In “The Wilderness of James,” which had its world premiere at SXSW this week, Academy Award nominated actress Virginia Madsen plays the mother of a James, (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a boy who explores the city of Portland while dealing with the death of his father. With our phone interview taking place the night after the Oscars, I spoke with Madsen about her awards run with the film “Sideways” as well as discussing the aspects of parenting a teenager, and working with Smit-McPhee.
Since we had the Oscars last night, I wanted to see if you had any favorite memories from the awards run you had with “Sideways,” which was almost a decade ago.
Oh, I have so many wonderful memories of that. That was everything I dreamed it would be when I was 5 years old. It was a perfect day from the moment I woke up and I think Estee Lauder sent me this massage with a bath of rose petals and I had a Versace dress. I stepped on the red carpet with all these actors that I admired and I was with all these people that I made a movie with. It was an extraordinary experience and even down to when they open the envelope and you have the loser cam in your face. It was really hard not to laugh because you always wonder what that’s going to be like when they’re filming your reaction. I was quite certain that Cate Blanchett was going to win. I was 99% sure that she was going to go home with the gold statue so I was really happy for her. I loved her performance so much and she’s an actress that I’ve admired so much and I thought she should have gotten the Oscar for “Elizabeth.” Even that was perfect. I loved that whole experience. It was a wonderful ride and a wonderful film. I made it to the big dance! I got to be Cinderella! And I didn’t have to be home at midnight.
Switching gears to “The Wilderness of James,” how did you become involved with this film?
Well this was a standout script. It was very well written. It was a beautiful story and most of my work has been in small independent films. This was a tiny, tiny budget with a first time director. I knew Kodi (Smit-McPhee) as a young actor. But it was the script that brought me to this project. Everyone was passing it around because it was so good. I’m always drawn to good writing. I was looking for material and new filmmakers. I wanted to work with first-timers. That’s exciting to me because they are so passionate.
The film is largely about James having some difficulties dealing with the loss of his father. How did you feel that your character was dealing with the loss of her husband?
That’s such an interesting question because that was something that we didn’t really have the time to illustrate. We didn’t have too much time to tell my story. She’s obviously a very capable woman who sort of moved on because she had to. She had to take care of this very special, sensitive child. I think she put all of her focus into that and not her own grief. That’s what you do as a mother. You don’t think about your own business. You think about them. She has a successful business, this wasn’t a woman in grief. This was all about her son.
We do see her often drinking wine and it’s even something that James brings up. Did you see that as hinting towards your character not having good coping skills?
We wanted to be very careful with that because we didn’t want to make it seem like his mom was an alcoholic. But mom is spending way too much time alone. Both of these characters are spending way too much time alone. They’re not moving on. So that was the one place that I got to illustrate her dysfunction. She’s alone at night, he’s asleep. That was her routine. She drinks too much. But during the day she’s functioning. She wasn’t a drunk. But that’s when you saw the chink in her armor. Women who do that in secret, when their kids become teenagers, they know that’s what you’re doing. So it’s very obvious to him what his mothers problems were. I thought that was very revealing.
It almost feels like there’s a couple of losses going on in the film. You have the obvious physical loss of a father and a spouse but you also have your character who seems to be losing control of James. Can you talk about where you felt your character was as far as her mindset of trying to keep James in line or did you feel like she was losing him at all?
That’s what happens when you have a teenager. You do lose. My son is grown, but I had just gone through that with him. I think in many ways, teenagers are teaching their parents to let them go. As parents, it’s a fine line between letting them have their freedom and still having the keys to the cell. You kind of have to be a jailer sometimes. You have to know when to hold them and when to let them have freedom. She was in this delicate place of trying to let him stick up for himself. But also, hoping he wouldn’t kill himself in the process. Because I had just been through that as a mother, I loved being able to play that. She’s a really good mother. She wasn’t hysterical the way I was in real life. (laughs) She was very together, trying to let him do his thing. But also, girls are very emotional and very hormonal when they go through that. Boys are full of secrets. Boys get quiet. But boys are reckless and they do things that endanger their lives. And sneaking out is a part of that. So much of what they go through at that age, we know nothing about. Any parent who thinks they know all about their teenager is lying to themselves. They are in a huge amount of denial. And I loved his whole secret world that he discovers and how as a young boy he discovers himself. A parent can’t do that for their child. When they are at that age, they are still a child, but they are becoming a young man. So I loved the story of what a boy goes through during that year. When they come out the other end of it, it’s not usually with one cathartic moment, but they are better for having gone through it. It’s hard to see them do that as a mother, but they have to. It’s a vision quest, in a way. We don’t live in a time when a man would go to battle or go on a walk about. We live in modern, urban settings, so the boys have to go through it internally and they have to act out in all kinds of crazy ways. You see all the kids in the movie going through their own version of that. Whoever said that high school was the best years of their lives is a sad, pathetic person. (laughs) It’s the worst time! It’s the hardest part to go through! I loved that they investigated this story not as a bad kid or not as “let’s play rock and roll and do some ecstasy!” It’s far more complicated. It’s not just rebelling against your parents, it’s finding yourself. They rarely show that in movies. They show a lot of adults having a “coming of age.” They don’t tell those stories very well with teenagers and I thought this movie did that so beautifully.
I interviewed (co-star) Kodi Smit-McPhee last week and he talked a lot about really loving shooting the film in Portland and how it was a character in the film. Did you feel the same way?
I loved being there. It was cold and very rainy. It’s a very unusual place. It has it’s own personality as a town. It’s a very young town. Their motto is “where young people go to retire.” There’s a lot of artists running around. There’s food trucks everywhere. You feel like you’re living in this big artist commune, in a way. Our filmmakers were from Portland and we felt like we were in our own little bubble. We had the keys to the city and the town was so glad to have the film there and I think there’s some things in the movie that are certainly universal when it comes to this teenagers tale, but there’s also a lot of things that are specific to Portland.
Close to the end of the film, there’s a really emotional scene between you and Kodi that is great.
Isn’t he wonderful?
Yeah, both of you are so great in it. What was it like working with Kodi in that scene in particular?
Kodi’s got more than talent. Kodi’s got a lot of skill and he knows how to access his emotions quite easily. He’s an actor who arrives with all his lines memorized. He comes to work having done a lot of homework and that’s very unusual for a young actor. Sometimes they think that they need to behave badly in order to be a good actor and bad behavior has nothing to do with acting. Kodi comes to work with everything worked out, man. But he’s very, very open to direction. So we had a very quiet set and Kodi just sat there and simply told the story. He didn’t put frosting on it. He didn’t put too much emotion into it. I just sat there and listened. It was so simple, what he did. It took me decades to learn how to be an actor like that, to keep it simple and tell a story. Kodi already knows how to do that, so that was really beautiful to watch an actor work like that, no matter what age. It was really beautiful to watch him and I sort of felt like his mom. I was so proud that he could accomplish that. It was like listening to someone read a poem. He’s really something.
“The Wilderness of James” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.