The hugely talented Michael Madsen is someone who is famous to so many people for so many different roles. Sure, his iconic turn as Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs may be the first thing that some think of when looking at Madsen’s career, but his CV is stacked full of a whole host of various projects and pictures. With Madsen having played the role of Texas Ranger Phil Ryan in True Crime’s based-on-true-events Real Detective crime reenactment show, we caught up with him to discuss this latest gig, plus we get into his career and why he thinks he’s one of the most underutilized talents in the industry.
STARBURST: How did you end up involved in Real Detective in the first place?
Michael Madsen: I’m usually called upon to play villains - that’s usually the way that everyone thinks of me – and The Hateful Eight certainly isn’t going to change that situation. I’ve wanted to cross over to be a leading man or be the hero for a long time, and it’s very hard to break down. Once people set their mind that you’re a certain kind of character then it’s pretty hard to get out of it. I wanted to do Real Detective because it was my chance to show that I’m very capable of playing that.
Were you familiar with Phil Ryan or the case in question itself before you did the show?
No, I wasn’t familiar with it at all. I know how to play a cop, I know how to play a detective, and I think I have a pretty good read on that, but I didn’t know about that particular case until I got the script. And the fact that it was true is really kind of chilling. It makes it more interesting and more fun if you’re doing something that’s a true story, if you’re playing a person who really went through this. I think I would’ve made a great Whitey Bulger , you know, just because he’s somebody who lived and somebody who actually did those things. It’s fun to play a real character. Sonny Black was a real character from Donnie Brasco. I like to play somebody that was real.
How do you as an actor approach it differently when playing a real person as oppose to just somebody of complete fiction?
You can learn as much as you want about the person you’re gonna be, but… If the person was Irish, I’d do an Irish accent. If the person was Italian, I’d give it my best Italian. There’s only so far you can go. In the end, you’ve gotta be yourself. I don’t like to do imitations of people, so usually I’m just myself in a role.
Did you do any research for Real Detective or did you just go with what was in the script?
I’ve played cops before, I grew up with cops, and a lot of my father’s friends were cops. I know how to play that sort of character – you have to have a duality of personality. I just kind of go with the material and let the material tell the story.
We’ve never met the real-life Phil Ryan, and this is based on true events, but there’s still plenty of ‘Michael Madsen’ to how the character comes across. You still always manage to make a lot of yourself shine through in whatever role you take on…
Well, I don’t like to disappear in a part, you know. If you think about Humphrey Bogart, a lot of people went to see a Humphrey Bogart movie not because they were interested in the story so much – they just wanted to see him! I think there’s a lot to say about an actor. They’re doing all these remakes lately, like Ben-Hur. You can’t remake Ben-Hur without Charlton Heston. You can’t remake The Getaway without Steve McQueen. They’re doing all these remakes now with these actors that aren’t very interesting, and the picture isn’t going to work. I know The Magnificent Seven’s coming out, and I don’t know why they’re even bothering to do a remake of such a wonderful film. You can’t do a remake of The Magnificent Seven – it’s impossible! I don’t know why anyone would try to do it in the first place. I mean, I would’ve liked to have been one of the seven, sure . If anyone called me I’d have got on a horse in a second, but at the same time I have to admit that I don’t know why they try to do that. Actors, you know, certain actors have a certain presence on screen. If you don’t have that you’re just going to disappear. I think that the studios and, for the most part, the industry is starting to not remember that, not realise that. They’re putting good looking people in parts that are very unmemorable, people who don’t have a star quality.
You’re one of those actors who certainly always manages to stand out in every project…
Sometimes I stand out too much ! You don’t wanna overwhelm the lead actor if you have a smaller part. If you overwhelm the lead actor then they’ll cut you out, you’ll be edited out. So you have to be very careful with your presence. If you know how to carry yourself, you have to be careful with it, man.
Is that something that you learnt over time then, seeing as you are a very dominant presence on screen?
I never consciously tried to take a picture, I never consciously tried to steal a show. I come in and I do the best I can, and if it ends up stealing the moment then it’s not something I did on purpose or something I’m trying to do. I’m just doing my job. And if anything, I think I’ve been underrated and I think I’ve been undersold. I’m mystified why I’m not on a series, why I don’t have my own show. I’m mystified why I don’t get bigger roles in some of the bigger films. I think there’s a real animosity in Hollywood towards an actor like me – a Christopher Walken, a Mickey Rourke, a Dennis Hopper. Some of these people are big enough that they end up overwhelming the thing that they’re in because they haven’t been properly used. I just think that there’s a misconception about me and whether I’m difficult and whether I’m this and that. I’m none of those things, I’m a team player. And I would like to think that the pictures would make that obvious to people. You don’t believe me, but I go through long periods of being unemployed, and I’m not getting the type of material that I should be. If you put my face on the side of a bus and put me in a detective show, that thing would be on for five years and go into syndication without any doubt. I don’t know what I have to do to convince people about that.
