really like still photography. You know, I’m a motion pictures actor. I’m in motion. I don’t like to be still. It terrifies me. It’s kind of static. It makes me feel very uncomfortable. It’s also hard to judge people in general. That’s what I think is wrong with the education system of America. They have a pass and a fail mentality. You know. If you don’t do this one, you fail. I think the word ‘FAIL’ should never be used to a child. It’s just wrong and it’s so prevalent. It’s just the way it is and determines that we raise our children in a pass and fail situation.
I have five boys and I’ve watched each and every one of them growing up. My young ones when they were young would be so sad when they would come home and said that they failed something. Or the report card with the check in the fail box. You failed. You fucking failed. It’s just cruel and it’s not ok. And I don’t know whoever set it up, but whoever did that is really responsible, I think, for a lot of failures. That person who set that up is responsible for a lot of people who didn’t make it because he ruined them. Emotionally, psychology, to get that fail check in their face because they didn’t pass gastronometry oralgebra or some goddamn thing we didn’t need in the first fucking place.
Obviously everyone’s gonna say: “Ok Michael, so what would you do?” What I would do is I would focus on what they were really good at. Because children will show very early on what they’re good at, what they like to do and they should focus on that and make that blossom, make it grow. If kids are good drawers, well then, let’s teach them how to do drawings. Some kids who like to play the trumpet, give them a trumpet. Let them play it every single day. And forget about all these other influences or things they don’t need to know. If some little girl likes to dance, well let’s teach her to be a dancer and forget everything else. I think we’ll have a lot more smarter people, we’ll have a lot more emotionally balanced adults.
You are an actor and you’ve played in many motion pictures, and some of them made it to the Oscars. In a certain way, do you feel that you deserved to be awarded but at the end you failed?
Oh, sure. It’s more prevalent than ever before, the whole judgment thing. I always admired Marlon Brando because he was set early on. He said “why does there have to be a best prize? He was disturbed because he said “why does there have to be a Best? Why is someone better than the other?” He didn’t understand it.
I don’t mind the competition. The competition is fine, but in terms of what you’ve asked me, I’ve done some movies that I think are really good but never saw the light of day, never got any distribution.
Were they independent movies?
Yeah, or they just didn’t make the cut. Then I’ve been in big ones that made a lot of money. The film industry, people don’t understand how hard it is. They don’t understand how psychologically draining it is. One incredible personal burden could be being a movie actor, especially if you are a successful movie actor. Every fucking movie you make is scrutinized.
Are you currently working on a new movie?
Well I’ve just got The Hateful Eight come out, directed by Tarantino. It’s me and Sam [Samuel L.] Jackson. Did you see it?
Oh, you should see it. It’s really good. And it has a lot to do with what we are talking about.
I did also a television series for Sony Playstation [the second season of Powers.] I played the super hero character SuperShock. I can fly, I have a red cape, a big lightning bolt on my chest. I can start earthquakes and set stuff on fire. It was pretty cool. I actually had a lot of fun. I only did one season of it though. I don’t know if they are bringing it back so now I’m unemployed basically.
Speaking of super heroes, before you were telling me that America used to be great, back in the ’60, though it went through very hard times but now to me it seems that you all are in a total mess, as in those years.
I guess that what I was trying to tell you is that once upon a time when I was a little boy [he was five] I remember my mother standing in front of the television. We had a black and white RCA television. It was on a white table. We had a green carpet. And I remember my mother standing there, with her hands over her face and she was crying, crying, crying, because John Kennedy had been assassinated. And…I remember her…crying, crying, crying [Madsen paused for few seconds] …. when Martin Luther King was assassinated [he paused again] …
Is it painful to remember?
…and I remember her crying, crying, crying when Bobby Kennedy was killed. You know, it’s just seems to me that once upon a time people were trying to figure out what’s wrong. It’s seemed to me back in the ’60s, there was a lot of problems, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t good, but it seemed like people really wanted to get it figured out. They knew that something was wrong and they wanted to fix it. A lot of people wanted to fix it, make it right, so that we can all live happily ever after if that’s possible. But somewhere down the line, it became this other thing where politically it became really great to say that everything was fixed. That everything was all right. But it isn’t all right at all. To me, now, everybody is basically lying. It’s like this hidden culture of ideas that never got fixed. And now everybody is too paranoid to basically say what they think so they pretend that they think something else.
It doesn’t seem to me people are paranoid to say what they think. See what’s going on with Donald Trump, at his rallies, where participants are allowed to do whatever they want to do and say.
