Michael Madsen gets tough as Kilowog in Green Lantern: First Flight. The actor sat down with Warner Bros. Home Video to discuss the project. Read on to see what he had to say.
What did you see in Kilowog and how did you try to portray those characteristics?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I liked the idea that Kilowog was forceful, yet has a gentle nature. I’m often thought of as playing villainous characters in movies. Everyone forgets that I was the father in Free Willy – they only like to remember that I cut off a policeman’s ear in Reservoir Dogs. There’s me in the middle somewhere and I think that’s kind of like Kilowog, He’s dangerous, yet he has a heart. That’s what attracted me to the part.
Also, I was quite humbled by being asked to play Kilowog in the first place. I don’t often get asked to voice animated characters, and I’ve always wanted to do something like that – it’s great fun for me.
Do you have a real-life human character that you possibly inspired your portrayal of Kilowog?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I guess, perhaps, I thought of my father. My father a very forceful man, a bit of a brute, and stubborn. Yet I remember when my first son was born and my father met me at the airport, and I let him hold the boy. I saw a little tear come down from his eye. It was one of the only times I ever saw him break emotionally – and I knew there was something in there.
Kilowog uses the word “poozer” frequently in describing other individuals in a variety of situations. Can you define that word by Kilowog’s standards?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I’ve heard that it’s closely associated with somewhat of a bungler or a misfit or someone who’s annoying … to put it mildly (laughs).
Was there anything particularly special or enticing about playing Kilowog?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I don’t want to go off here into another planet, but when I was younger, I read a biography of James Cagney and he said that if you ever play a dark character, you need to find something noble within that guy; and if you ever play someone who’s very noble, you need to find something dark within him. Otherwise, your character’s going to be one-dimensional. I knew exactly what he was talking about, even though I was probably about 14, and it’s always stuck with me. Having a character with duality always appeals to me – I never like to do something straight down the road.
You do bounce between playing the hero and the villain – is there a common thread between those two sides of the coin?
MICHAEL MADSEN: For a long time, I was pretty much pigeonholed into playing the bad guy. Recently, I did a couple of movies that kind of changed that dynamic. We shot “Strength and Honor” in Ireland and I played an Irish-American prizefighter who unintentionally kills someone in the ring and promises his family that he will never box again. Then he finds out that his son is dying of a terrible illness and the only way to get the money they need is to get back in the ring. I really think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever been involved in and it gave me a chance to completely go the other way. The guy really has a very deep conscience and an incredible set of values.
Then I did a cop picture with Darryl Hannah called “Vice,” where I played a pretty disturbed guy whose wife is killed and he’s a drunk – he’s a vice cop and he’s just really not in a good mood. And again, it’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever made. So when you take “Strength and Honor” and you take “Vice,” it’s kind of the bookends of Michael Madsen – as a person and, in a lot of ways, of my career. And it’s an interesting kind of a place to be. I don’t know why it took so long, but, little by little, I’m starting to get to play some really interesting parts. Coming in and doing something like Kilowog is part of my moving into a place where I’ve wanted to be for a long time.
Your sister Virginia Madsen has played in the Warner Bros. animated world several times, including on the last DCU animated original movie, Wonder Woman. Did she offer any tips about recording for the DC Universe?
MICHAEL MADSEN: Virginia mentioned that she had been around and had a really good time with you guys. My sister was doing singing telegrams when I was stealing cars, so we had a bit of a different upbringing. She had a little head start on me in the business – taking a lot of voice classes and voice lessons and she’s very well studied and did a lot of theater and things I was never able to do. I’m very enamored of her and her talents. I hope she behaved herself and I hope you guys were nice to her. I’m sure you were, or I would have heard about it. Gotta be the big brother, you know.
Virginia told us that the first time she felt sibling rivalry was when you got a role before she did. Your thoughts?
MICHAEL MADSEN: That’s true. I went to New York for a while, but ended up in LA. I had 400 bucks and I checked into the Saharan motel. I looked in the newspaper and I got a job at the Union 76 gas station at Crescent Heights and Little Santa Monica, right in the middle of Beverly Hills. I’d watched “The Beverly Hillbillies” on TV, and that’s all I knew about it. I was pumping gas and changing flat tires and driving the wrecker, and everybody came in there – good lord, it was Jack Lemmon and Cicely Tyson, Peter Falk and Warren Beatty. These people would just come in there for gas, and I’d be squeegying their windows, looking in and thinking, “Oh, my God, it’s him.” Fred Astaire came in there on Christmas Eve in a Mercedes with a flat tire. He just got out – he was only about this big (holding his hand chest high) – and he gave me a hundred dollar bill and then just walked away. I was making $2,50 an hour. What I’m trying to say is, I got thrown into Hollywood without really knowing it. So I finally went for an audition for “St. Elsewhere” and, as I was going to go to work afterwards, I had my Union 76 outfit on – with “Mike” on the chest. I went in and read for the part, and then I went to work. When I got there, my boss says, “Mike, you got a phone call from an agent or something like that – why didn’t you tell us you were an actor?” I’d been there for about nine months, and I was thinking it was none of his business. And then he says, “Listen kid, let me tell you something: you better make up your mind what you want to do, because we need you around here. You know what the chances are of you becoming an actor and being a success in
Hollywood?” And I’m like, “Well, I hadn’t really thought of it.” And he says, “About 10 million to 1.” And I said, “Well, thanks for the encouragement.” (he laughs) Anyway, I needed a couple days off to go do the show, so he let me do it.
