Interview: 'I Know A Woman Like That' Mother/Daughter Team Elaine & Virginia Madsen Talk Female Power And Past Work

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Nothing projects the power of strong women more than a doc dedicated to remarkable females doing amazing things in their latter years – except of course if the film in question is also helmed by a talented mother/daughter team.  Directed by Emmy Award winner Elaine Madsen and executive produced by her Oscar-nominated daughter Virginia Madsen, the new doc entitled "I Know A Woman Like That" (out now on DVD and Digital HD from Virgil Films) showcases a slew of exceptional women from various backgrounds – from actress Rita Moreno to women’s rights icon Gloria Steinem - living life to the fullest well into their sixties, seventies and beyond all sharing their personal tales of triumph.  The film is a real passion project for the Madsen team and truly celebrates extraordinary women who firmly put to rest the idea that age should slow anyone down.  We jumped at the chance to chat with Elaine and Virginia one-on-one all about their long overdue doc that highlights wonderful women of note and we were happy to delve a bit deeper into the makings of it.  But seeing as how we’re also firm movie geeks too, we couldn’t pass up the chance to also talk to the uber-talented Virginia about some of her tasty past work as well.  (So many amazing performances, so little time!)  So what follows is some doc chat with mother and daughter, followed by some thorough career interview style Q&A with Virginia involving some of our film favorites – from "Electric Dreams" to "Candyman" – to make our celebration coverage just a little more special.  True talented women ‘like that’ in their own right, here are…

 

ELAINE & VIRGINIA MADSEN  

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Elaine having made the Emmy-winning doc "Better Than It Has To Be" what inspired you to take on the subject of powerful women in "I Know A Woman Like That?"

Elaine Madsen: It was really Virginia nagging me to get behind the camera again! (Virginia laughs) I had turned more to writing plays and books and poetry, but I never really found another subject that took my interest.  So I gave myself permission to go through what you have to go through to make a documentary.

Virginia Madsen: It was a very long process, but I thought this one will be worth it.  I just grew so much myself from meeting the women and finding the women.  And I was so inspired by my mother all my life and there is no one else who could have directed this film or posed the questions to the other women like that.  I wanted to find out what was their secret and how they felt about aging and was there something they all had in common.

I was fascinated by the all-inspiring Lucille Borgen Water Ski Champion – besides an everlasting inner spirit what is her secret?

EM: She was just kind of fearless - she started it when most people were giving it up. There was nobody her age to compete with, so she was just was competing against the clock.  She had been a woman who was curious about things all her life and the attitude she had is an attitude that I would have to say all the women had which is 'I’m not done yet.'

VM: And with all the women it seemed like there was no other way to be – this is just who they were from a young age.  An interesting story about Lucille is since we’ve made the film Lucille has passed away, but a year after we made the movie she decided to stop water skiing and she moved to a house in Cabo because she wanted to learn to scuba dive - which she did at ninety-seven.  So she passed away pursing a new sport, which I think is truly incredible.

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Having interviewed such iconic actresses like Rita Moreno and Lauren Hutton what did you personally take away from the experience as an equally talented actress yourself Virginia?

VM: I felt so excited about life – I loved their passion.  And I loved their ability to still dive in the deep end of the pool and how curious they all were.  It really convinced me there was so much to look forward to in life.  Also the importance of not wasting time on useless things like worrying too much, so it propelled me forward in a very positive way.   

Elaine, I noticed the film is dedicated to Dorothy Tolifson - who was she and how did she inspire "I Know A Woman Like That?"

VM: She was a woman I met on a bus going to a march in Washington.  I was already seated on the bus and I looked out the door and there was a woman that I thought was old and she was wearing red Chinese pajamas and a big red hat and I just thought I want to know that woman.  So we became friends and she died in her nineties, but as time went by she just seemed to get younger because she was so well read, she was politically active and she cared about what was going on in the world.  She was a mentor for me and I was at a terrible loss when she died – she was the woman ‘like that’ that inspired me to want to do the film.

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Through making the film what would you say Virginia inspired you most about your mom as a woman?

VM: Well, I always thought my mother was so brave and she could embrace change and could celebrate every new chapter in her life.  She decided to purse screenwriting and she dove into that and did it so well.  She wrote a book and not too long ago she fell in love and got married, so she’s always been someone with great passion and a wonderfully positive outlook on life against all odds.  So I try to emulate that and I wanted to be able to share that with an audience.

Virginia, I loved that you went back and interviewed your High School drama teacher Suzanne Adams.  What was it about her that made you want to become an actor in the first place?

VM: She saw something in me and she believed me when I said that I wanted to be a professional actor.  She knew that was possible for me and she encouraged me.  I think everybody has that one teacher that was so great that they’ll always remember and she was so passionate about life and she loved teaching.  It’s not an easy thing when you’re teaching teenagers who are basically hormonal insane beings (laughs) and we were able to stay in touch and I knew she had become a woman ‘like that’, so we traveled to where she lived.  And then the two of them were lying on the floor having this incredible conversation and I was like ‘FILM IT!’  (They both laugh)  She still has an extraordinary spirit just as she did back then.

