Virginia Madsen said: “it’s always about evolving and learning to fly.” An actress with astonishing range and a touch of timeless glamour, Madsen’s talents didn’t hit center stage until later in life. A native Chicagoan and the daughter of an Emmy-award winning poet and playwright, Madsen packed in over two decades and 40 TV and film roles with some of the biggest stars in the business before she finally hit her stride with her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated performance in the film “Sideways.”
Several films followed suit, including roles in “The Astronaut Farmer” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” until her role as Charlotte in Rob Reiner’s recently released “The Magic of Belle Isle.” Madsen plays a middle-aged woman with two daughters who emotionally shuts down her life until an older man named Monte (Morgan Freeman) moves into the house next door. Their unlikely but uplifting coupling unfolds as both Charlotte and Monte rekindle dormant passions and inspire one another to re-engage in life.
“I’ve always admired her work over the years,” said Rob Reiner, who cast her in his latest film “The Magic of Belle Isle.” “She’s one of those really talented actresses who’s done extraordinary work for so many years but just doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.”
•• I read that you’re the first actress to kiss Morgan Freeman on screen.
- I’m definitely the first to have had a romantic love story with him.
•• You had to fight for your role in “Sideways.” How did this role come about?
- I would have thought that I would’ve had to fight, but I just got a phone call from my agent saying that Rob Reiner wanted me for his next film. I almost fell over. I love working with Rob. And I was floored again when he said that Morgan Freeman was playing the lead and that I’d be his leading lady. Then Rob said, “I think it’s kind of a love story, but you read the script and let me know.” I read it and cried like a baby. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have been asked to do this.
•• The film doesn’t focus on the differences between you and Morgan Freeman: Age, race or physical disabilities. There’s a purity to the connection between you two.
- Yeah. We’re just two human beings falling in love. We don’t think about our race. We don’t think about the difference in our age. We don’t think about his disability. We just think about the two people we are. That’s how much sense it makes. That’s how right their love story is. Nothing else matters.•• What was it like to work with Morgan Freeman? He seems like an imposing person.
- Oh, he’s absolutely the opposite of imposing. And I’m sure he could impose. He is God, after all. But he is a very elegant man. And he’s very poetic. It was really a joy to be around him and we had really strong chemistry between us. We felt very natural together.
•• In the film you play a woman with three daughters who’s re-booting her life after a divorce. She’s grappling with a lot of mid-life transitions. What sort of personal transitions have you faced as an actress since you hit 50?
- I just keep feeling better. My mother told me something many years ago when I was asking her about aging. She said, “remember this: when you’re in your 40s, you’re free. When you’re in your 50s, you fly.” And for me, that’s true. I think we all get better with age. We get smarter. Personally, I’ve never felt more beautiful. I’ve never felt more strong physically. I’m definitely smarter. I’m definitely better in bed.
I’m also very, very into taking care of my body. I’m very into Bikram Yoga. I’m very aware of things that are starting to go wrong. When you’re 35, you need to figure out what kind of 50 year old you want to be. Now that I’m 50, I’m thinking about what kind of 70 year old I want to be. I don’t want to be walking around with a cane. I don’t want to be negotiating too much weight. I want to be strong, lean and mean. Right now, I am. And I think it’s important to realize that if you don’t grab on to life, you’re just going to be left behind. And there’s no excuse for doing that. There’s none. Some people have to deal with really deep tragedies, so how can I complain about being 50? How can I complain when I see people overcoming such tremendous adversity?
•• Did you rediscover a physical connection to your body later in life, or were you always into your body growing up?
- No. I wasn’t an athlete growing up. I was into dance, but I wasn’t a ballerina. It was something that I discovered after 35, which is a hell of a time to discover it and very difficult. So I always have to trick myself into doing a lot of different kinds of things. I try to do something three times a week, whether it’s doing yoga, spinning, or going on a hike. I’ll always do something to raise my heart rate and sweat three times a week without fail. And if I don’t, I try not to get mad at myself. Because we’re too hard on ourselves as women. We’re way too hard on ourselves with stuff like that. We also have to love ourselves and be gentle.
•• Speaking of women being hard on themselves, what do you think about the roles in Hollywood for women over 50?
- This is probably the first year that I’ve been very discouraged. I’ve had great roles, so I’m not complaining. And I’ve always been such an optimist about our industry. But I’m very sad about the state of American film. It really makes me sad to see how television is unraveling and how hard it is to get financing for independent films like “The Magic of Belle Isle.” It’s also hard to get distribution. You might be able to scramble and somehow get the money and make a film, but to get it distributed is another battle. The more I got into producing, the more I started really understanding the state of financing and the more deeply discouraged I got.
I hope things will turn around. They certainly have on cable for women. They’re still telling our stories there. But if I go up for a part, it is usually not age-specific. They’ll call in everyone from age 35 to 60 to 65. They can have any female they want because the competition is so tough. There was a movie recently where I was up against Queen Latifah. She got the part and I was like, OK, I was happy for the Queen, but I was also pissed off. Because there was this long list of all of us who were being compared for one role. It was insane.
•• Like a cattle call?
- Yes, it was a cattle call. But I’m blessed and I feel very fortunate that I got this role. I know there was probably somebody else who was mad about that, but I’m sure glad that I was the one.
•• Did your mother have anything inspiring or wise to say about one’s 60s?
- I’ve got to ask her again. I do feel differently about that number. I’m not at all sure how I feel about 60. My sister, on the other hand, just turned 60. She told me that it’s kind of excellent. She said, “I don’t feel any different and I thought I would.” So she was very encouraging about it. And my mom just turned 80 and she and her husband celebrated their one-year anniversary. They fell in love and got married. Like totally romantic love.
•• Your mother and her current husband met and fell in love in their late 70s?
- Yes. In their seventies. They both just got married and they both just turned 80.
•• So there is a God after all?
- Yes, there is a God who wants us to be happy. There’s a lot to look forward to.