The Sunday Conversation: Virginia Madsen


Virginia Madsen, 48, plays married-to-the-mini-mob mom Cheryl West who tries to make her family go straight in “Scoundrels,” ABC’s new summer dramedy in “ Desperate Housewives’” Sunday evening slot. The veteran film actress talks about why network television has been a great place to land at this point in her career — much to her own surprise.

How did your role in “Scoundrels” come about?

I did a series with Ray Liotta called “Smith.” That was three or four years ago, and that was canceled right away. It was another show of criminals, but it was real bad guys — larceny, murder and explosions and all this stuff. It just wasn’t, for either one of us, creatively satisfying. So it was like, OK, I tried that, I’m not interested in that anymore.

So when this show came along I was like, I don’t know about network TV. I have friends who work on shows like that, and they were like, ‘Oh, my God, you don’t want to do this job.’ The hours are insane. And network TV is very corporate — you’re very much a hired hand. I just put all the negatives on the table.

So it was a leap of faith. And man, it paid off. Because I had so much fun making this show. I found my hours weren’t crazy. My favorite way to work is in an ensemble. When I was doing lead roles, when I was an ingénue, that wasn’t a comfortable place for me to be. I don’t necessarily need to be the star. And when you work in an ensemble, it’s exciting and it’s fun and it’s creative, and I work really well as a team. I like the family feeling.

I noticed that you did a few episodes of “Monk.”

“Monk” was like that. There wasn’t any mean competition. There were no divas on the set. It was a real feeling of family. That was another thing we talked about at the beginning: I said we’ve got really young people on this show, and I want you guys to support me in making a family, so I want to do stuff together and I want to bond, and they were like, “Cool.”

So you’re setting the tone for this?

Yeah. And when everyone arrived, another great thing that happened was that, the kids — well, they’re not little. I call them the kids — they all allowed me in, and we became very close and they came over to my house Sunday nights for dinner. And they allowed me to mother them, and not every young person wants that.

Moms are of course a staple of television, but Cheryl is a pretty contemporary take on a mom. Not only is it a family of criminals, which isn’t the first time this has happened, but there’s the dark comedy aspect. And you’re hot.

Thank you. I’m not having hot flashes yet, but I feel hot.

The first scene is the parents having sex.

Well, it’s a key part of Cheryl and Wolf’s [ David James Elliott] relationship. They’re very sexual, and they’re still very much in love. He’s my strongest weakness — she can’t say no. He’s been such a powerful presence in her life, and when he’s removed from the home, she learns to stand on her own. And they are very much equals. I love that about them. Cheryl is by no means a fragile flower trying to stand on her own. She’ll shout it from the mountaintops, and don’t cross her. She might knock you out. Cheryl can do things I can’t do.

Yeah, but you have people, so you don’t need to do all those things.

We do, though. As women, we all have battles we have to fight and things we have to overcome, and many of those things are labels, what we’re labeled as women, being the fairer sex instead of the equal partner. And we’ve demanded this position for so long that it’s kind of astounding when you’re expected to be something else.

It’s what’s happened to our presence in feature films. We’re becoming invisible in feature films, and I mean females of all ages.

And I certainly found better roles when I was older, because younger girls may have the abundance of work, but we have the stronger characters to play. It’s really hard for young girls, because not only are they judged and shamed and objectified and put into these ingénue roles which are not at all what real girls are like — and God forbid they should open their mouth and have an opinion about anything — but now they’re even more so. I feel we’re becoming so Victorian in our society and we’re all out of balance in that way, so we have this bizarre juxtaposition where you can get famous from making a private sex tape and it accidentally coming out, yet you’re labeled a certain way if you show your breasts on screen.

The films are so male right now that it’s becoming misogynistic, and [most of] the stories aren’t about us. So many actresses like myself are flocking to television because they’re still telling our stories.