Mr. Blondes Have More Fun
I’m not your typical moviegoer. Usually I prefer a chatty, lingering meal with friends over sitting in a large, dark room eating popcorn and not talking to anyone. But I bit the bullet and ducked into a movie theatre to give myself an heroic dose of Chicago-born actor, Michael Madsen, Hollywood’s most beloved, infamous psychopathic killer. Sure, he played the nice dad in Free Willy, but it is his startling performances in such box office hits as Reservoir Dogs, Thelma and Louise, Kill Bill 1 and 2, Donnie Brasco, Sin City, and The Getaway that made his reputation. I came to the interview, eyes blinking in the bright, afternoon sunlight, after three hours immersed in The Hateful Eight, Madsen’s latest collaboration with director Quentin Tarantino. Half dazed still from the darkness and bloodshed of the film, I come once again, face to face with cold-blooded gang member, Joe Gage. Only this time he is smiling as we sit at a picnic table, under a canopy of shady sycamore trees at one of Malibu’s most beautiful ranches. We chat about Madsen’s new film, the recent loss of his father, his love for his wife, six sons, and Malibu, and the joy to be found in life’s simple pleasures.
MM: Amelia, you have to see The Hateful Eight more than once to understand it. Things move quickly and just when you start to think you know who everyone is, you realize it’s all a lie. Things get pretty cold-blooded. For me, it’s interesting because it’s my fourth film with him (Tarantino), and if you look at the other three, they are filled with me making little comments. I am always adding something. Quentin has traditionally left them in the edit. But in this film, man, he cut me down to the bare bones. I am just a guy. He really made Joe Gage one-dimensional, but he knows what he’s doing. I don’t know why he cut me the way he did in The Hateful Eight, but I’d rather be a fly on the wall in that movie than not be in it. He picked me for one of the eight, and I’m honored. I get to kill poor Charlie and poison the coffee. And you know, oddly enough, those things won’t be mentioned for four or five years. Just like when I did Reservoir Dogs, no one said anything about cutting the cop’s ear off! It was five or eight years later. Then I’m the guy who cut off the ear. What about being the dad in Free Willy? No one ever comes up and says, “Oh, man, you were great in Free Willy!” I don’t have much to say in The Hateful Eight. I don’t say anything funny or smart, and I don’t know if I like that or not.
AF : What about your other films? Do you like any of them?
MM: I didn’t like Reservoir Dogs when it first came out, but then, three years later, I started to realize it was a great film. It’s very funny. But man, it’s hard to enjoy watching myself, because I have too many memories of what it was like to do them. The whole time, I’m thinking that I’m going to see something and then it’s not there. It’s been cut in a different way than I expected. But then, you look at a film like Hell Ride, a motorcycle movie I did with Dennis Hopper and David Carradine, that Quentin produced. That movie is one of my personal favorites. It’s a great picture and part of the reason it works is that Quentin re-cut the entire movie so that you come away really thinking about The Gent, the character I play. And Tarantino, he did that for me.
AF: How did you and Tarantino first meet?
MM: I got the script for Reservoir Dogs and I was flat out offered the part of Mr. Blonde. I never heard of Tarantino, nobody had. I read this script and I thought, ‘My God! Criminals all named after colors and they all die and I was like, what the f@#k is this about?’ My agent, of course, told me not to do it because of the small budget and a first-time director. But Harvey Keitel, who I was so fond of after doing Thelma and Louise with him, was going to be Mr. White. I thought ‘Holy sh@t, man! I don’t care what anybody says, I going to do it.’ And I’m glad I did. I told Quentin that I wanted to be Mr. Pink because he was relatively nice and he gets the diamonds at the end. So he let me come in and audition for Mr. Pink and try to convince him, even though I already had Mr. Blonde. That was the very first time I met him was when I was going in to read for that part. I did my reading and I thought, yup, I nailed it! But he just stood there arms folded and shaking his head and he said,“ Nope, you’re Mr Blonde or your not in the movie.”
AF: Talk to me about Malibu, the idyllic life?
MM: I have five sons and one stepson, so that’s six I’m raising in Malibu. I didn’t grow up like this. I grew up in Chicago and I didn’t have f@#k all. I was working in a car wash when I was fourteen, so you can’t teach your kid that stuff when they grow up in Malibu wanting for nothing. I thought that I was doing the right thing giving them the idyllic life. I don’t regret it – but at the same time, certain things in life you can only learn by suffering and by having to find your own way.
AF: How old are your sons?
MM: My sons range from twenty-seven to ten. One is going into the Airborne Rangers to fight for his country, one is a scientist, another an actor and writer,another graduated from film school and is in Berlin now, and I still have the little ten year old at home.
AF: How much of your life have you not followed the rules ?
