As Americans were deciding whether to vote for the first serious female front-runner in history for the most powerful office on earth, female leadership styles are a trending topic. Academy Award nominated actress Virginia Madsen had a lot to say about leadership in her interview with us, revealing her to be a highly intelligent observer of American culture, women, power and leadership.
A gifted actress, Madsen is known for her delightful Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated performance in Sideways (2005), her recent turn in Joy (2016), as well as countless others. She believes strong women help make a stronger culture as demonstrated by the women in her recently released documentary “I Know a Woman Like That” produced by Madsen, and directed by her Emmy award winning mother Elaine.
The film is a testament to the value of emotionally intelligent, archetypically feminine visionary leadership. The seventeen women depicted in the film are all in the upper decades of their lives. Each interview demonstrates different and invaluable leadership and psychological skills for surviving in this culture; not just for women getting older. When I quoted Rita Moreno who doesn’t feel she’s lost power as she’s aged because age is about being “knowledgeable, enriched, and soulful; that she is an incredible ‘living history’ that her descendants and others can access through her, Madsen replied:
Virginia Madsen: “What I found from the women in our film is that none of them felt old. There’s still this myth that a film about growing older with pride isn’t as interesting as one about how to stay young. You only get to be old if you’re lucky! My Mom always had all her birthday candles on the cake. My sister Cheri and I grew up with a very proud attitude about aging. Mom, like Lauren Hutton in our film, always taught us to value our own opinions about love, sex, learning, reading.”
Leonora Francesca Flores: That’s something we can say about feminine power in any culture. It teaches us how to survive sad times, not just that we should, wouldn’t you say?
VM: “I once heard a woman describe her scars as a sign of healing, not of injury. Powerful women know struggle is part of life and no, it’s not easy when you’re in the midst of it, but I’ve always come out the other side with even more strength. Women can. Women do.”
LF: So important, I agree. Evanston, IL Mayor Lorraine Morton says in your film that when she was a teacher, “you had to learn to write, to read and to do something for this world.” Businesswoman/philanthropist and mother of seven, Rosemary O’ Callahan asks women to ask themselves “Are you’re going to make this world better?” Wisdom and nurturance seem to be great partners.
VM: “Yes, and it’s a shame that women who do contribute greatly are still treated so differently in the political arena. I see so much inequality in news coverage about Hillary. She shouldn’t yell as much? Really?!”
LF: We do have an interesting double standard about women leaders in this country. We want them to be strategic, fact and data driven (presumably like men); but also to be nurturing. Saying she ‘yells’ suggests very effectively that she can be neither.
VM: “We women can cause huge cultural change, when we’re the ones at the heart of it. The changes brought about by the activities of the suffragettes and the second wave of feminists have proven to be, not just change, but cultural upheavals.”
LF: Other key insights about power from the women in your film are to control your own self-image, to really listen to others in order to empathize, to recognize opportunities for being visionary, to work at staying connected socially, to communicate well, to stay active and to have humor. This is also great advice for the young women to whom the work of the Aparecio Foundation is dedicated and for which Felix Magazine exists.
VM: “In initial screenings, teen aged girls in our audience often found they have a lot in common with older women. Both have a lack of control over their lives, but we all have to struggle somehow. It’s important in a culture for older women to support younger ones, to say ‘here’s a little help to take a step.’ I have great empathy for young girls who have to grow up without the loving support I got as a teen.”
LF: But maybe everyone can find at least one female role model who really resonates with them personally?
VM: “Absolutely. My mom is the biggest one for me. And in our documentary, “I Know a Woman Like That”, Eartha Kitt, who we’ve lost, resonated with me strongly. She’s just an indomitable, brilliant spirit, so self-assured and she’d been through so much! I’ve been a fan of hers and of Rita Moreno’s since childhood! Oh and the octogenarian Yoga instructor Tao taught me to be ‘elegant in my mind.’ Isn’t that cool? I have a completely different body since I made that documentary because of Yoga. It matches my spirit, teaches me about myself and helps me with physical ailments. Good health is also power, at every age.”
During the summer Madsen appeared in Steven Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment‘s CBS mystery series American Gothic. as the complex, powerful matriarch Madeleine.
LF: What should we know about American Gothic?
VM: “We had a great cast. And it’s already being re-run! It’s a serialized mystery about a very prominent Boston family whose patriarch just died. Evidence emerges from a decades-old serial killer case that suddenly implicates him and possibly another living family member.”
LF: Your character Madeleine tries to keep the family together in the crisis that ensues because of the horrific speculation about someone they love.
VM: “Exactly. She tries to protect her family, as women in this culture do every day. This a woman who understands power and I loved playing her.She’s manipulative but is a survivor; loves her family like a lioness.”
As American Gothic’s episodes concluded, Virginia was cast as Congresswoman Kimble Hookstratten in ABC’s new mega-hit “Designated Survivor” opposite Keifer Sutherland. He becomes President of the United States when the entire Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court justices have all been killed in a bombing during the State of the Union Address.
The New York Times recently described Hookstraten:
“As the other ‘designated survivor’, Hookstraten is perfectly set up to be President Kirkman’s season-long frenemy, offering support and dissent according to her long-term political purposes. She’s slimy, but her concerns about Kirkman’s indecisiveness are legitimate.”
Virginia explains Hookstraten a little differently.
“The Congresswoman is a strong patriot. She isn’t necessarily an enemy, although she is certainly an adversary, an opponent. She sees herself as more experienced and more presidential than him. She will certainly help him to become a better leader. She has been in Washington most of her adult life and knows how the game is played. If the two of them were to be in a debate it would be quite lively.
And Hookstraten would win! I think she’s the smartest person in the room. “In Madsen’s recent interview with the New York Post she spoke to writer Michael Starr about what she shares in common with her character.
“She probably spent a good part of her youth being underestimated, and I did, too. We have that in common. I was also under estimated as an actress and as a person, which is par for the course when you’re a young starlet. People running this business don’t want you to have a voice and frankly don’t think you’re that smart. They would like you to keep your mouth shut, and I wasn’t good at that. Now that I’m older I’m very comfortable with all that experience behind me.”
LF: In closing: what’s the personal power word that best describes you at this age?
VM: Confidence. As a young actress I often played femme fatales who wielded their sexuality like a weapon. At this age, I wield my value. When I was young I didn’t value sexual power except in relation to men. At this point I know that for sex to be deeply intimate, you have to be ‘present’ in all aspects of your own life. I leave the lights on during sex,now. It’s great.
LF: So true. Thank you very much for talking to us, Virginia.