I do remember that Virginia was not very happy about that, but that was a long time ago and I’ve made about 124 pictures now. I don’t know how many she’s made, but I think being nominated for an Academy Award, well, she’s kind of bumped me off. I mean, she used to be my sister – now I’m Virginia Madsen’s brother. It ain’t over yet though, Virginia (he laughs).
How did this voice acting experience differ from your past voiceover jobs?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I used to think when you came in to do a voice, you had to make up something with your voice. For this film, I was just myself. I brought my Michael into it. It was a lot easier and it made more sense, and that made the entire experience more natural and I was a little bit more comfortable than I have been in past sessions. For the video game recordings, they always want the tough guy, and there’s nothing fun about it. It’s just one-dimensional. This was work, and I appreciate that. I take acting seriously, and I had a good time working on this film.
You’re a busy actor working in every genre, but with films like Sin City, Species and Kill Bill, you’ve got a pretty noteworthy cult following within the fanboy arena. What’s your reaction to that devout legion of fans?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I’ve got a pretty eclectic group of fans. It’s funny, I can walk down the street in New York City or through a shopping mall and if I don’t make eye contact with anybody, I can go anywhere. I stand in line at Subway, and if I’m casual nobody even knows I’m there, nobody bothers me at all. But if I go into a room and look at people or in anyway appear aware of myself, suddenly I’m surrounded by people who want to either take a picture with me with their cell phone or sign an autograph.
I don’t mind that at all, because I consider myself lucky. If I’ve done something on this planet that’s decent enough that someone cares or would want to pay any attention to me at all, that’s great. But it isn’t the reason I got into the business. I read an interview Robert Mitchum did toward the end of his life where he said that acting was an embarrassing and humiliating profession that they pay you to do nothing and, in the end, it all means nothing. I guess it also embodies who he actually was as a person, because he never really took it all very seriously. I do take it seriously and I do think it means something because I’ve had some moments and times in my life that I know the average guy doesn’t have. And I feel very blessed and fortunate for that.
It’s a tricky business and it can be a very weird existence. I’ve had people hesitate to get on elevators with me. I know that if I can
walk in a room, there will be people very fearful of me sometimes – just because of the parts I play. I am not a pussycat, but let’s just take a family where the father knows me from “Reservoir Dogs,” and he’s thinking, “Oh, crap, there’s that guy.” And the kid knows me from “Free Willy,” and he says, “Dad, it’s Glen!” And, suddenly, there’s a family dilemma. It’s freaky. I had a guy come up to me in the airport in New Orleans, and he says, “My girlfriend says you’re Michael Madsen, I say you’re not.” Like I said, it can be kind of weird some times.
Now that you’ve dipped your feet into the comic book world, what super hero or villain does your inner-geek really wants to play?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I’ve always thought I’d make a great Batman. Batman needs to have a light side and a dark side. I think I’d bring a duality.
A lot of folks don’t realize that you’ve been an active writer of poetry. What’s the essence of your writing?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I wouldn’t necessarily call what I write poetry. I would say that it’s a social observance. I’ve seen a lot of things and I’ve been a lot of places, and I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve seen certain people do certain things and I’ve been in certain situations and circumstances and I wrote it down. I wrote things on matchbooks, I wrote things on paper bags. I wrote a poem on my leg one time in the back of a taxi in New York City, because I didn’t have paper. When you get a thought, you’ve got to write it down. Funny thing about writing is that, if you’re a film actor and you have to play a role, you get in front of the camera and that’s what you’ve got to do, whether you like it or not. But you can’t just sit down and start writing, you have to have a thought first and it doesn’t always come. But when it does, you’ve got to take advantage of it. You’ve got to write it down. I didn’t intend on writing any books, but I would write about certain things I saw or certain things I remember growing up. Then it all eventually ended up being published in one book, “The Complete Poetic Works” – which is on Amazon, by the way. Gotta pay the rent.
Do you find poetry in comics?
MICHAEL MADSEN: There’s a lot of poetry in comics – it’s rhythmic speeches and wonderful dialogue. Comic book dialogue is really fun. It’s like old movie-type dialogue, which I like.
You’ve got six sons – ranging in age from 20 to 3 – who are almost all gamers. Does the novelty of hearing your voice on their games and in a film like Green Lantern: First Flight hold any special significance for them, or you?
MICHAEL MADSEN: I think they like to hear my voice (in animation and games), but at the end of the day, it’s just Dad. I think it loses its sensationalism after a while. But I have to say honestly that they have asked me several times how come they don’t hear my voice in more stuff like “Green Lantern,” and that is a big reason for me wanting to do this. I get a kick out of them getting a kick out of hearing their dad, and it’s a big thing for me. I love it for that.