With over 150 films under his studded belt—including Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Brasco, Kill Bill and a recent role in the Justin Bieber video for “As Long as You Love Me”—the son of a playwright and a firefighter first pursued his craft at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he apprenticed under John Malkovich.
In town to play Joe, a bartender, in the independent flick Serpent in the Bottle, Madsen’s one-day performance was so intense that he cracked six ribs.
We met in a sitting area near the elevators on the second floor of the Eldorado Hotel. Writer/director Emmett Mckinley requested I not ask questions about his sons. Having no idea what he was referring to, I agreed.
Turns out, the embattled actor was arrested in March for allegedly getting into a fight with one of his teenage sons. As reported by the Associated Press, prosecutors declined to file charges. Six months later, he was detained once more for allegedly driving under the influence and was subsequently hospitalized.
Living up to his persona, Madsen showed up tanned, wearing exotic animal skin boots, several silver rings on his fingers, a checkered shirt and jeans that complemented his jet-black hair.
Mckinley got up to fetch some coffee, and the first question was the standard, “How are you doing?”
“You know, my boys,” he responded, “my sons are growing up in America, and we’re all faced with all these things that are going on with the military and, you know, America is trying to stand up—trying to take care of everyone.”
“Obama,” he said with a laugh, “I don’t know if he’s going to straighten everything out. Everybody is lost, everybody’s gone,” he continued, pausing. “There are kids that are in school, and they’re trying to believe in America, because it’s the greatest—let’s face it—America is…my dad was a Chicago fireman and he put out fires for people burnin’ up. And I love my dad so much.”
He then recalled having once seen his now-87-year-old father coming out of a blazing building with two kids over his shoulder.
“My father is a hero...and I’m a picture actor,” he said, his trademark grizzled baritone marred by a streak of deep melancholy.
This was all within the first four minutes of the interview.
Asked what his experience shooting in Santa Fe was like, he opted to reflect on the deaths of friends and fellow actors Chris Penn, David Carradine and Dennis Hopper.
“Michael had a fairly rough week,” the director, back from his caffeine run, explained. “I was amazed that he made it through this grueling day and pulled off the performance that he pulled off.”
A “last-minute” addition to the cast with a “tiny little part,” Mckinley says, Madsen delivered in spades. “[The role] became much more dramatic…and he really brought what I asked him on a huge level.”
Wanting to take the reins of the conversation, Mckinley asked his star what it was like to be directed by him.
Madsen’s response: “I’ve been having some troubles with my sons, and I would like to say that my sons, you know, they’re living in a world where they’re on the internet. And they’re exposed to all kinds of crazy things on the internet, and I love them—I love my boys so much.”
The conversation got stranger.
“There’s a guy in Wichita there in a barn, and they bent him over and he got fucked by a horse in Wichita, OK? And it killed him,” the performer, who recently celebrated his 55th birthday, said. “My 14-year-old boy—he watched it—and I know that it really bothered him very much, and I was just terrified that my son would see something like that.”
It was clearly time to wrap up, but Madsen insisted that the interview continue. “I’m trying to say something that’s far and away from the acting,” he said. “Something that’s more real, outside of what I do as an actor.”
After instructing passersby in the high-traffic corridor to “shut the fuck up!” the convo then veered toward supermarket-check-out-line tabloids.
“They come after me all the time,” he said of celebrity gossip sites like TMZ. “I can’t even take a piss in the bushes.”
“Being a movie actor is embarrassing; it’s humiliating,” Madsen explained. An almost poetic rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” followed.
A tear running down his cheek, he apologized to his “Poppa” for being “kind of a rascal.”
Another heartfelt message to his sons sprung, but was interrupted, once more, by the elevator ding. Madsen proceeded to have a fake conversation with an old-timey phone that was propped atop a side table.
“I’m a fuckin’ bum,” he said, channeling his best On the Waterfront-era Brando. “But I made a couple good pictures.”
In my best Stuart Smalley, I offered the acclaimed actor a pep talk and again suggested we end the interview. He made it clear he was not done.
“I played a lot of tough guys, did a lot of pictures and I did it for you guys”—to his five sons—he said. “And now, in America, Obama—and what’s his name? Romney—they’re just lying to everyone. It’s ridiculous.”
Witness the conversation bellow: