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Though she spent the first two decades of her career languishing in small, thankless parts or leading roles in erotic thrillers, actor Virginia Madsen finally had the role of a lifetime with her subtle, touching portrayal of a waitress and wine connoisseur in Alexander Payne's critically acclaimed "Sideways" (2004). Nominated for her first Academy Award, Madsen earned a large degree of respectability that had previously been lacking despite a long and varied career in film and on television. Prior to "Sideways," she went back and forth between rather forgettable movies like "Zombie High" (1987) and "Hot to Trot" (1988) to more interesting small screen fare like "Third Degree Burn" (HBO, 1989) and "Blue Tiger" (HBO, 1994). A turn to series television in the late 1990s, including a co-hosting job on "Unsolved Mysteries" (CBS/NBC, 1988-1999), as well as recurring stints on "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) and "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004), helped Madsen branch out and put her talents on full display. But after "Sideways," she found herself at the top of her game, starring opposing top leading men like Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey, and finally enjoying the successful career many felt the actress had long...
Though she spent the first two decades of her career languishing in small, thankless parts or leading roles in erotic thrillers, actor Virginia Madsen finally had the role of a lifetime with her subtle, touching portrayal of a waitress and wine connoisseur in Alexander Payne's critically acclaimed "Sideways" (2004). Nominated for her first Academy Award, Madsen earned a large degree of respectability that had previously been lacking despite a long and varied career in film and on television. Prior to "Sideways," she went back and forth between rather forgettable movies like "Zombie High" (1987) and "Hot to Trot" (1988) to more interesting small screen fare like "Third Degree Burn" (HBO, 1989) and "Blue Tiger" (HBO, 1994). A turn to series television in the late 1990s, including a co-hosting job on "Unsolved Mysteries" (CBS/NBC, 1988-1999), as well as recurring stints on "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) and "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004), helped Madsen branch out and put her talents on full display. But after "Sideways," she found herself at the top of her game, starring opposing top leading men like Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey, and finally enjoying the successful career many felt the actress had long deserved.
Born on Sept. 11, 1963 in Winnetka, IL, Madsen was raised by her father, Cal, a fireman, and her mother, Elaine, an author, p t and Emmy-winning documentarian. Alongside her brother, Michael Madsen, who also became a popular actor, she studied dancing and acting throughout her childhood, while often serving as her brother's assistant when he performed magic shows for family. After graduating from New Trier High School, Madsen attended Northwestern University while taking summer classes in theater and drama. She further enhanced her training by attending the Ted Liss Acting Studio in Chicago and the Harand Camp Adult Theater Seminar in Elkhart Lake, WI. Madsen soon made her film debut with a small part in the teen sex comedy, "Class" (1983), starring Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, which she followed with a thankless performance as Princess Irulan in David Lynch's painful adaptation of "Dune" (1984). She had her first starring role in the sci-fi romantic comedy, "Electric Dreams" (1984), playing the object of affection for her nebbish neighbor (Lenny Von Dohlen).
At this early point in her career, Madsen gained attention playing glamorous companions of larger-than-life men in several made for television movies. In "The Hearst and Davies Affair" (ABC, 1985), she played actress Marion Davies to Robert Mitchum's newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Madsen next made for a golden blonde version of the historically dark and brooding Claretta Petacci opposite George C. Scott as the notorious fascist dictator in the three-part miniseries "Mussolini: The Untold Story" (NBC, 1985). Following a supporting turn in "Creator" (1985), she starred as a student at a Catholic boarding school who runs away with an escaped convict (Craig Sheffer) from a nearby prison in the romantic drama "Fire with Fire" (1986). Though she was game for playing a tough-as-nails beauty queen in "Long Gone" (HBO, 1987), a well regarded comedy-drama about a minor league baseball team in the 1950s, Madsen suffered the ignominy of starring in the schlocky "Zombie High" (1987) while appearing all-too-briefly as a murder victim in Wayne Wang's strange mystery, "Slam Dance" (1987).
Though she was working consistently, Madsen's career was littered with roles in uneven and occasionally downright bad movies. She had a bit of an uptick with a commendable performance opposite Anthony Edwards in "Mr. North" (1988), directed by her then-husband Danny Huston, whom she divorced in 1992. Following having the embarrassing distinction of playing Bobcat Goldthwaith's love interest in "Hot to Trot" (1988), Madsen played the sister of Maddy Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) in a couple of 1989 episodes of "Moonlighting" (ABC, 1985-89). She ventured into more provocative territory with "Third Degree Burn" (HBO, 1989), a steamy erotic thriller opposite Treat Williams, and playing a simmering and stylishly bored Texas housewife who ensnares drifter (Don Johnson) in actor-director Dennis Hopper's cult classic, "The Hot Spot" (1990). After appearing in one of the worst movie sequels of all time, "Highlander II: The Quickening" (1991), she had perhaps one of her best feature role at this point in "Candyman" (1992), a superior Clive Barker adaptation in which she played a graduate student whose life is transformed while studying urban folklore in a Chicago housing project. The film provided Madsen a rare opportunity to create a character that was bright and curious, allowing her to delve a little deeper into her acting repertoire.
