Versatility of roles is a feat most Hollywood actresses can only dream of. Very rarely are actresses able to break down the barriers of Hollywood typecasting and transcend roles, each more different from the next. Vivacious and always unique, actress Virginia Madsen has done just that. From her Independent Spirit Award-winning performance in 2004’s hit Sideways, which helped turn us all into seasoned oenophiles, to her latest project, The Magic of Belle Isle, which shows us the softer side of Morgan Freeman, Madsen’s résumé boasts incredible costars, fantastic directors, and remarkable individuality.
Born in Evergreen Park and raised on the North Shore, Virginia and her equally talented family members have been making “Madsen” a household name since the early ’80s. Her mother is director Elaine Madsen, while brother/actor Michael Madsen is notably remembered for his role as “Mr. Blonde” in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 hit Reservoir Dogs.
On the North Shore & Chicago
“I lived in Evanston up until high school. Then I moved to Wilmette, Winnetka, and then back to Evanston—we moved a lot. I think the thing that I miss the most [about the North Shore] are the trees. I miss the foliage, the beautiful, giant, towering trees on the North Shore. That drive up Sheridan Road, I mean, almost any time I come to Chicago, I rent a car and just drive up as far north as I can on Sheridan Road, as much as I have time for, just so that I can see the big houses and the trees. The drive along the lake, I just love it there so much.
What makes Chicago such a great city is its design. It’s always been a haven for architects to have creative and artistic freedom. I think we have the most beautiful skyline in the United States. Do I sound homesick? I’m a little bit homesick today. My dad is still out there in Oak Lawn, so I try and get back whenever possible. My friend Rusty Schwimmer just moved back to Chicago, so at least there’s another reason to visit [Chicago]. She’s my best friend; we went to New Trier together.”
On New Trier
“It was like going to a prep school. There was a lot of competition, and it was the best education you could get, but hard, because I was really a square peg. What I did get from New Trier was the sense of self-discipline. I think that first off it’s difficult because it’s a huge school; I mean, it is an enormous student body.
The arts were so well funded. That’s what was really great about being at that school. There was this tremendous theater, and we rented our costumes from a Broadway costume house. We had makeup artists. The productions were huge.
I had this amazing teacher, Suzanne Adams. She is still my friend. She is just an amazing person and teacher who recognized my struggle. She recognized how special I was, and she let me know that I was beautiful on the inside and out, at a time when I was really being harassed and bullied and ostracized. As much as I struggled in that school, you know, socially, I had some incredible guidance from Suzanne and from The Center of Self-Directed Learning. That place was such a home for me, and I could be a total hippie and a complete artist, and they welcomed me there.”
All in the family
“We were all performers; my mother just wouldn’t let us do anything professional. We could do whatever we wanted in the backyard and in the living room. We could do as many homemade plays and shows as we wanted. So we were very much encouraged to be performers because we were really good at it, but she wouldn’t allow us to be in the business. She said you have to graduate high school and you have to go to college; you have to go to acting school.
When I got nominated for the Academy Award, [my brother] Michael was one of the first people to call me, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, Gina, we got nominated.’ Like as if it happened to him. I don’t know, maybe it would be different if I had a sister who was an actress, but I doubt it. We had a really good mom.”
“I just thought that it was a really beautiful supporting role. Sandra [Oh] and I both thought the same the way; we’re there to be the catalyst for change, we’re there to create conflict in the story. And, we’re very much supporting roles, especially when you would see those guys [Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church] work together and how amazing they are. My character [Maya] was so quiet; she was just a very quiet, gentle, understanding woman. She was a lot like I was at that time, and so I felt very certain that this part was mine. I felt kind of like he [director and screenwriter Alexander Payne] crawled inside my head and wrote it, ’cause it sounded like me. It was really uncanny.
I fought to get that role. They [the studio] wanted a name; business-wise it made sense, but Alexander said, ‘Fine, I won’t make it with you then; I want Virginia.’ Anytime something really good has happened in my career, it’s because somebody fought for me. He did and that turned out to be my big break—at 40!”
And, of course, Merlot
“This is the joke of the movie that no one caught, you know that prized wine in the movie? The’61 Cheval Blanc? That’s a Merlot! The great thing about that movie [Sideways] is that it changed the whole world of wine. It’s amazing that it changed something culturally.”
On kissing Morgan Freeman
“[The Magic of Belle Isle] is coming out in July. That’s right next to Sideways to me, that was so, so fun [to make]. And it’s a love story, you know? Morgan has never played a romantic lead. I get to kiss him and everything—it was excellent! If you saw me right now, I’m turning bright red. That man is so handsome. It was very natural because we fit together so well. We had excellent chemistry, and he’s so romantic that I had no problem going in for it. It’s a really beautiful movie.”
On staying ageless in young Hollywood
“Hot yoga. I’ve now been physically fit for about 12 years, and I think the key to whatever you do is consistency. I spent a lot of years lifting weights, and I also like Pilates. I like everything, but I find that at this stage in my life that Bikram yoga is the most fulfilling and beneficial workout. I have a lot more aches, pains, and herniated discs, so when I’m working out in a heated room, everything opens up and I don’t get hurt. I think that one of the benefits of getting older is that you start loving yourself more and that’s one of things that yoga brings.”
Advice for fellow working moms
“When they’re little, if you give all your focus to your child, then your career suffers, but if you give your focus to your career, your child suffers. It’s trying to keep all the plates in the air. It’s trying to divide yourself between all of these places and people. You have to ask for help. You have to be willing to say I need your help. Whether you’re a single mother or married, you must ask for assistance from everyone in your life. Don’t try and look like Superwoman.”