MM: Ha! I’ve been a much better rule breaker than a rule maker! I would have to say that the times I progressed is when I broke the rules. When I took risks in life I actually learned something about myself, and was able to accomplish something decent. If you accept your circumstances in life and don’t do anything about it – you are never gonna go anywhere.
AF: And your times of excess?
MM: I mean I’m not running around like a lunatic anymore, but you know the 80’s and the 90’s was the age of cocaine and alcohol, that was my abusive time. I’m over it but I don’t regret it. The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last two years is that it’s a big world out there and as soon as you leave L.A. no one gives a flying f@#k about the Kardashians and no one cares about all this celebrity worship that goes on in L.A. The rest of the world is really so much more fun, Paris, London, Thailand, anywhere is. I just came back from Rome! Talk about culture and art, I went to an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s where they built all the stuff that he drew – and most of the inventions worked except the flying thing, but what hit me was that, at the end of his life, the last sentence he uttered was “I let myself down, I let down mankind and most of all my good Lord because I never reached my full potential.” It was such a sad thing to read. I couldn’t believe it.
AF: We are all so hard on ourselves, I guess it’s a relief to know even Leonardo was, too.
MM: I’m my own worst enemy, I can never do enough, I evaluate myself every morning: “ How can I be the best father that ever lived?” And then every night, when I go to bed I ask myself: “Did I do a good job ?”
AF: Parenting is the ultimate test.
MM: That’s become the biggest thing for me, I just want to be a good dad. I’m a film maker of course but, I also want to be a good dad. I haven’t been perfect that’s for sure, I screwed up many times along the way, but at least I tried – that’s what the difference is, that I keep trying. That’s what they will write on my tombstone: “He tried ! The guy that cut of the cop’s ear … he tried.”
You know I met Robert Mitchum years ago. I was introduced to him by my sister who was nominated for her role in Sideways. I hadn’t done anything and I sat down and Robert wouldn’t even look up at me and there I was, he was eating french toast and I figured I should just get up and leave because he was ignoring me. I started to get up and he said in a booming voice, “What are you going you do with yourself son? What is your plan?” I say …. stammering “Ah …” I was an auto mechanic I fixed cars for a living. But I told him I wanted to be Richard Petty, the NASCAR racer but since it costs too much money to race cars, that I wanted to be an actor. And he goes:“WHY? Why would you ever want to do something like that?”
When Robert Mitchem passed away I read this interview where he summed it up …. ‘Well,being an actor is an embarrassing and humiliating profession.They pay you to do nothing and in the end it all means absolutely nothing.’ Did he really mean that or was he just trying to sound like a bad ass?
AF: How would you sum it up?
MM: Oh my God, I’m a long way away from summing up anything! But I’ve got clarity now from my issues with my father. He died last December. It’s so strange when someone dies. They become immortal because memories are there in your mind forever. Hey, you can’t get them on the phone anymore but they are here forever and its the strangest thing. I rehearsed it in my mind so many times but it never feels how you think it will. He was 89 and he was still smoking and drinking! He was a tough old bugger who came from a different era.
AF: What kind of father was he ?
MM: Well, he did the best he could in the circumstances, but my dad was an extremely unhappy guy. He became a firefighter right after I was born for the pension and the security, he was a hero in the world. He just wanted to be loved and be a hero in his own home. He wanted to enter his home justified. I remember once my dad slid me down the pole in his arms as a small child.
AF: That is an incredible image.
MM:My parents divorced when I was ten because my mom always wanted more out of life. She was the artist. He got his pension, he got what he wanted. The part of me that is him is pretty strong, it’s that Danish blood, that Viking Nordic stuff, and it’s heavy. I was pretty dangerous when I was younger for a lot of different reasons. Obviously I have matured now, but my dad was a very big influence on me.
AF: And your mother?
MM: Thank God for my mom, otherwise I probably would have never become an actor. I was going to school to be a paramedic when I got my first acting job. I mean it could have gone either way. Mom is the artist, self taught, she has read every book you can imagine you can call her and ask her any thing and she will know the answer. She turned me on to a lot of poets and she opened up my world. Mom is an Emmy winner and accomplished writer and director. I learned big lessons from both of my parents.
AF: Do you still write poetry?
MM:I wrote all that stuff when I was loaded and really depressed and in a bad state of mind. It was a way of getting a lot of stuff off my chest. I cover my childhood and very personal biographical stuff. It’s what came from having a lot of down time, sitting in trailers on movies or on airplanes. I would just start writing stuff. I’d write on napkins and match books but I was not intending to write a book. It was my wife, Deanna’s idea to gather all the stuff I had written and put it into a book. I haven’t written a word in three years – it doesn’t come over me any more. I don’t have those thoughts any more. Maybe I’ll start doing it again someday?
AF: How long have you and your family lived in Malibu?
