Madeline Stowe: Stowe-ing Away
Regular readers of the “What the Hell Happened” series may recall that Madeline Stowe took a few years off from her career following one of her biggest hits in order to start a family. That’s a pretty common plot twist in the WTHH articles dealing with actresses. But this interview from the February 1998 issue of Movieline magazine offers up another possible explanation for why Stowe never lived up to her movie star potential. She comes across like a bit of an odd duck. Martha Frankel met with the actress just as she was returning from her extended maternity leave and things got weird.
I arrive early at Madeleine Stowe’s new house in Santa Monica. Having interviewed her before, I know she admires promptness and I left time for traffic, but there wasn’t any. Early seems tacky, so I sit in the car and talk on the phone. When someone knocks on my window, I nearly jump out of my skin. There stands Stowe. “I thought that was you,” she says, as I get out of my car. “You know how crazy my life is–I have nothing better to do than stand around and look out the window and wait for my interviewer to arrive.” She lets loose one of her loopy laughs, half sexy-throaty, half air-going-the-wrong-way-through-her-nose, and runs her hands through her monumental hair.
As we head into Stowe’s house, I’m wondering if she and husband, Brian Benben, have changed their ways since having a baby (they’ve been together 17 years). The last house of theirs I was in had a dorm-room feel you wouldn’t associate with a movie star–piles of boxes, dogs sleeping on the sofas, the odd poster tacked to the wall. “Don’t be appalled by the way we live,” she begged me at the time. I look around to see if they’ve altered their lifestyle and gone for comfort over chaos. Nah–now there are just baby things adding to the clutter. Stowe sees my look. “We’ve got an interior decorator,” she announces proudly. “He’s going to make this place look fabulous.”
Across the room, one-year-old May Benben sees her mommy and laughs with delight. Stowe scoops her up, and for once the actress, who often looks in normal life like a deer caught in headlights, seems relaxed and happy. “I’m good at this,” she says. “Really good. I didn’t know if I would be, because I don’t really know that many people with kids.”
Actually, to listen to Stowe, she doesn’t know that many people with or without kids. As I say, I’ve interviewed her before and the subject of her lack of friends comes up over and over in conversation. For example, I point out that while she has a new film now, Tempting Fate, it’s been over two years since her last movie, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and she says, “Terry Gilliam and I had a terrific time during Twelve Monkeys. You know, I did a terrible thing with Terry…”
“Really?” I ask.
“No, not like that. It’s just that Terry called me to chat and I didn’t call him back for two months, because you know how I am–I don’t really have a lot of friends and I don’t know how these things are supposed to be done. We wouldn’t have been in the same room, so what would we have said? He finally gave up on me.”
As I’m pondering what this spaciness may have to do with the fact that Madeleine Stowe is not a superstar despite being gorgeous and despite having given performances like the one in, say, The Last of the Mohicans, Brian Benben comes bursting into the room and trips over the baby toys, looking for his keys. “I have to run,” he tells Stowe. Then he points out that there’s an exterminator in the backyard in a white jumpsuit with a mask over his nose and mouth, busily spraying.
“Close the windows,” Stowe says, and we all run around to seal the fumes out. Benben goes out into the yard to have a man-to-man talk with the exterminator, who’s apparently here to deal with ants. When he comes back, he shuts the door behind him and announces,” He says it’s safe.”We all look out at the exterminator, who has kept his mask firmly over his nose and mouth the whole time.
“You guys should go out for lunch,” Benben says. We do, and I seem to be the only one who’s worried that we’ve run out of the house for safety and left the baby inside.
As Stowe drives through Santa Monica, she laughs and says, “I really have no idea where we should go since we never go out to eat. So just pick out a place and we’ll go there.”
We stop at the first restaurant we see and get settled.
“So, in Tempting Fate,” I begin, referring to Stowe’s new movie, “you star with Kenneth Branagh, William Hurt and Doogie Howser.”
