Actors Steve Guttenberg and Virginia Madsen spoke honestly and openly Saturday about the ups and downs of their careers in show business during two separate “In Conversation With” events as part of the 20th annual Sarasota Film Festival, in the setting of Florida Studio Theatre’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre.
Guttenberg, known for his works in films from Diner to Cocoon to Police Academy, took the stage first, interviewed by writer Regina Weinreich. Born in Brooklyn, Guttenberg grew up there, in Queens and in Massapequa, Long Island, before leaving home at the age of 17 with $300 in his pocket, to try his luck in Hollywood. He said he still thinks about what it meant for his parents to allow him to do that, not knowing what might happen.
“I was prepared and confident,” he said. “When we start out [as actors], we’re all con men, really, convincing somebody to give us a shot.” He was lucky, he said, to get his role in Barry Levinson’s film Diner. Over the years, he’s worked in film, television and onstage, but asked what his preference is he said, simply, “I prefer to get paid.”
Another note on the nature of an actor’s life Guttenberg related sprang from his time filming Ron Howard’s Cocoon in St. Petersburg. Veterans Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were in the cast, and Guttenberg said he followed them around trying to soak up knowledge, asking Cronyn at one point for advice about the acting game. Cronyn promised to share some with him on the last day of filming, and Guttenberg waited excitedly to hear the older actor’s wisdom.
“He leaned in and whispered to me, ‘Save your money,’” Guttenberg said. It’s been good advice to follow, he said, in a field where actors may have a hit one day and be out of work the next.
He also admitted that he wanted to play the lead in the festival film he appeared in, Chasing the Blues. “I flew to Chicago to meet the producer and director, and I kissed their asses all day, but they said no.” They did, however, give him “a pivotal role,” one where he needed special equipment and make-up to look 20 years younger than his age.
Throughout his career, which has included writing and directing as well as acting, Guttenberg says, “There’s nothing more beautiful than having a blank canvas or page, and knowing you can do anything you want to do.”
Virginia Madsen, who grew up in Chicago, told her audience for the Conversation that “acting was all I ever wanted to do…I was a performer, probably, from the time I was crawling.”
Interviewed by SFF creative producer Joe Neumaier, Madsen said of herself as a child, “If I went to a movie, if it was 90 minutes, I’d then take 90 minutes when I got home to act out the entire film. My mother [with whom she years later collaborated on a documentary about women in their older years] was very patient.”
Spending her childhood fascinated by older, black and white movies, often silents, she was also drawn to the classic monster movies starring actors like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. She’s appeared over the years in a few herself, including the acclaimed Candyman, but says it can be hard to find good scripts in the genre today, adding that recent hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place might change that.
Like Guttenberg, Madsen recalled the the rollercoaster rides of her career with candor. After starting out in David Lynch’s epic Dune, she then spent time filming Electric Dreams in Europe. “I was living the dream,” she said ruefully. “But it didn’t stay that way for a long time.”
In fact, before she appeared in her Oscar-nominated role in the hit Sideways, Madsen said she had not been working much and was exhausted and depressed. “My kid was 5, and I still looked like I was pregnant,” she said. “I was smoking, eating pizza, watching TV. My family and friends said, ‘You’ve got to get off the couch.’ I started listening, and when I got on the treadmill it wasn’t to lose weight, but to prepare for my next role.”
Ironically, she had to put on some weight to play Maya, the wine-loving waitress who meets up with Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. “[Director] Alexander Payne saw something in me,” Madsen said. And when she delivered the monologue about wine that is her most famous scene in the film, she said, it was one of those few moments as an actor when “I felt certain.”
Along with chatting about other films in which she’s appeared, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker and Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle, Madsen also disclosed one type of role she’s never played and would love to: a super villain, one who wants to “take over the world. The audience loves a film where you’re super bad.”
In the meantime, she appears in the festival film 1985, about a young gay man in that year who has AIDS and goes home to his conservative family in Texas. “It’s about family love,” Madsen said. Family members may not always understand each other, but “they need to find a way to connect.”