Like a fine wine or a classic cigar, the sultry siren of Sideways - and Hollywood’s latest second-act superstar - just seems to get better with age.

By Joan Tarshis, Photos by Christopher Ameruoso

It’s a hazy, warm, June-gloom day in Los Angeles. For Virginia Madsen, the skies over her life are clear, and the forecast is busy. After an almost decade-long career deceleration, she’s rapidly gone from “What ever happened to... ?” status to “Get me Virginia Madsen.”

Today she’s sitting poolside at the Chateau Marmont (L.A.’s home away from home for the rich and famous), with her son Jack and her brother, fellow actor and Quentin Tarantino fave, Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2) nearby. Not too shabby an address for someone who could only get nibbles in B-films just a few years ago. Her dormant seasons began after Jack was born in 1994, when the exhaustion of being a single mother left her barely enough time to take care of the baby - much less to keep her body in the bombshell condition her fans had come to expect. She readily admits that both career and weight were spiraling in the wrong direction, despite the financial and emotional support she received from Jack’s father, actor Antonio Sabato, Jr., until she hired a trainer recommended by her ex. Madsen says she actually would have preferred to stay home and care for her son, would rather not have done some of the roles she was offered in that time - but in reality, she needed the money. “I was a single mother, so I had to go back to work, and I was sort of shocked to find that all the doors were closed,” she says. “I thought that didn’t happen until you hit 40. And of course, it’s funny - now that I am in my 40s, there’s an opening.”

If Madsen considers Sideways an opening door, the prior decade was a revolving one. When one performance would bring her close to acclaim, the next might move her further away. There were various roles on TV, including cast regular Rebecca Sandstrom on “American Dreams;” a part in Ghosts of Mississippi; and a string of B-grade, straight-to-video films, not quite up to the career-launching standards of 1984’s Electric Dreams and Dune. For awhile, she even taught art to children. The upshot was that Madsen was able to keep food on the table, but remained stuck in a professional limbo. Even being cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of John Grisham’s legal thriller, The Rainmaker, did not make her fallow career fertile again. Then, in 2004, writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt,) came to the rescue. He cast her as Maya in last year’s vintage comedy, Sideways, and suddenly Madsen found herself on Hollywood’s A-list, and eventually its even more-coveted double-A list - as in Academy Award-nominated.

That one break has fulfilled a desire she’s had as far back as she can remember. Her first stab as a thespian was as her brother’s assistant in magic shows the two would concoct for their family. “Anything creative was encouraged by our parents, especially our mother. I was always my brother’s assistant, which kind of aggravated me because I never got to wear the top hat,” she says. In high school, Madsen never hung with the cool kids, instead involving herself with acting projects. After graduating from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois (other graduates include Ralph Bellamy, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Hugh O’Brien, Ann-Margret, and Bruce Dern), she studied acting in Chicago with renowned coach Ted Liss, then moved to Hollywood.

In Sideways’ midlife-crisis-on-the-road storyline, Madsen’s Maya is the voice of sanity, if not sobriety. Along with Miles (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor, Cinderella Man), Jack (Thomas Hayden Church, George of the Jungle) and girlfriend Stephanie (Sandra Oh, Under the Tuscan Sun, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and soon to be ex-Mrs. Payne), Maya explores the seeds of budding, if Pinot-drenched, relationships. She learns life, like wine, can taste sweet one moment and then turn to vinegar the next.

Off-camera, the shoot in California’s wine country broadened Madsen’s knowledge of its local vineyards. She was an admitted wine lover before she got the role, but she’ll step up to the tasting bar and tell you, she’s no wine geek.

“I definitely haven’t gotten that far into it,” she admits. “I do know what I like, but I really believe that if someone becomes a wine ‘geek,’ they’re a wine snob. I think they get kind of stuck in their ways, and they may be missing out on some really good wine experiences. They might turn their nose up at a smaller winery or a wine that’s less expensive, but I just think you should always be exploring. You should never be set in your ways with anything. Always be exploring life.”

One wonders how much swilling, sniffing, and sipping was real during the shoot and how much was imitation imbibing.

“We weren’t actually drinking during the filming,” she assures me. “You really don’t want to start that at 7:30 in the morning. The fake wine we tried at first was out of the question after it started dyeing our teeth purple.” Aside from looking like aliens, she says the cast also couldn’t tolerate the steady sugar intake. That left the art department with the responsibility of inventing different blends of blueberries and grape juice. Cherry juice, she says, turned out to be a really good alternative, “though you couldn’t go super close-up with it because it does behave differently in the glass; it doesn’t have legs like wine does,” she says, in her best wine connoisseur voice. However even the juice concoctions could only go so far, and “fake drinking” proved to be the solution.

She demonstrates a phony gulp. “If you really make a big deal out of swallowing, they actually think you took it. So we started doing that. And then by the end of the day, we’d just totally drink real wine. And Alexander trusted that nobody was going to get drunk. You’d be out of your mind if you got drunk on an Alexander Payne set, you know what I mean? We were so glad to be there, we didn’t want to misbehave. But he knew that when it was appropriate to drink real wine - if it was important for the scene to get a nice warm feeling - then it was okay to do so. When we had the picnic, we had real wine there because that was the end of the day and we had about 15 minutes left of light. [Payne] sent us out to the end of the hill with a beautiful bottle of Pinot Noir and some glasses. It was totally appropriate to drink real wine at that moment.

“I also learned so much more about the subtleties of wine and how to articulate that. Basically, I just learned a lot of really good lingo. So I sound really good when I talk about it.” She smiles and adds, “[Now] I can go to wine tastings without getting drunk.”

Want more? For the remainder of this article, including more pictures and an in-depth interview, subscribe now - or pick up a copy of SMOKE Magazine at a Tobacconist near you!

SMOKE - Fall, 2005


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