I want to start off the past work portion here by asking you Elaine – what is your favorite film performance of Virginia’s?

EM: Well, I have two.  "Sideways" of course is extraordinary and I was with her on the morning when we got the news.  But there’s a little film she did call "Walter" in which she has an Oscar moment.  It just didn’t have a big circulation, but the arc she has in that scene where she is just transformed from one kind of a person to a totally other liberated person, that’s one I just really love.

VM: Thanks mom – I like that movie too!

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So, past work Virginia.  As a kid "Electric Dreams" to me seemed like a cool romance concept involving computers before they became huge – what was your take on the film when you read the script?

VM: I just though it was a wonderful love story.  I thought it was a little Cyrano and technology still fascinates me and that was a time when it was just beginning to invade our homes.  Also, AI fascinates me and the idea of what would happen if a computer got mad at you and of course back then not much.  Can you imagine if a computer gained its own intelligence and got made at you – the computer could wreak havoc on your life!  That’s always interesting and as a matter of fact, I gained the rights to "Electric Dreams" because I wanted to see if I could remake the film and because of the technology we have today I think it could be really fascinating.  So I had three different versions of the script, but it was going to be an expensive film so eventually I gave up on it.  I tried for three years to get it made and I just thought well it’s still not the right time, so I let it go.

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You worked early on with David Lynch on "Dune."  As that was very early in his career as well what was he like as a director at the time?

VM: He was really fascinating.  That was my first Hollywood film and it was an excellent first job because it was a really big movie with big stars and I didn’t have to do much except sit around and watch.  But I still was considered one of the leads of the movie, so I was treated really well and in the inner circle.  And after we finished shooting, like the book I originally narrated the whole film.  So David would bring me to Mexico to the studio so that I could add the next bit of narration and I got to watch the orchestra record the music to the picture, I got to watch him edit – the way they used to with film – and I got to watch a lot of scenes that never ended up in the movie and just be there with him and watch.  So I consider that a great privilege – he was a fascinating man to me.  He was intelligent and always calm. He was always calm.

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"Fire with Fire" was a much more raw and real Romeo and Juliet for the angst-ridden teen crowd – what was your experience like making that film?

VM: I sure wish that "Electric Dreams" and "Fire With Fire" would come out on DVD.

Yeah – let’s get a special edition going with your commentary!

VM: Yeah!  The rights for "Fire With Fire" probably reverted to some unknown person and don’t belong to the studio anymore because more people ask me about that movie than any other movie I’ve made.  It was a great experience and I did it right after "Creator" and it was in a beautiful place in Vancouver and we really had a wonderful time.  And it didn’t do well – it was only in the theater for a couple of weeks.  But when it came out in the video store it had a wonderful life there and it loomed on cable TV and on tape for a very, very long time and that’s what I think made it memorable.  

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I was always fascinated by the early gritty work of Wayne Wang like "Slam Dance" and "Life is Cheap, But Toilet Paper is Expensive," who then when on to make more feel good style dramas like "The Joy Luck Club."  Having been the female muse for "Slam Dance" – your black dress-wearing image on the film poster is forever ingrained in my brain – what was Wayne like as a director in those early days?

VM: He was very new – I think that was probably his first American film.  I remember he was very shy about his English, which seemed fine to me and he was very kind to me. This was the first time they every dressed me up like Marilyn.  I went in to audition for the ex-wife I think and when I went in I said, ‘I want to play the dead girl.’  And so they were very surprised and said, ‘Okay.’  So then it started this whole transformation of dying my hair and adding all the hair pieces and sewing me into this dress and I was having to walk on very high heels.  And when I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself – it was very strange to look like that.  I mean I was the girl next door and all of a sudden I was so glamorous and tragic.  And I was only in three scenes in that movie and Tom Hulce of course was Amadeus and was nominated for an Academy Award and it was his movie and then a year later suddenly I’m this gigantic billboard on Sunset Blvd and I was like, what?!  And then of course I underestimated the power of my sexuality and the power of that kind of imagery – I didn’t really understand how that was perceived.  And it became almost impossible to move away from that image because it was very effective and very powerful.  So everybody wanted me to be the beautiful young victim or the femme fatal – that look was what people wanted me to look like.  And I think my failure to understand that caused me to struggle quite a bit because I’d never learned how to wield that power.  Like much in the same way Sharon Stone did in that movie, she knew how to take that image and turn it into a position of power.  I just didn’t connect with that at all – maybe that was a better thing.

I think it was better – you went on to do a ton more amazing movies!

VM: Right.

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Now, I love the noir qualities of the hidden gem flick "The Hot Spot" you did with Don Johnson and they seem right out of the head of Director Dennis Hopper – what was it like working with him but as a director?

