F rom the vulnerable, wise, sanest member of “Sideways’” zany foursome, through Billy Bob Thornton’s supremely understanding wife in “The Astronaut Farmer,” to the ethereal spirit of mortality in a white coat lurking in the wings of “Prairie Home Companion,” there’s a certain glow actress Virginia Madsen brings to her roles.
It’s almost metaphysical, yet patient and grounded: a down-to-earth angel. Looking the way she does doesn’t hurt, either.
Those are among the qualities that earned the Maui Film Festival at Wailea’s 2008 Navigator Award for the striking blond 46-year-old actress.
The award recognizes her “for creatively carving a path of distinction through the turbulent waters of the entertainment industry while maintaining her cornerstone commitment to excellence.”
She will accept it in a gala star reception —which will also feature conversations and tributes to Pierce Brosnan and Dennis Quaid — from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12 in the Mei Court of the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. (Tickets are $50, $60 as of Wednesday.)
“I’m very honored, of course, and surprised,” said Madsen by phone earlier this week. “It means a lot to me. Maui is one of my favorite places on earth. When the timing worked out, I said, oh, and you’re giving me an award, too?”
Nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for “Sideways,” she said the business of awards “is so new to me. But when it’s for a movie, I don’t feel the award is just for me. It’s for the filmmakers who put me up there.”
Disarming and direct, Madsen was in the midst of a full day of press interviews for her new film — “Diminished Capacity,” a recent hit at Sundance — and a public service announcement she did for the League of Women Voters.
“I’ve always been a bit of a flag waver,” she said, attributing her attitude to her parents. “It was a big deal for me when you got to register to vote when you were 18.”
Her PSA is nonpartisan and just intended to help get out the vote.
“Either you’re super involved and opinionated, or not involved at all,” she explained. “But seeing the apathy that has grown in this country has been heartbreaking for me.”
The roles of spokesperson, and of producer in her own new production company are new for the actress, who grew up in a creative household. Her brother is actor Michael Madsen; her mother, Elaine Madsen, is a director.
Beginning her own screen career in the early ’80s, she balanced TV work with movie roles working with many of the era’s best known directors — David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper.
Co-stars have included Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, Forest Whitaker and Jim Carrey. In the new comedy “Diminished Capacity,” she stars with Mathew Broderick in a plot to rescue his uncle, Alan Alda, from a nursing home.
While her filmography on the Internet Movie Data Base includes more than 75 roles, she admits a certain ebb and flow to the career.
Prior to the decades-in-the-making, career turnaround that came with “Sideways,” she says the work “wasn’t always so steady. At least I didn’t have to get another job, but it was getting close there. I became an art teacher at my son’s school … but that was a volunteer position.”
Through the lean periods — “There were times I had to borrow lots of money from family and friends,” she says with a laugh — the acting was its own reward.
“You’ve got to be in it for the fun of making movies. I’m fortunate enough to be working in my dream. If you’re having a bad time in a movie, it’s like a mini heartbreak.”
There have been a few of those. She’s not naming names, and besides, she laughs, the worst ones were never seen.
She prefers a more optimistic approach. Even when there are challenges, “I don’t have a bad time all the time.”
And then came “Sideways.”
When she was making it, she recalls, she knew it was going to be good because of its writer-director, Alexander Payne.
“And I knew the guys (co-stars Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) were good. They were so funny. But Sandra (co-star Sandra Oh) and I thought of ourselves as supporting actresses.”
Her character, Maya, “was so quiet.” Until the scene where she opens up to Paul Giamatti, with the clarity, poetry and magic of a night sparkling with stars.
“It changed everything,” she says of the role. “It changed my life entirely.”
And it made things a little easier for those friends and family. Now there are more scripts coming her way, with better choices.
She is now filming “Amelia,” a biopic of aviator Amelia Earheart. in which she stars with Richard Gere and Hilary Swank in the title role. In preproduction is a supernatural thriller, “The Haunting in Connecticut.”
A film experience that still stands out was joining the cast — with folks like Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and Tommy Lee Jones — for the movie version of Garrison Keillor’s radio institution, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Every day was like breathing rarified air,” she says. “I would come to the set for the first shot, and would be there when they wrapped. I had to be there by Bob all the time.”
She is speaking of the film’s legendary director, maverick Robert Altman, who had reshaped the very concept of what a movie could be, and had accepted a lifetime achievement Academy Award the year before.
“There was a spirit there. It was like a family affair, like bonding. There was something about Robert Altman, like we were children and he was our dad. There was all this creative freedom, but he was holding us in his hands.”
The filmmaker had admitted that he had received a heart transplant when he accepted his Oscar. During filming of “Prairie Home Companion,” his health was an issue.
Paul Thomas Anderson, a noted director in his own right, was on the set. On the back of his director’s chair were the words “pinch hitter,” Madsen recalled.
Altman joked that the younger man was there, “in case I kick the bucket.”
“It was amazing to watch him work. He was running five cameras all the time, sitting behind the monitors like an orchestra conductor. He was going through chemo, but was at work every day. He never seemed to lose his energy.”
Virginia plays a spirit, identified in the script as “The Dangerous Woman.” Her appearance signals that someone will be dying soon. Elusive as her character is, her presence is not frightening as one might expect, but comforting.
“Prairie Home Companion” turned out to be Altman’s last picture show. He died a few months after accepting a film festival award for it from Virginia.
In a new role as producer and head of her own production company, Virginia’s first project is a documentary directed by her mother.
“I Know a Woman Like That” is “about women from 64 to 94 who are vibrantly involved with life when life tells you you should go away.”
There’s a water-skiier in her 90s. Actress Lauren Hutton is the youngest, at 64. The question driving the project was one Virginia asked her mother:
“What is it that makes you like that, Mom?”
She confesses that she’s enjoying the producing end of things.
“It’s very exciting. We’re now casting our first feature film, getting the money up. Everything is hands-on. If you want to do a movie, you have to do it all yourself.
“I’m loving it, she says.”I had never wanted to produce, but it’s very exciting to find a new career at this point of my life that I feel as passionate about as acting.”
But acting remains her first love.
“It’s because I never outgrew playing dress-up, she confesses.
“It’s my passion and it’s my sandbox — I bring my shovel, pail and pirate suit.”
• For more on the Maui Film Festival at Wailea and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, including Thursday night’s Tributes and Conversations, visit www.mauifilmfestival.com.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.