“Neil Patrick Harris,” Stowe laughs. “That poor guy… he’ll probably be Doogie Howser for years. The movie’s about a very extravagantly wealthy couple in the 1930s, East Coast high society. William Hurt plays my husband and we have a fabulous life, only we can’t have a baby–he’s infertile. He really wants an heir and my character really wants to be a mother, and they adore each other, so they look for a surrogate father, someone to impregnate me, and he basically buys this young guy out of Harvard– Neil’s character. And we sleep together, Neil and I, and he starts to fall in love with me and then he dies, and I believe that my husband may have killed him. And I turn to my priest, because I am a very religious Catholic in the film…”
“Omigod, it’s a potboiler…”
“Totally. It could have veered over into melodrama, but it doesn’t. The priest is played by Kenneth Branagh and he has a secret of his own, and the story is told from his point of view.”
“Is it sexy?” I ask. Most of Stowe’s films are, and I’ve heard that in this one she has sex not only with Hurt and Harris, but Branagh, too.
“Yes, I’d have to say yes. Part of it is that she and her husband are so in love. And she has feelings for all three of these men.”
“Does Neil look really young? I mean, do you look like you could be his mother?”
“It felt a little weird, but the way guys in Hollywood carry on–there are 50- and 60-year-olds who want to play romantic leads opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. They look like her grandfather! At least in Tempting Fate that stuff is explained. “It was very important to me to find the core of the marriage,” she continues. “If you have any belief in relationships surviving over time, that the core of whatever brought you together will not dissipate, this is what the film is really about.”
“So, any great William Hurt stories?”
“Well,” says Stowe. “I say this knowing that he rails against anybody for defining him in any way, but William, in his soul, is a truly conflicted, turbulent human being. Not in the way lots of actors seek to be–because they find the notion of torment romantic. He is that, plain and simple. He had a really unusual upbringing. He doesn’t forget anything. He has a fascination and love for words that’s not just talking for the sake of talking. And when you are as intelligent as he is, and you have a really vast knowledge of all kinds of things, and you have this huge vocabulary in which to set your thoughts, the thinking process does not stop. It makes him tormented. For him thinking is not a cerebral thing; it’s an emotional experience. He likes clarity, which is very hard to find in the world right now. He has no patience for things not being verbalized absolutely, and with clarity. And he wants his work to be art, in a world where that’s becoming increasingly difficult. He’s also very patrician. I used to watch him walk down the long driveway in front of the mansion we were shooting in. He’d be in this long overcoat and a hat, and I just thought, You’re totally living in the wrong time and place. He is truly otherworldly. And he has a rage in him that is really scary to a lot of people, but not to me. I adored working with him.”
Whew! How’s that for a portrait of a costar?
“How about Kenneth Branagh?”
“If art is everything to William, then work is everything to Kenneth. I really liked him a lot. He’s tremendously focused, [but] he made me laugh every single day. Did you ever fantasize about your priest?”
“I’m Jewish,” I tell her, not mentioning that there’s probably nobody else I’d have to point this out to. “But I had this friend when I was little and she used to make me go to church with her because the priest was so handsome and she told me that she was going to marry him. I thought she was telling the truth.”
“My sister used to go to church and fantasize about the priests,” Stowe says. “You know, when we were kids…we used to play what we called Nasty Barbies, where we’d have Ken jump on Barbie and hump her. I didn’t even know what it was, but it was a real turn-on. And you’re turned on, and you’re next to these other little girls. Does that make you a lesbian? Did you do that?”
I’m not exactly sure what the question is, not to mention how we got here from talking about priests. “I was never a Barbie fan,” I say. “But I’ll tell you one of my memories from when I was 10 or 11. My best friend and I used to go to my house after school because both my parents worked. I was dying to kiss boys, but no one was volunteering, so she and I would stand in front of the mirror and kiss it. And after we got tired of that, we’d switch places and kiss the spot where the other one had kissed.”
“Really?” says Stowe. “Wow. But you never kissed each other?”