VM: I remember that he was so cool – he was like you’d imagine him to be.  He had incredible stories and he was very laid back and he had a very specific vision of what he wanted to do with the film and most of the time Don did not agree with that vision.  I just remember going to the dailies in a movie theater and the images were just so stunning.  It was really amazing to watch him work and to have the privilege of knowing him for a time.  I remember when I saw the film I ran out and I started crying because I thought I was so terrible and that it was the worst performance that I’d ever done – I was so deeply embarrassed.  I was truly upset and I had watched myself in plenty of movies, you know?  I wasn’t one of those actors who cringe at themselves and Dennis was like, ‘You don’t get it.  You don’t understand your own power.’  And he goes, ‘In about ten years you will.’  And he was right! It took me a long time to understand what I was doing.

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While the character of Candyman went on to make some so-so sequels, the first film remains a classic.  Did you have any idea making that film that the character of Daniel Robitaille aka Candyman would become a horror icon?

VM: I think I did, yes.  I think a lot of films can take you by surprise with their success, but I think there was such powerful imagery and he was like Dracula.  He was an iconic horror figure in the way that he was so romantic and poetic and he was an artist and he was beautifully dressed and he could hypnotize you and take your life.  All these things that make a great horror figure because Dracula, Frankenstein and even the Wolfman you always kind of loved them and you felt their pain even though they were serial killers.  Later on in "Jason Goes To Hell" I mean nobody likes Jason, but they secretly rooted for him to just kill more.  (Laughs)  So I was hoping that’s what would happen and I guess when I was little I wished that I had made a Christmas movie like "It’s A Wonderful Life" that would be on every year in the holiday season, but instead I’m in one of the greatest horror films that reappears every Halloween!  (Laughs)  

sideways

I so loved that the leading man of "Sideways" played by the amazing Paul Giamatti was the average guy whose charisma comes from within – can you talk a bit about how the natural seeming chemistry between you two came to be and your scenes together?

VM: I know that there was some question for the higher ups for a period of time because they did not understand why Alexander wanted to pair me with Paul.  And everyone was cast except for me and I just new that I was going to have chemistry with that man – I just knew it.  I kept saying just put me in a room with him and you’ll see it will make sense.  So I waited and waited two months and I figured they were seeing other people and I just kind of let it go.  A lot of times I’m not the first choice – especially when it comes to the money people.  I’m never their first choice.  And I know that they pretty much could have their pick of actresses to play Maya and I know a lot of actresses who were pursuing that role.  But Alexander stood his ground and I know he fought for me because he knew it too – he knew it would be excellent casting.  So sure enough from the moment we met there it was.  Thing is you can’t act chemistry – it’s either there or it’s not. And we really had it.

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Finally "Prairie Home Companion" was the last film directed by the late great Robert Altman – how was that experience for you working with Robert?

VM: Oh god, that was like breathing rarefied air.  Everyone would come in and just stay in that theater all day long and not leave until they made us leave just because it was so beautiful to be around him.  Paul Thomas Anderson was there kind of co-directing, but on the back of his chair it said pinch hitter because they wouldn’t insure Altman because of his transplants and he was going through Chemotherapy.  Paul was there just in case and he was a great admirer of Bob’s.  So I was brought in every morning, because he never really knew where he wanted to put the angel, so I was brought in half in makeup and hair just so I would be ready.  Sometimes he’d throw me in and I’d be standing somewhere looking angelic and then he would decide it didn’t work and he would take me out.  But he always wanted the option of having the angel around and so I would spend my days sitting next to him watching him direct.  And sometimes he would stop and look at me and we would look at each other and he would look at me for a full three-four minutes and he would turn around and continue.  And I wasn’t sure whether he was going to say something, but those were extraordinary moments – like he was studying me.  And everyone had these big colorful characters and he just sort of let the actors play, but with me he was very specific about every move I made and how I was to move very slowly.  So I felt like I was robotic and I thought everyone else is having so much fun and I thought I was very strange compared to the everyone.  But I finally said, ‘You know Bob, I’m just kind of wondering…everyone else is very animated and you always want me to be moving so slowly – can you tell me why?’  And he said, ‘Well that’s easy – it’s because you’re dead!’  (Laughs)  And I said, ‘Oh! Yes, of course I am.  I’m an angel and dead and from now on I will continue to do whatever you tell me to do and I will not question you!’            

What’s next for you both?

VM: Elaine’s new thing is she is the editor-in-chief of Felix Magazine, which is an online magazine.  And I am shooting a series called "American Gothic" for CBS a new show that starts June 22 and it’s a 13-part murder mystery.  Somebody in the show is a serial killer and nobody knows who.  Even I don’t know, but I hope it turns out to be me.

 

"I KNOW A WOMAN LIKE THAT" IS AVAILABLE ON BOTH DVD AND DIGITAL HD NOW FROM VIRGIL FILMS.

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