Though she had found a niche with erotic thrillers like "Caroline at Midnight" (1993) and moody neo-noirs like the made-for-cable movie "Linda" (USA Network, 1993), Madsen yearned for more challenging projects from producers and directors willing to overlook her beauty. She next played an average mom who takes it upon herself to avenge her son's murder by the hand of the notorious crime organization, the Yakuza, in "Blue Tiger" (HBO, 1994), which she followed with a limited turn as an elementary school teacher caught in a battle between two angels (Christopher Walken and Eric Stoltz) on Earth in "The Prophecy" (1995). She finally began landing films with a bit more heft, like Rob Reiner's "Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996) and Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of John Grisham's legal potboiler "The Rainmaker" (1997), though in both she was limited to small supporting parts. Following the little-seen crime thriller "Ambushed" (1998), she joined Brooke Shields and Maria Pitillo for the easygoing relationship dramedy, "After Sex" (1999). Madsen next had a rather forgettable role in Jan de Bont's equally forgettable version of Shirley Jackson's supernatural thriller, "The Haunting" (1999).
While seemingly relegated to made-for-television fare and forgettable movies, Madsen found temporary refuge on series television, which provided a welcome showcase for her talents. After serving as the co-host of "Unsolved Mysteries" (CBS/NBC, 1988-1999) alongside the veteran actor Robert Stack, she spent several episodes of "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004) as one of two paramours vexing the indecisive Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). Madsen next enjoyed a rich recurring role on the legal drama "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2001), playing a political candidate's wife on trial for murder. In her first regular series role, she appeared for a season as Rebecca Sandstorm, the small town book club member who dares introduce radical, progressive reading material on the short-term hit nostalgia drama series "American Dreams" (NBC, 2002-05). Madsen's career finally blossomed when Alexander Payne cast her for his comic road movie, "Sideways" (2004). The actress shined as Maya, a warmhearted waitress who takes a liking to the despondently neurotic Miles (Paul Giamatti) while he is in Napa Valley celebrating the impending nuptials of his frat boy-like best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church). Her winning performance revitalized her career and earned critical plaudits, as she was bestowed with a Best Supporting Actress statue at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.
With her career finally on an upswing and her name a known commodity, Madsen played the kidnapped wife of a security expert (Harrison Ford) forced to divulge the workings of a system protecting a bank in "Firewall" (2006), before joining the ensemble cast for "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), Robert Altman's fictional take on Garrison Keillor's long-running radio program starring Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly and Lily Tomlin. Taking a break from film, Madsen returned to television with "Smith" (CBS, 2006), a big-budget heist procedural told from the perspective of a crew of thieves. She played the wife of the crew's leader (Ray Liotta), a cold and calculating mastermind looking to make a few last scores before retiring. Though the series was cancelled shortly after it premiered, Madsen had received solid reviews for her work.
Showcasing her versatility, Madsen resumed her big screen career with roles in "The Number 23" (2007), a poorly-reviewed psychological thriller about a man (Jim Carrey) obsessed with an obscure book who is convinced it is based on his own life, and "The Astronaut Farmer" (2007), a comedy about a former NASA astronaut (Billy Bob Thorton), who still wants to travel into space and builds a rocket ship inside his barn to fulfill his dream. Turning to independent films, she co-starred in "Diminished Capacity" (2008), playing the high school sweetheart of a man (Matthew Broderick) who suffers amnesia after a blow to the head and embarks on a road trip to make a fortune selling a rare baseball card. Madsen returned to the schlock horror genre that plagued her early career with "The Haunting in Connecticut" (2009), a cliché-ridden entry to a tired genre. Back on television once more, she had a recurring role as the love interest to Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) on the long-running dramedy, "Monk" (USA Network, 2002-09). She next starred as the matriarch of a criminal family who hopes to mend their ways after the father goes to jail in "Scoundrels" (ABC, 2010).
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"This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You work your entire life as an actor to have a single moment of creative freedom like that. It's like I just closed my eyes and drove off the cliff."---Virginia Madsen on her role in "Sideways" to Venice, December 2004/January 2005.
"There was no research for me to do with Maya," says Madsen. "I understand about having a divorce and what it takes to crawl out from underneath [and] come out the other side."---Virginia Madsen on the character she portrayed in "Sideways to Entertainment Weekly, December 31, 2004.
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