“No, but years later, I ran into her and we went for a drink and were talking about the mirror and she says, ‘I always wanted to kiss you.'”
“My best friend when I was a kid was a girl named Mary,” says Stowe. “She was about a year older than me and I was just in awe of her. I loved her. One day she started talking about lesbians, and I didn’t know what that was. And she said, ‘Lesbians are when two women grow up, they get to marry each other.’ And I went home and said, ‘Mom, Mary said when we grow up we can marry each other!’ I was elated. It wasn’t sexualized in any way, but my mother, needless to say, was speechless.”
The people at the next table, who’ve been following our conversation while busying themselves with french fries, are practically falling off their chairs. “Should we take a ride?” I ask Stowe.
We drive along the ocean through Malibu in Stowe’s car going very, very fast, and I ask if we can talk about some of her old movies. “Oh, I love to talk about them,” she says. “Remember in Unlawful Entrywhen my husband [Kurt Russell] and the bad cop [Ray Liotta] are going at it in the end and I’m just squatting on the floor stroking the cat? I mean, really, what the fuck was my character thinking? But, hey, people love that movie, and they don’t seem to worry that the woman’s actions made no sense. I’ve had great experiences, though. Working with Michael Mann on The Last of the Mohicans was a joy.”
“What about Bad Girls?” I ask, referring to the female Western she did with Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore and Mary Stuart Masterson. The film was such a mess that even though Stowe was by far the best thing in it, that didn’t count for much. The mention of this movie sets off a hilarious, off-the-record blow-by-blow of the disaster that gets us most of the way to Santa Barbara.
“OK,” I say, fearing we’ll end up in San Francisco if I don’t get back on the record, “let’s talk about what’s sexy in movies. This is the sex issue.”
“How come I’m always in the sex issue of Movieline?”
“Because you just did a movie where you sleep with three of your costars.”
Stowe does a 180-degree turn with almost no braking and now we’re headed back to Santa Monica. Even faster.
“I’ve been thinking about this lately,” says Stowe. “And I must say, sex on-screen has been cooling down in direct proportion to how much they show. Everybody is just so busy showing the other person how sexy they are. I mean, it’s this look on their face when they’re about to kiss and it’s like, ‘Don’t you think I’m sexy? Don’t I have that sexy look?’ It doesn’t seem to be about surrender or abandon anymore–and that’s what makes something really sexy, where you’re ready to toss everything away and there’s something at stake. To me, one of the great sexy moments of all time is that moment between Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness, where they just look at each other. You don’t know if they’re going to stay together or what. That was the orgasm, right there.”
“Anything recent you liked?”
“Chasing Amy was pretty funny,” she says.
“Yeah, although I think the real chemistry was between the two guys.”
“True. I thought Blue Sky was really sexy. Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones had unbelievable chemistry between them. He just loved her so much, and that in itself was a turn-on.”
“You and Aidan Quinn had great chemistry in Blink.”
“Yes, Aidan was really great. They asked him to do that striptease and he was really nervous. But he pulled it off and he was really funny.”
“A sense of humor is obviously a turn-on,” I say. “How else could you explain Soon-Yi being with Woody?”
“Don’t get me started …,” says Stowe with a chuckle. “Brad Pitt and Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise were sexy. Susan Sarandon and Michael Madsen were sexy together in that movie, too, and they only had two scenes. I loved True Romance, it’s one of my favorite films in I don’t know how long. I’ve seen it about 20 times. Patricia Arquette, to me, is one of the sexiest women on film.”
“She has a real woman’s body,” I agree, “but it’s not a movie body.”
“It’s not a movie body for now. She’s exactly the way they used to want actresses to be in the ’30s and ’40s. I just love her. It’s like you look at her and you just want to touch her. Can I tell you what Michael Mann said about her? He said, ‘Love her body, love her teeth.’
