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Interview with Virginia Madsen from "Sideways"

On Auditioning, Alexander Payne, and California's Wine Country


Paul Giamatti Virginia Madsen Sideways

Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen in "Sideways"

© Fox Searchlight
Best friends Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) take off on a wine-tasting tour to celebrate Jack's impending marriage in the Alexander Payne movie, "Sideways." What is supposed to be a relaxing time of male bonding takes a different path when Jack falls for a sexy wine pourer (Sandra Oh) and Miles begins a romance with a wine-savvy waitress (Virginia Madsen).

Alexander Payne strove to keep "Sideways" as pure as possible, casting actors who were believable, rather than the powerful Hollywood types who were seeking roles in his fourth film. With the two leading men in place, Payne began the process of searching for Paul Giamatti's onscreen love interest. While sorting through a list of names, Virginia Madsen's 8x10 publicity photo caught the attention of Payne and producer Michael London. After auditioning, Madsen was quickly signed on to "Sideways."

"Virginia's incredibly beautiful, lovely, warm and genuine and these are all very important qualities for Maya. Her soulful and authentic warmth is what made the chemistry work immediately with Paul’s character. You could see how, given this particular set of circumstances, she could really feel his heartache and pain," says producer Michael London.


How did you find out about “Sideways?”
I had an audition and they wouldn’t send me the whole script. I just got a couple of scenes, which made me very upset because this is what they do for network television. You go in and you do the scene and then they tell you you’re not right for the role. You’re like, “Well, why didn’t you tell me what the role was?” But when I read these scenes, it was all there. I knew exactly what aspect of me this was. It wasn’t a character I would play. It would be an aspect of me that I would bring to the movie.

I did ask if I could get a little bit more and I promised I wouldn’t show it to anybody. So they sent me the wine monologues, and then I knew it was in Santa Ynez and I’d spent a lot of time there. So I wanted to make Maya like the valley. I wanted her to represent the character of that geographical place, if that makes sense. It does especially when you go there. And that’s how I felt whenever I went there, so that’s what I wanted to bring to her. I was really worried that I might blow it so I worked with my acting coach. I actually had him drive me to the audition so that nothing could distract me if there were other actors waiting in the hall. And I’ve blown it many times and not necessarily fallen on my face in an audition, but I’ve blown it where I really didn’t come up to my full potential when I walked in. The stakes were too high and when the stakes are high, I just never quite make it. I’ve missed out on some really incredible films because of it.

Were the stakes high because it was an Alexander Payne movie or because of what you’d read?
Because of Alexander and what I’d read. I knew that I could be her. I knew that that was, like I said, this aspect of me. I knew that place. There was nobody more perfect for the part than me. Every actor feels like that when they walk in but I felt so confident with this that I felt like this part is mine until they tell me otherwise, so I have nothing to be nervous about. I don’t know what happened.

I think I did have an edge over other people because I’d spent so much time there. So I went in just as I am when I’m in Santa Ynez as myself. And I know that they must have felt that. Somehow he picked me. But I did what I wanted to do in the meeting, and I knew that I had my shot. And if he choose somebody else, it had nothing to do with me. This is one of the few times that I was cast based on what I did when I walked in the room. It’s hardly ever that. It hardly ever has to do with your acting because there’s so many different elements in casting.

Were you into wine before you did the movie?
Yes, I was but I’d never been into the world of Pinot Noir (laughing).

Did you learn a lot about the wines used in this film?
Yes, I really did. Actually I really did and that was fun. All joking aside, it was a great experience. And then I also began to learn about the history of the area and how old some of the vines are, and how it all started. Because I’m Danish I knew about the history of the Danes coming here and the cows, and everything was about cows and dairies. There were some vineyards that started more in the Santa Barbara area. But out there [in Santa Ynez], you know, mostly really when it comes down to it, it starts out with a couple of hippies who really don’t want to be in society anymore. And they’re like, “You’re planting what now?” “Dude, now we’re going to make our own wine. Nice…” So that’s how it got started, I think.

PAGE 2: Virginia Madsen on the Hollywood Image and Strong Female Roles

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