No, that’s because of the Internet. The Internet is like the devil. I mean I enjoy it. I think it’s a wonderful tool. You can find out anything you want to know and that’s great but there’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t need to be on there. It’s a rodeo, man. Little kids, little children can go on there. My 10-year-old can go on the internet and look up stuff that he doesn’t need to see. No reason to see it, that is disturbing, that he doesn’t need in his little mind, in his little boy head. He doesn’t need it but they are just right there man. There’s full access to it. Freedom of this, freedom of that. Ok man. And even parental restriction and parental guidance is over. People get in trouble for spanking their kids. I don’t think it’s ok to hit children. That’s not what I am saying. I respected my father. I loved my father. Not because he hit me but there was a parental guidance there that they’re taking away from people and it’s reall, you know. Look at kids now. They call the police for…
Are you worried for your five kids? How old are they?
My oldest boy is 25, my youngest is 10. So they are different astrologically. I have an Aquarius son, a Pisces, a Libra, a Scorpio.
Oh, I’m a Scorpio too.
Really? I’m a Scorpio rising whatever that means. I’m not sure what it means but…and I have an Aries moon, I don’t know what that means.
I mean, I’m sad because I’m proud to be American, but it just seems like it’s dissolving into some weird, kind of sad reality of political correctness. You know everybody is upset about Donald Trump but America created Donald Trump. They virtually created that guy and now they’re angry because he’s running for President? Why are they angry about someone they created?
So in your opinion he’s going to win?
I don’t know. I don’t know who’s going to win. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that those two people are the only two people that are the candidates. Right? It’s hard to even say ‘Oh it’s Hilary Clinton,’ or ‘Oh it’s Donald Trump’. I can’t believe that those are the only two that we have to choose from. That’s my problem, you see? It’s hard to understand for me. I don’t get it. You need to tell me that America can’t come up with some more candidates? Some better choices? I think Barack Obama was a great president. Everybody wants to say ‘Oh Barack did this’ ‘Barack did that.’ Yeah, he also did some great things but nobody wants to talk about it.
Because there’s a mentality of focusing on the negative, right? You know. ‘Oh, he’s a failed president.’ No, I’m sorry. He’s not. ‘He didn’t do this’, ‘He didn’t do that.’ I would like to see somebody, people that talk about him, I would like to see what they would do, if they were president. What do they think it is? A joke? It’s just ridiculous. You know what I think. Now these TV shows like American Idol or The Voice and The Greatest of The Greatest, Celebrity Dancing, Dancing With the Stars. You know, it’s fun, but it’s taken too seriously. And participants turn into celebrities. But celebrities for doing what? And all of a sudden anybody can be a celebrity.
Look at the Kardashians. Is there anything more preposterous that’s ever happened in history than them? It’s mind boggling. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m getting older. Maybe I’m stupid. I don’t get it. What are they doing for anyone, anywhere, on the planet? I don’t understand the whole attraction of it. The whole dynasty of it. I don’t know.
I hope they’re saving their money, I tell you that, because sooner or later that fucking ship is gonna sink man. It’s gonna go down like the Titanic. And…God help them, I hope they save their money. And it’s not like I have some personal vendetta for the Kardashians. I just don’t understand the inequity of it. I don’t understand the inequality of it. I don’t understand the ignorance of it, is just what I’m trying to say. And how come they don’t get it? Imagine if they went on television and said. “You know, we’ve made a lot of money and we appreciate that we’ve got this whole thing happening to us but we’re gonna stop. We don’t want to do the show anymore. We don’t want to parade around anymore. We don’t need to do this for America anymore but we’re just gonna go away. We’re going to get jobs [he laughs], we are going to become humanitarians, give all our money to some good causes and we’re gonna go live on an island somewhere. We bought an island. We named it ‘The Kardashian island’ and we’re gonna go live there. With our boats, our cars, and we’ll never bother anybody again. Can you imagine? Everybody will be like “Wooow, good for you guys! Ok, cool. Yeah. That’s really nice.” And once a year you can do a reunion show on the island where you can go check up on them and see what they’re up to.
Yesterday [I met Madsen on July 4th] was Independence Day. How did you celebrate?
Well, the 4th of July is my father’s birthday. Calvin Coolidge was the President when my dad was born and so they [his grandparents] named him Calvin after the president. He passed away in October of last year so yesterday was the first time that I’ve been in the world without my dad on his birthday.
Last year I took him to the fireworks in Chicago. I know some motorcycle guys in Chicago and some Hells Angels, and the American Lawmen who are motorcycle cops and they gave my dad a motorcycle escort to the fireworks. And one of them went up in his condominium to pick him up. He only weighed 150 pounds because he was very ill. And he carried him all the way down the stairs and we went to the fireworks and when I got there there was a woman – it was in an amusement park – doing like a Janis Joplin show.
Oh I love Janis Joplin!
