CHRISTIAN MADSEN IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2013. STYLING: VANESSA CHOW. JACKET: CALVIN KLEIN COLLECTION.
“I had a dream last night that my teeth fell out,” says Christian Madsen. “I looked that up, and it means that you’re separating yourself from the past.” Things are certainly changing for Madsen: When he received the news last year that he’d been cast in Hollywood’s next YA dystopian franchise, Divergent, the actor had just been evicted from his apartment. “I was actually moving my stuff out in trash bags with my apartment manager,” says the 24-year-old Los Angeles native. “I was behind three months—it was really bad.”
Madsen’s first experience with acting was through his father, Tarantino favorite Michael Madsen, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. He made a brief appearance in one of his father’s films at the age of 10, but his child-acting days were short-lived. “It was cool to be with my dad, but I just wanted to be a kid,” he explains. In fact, it’s Christian’s grandmother, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, and poet Elaine Madsen whom he cites as the most influential force in his career. “I started to do these plays in high school and my grandma told me I was really good,” he recalls. After Madsen moved in with his grandmother at the age of 17, she brought him to the Actor’s Studio and introduced him to Martin Landau. “My grandma dresses in fluorescent outfits and is very flamboyant,” he says with a laugh. “She’s very smart.”
Divergent is Madsen’s first major film, and it boasts an impressive roster of young talent, including Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoë Kravitz, and Ben Lloyd-Hughes. In the film, the citizens of a future Chicago are divided into five factions of a caste-like system that dictates where they live, how they dress, what they do, and whom they interact with. Madsen plays Al, a burly, shy, sentient 16-year-old who leaves his family to join the thrill-seeking, pugnacious Dauntless faction. Al falls for another new Dauntless initiate, played by Woodley, but his affections are unrequited. “I’ve been Al in high school and middle school,” he says. “I know what he’s going through.” Next up, the budding actor will make a cameo in Gia Coppola‘s directorial debut, an adaptation of the James Franco-penned Palo Alto. “She was cool and very quiet, but she was thinking a lot,” Madsen says of Coppola. “A lot of it was improv, which is what I like.”
EMMA BROWN: Had you read the Divergent books before auditioning for the film?
CHRISTIAN MADSEN: When I was auditioning, I was kind of in the dumps. I wasn’t really happy with acting, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do it anymore. I went on a bunch of auditions that week and nothing worked out and then they said, “Hey, you got a callback for this thing, Divergent.” Because I was in such a weird place in my life, I didn’t look up what it was about, didn’t look up the director, didn’t look up that Shai [Woodley] was a part of it. I read the script, obviously, but I closed myself off from anything else. I connected a lot to Al. Sometimes you hear your own voice in your head reading the dialogue—it’s your voice, it’s not like you’re reading this character.
BROWN: Did you know it was going to turn out to be such a huge film?
MADSEN: It wasn’t until we shot this train scene in the beginning, where we’re all joining Dauntless, and I saw this giant subway train with the green screen around it, that I was kind of like, “Wait a minute… is this going to be a big thing?” I remember Miles was like, “You didn’t know that?” I didn’t want to become jaded—”Oh, I’m in a big movie now,” so I just stayed away from that stuff. It was kind of crazy to go from getting evicted out of my apartment to getting this movie that I didn’t know anything about and then going to Comic Con. As an actor you always talk about with you friends, “Going to Comic Con would be so cool.” You see people do the panel—my dad did it for Kill Bill, and I went as a very little kid. I met Harrison Ford when I was at Comic Con. [laughs]
BROWN: What does one say to Harrison Ford?
MADSEN: I didn’t know what to say. He was standing behind these two bodyguards—I think he was going up next for Ender’s Game—and I had just come off the panel. I saw him sitting over there and I couldn’t believe it, so I just walked over to him. He looked right at me [and said], “Are you Michael Madsen’s son? You look a lot like your dad. You’ve got a great look, man. I think you’re going to have a good future.” I just couldn’t believe he said that, and then he walked right onto the panel.
BROWN: Your character has a rough time in the film—did playing such somber scenes make it difficult to warm up to people on set?
MADSEN: No, it was quite the opposite. I was prepared for that—I was going to be the actor who was boring to be around,in character. When we got into the van that first day, I realized that everyone was starting out in a way—even though Shai is recognizable and Theo had that TV show [Golden Boy]. We’re all different, but we all mesh together well. We were a great group from the beginning. Zoë put together this thing and we went and saw Erykah Badu at the House of Blues. It was a bonding experience. The Blackhawks were in the playoffs when were out there, so I became a huge hockey fan. I knew nothing about hockey when I came to Chicago and then became the biggest fan—went to every playoff game. Theo has become a great friend of mine; he has a philosophy major [at University] so we talk about a lot of philosophy stuff. Miles has become a great friend of mine. It just didn’t feel like we were shooting this movie.
BROWN: In Divergent, you have to choose your faction at age 16. What was your biggest concern when you were 16?
MADSEN: Just thinking about what the future would be. Having my parents be divorced, you’re forced to [realize], “Sooner or later I’m going to be on my own and have to figure it out.” I have so many brothers that are younger than me, so I have to have that mindset of, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” I have to show them what growing up is—it’s not me living at dad’s house until I’m 25. I was just thinking about the future and—it sounds so stupid—but what my goal was going to be in life. I guess I was thinking about girls too. No girls liked me. That was bothering me. I was thinking about my height—I had a growth spurt right before high school and then that’s when sports coaches started coming up to me, but that’s when I had this artistic turn. I moved in with my grandma when I was 17 and she had this giant bookshelf and it was fascinating to me. She got me into reading.
BROWN: Did your grandmother ever act?
MADSEN: No, my grandma is part of the writing community. She’s so cute—I went to get breakfast with her out in L.A. and she came in with a giant straw hat and orange jumpsuit. She was always a big inspiration in me in continuing in the arts, whether it was acting or I started to paint. I didn’t want to be one of those people that was like, “Oh my dad’s an actor, so I’m an actor.” It just never works out.
BROWN: Did your dad ever give you any advice about acting? Or did you avoid asking for it?
MADSEN: I kind of hid it from him because I knew what he thought about acting at the time. His advice was “Don’t do it,” basically. I was trying to print these sides out at his house and I remember him coming out and seeing the sides: “What the fuck is this?” I wanted it to be on my own. I didn’t want any help with it, because I wanted to find something in me that wanted to do it, not: “Dad says, so I’ve got to.”
BROWN: Were you allowed to watch your dad’s movies growing up? A lot of them a quite violent. Were your parents strict with that kind of stuff?
MADSEN: He tried to hide Reservoir Dogs, but I would always see clips for some reason. I started to watch movies like that kind of young anyways. I think Scarface was on really late one night and I watched some of it and my dad came in during the chainsaw scene and was just like, “What the fuck! Turn this off.” But the damage was done at that point.
DIVERGENT COMES OUT THIS FRIDAY, MARCH 21.
HAIR PRODUCTS: ORIBE, INCLUDING GEL SERUM. GROOMER: KENSHIN ASANO FOR ORIBE HAIRCARE/L’ATELIER NYC. SPECIAL THANKS: LIGHTSPACE STUDIOS.