Virginia Madsen: How 'Sideways' turned her life around

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The Independent Culture

Little more than a decade ago, Virginia Madsen's Los Angeles house was being repossessed and the only acting offer she had was to star opposite rats. "That was the lowest of many low points," says Madsen, laughing. She made her name as an Eighties film babe (Dune, Class, Fire with Fire) and then disappeared. Her Hollywood comeback in 2004's Sideways was cemented when she won an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress, and a slew of job offers, none entailing interaction with vermin. Sideways cannot, though, claim all the credit for Madsen's rapidly altered fortunes.

"It was me. I created the change in my life. I turned my life in a different direction and really started living with intention. Anyone can do that, and certainly some of the greatest minds in the world do it." She is talking about the power of visualisation; of trying to entice what she wanted into her life. "It's like what Jim Carrey did, standing on Mulholland Drive for night after night saying, 'I'm the biggest star in the world.' I always loved that story."

Madsen subsequently made no secret of her appreciation for Carrey. "Everyone who knows me was sick of hearing about it. 'Yes, we know you love Jim. God!' Then my agent called one day and said, 'You've never going to believe this'." It was an offer to star opposite Carrey in The Number 23, a psychological thriller based on what is termed "the 23 enigma". A Google search returns more than three million matches detailing the freakish occurrence of the number in almost every aspect of life, every juncture of history. While Carrey is obsessed with the phenomenon, Madsen is more circumspect.

"I am one of those people who knows about the yeti and UFOs. I always tune into TV shows about that stuff because I think they're so much fun. Anyway, I did this thing called the Law of Cupcakes. I decided I would only think about cupcakes and then I wrote down the word 'cupcake'. Lo and behold, they began to appear everywhere. I got out of a cab and there was a grand opening of a cupcake place. I turned on CNN and there was a story about how cupcakes are now all the rage. I got a present from my agent when I started this film: a basket of cupcakes. And then, best of all, the first day on the set there was actually a crew guy walking round wearing a T-shirt with a cupcake on it. With a big arrow pointing to the cupcake. My mum always says God has a wonderful sense of humour and I do think all these things are riddles, a joke God has played on us. They are not going to be solved."

Since her success in Sideways, Madsen has made five films and most recently appeared in this country in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. "I walked on to the set my first day and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin were on stage singing. My hair was standing on end. And I just sort of sat down in the back seat of this theatre and cried like a baby because I honestly couldn't believe I was there. That was really the moment that felt like the culmination of everything that I'd worked for. The realisation just flooded in that I'd made it to where I wanted to go."

Madsen is now so booked she says she doesn't even have time for a boyfriend. "There was one really nice man and he dropped me off after our second date and said, 'When can I see you again?' I said, 'Oh, in three months', because I was going off to make another film. So he's now engaged to someone else and I missed that boat. But hey, I'm that girl now - career first and see you in a few months." For now she must make do with her Carrey crush. "Oh my God, he gave me such a kiss in the film. He totally made the heart go 'Oooh!'" She sees my surprise at her openness. "You know, I'm more confident, more secure, more daring now."

In The Number 23, Madsen plays two characters, one a traditional wife and mother, the other a vamp. "I had to train so hard for that and just not eat. I ate soup. And jelly. It was so awful. But I have to say it's still kind of fun to transform yourself physically for a role."

She says the lull in her career was in part self-created. "My bread and butter had become these TV films. And then I became known only for that, for being the TV babe. And I really didn't want to be there. So I had to say no to my bread and butter and that's when I really went broke." She borrowed money to pay the mortgage, from friends and her actor brother Michael. "Most of my friends are writers and actors so they were all broke but some of them loaned me dribs and drabs, enough to get by for a few months. And sometimes a great job came along. There was a beautiful Tom Selleck Western, which paid me really well and that saved me for another year and a half."

And then Madsen became her own personal trainer. She resolved to return to acting school, start working out and make herself the best person she could be. "I was undergoing a sort of transformation after coming out of a cocoon. I was reading, I had a spiritual programme and I was teaching art at my son's school which was the most fulfilling thing I'd ever done. I just knew my life would turn around.

"I started calling casting agents and saying, 'Hey, you haven't seen me for 10 years. Let me just come in and tell you what kind of parts I'm looking for.' It created a momentum and I was auditioning really well. People said, 'My God, she blew me away.' But they still didn't cast me. And then Alexander [Payne] did for Sideways and everything turned around."

Born in Chicago, Madsen was drawn to drama at school and from the age of 12 pursued it with a precocious tenacity. When she was old enough, she moved to Los Angeles to follow her dream. She quickly won her first role in 1983's teen sex romp Class opposite Rob Lowe, which called for full nudity, and she was subsequently naked in three more films. Understandably, Madsen's reputation - the hot blonde - was at odds with the one she idealised.

"I really hated all that. I wasn't comfortable with being called sexy. It had very little to do with who I was or my personality. I'm actually quite modest as a person. The funny thing now that I'm in my forties is that I'm not uncomfortable about that image at all. I love getting dressed up and that stuff. I work hard and I love what I see in the mirror. I've even heard Paris Hilton said I was hot."

What advice might she give the aspiring actress in Hilton? "What you do now will show later. Look, I will fight ageing every step of the way but I will do it through physical fitness and keeping my mind and body and spirit as healthy as I can be. I've been blessed with good genes."

Madsen will pass hers to son Jack, 12 (by her ex-boyfriend, model and actor Antonio Sabato Jr). "Antonio and I built new houses a block from each other, so if [Jack] is not with me, he's literally down the block."

As thrilled as she is about her career (she also has a voiceover business), Madsen seems happier out of the spotlight. "The mundane is the exotic to me. I love doing domestic things like cooking for the neighbourhood kids, just making a mess. I do feel like a juggler, though, like those old-fashioned guys who spun plates on a stick. Inevitably one or two will break but I do the best I can."

'The Number 23' opens on 23 February