By Adam Proteau
Special to Page 3

Michael Madsen
You too can play your cards right. At 47, Michael Madsen is the star of ESPN's "Tilt."
When Michael Madsen whispers -- or rather when he speaks in that famous whispery purr of a voice -- people listen. Madsen is best known for memorable roles in Quentin Tarantino blockbusters, and his stock-in-trade is his ability to bring presence without pretense while oozing maximum menace through minimal exertion.

That said, he brings more to the table than just the ability to frighten the daylights out of the audience and is known as one of Hollywood's most thoughtful and multitalented actors.

Madsen currently is dominating TV's small screen on ESPN's "Tilt," where he stars as Don "The Matador" Everest, a master of Texas Hold 'Em whose ruthless pursuit of power knows few bounds. The program airs on ESPN every Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

In addition to his on-screen accomplishments, Madsen has authored four books of poetry and short fiction. Plus, he's not the only artistic talent in his family. His sister, Virginia, is up for an Academy Award for best supporting actress thanks to her stunning performance as a romanced waitress in the film "Sideways."

Watch outtakes from the first three episodes of ESPN's "Tilt"
ESPN Motion
Madsen, a 47-year-old Chicago native who stood out in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2," is slated to appear in the much-anticipated theatrical release of "Sin City" with Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba.

The affable actor took time out from the set of "Tilt" in Toronto to talk with Page 3 by phone.

1. You grew up in Chicago, one of the best sports cities on the planet. Were you a fan of any team in particular?

Michael Madsen: I went to a few Blackhawks games and a few Bears and Cubs games back then. I played football in high school and I was a swimmer, but I wasn't what you'd call a sports nut.

2. One of your first film roles was Bartholomew "Bump" Bailey in "The Natural" in 1984. Twenty years later, you're starring in a series about poker, which a lot of people have come to accept as a sport. Does an activity need to be physical to qualify as a sport?

I think most people equate sports with sweat -- and poker certainly has its fair share of sweat. Poker is a brain game, which makes it available to everybody [and] gives it a universal appeal. And there are many things kids could be doing today that are worse than playing cards.

Sometimes, Madsen's intensity isn't so "quiet."

3. You're famous for your quiet brand of intensity, which many believe makes you Hollywood's most menacing actor. What's the secret to projecting menace to an audience?

I wish I knew. To me, you can only be as menacing as the material you're working with. It's magic when you find the right combination of people and material, but it can fall apart just as easily.

4. You were No. 2 on Maxim's all-time list of greatest movie villains. What do you have to do to make it to No. 1?

I think I've pretty much taken the "bad guy" thing as far as I can. At this stage, I'd prefer to play the hero, the guy riding off into the sunset towards a long and happy life.

5. Who's the best actor you've seen, in terms of the person's ability to be menacing?

Nobody living today. Robert Mitchum was famous for it when he was alive. And I thought Gregory Peck was fantastic when he played an unseemly character, even though he didn't do that type of role very often. There was one movie in particular, "Duel In The Sun," where he played a real rascal and was mesmerizing. I always wondered why he didn't do more of those roles because he was so good at it.

6. How about the most menacing athlete in pro sports today? Is there one?

I don't know if it's menace per se, but I've always had a great affection for Brett Favre. He's had the courage to overcome some terrible personal tragedies, and when you look at his face, all you see is a steely willingness to persevere. You wind up wanting the guy to do well.

Poker Playing
To Madsen, high-stakes poker is sport for the brain.
7. Before you became an actor, you had a number of different jobs. Is there one you'd like to go back to for a while?

I was always looking for a job that would be advantageous to the rest of the world as well as myself. Prior to acting, I was a landscaper; a hospital orderly; I sold Christmas trees; [and] I went to school to be a plumber. I did all kinds of things. But I guess I wound up becoming an actor because of the free socks! [laughs]

8. You've done voice work on two video games. How does that experience compare to other types of acting?

I really enjoyed it, partially because you don't have to shave to show up for work. But my sons are into video games, so it's cool for them to hear their dad's voice when they're playing.

9. You're also known as a big animal lover. You're not one of those people who dress up their dogs in period piece costumes or Sherlock Holmes outfits a la "Best In Show," are you?

Not really. I host a show about animals called "Animal Precinct" and my home in Malibu is like a small zoo, but I don't go overboard with them. I did buy a sweater for a Doberman I found starving in a forest when I was filming in Romania, but I don't think that's quite the same thing.

10. Thanks for doing this. Any last thoughts on the world of sports?

Well, I sure hope this hockey [lockout] thing works out. It really struck me funny when I opened [a Canadian national] newspaper today and read a story about a lady who lost her job making pucks and memorabilia because of what's going on. I don't know the ins and outs of why they're not playing, but I thought, "How sad that such a simple game, one that's supposed to be played for fun, can become so complex and hurtful."

It'd be wonderful to see them figure out a way to get back on the ice again.

Adam Proteau is a writer for The Hockey News and can be reached at