Do you feel that there was a certain moment in your career that gave people that perception, such as playing Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs?
You know, I think it’s a conglomeration of Reservoir Dogs, The Getaway… I think I was a little bit more convincing than usual. They then think, “You know, you couldn’t be that good, you must really be like that.” So people have this conception, they need a killer, they need a bad guy, so let’s get Michael Madsen. People are very lazy. If there’s a Matthew McConaughey-type part, they’re not going to think of Michael Madsen. And that’s a pity, that’s sad. I could’ve done a lot of pictures that were bigger, and I could’ve done a good job.
Are there any pictures particularly that you 1) regret taking on, and 2) regret turning down?
I think I missed out on things more than a few times, but I think that was more because I didn’t have a publicist; I didn’t have that machine behind me. I never realised that you have to have a machine behind you working to make those things happen. Because I didn’t know that, I didn’t have the people behind me to push me to get a nomination or to get something nice like that. I thought that if you were good then it came automatically, but it doesn’t really work like that. All of these things are bought and paid for, they’re pushed by publicists and producers. I never had that team behind me because I didn’t understand how it worked. There’s a lot of pictures that I regret doing but there’s no point in mentioning them because it’s over, it’s in the past. I’ve been on my own for a long time. I could’ve done a lot better if I had some people behind me, but I honestly didn’t know how to do it.
You’ve done so many different things over the years – from TV shows, to small films that have blown up huge like Reservoir Dogs, to major blockbusters like Donnie Brasco and Bond, to kids’ movies like Free Willy, to video games, to superhero stuff – but what’s your favourite thing to sink your teeth into?
I’d like to do some bigger pictures; I’d like to make the transition that Humphrey Bogart when he did The Maltese Falcon. He went from being a bad guy to being a leading man in one picture by John Huston. That’s what I need, I need a big push like that. I need a very well-known, respected director to take me in his arms and realise that I can sell a big picture. I need a Die Hard or something that could point me in a new direction. I need a Maltese Falcon or someone to take me out of that rut and put me in the front of the parade, like Liam Neeson did with Taken. Some of these guys have been able to reorganize their career with one role.
You say that a mixture of pictures in the early-mid ‘90s pigeonholed you. Obviously Mr. Blonde threw you massively into the public eye…
Yeah, Mr. Blonde was a pretty big thing, it still is now. There’s a lot of pictures that really big time actors have made that nobody remembers and nobody cares about. Then there’s this little picture called Reservoir Dogs that I did and they still talk about today. I would’ve liked that somebody took a better look at Species or Mulholland Falls or Free Willy or Thelma & Louise. It’s weird the ones that stand out from my career.
The first Species was brilliant but then the second was a major let down to many people…
No, the second one was horrible. The second one I shouldn’t have done. It was a terrible script, I really wish I hadn’t done it. I don’t know what they were thinking but they should’ve featured me more as the lead of the film. The fucking thing is very confusing.
The first one is very much a classic of its time with a great cast, and it’s likely a bit overlooked in some quarters.
Yeah. And I could do another one of those easy but nobody calls me.
A lot of people obviously do tie you to Quentin Tarantino, though. Do you think that he could do something to spin the perception of you in one of his future films if he positioned you as more of a ‘good guy’?
Well I’ve talked to Quentin about that. Quentin created me, let’s face it. Or we created each other. I can only take a role if he writes something for me. He likes to do his own material, he likes to have his own point of view. It’s not like I can call him up and tell him what to write – it doesn’t really work that way. Nine times out of ten, I don’t really see him unless we’re working on a picture.
From what you’ve said, do you think that things may have been different for you, or the perception of you would’ve been different, if Quentin would’ve cast you in the Harvey Keitel or Tim Roth role in Reservoir Dogs then?
Well, yeah, I could see that happening. But, you know, he was dead set on me as Mr. Blonde. That’s what he wanted me to do. I’m glad I did it, it’s a great film, it’s a memorable picture. That’s a movie that’s going to be remembered until the end of time. How many actors can say that they were in a movie that memorable? Not that many. I mean I’m in The Hateful Eight, and if he could have any actor in the whole world that he wanted and I’m one of them, one of the eight, that’s a pretty big honour.
To a certain fanbase, you play a big part in getting people in to see a picture. We don’t know if you underplay it or don’t appreciate it, but there are a lot of people out there who go to pictures to see you in them.
I just wish some of these people were running a studio !
You mentioned how you go through periods of being unemployed, but from the outside looking in you always seem to be busy. What else do you have coming up that you can tell us about?
I’m just having a break right now. I’m just sitting back and looking for something. I’m looking for The Maltese Falcon, man, I’m looking for something great.
The Michael Madsen-starring episode of Real Detective – titled Redemption – airs on True Crime (Freeview 60, Sky 185, Freesat 143) on Thursday, September 15th at 10pm.