Academy Award nominee Virginia Madsen (Sideways) tackles the role of a hard-working wife and mother who supports her husband's dream of going into space in the family film, The Astronaut Farmer. Madsen had been interested in starring in a family-friendly movie and couldn't say no to the opportunity to not only star opposite Billy Bob Thornton, but also to play a wife who's just as strong as her husband. That's not often the case, especially in films of the family genre.
Along with writer/director Michael Polish and writer/producer Mark Polish, Virginia Madsen took part in a multi-city tour promoting the Warner Bros Pictures movie. I caught up with Madsen at the San Diego stop on The Astronaut Farmer tour held at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. It would have been difficult to find a more appropriate setting to discuss a film that combines the love of space travel with the idea of never giving up on your dreams.
Was it refreshing to be in a family film?
“Yes. I’ve been looking for a movie like this for years, and so has Billy Bob. And you know, it’s those kind of scripts where if you get them and it’s family genre, it’s just nonsense usually. There’s no substance to it. It’s cheesy or corny, and the kids are written like they’re little sarcastic adults. The wives are always like just sort of in the background just going, ‘Hmmm,’ you know? There’s just nothing for me to do in that kind of movie. But it’s like I just want to make a film that all my son’s friends can go see, but I want it to also be something that the grownups can enjoy, too. And that’s what’s great about this.”
The Astronaut Farmer definitely has an old-fashioned feel to it, and it’s a lot different from everything else out there.
“There’s an alternative. I know it’s that time of year and it’s awards season and all the heavy hitters are out - the big, big dramas are out. But I think, even in general, year round it’s always sort of hard for me to find an alternative that my son and I can go see. I don’t always want to see the animated feature. Some of them I do, usually the Disney Pixar ones, the grownups enjoy that, too. Then there’s a whole bunch of those now that come out, and now there’s this negotiation with my son’s father where I’m like, ‘Are you going to take him to that one?’ ‘Can you take him to that one? I’m not sitting through it.’ And he’s like, ‘No, please don’t make me go.’ The grownups just sit there and endure the family films.
Then sometimes there’s a movie that is advertised as a family film and you go and there’s something entirely inappropriate for him to see. I’m like, ‘Why did they do that to us?’ So this film had it all and it really had just such a great family. Great kids and the teenager still loves his dad.”
Teenagers are usually shown rebelling against their parents. In this film, the entire family is supportive of each other.
“Because not all teenagers are horribly dysfunctional, ‘goth’ed out, hateful beings. Most kids are not like that, but those are the ones that they think it’s funny on screen. It doesn’t make any sense to me that there will be a kid like that and the normal parents – there’s no reason. I love that the film was about working really hard to make your dream come true. I loved that. I really identified with that.”
Was the fact the wife is just as strong a character as the husband one of the things that drew you to the script?
“Yeah, it grabbed me because they were partners. I liked that this couple were partners. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, you’re so understanding.’ And I’m saying, ‘I’m understanding to a point.’ When he veers away from that, that’s when everything can start to erode and that’s when I have to start throwing plates. But also, he gives up his dream. And when he gives up his dream, he’s dying. He’s a shadow of his former self, and it has nothing to do with his physical injuries. His spirit is gone. That’s when I have to say, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that to us. You’ve got to show our children how it’s done.’ And so yeah, that was a big part of the appeal.”
How important was it for you to be a part of a film with such a positive message?
“Very important. I feel like it’s a message that’s not being given to parents and their kids. I was in a great position because I was really encouraged to follow my dream, even if I was the fireman’s daughter who wanted to be a movie star. They encouraged me. You know, maybe your kid comes to you and says, ‘Well, I want to be Superman.’ You’ll go, ‘Okay, let’s talk about it. How do you become Superman?’ And so the little kid goes, ‘Well, okay…,’ and the kid starts thinking about how he can be strong and how he can learn to fly, and how he can save the planet. All of a sudden you have a child having thoughts about being a hero, and those are all really interesting things for a little kid to be thinking about.
No mater how outlandish the dream is, you must encourage it because you then have a child who’s going to seek out something. It’s like it’s a great mindset to put a kid in: that you can be anything you want to be. Fear is so pervasive right now and it’s war time, but it’s important for people to follow their dreams still. How much greater would our country be if more people were actually working in their chosen profession? We could get anything done. We could accomplish a lot. There would be a lot more positive thinkers, first of all. And, of course, in the story it’s not like he’s sitting out in the back with a beer dreaming about going to the moon. This is a guy that’s working really hard to do this thing.”