MM: Its been about twenty-two years. I had moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had been crazy filming The Get Away – I was a lunatic – so I moved away from L.A. and my plan was not to come back. But then I met Deanna and it changed everything.Also, I wanted to see my boys, so I rented a house in Malibu. We never wanted to leave so I bought the house and that was it. I mean who wants to leave Malibu? It’s like being on another planet.
AF: What’s in the pipeline?
MM: I have been working on a TV series for Sony called Powers. I play a super hero called Super Shock. I have a cape and I can fly! And I have a movie coming out next month called Death In The Desert, directed by Josh Evans. It’s about Ted Binion, which is cool.
AF: What makes you happy?
MM: Happiness is when I am with my ten year old and we go to the grocery store and buy tons of bread and we feed the ducks at Pepperdine. It’s so peaceful. There are a bunch of turtles in the pond too, and they fight the ducks for the bread and it’s really really funny. We also swim together a lot, and I love to read to him. I like driving him to school and picking him up. I know that day will come when I can’t hold his hand and it’s over, f@#k. He knows it too. He said to me, “Dad I’m gonna hold your hand for a lot longer. I promise I will hold your hand for another fifteen years.” These things make me happy, that, and knowing that I got to see my dad’s tiny smile one last time before he died. You just can’t top that. Now how about a glass of Chardonnay?
MALIBU ICON MILLIE DECKER: “ALONG FOR THE RIDE”
“Riding horses was like bread and milk for us, just an everyday common thing,” remarks Millie Decker, one of Malibu’s oldest and most treasured residents. Arriving in 1925, she remembers a Malibu inhabited solely by the original ranching/homesteader families. Pacific Coast Highway was just a dirt track with gates at both ends, guarded by the often-terrifying figure of Mary Rindge, the “Queen of Malibu.”
“As a child,” Millie smiles, “I was scared to death of Mrs Rindge. She used to go around in these long dresses, wearing a great big old western gun belt with guns on both sides!” Millie, herself is a force to be reckoned with, a wild haired woman with steely blue eyes. She’s tucked her western shirt neatly into her leather gaucho pants that show off a huge turquoise belt buckle. Married three times to men from the original ranch families of the area, Harold Lewis, Warner Mandeville, and Jimmy Decker, this mother of three is still lithe, and walks with a cane only when she is calling to her horses or taking her blue heeler dog out on a walk.
To say she is tough is an understatement.
Mille was the youngest daughter of Percy and Rose Meek. Her father was meek in name only; he was a rancher, a bronc rider, a hunting-dog trainer and a lion tamer. He was even called to hunt down criminals for Ventura County with his thirty blood hounds. Percy moved his family to
Malibu and settled at the Mesa Ranch, now known as Circle X Ranch in Decker Canyon. He needed space to train his lion hunting blood hounds. He’d planned a trip to Manchuria to hunt Mongolian tigers.
“My father was the bravest man I ever knew. We had a mountain lion staked out between the house and the barn that Daddy used for training his dogs. I remember the time the mountain lion got loose, knocked me over, killed a few chickens and ran up a tree.” Millie laughs. As the story
goes, her father climbed the tree, put a choke collar on the mountain lion and headed home. At first the family was meant to spend only the summer in the small cabin at the Mesa Ranch, but they never left. Those early days of family square dances at Yerba Buena school, hunting on
horseback, running horses and cattle, living off the land now exist only in the Malibu of Millie’s memory.
There were always plenty of animals. “Mama had a pet skunk who hated other skunks and would spray whenever it met one. Mama would end up retching.” Millie laughs. “I even had a pet coyote pup my father gave me.” In Millie’s case, that old saying,“I could ride before I could walk,” is actually true. “When I was a year old my father put me on a mare to babysit me. A year later I had a horse of my own and I’ve owned horses ever since.” In the pasture behind her house she keeps two retired horses, with bloodlines that run back to her father’s original stock.
“I keep asking my horse trainer son, Chip Mandeville, to buy me a nice gentle horse.” Millie says with a raised eyebrow. “Every time I ask, he tells me he hasn’t found one yet. I don’t think he is really looking that hard.”
“Anyway, I’m over the hill now,” she laughs. “I do love that expression. I think it’s a Western sort of expression.”
With no sons, and being the Meeks’ youngest, Millie was raised by her father as the son he never had. She and her sisters rode rodeo with their father. “We were put on the bulls in the bucking shoots and we would just hang on until Daddy would ride up and pick us up off the bulls. I think we were just too scared to fall off!”
When she was older, Millie began team roping with her father. Her son Chip explains: “My mother could hold her own with the guys whether she was roping or trading goods out of the trade bag at the end of the day at the rodeo.
“When the cattle gathers happened at the local ranches, the ranch men would show up to help rope and brand the cattle. Millie was the only woman at those old gathers. It was a test of skill – only the top horsemen were allowed to do the roping and drag the calves to the fire, and that was pretty much all my mother did. “They had to respect her because she was the best.”
Story by Amelia Fleetwood, photos by John Paul.