Trim, outgoing and adorned with wavy golden locks, Virginia Madsen doesn’t seem to have changed much physically over the 25 years she has spent before the cameras. The obvious difference is in the perspective that comes with having seen plenty of hilltops and valleys. But as she has shown in recent films -- as an earthy waitress in “Sideways,” a vixen in “The Number 23" and, now, a mother facing a supernatural onslaught in “The Haunting in Connecticut,” which opens Friday -- and as becomes equally clear in conversation, she has pieces of all those roles inside her. ? “I always say the younger girls have the abundance of work, but I get to play real women, not girls, who have a whole life behind them,” she says, sitting cross-legged on a backless chair in a cleverly decorated Hollywood lounge, revealing an ornate crucifix tattoo with astrological and Native American elements (acknowledging that part of her background) symbolizing “faith” on her left ankle. ? The 47-year-old was happy to mesh those adult complexities with the genre she wanted to get back into with “The Haunting in Connecticut,” in which her character struggles to hold her family together as strange occurrences complicate her son’s cancer treatment.
“I love horror movies,” she says.
“I like movies about vampires -- that’s why I liked ‘Candyman’ so much; it was like ‘Dracula.’ Did you ever see Frank Langella play Dracula?” She purrs: “My God, can you imagine what that did to a teenage girl?”
Since “Candyman,” the 1992 Clive Barker story of an urban legend come true, Madsen says, she has been searching for another equally solid horror script. “The characters need to have weight to them, so when you are watching ‘The Exorcist,’ you care so much about that mother and child. You could feel what this was doing to that mother.”
Much depends on the script, agrees “Haunting” director Peter Cornwell, but the actors must make it work. “So many horror films, the performances aren’t at that level. You think, ‘It would be great to have a mum like that’ when you watch [Madsen’s character]. She’s a fighter. At the same time, you can see underneath she’s breaking up under the stress -- Virginia really hit the right note.” And off the set, Cornwell says, “She organized get-togethers. We went bowling one night. She rented a barge for us to go down the river in Winnipeg. There was real camaraderie. Making a film is always stressful, but it was the lowest stress it could be.”
The actress, who has a teenage son, acknowledges she wanted to replicate her character’s status as rock of the family off-camera: “I love being the den mother. I became very, very close with Kyle and Amanda; they’re still my friends,” Madsen says of costars Kyle Gallner and Amanda Crew, who play her son and niece.
“Her number’s in my phone as ‘V-Mama,’ ” says Crew, who admitted to initial nervousness at working with Madsen, an Oscar nominee. “She was so warm. I never felt weird about asking her for advice. She’s just one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with, and really a mentor to me.”
Madsen didn’t come by this status easily. Her first big splash was as an ingenue in the very ‘80s tech fantasy “Electric Dreams,” which the extremely wired actress-producer is now working to remake with updated technology and a deeper exploration of its cybersoul theme. However, after such sexpot turns as in “The Hot Spot,” she found herself struggling to drive her train down a different career track.
“That image of a woman is indelible. A sexually powerful, evil being who’s in control; it’s very lasting and it will always be with me,” she says with the cool of someone who has had a long time to think it out.
“The nudity I did was right for my roles, but I was always questioned about it. I always used to sort of apologetically say, ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t me, that was a body double.’ Because I’m modest, as a person. But now I say,” she puffs up grandly, “ ‘Thank you. Yes, that was my ass.’ It becomes different when you’re in your 40s. There’s a built-in respect. And I’m confident now; I wasn’t very confident in my 20s. As I grew up, I just think I got better. I sort of came into my own. It’s the same for a lot of women I know. And you don’t have to make apologies for anything.
“Times have changed a lot. But if you’re a young ingenue, the rules are still in place: You don’t take off your top, you don’t be sexually free in a movie, because you’re put in a certain category, and many times you’re shamed. I was like, ‘Why am I now that? Why am I over in that other category and I’m not now Julia Roberts?’ ”
Whatever the answer, the ‘90s were characterized for her by the likes of “Caroline at Midnight,” “Becoming Colette” and “Blue Tiger.” Which is not to say they were all bad (“Colette,” sort of a poor man’s “Henry & June,” is not awful), but their lack of noteworthiness is worthy of note. It wasn’t until 2004’s “Sideways” that Madsen got off the local and back onto the express -- this time with a host of accolades, including that Oscar nomination, as her ticket. “It meant something on a very deep level when I was given an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics, and [L.A. Times critic] Kenneth Turan gave it to me. When I got up there and they applauded me and stood . . . .” She chokes up slightly, turns to wipe her eyes, laughing: “I just did a Barbara Walters!
“It still is very moving to me because it was an acknowledgment of all the years that I spent in this business. And most of the time they were right about a movie that was not so good. So to get their congratulations, for them to say, ‘You are the best, in our view,’ it was hard for me to even speak.”