by Chesley Turner
photography by Patrick Hoelck
Sometimes the simplest statements hold the most truth. In one breath, Virginia Madsen sums up her worldview with a contemplative, but still effortless grace. “And power is not something you can seek. It’s something that’s given to you. Once you have it, it’s what you do with it that defines you.” Virginia speaks with conviction and understanding, telltale signs of a woman who is passionate about her life, and who redirects that passion into everything she does.
As a woman in the entertainment business, Virginia is very much aware of the provenance and pitfalls of power. “Many people find themselves in a position of power after they get famous quickly, without being successful. They don’t handle it well. I’m very thankful that when it came to me, it happened in my 40s. I could handle it, and I knew what it meant.” So how does one handle power? “In order to be a woman of power, you have to know how to delegate, to coordinate your life so you don’t get overwhelmed. It’s very stressful when you’re successful. One of the best ways to handle that is to be physically healthy.”
Such pragmatic reflection on the subjects of power and womanhood is not surprising. One of Virginia’s recent projects as a producer was a documentary entitled, I Know a Woman Like That. The documentary looks at an older generation of women with passion for life, and was inspired by a conversation with her mother. “She had lost a very dear friend of hers who died at almost 100. [This woman] had inspired my mother; she was well-traveled, well-read, youthful in her spirit, and she wasn’t freaked out about being old.” Her mother had felt a loss in the death of such a powerful personality, and conveyed her hope that Virginia have a similar role model. “She said she hoped I would know a woman like that. And of course I did. It was my mother.”
Virginia’s admiration for her mother is clear. “She always wants people to know how much they have to look forward to; how it’s important to live vibrantly when the world tells you to sit in a corner, face the wall, and give up. I wanted to find out what made her like that.” And so the idea for I Know a Woman Like That was born. For months, Virginia and her co-creators searched for women who lived their lives in an amazing way. There was the 100 year-old woman who is always gardening in a big purple hat, the women who raise their grandchildren, and the widow from Chicago who had no time for empty-nesting; she packed her bags and began traveling. “It’s very inspiring. It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: can you be old and powerful? What has she got? ‘Cause i want it. Can you bottle it? What kind of power do you have when you’re old?”
Virginia is quick to point out that the film is not about how to stay young-looking. “It’s not about physical youth. We’re all gonna get old, and we’re all gonna look old. This isn’t about staying young. This is about how to be old.” Recognizing the modern mania with youth, and the fear of growing old, I Know a Woman Like That puts a spin on age that is inspiring, channelling the vibrancy of older women who are role models, and presenting it to viewers with an invitation to emulate. “We’re all going there. We can blaze our own trail. We can go there as we choose, not as society tells us to.” Virginia identifies an important distinction between the power of the young woman, and the power of an older generation: “When you’re young, power is given to you. When you’re older, you can create your own power. You find it within, in wisdom.”
I Know a Woman Like That is the inaugural work of Title IX, the production company that Virginia co-created. It is a clear manifestation of the transition in a woman’s life between being the young woman to whom power is given, and being the mature woman who creates her own power by communicating wisdom. “I never wanted to be the boss – acting will always be my first profession. But I started this company because I have a lot to say, and so does my producing partner, who’s 25. It’s like Santana said,” referring to when the guitar god recorded an album of duets with younger artists. “When you reach a certain age, you must learn to facilitate, because you have so much knowledge to give.” Compounding that idea is the simple fact that, thus far, Title IX Productions have all been about empowering women. I Know a Woman Like That recently aired at the Chicago Film Festival, while her next project, Fighting Gravity, addresses the controversial lack of a women’s division in Olympic Ski Jumping. The 2010 production will highlight the women who compete in this sport, and their campaign for a chance to inspire the women who will follow in their wake. That seems to be a theme with Virginia.
While it’s clear that she has a passion for inspiring and communicating to women, Virginia is equally intent on cultivating her personal acting skills. Boasting an impressive career with roles that run the gamut, Virginia has starred in everything from sci-fi epics like Dune to horror/thriller nail-biters like The Haunting in Connecticut and The Number 23, to animated features like Wonder Woman, to the Oscar-winning Sideways. So what’s next? Expand. Citing her work with Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda in Diminished Capacity, she remembers, “I learned so much about timing, and about building a character in that world.” She also cites her experience with Kevin Spacey and Craig Robinson on the soon-to-be-released Father of Invention. “They are also kings of comedy. This was a much broader comedy than I was comfortable doing, and so I made a commitment… Craig and Kevin taught me how to dive into the deep end of the pool, to go for it. You have to be willing to look like a total ass.” Despite taking the “how-to comedy course” from some imminent male actors, Virginia recognizes the undertaking of this challenge as an inherently female manifestation. “Women are very good at evolving… If we don’t evolve, we get unhappy. Always be curious. Always.”
While exploring the many manifestations of power and passion, it’s easy to make the correlation to modern politics. In a country where passion and conviction has lead to an extreme transition of power, what does Virginia think about the current political climate? With a firmness that only a mother can have, she lays out her perspective. “Here’s where we are right now: I think Obama is just fine where he is. He is who we voted for. I’m a mother, so I know that patience is a virtue. When you’re trying to change something, it’s not gonna happen overnight, and our country, quite frankly, has been spoon-fed instant gratification for a long, long time. Overall, we have a sense of entitlement that has to be checked at the door.” She recognizes the paternal qualities of Obama, and that change takes time. “He never promised a rose garden. In fact, he planted a vegetable garden. That’s very symbolic of his presidency. Change in America needs to be tended to, nurtured. It’s not a drive-thru.” Furthermore, Virginia recognizes that, while it’s all too easy to point fingers, Americans need to recognize our own role in our own future. “I’m very patriotic; I’m a big flag waver. We have a duty to stand behind our President and be patient. We have to tow the line, and all those old-fashioned Roosevelt sayings. It’s our responsibility to rebuild the country.”
Virginia’s answers about politics display a clear maternal instinct. It’s no coincidence that one of her favorite roles in life is that of mother to her 13 year-old son, Jack. Though they currently live in suburbia, reaping the benefits of “sidewalks and bicycles… the normal way to be a young person,” Virginia knows he’s going places. With a mix of confidence and anxiousness, she says, “He wants to live in New York City. It’s perfect for him. He’s a Leo, full of fire and boundless energy, and the city will suit him quite well: people everywhere, sound, music, gritty, full of passion.” She has the perfect blend of pragmatism and optimism. “I’m going to be horrified of where he lives; it’ll be a fifth floor walk-up and he’ll love it. There are hard lessons to learn in the big city, and I welcome that for him.” It’s clear that Virginia’s passion for empowerment doesn’t end at the women she features in her documentaries, or the challenges she finds in acting.
The question of power; how to get it, how to keep it, what to do once you have it, seems to be an omnipresent quandary in modern society. Weaving forward-thinking ideals, like activist, and classical feminine archetypes, like mother, into a single way of life is a real challenge for the modern woman, especially for one so often in the spotlight. But Virginia Madsen seems to have found the secret that holds it all together: live your life with passion.