She was good. She was dressed like her and singing Janis Joplin songs. And when I went around in front of the stage she saw me and, you know, I’m from Chicago, and she said “Ladies and Gentleman Michael Madsen is here.” And I was like “No…Oh God, no man, no”. And she said “Come on” So I went up there and I took the microphone and I said “You know what? It’s my father’s birthday. He’s sitting right there. I can’t sing a song but can you guys sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to my father?”And you know what? They started to sing. There was a big crowd. It was maybe between 300-500 people singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to my father. I remember looking over there and he was sitting there all old, you know, watching me and I kind of knew that night, when we went back to his house, that I was never gonna see him again. And I thought “Wow,” you know…It was a good way to end it. It was a nice way to say goodbye.
My father was deeply, deeply, deeply racist.
Really? And how could you be raised by a racist and not become a racist yourself?
Yes he was and I tried to do the opposite. And maybe that’s progression. Maybe that’s the reason …
Is it because you just wanted to rebel against him or because you felt it wasn’t right to be racist?
No. I didn’t feel that it was right. But maybe that’s the source of progression. At the same time I know that he was very bitter, lots of things happened to him, when he was growing up, that affected his thinking. I understood him a lot more than he realized that I did. He didn’t appreciate me being an actor. He didn’t really think it was a good thing for me to do. He thought movie acting was a prima donna existence. In the end, I think he started to appreciate it.
What did he do for living?
He was a fireman. A Chicago fireman. For thirty years he was. And he had a pension so he didn’t have to wither away at an old folks. He had his own money, He got to pass away at his own home. There’s a lot to be said about that. You know a lot of parents become a burden to their children when they get older and I think a lot of parents are scared of that, to become a burden to their kids. They don’t want that to happen but it does. You can’t take that away from him. He had his own thing. You can’t take away from that. He worked hard, for thirty years, saving people’s lives. He was a hero.
So in a certain way do you think he counterbalanced the fact that he was racist?
I think he did. I think he counterbalanced a lot of things. But he got confused, then he ran out of time, he really ran out of the time. He became a person who… changing times and attitudes overran him. He was left to be confused, you know. He really wanted to see The Hateful Height. He really did. And only one other movie I ever did, I did a picture called Strength and Honour, I played an Irish-American boxer, and I accidentally kill a guy in the ring – I’m training for the title Bought. I hit him in the wrong way, it happens. I’m so devastated by that and I say I won’t never fight again. And I don’t. But then my son gets a terrible heart problem and I need to get money to get him an operation. And I live in Ireland but the operation is in America and if I do this big bare knuckle fight with this gypsy camp I can make enough money for the operation for him. So I go in the fight. It was a great film but nobody ever saw it.
Because it didn’t get distribution. The market decided that particular year not to go with it. It was the same year The Wrestler with Micky Rourke came out. In fact they were both in Toronto and Fox Searchlight took The Wrestler picture instead of mine, which is understandable because Micky made a big come back with that movie. He was wonderful and he deserved it. But my picture kinda got overlooked because they were both fight pictures and whatever, it slipped away. Shoreline picked it up and they buried it and released it on DVD in the UK without permission and now the whole thing is in a law suit. But it was the only picture that I ever did that my father ever bothered to mention. He heard that I was making a western with Clinton when I was doing The Hateful Height. He did really want to see it…and he didn’t make it. It came out at Christmas time and he was already dead. It’s too bad.
Last questions. What’s your relationship with Italy? You said that you have a house here.
Yes, I bought a house in Fallo, a little village between Naples and Rome. It’s a fitting place. I love it.
How have you come to discover it?
My manager is Italian. His name is Bruno Rosato and he has a twin brother, Gino. Bruno is a producer, a manager, a casting director and he grew up there in Fallo. His father was born there and he moved away from Fallo to Montreal but he [Bruno] still has his father’s house. And we go up there all the time and hang out, because his Dad is buried there. We’d go visit the little town and drink wine and hang around up there. There was a place up there and I saw it and I had to have it. It was just so kind and sweet and I really wanted to have it but it’s not an easy thing to do being an American buying property in Italy especially in a place like that. It’s very sweet, very nice.
I imagine I’ll be struck by lightening on the front porch when I’m 95 and my stupid body will roll down the steps and that will be it, you know?
Ahahaha. Ok, we’ve just come to an end Michael. Is there anything else you would like to tell me?
Well, I think I have already been talking and rambling enough, but I do appreciate the fact that you took an interest of what I had to say. It was very kind of you.
After we finsihed talking and eating, just before he left, he slipped his hand into his pocket and said: “Oh, here’s your friend’s sunglasses.” I will leave you with a poem he wrote. Oh! I was forgetting… he suggested that I title this interview “Once Upon a Time.”
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.