“You know,” continues Stowe as the Pacific Ocean blurs by on my right, “Tony Scott [the director of True Romance] has never been given the credit he’s due. I loved working with him [on Revenge], even though I was so disappointed with the end product. I didn’t blame Tony for that. The Scott brothers [Ridley and Tony] get it about sex, though.”
“Wait–didn’t Ridley make G.I.Jane?”
“Yeah, ‘Suck my dick!’ What the hell was that about? Why didn’t she yell, ‘Eat my pussy!’? That would have stopped them in their tracks.”
I am embarrassed to admit it, but Stowe and I drive along yelling, “Eat my pussy,” at the top of our lungs for a full 10 minutes. We are in spasms of hysteria before we realize that other drivers are staring at us. Finally, we pull ourselves together.
“Days of Heaven is, to me, one of the ultimates,” says Stowe. “Richard Gere was good with Brooke Adams, but she and Sam Shepard … the way he just wanted her so badly and wanted to make that work. I love that film.”
“I wonder what ever happened to Brooke Adams. She was so good.”
“I think she just didn’t care enough, didn’t want it badly enough,” says Stowe.
“Like you?” I ask.
“Me?” Stowe says with real surprise. “I’m ambitious, I care about my career….”
“Madeleine,” I say, “if you really cared, you wouldn’t take two years off between films. You’d be out here going to premieres, being in the public eye….”
“You know,” she says, as if this never occurred to her, “Brian and I almost never go out, almost never go to Hollywood parties. But when we do, I’m always surprised by what a great reaction I get from other actors and from the fans. It actually leaves me a little dizzy.”
“As if you could tell the difference,” I say. When she realizes what I mean, she punches my shoulder and laughs.
“You know, it’s really weird about sex in the movies. The old films, where they did nothing more than kiss each other, were a lot sexier than the new films.”
“That’s because all we ever see is the woman’s body,” I say.
“How about The Grifters?” says Stowe. “I loved that.”
“Hey, how could we not love a movie where a guy kisses his mother? John Cusack is sexy in just about everything.”
“I really liked Grosse Pointe Blank,” Stowe says. “And I realized a strange thing. There’s that scene where he’s in a hotel room and he’s about to shoot someone and he’s talking on the phone and assembling the rifle. And that really turned me on, seeing a guy doing his work and doing it really well. So what that he was a killer? Now we know–John Cusack has to make a movie with Patricia Arquette. They’d be fabulous together.”
Stowe takes a deep breath; she’s gone about a hundred miles in the last hour or so. “Can I tell you something personal?” she asks.
“Madeleine,” I say, “you can tell me anything. In fact, I think it’s your karma to tell me everything.”
She laughs. “When I think of actors being sexy on-screen, I realize that personally, I find that a lot of the directors I worked with are far sexier than the actors I’ve worked with, because they’re really good at what they do. I’m just so blown away at that level of competence, it’s a total turn-on to me. Watching a guy do something he’s really good at is sexy. And that’s why so much sex doesn’t work on the screen–because a lot of these guys have no idea what they’re doing! Just don’t tell anyone that I said that.”
Her secret is perfectly safe with me.
By this time we are back in Santa Monica, blazing into Stowe’s driveway and jolting to a halt. As Stowe gets out of the car, I notice how tiny she is and I can’t believe she had a baby anytime in the last decade. Not only that, I personally watched her eat a huge lunch that ended with a gigantic piece of chocolate cake.
“Madeleine,” I ask, “do you ever diet or work out or watch your weight?” She laughs her laugh and says she doesn’t do any of that.
“You just eat whatever you want?”
Stowe tells me that’s exactly what she does, and proceeds to explain that she buys her jeans three sizes too big so she doesn’t have to unsnap them after she eats. “I know you think I’m crazy,” she adds when she sees my expression.
But I don’t think Madeleine Stowe is crazy. She’s just not at all like any other actress I’ve ever interviewed.
Martha Frankel interviewed Matt Damon for the Dec/Jan 98 issue of Movieline.