Virginia Madsen finds the perfect fit in ‘Joy’ as Jennifer Lawrence’s mother

Actress thrilled to work with David O. Russell and fight with Robert De Niro

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 4:00pm

Sometimes a particular bit of casting in a movie is so on target it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before. Take for example Virginia Madsen playing mother to the title character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Joy.

Madsen and Lawrence have the same spirited, spiky air about them, part kooky, part soulful, part dangerous. They seem made for each other.

“I was waiting for someone to figure that out,” says Madsen. “When I first saw her I thought, ‘I should be her mother’. It was just a really perfect fit.”

Directed by David O. Russell, the film is based partly on the real story of Joy Mangano, who created an entrepreneurial empire. It has been transformed into a multigenerational family tale that touches on the quintessential modern American values of aspiration, ambition and self-invention. The cast includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini as De Niro’s character’s girlfriend, Edgar Ramirez and Bradley Cooper. In another nice piece of cross-generation savvy, Diane Ladd plays Madsen’s character’s mother.

As Joy struggles to hold the family together while building her business, her mother is meek and beleaguered. At one point in the film, she lies in bed watching a soap opera while bemoaning her daughter’s striving as “Joy the do-er.” As prelude to a heated argument, De Niro says Madsen’s character is “like a gas leak; we don’t see you, we don’t smell you, but you’re silently killing us all”.

A long-time admirer of Russell, now a five-time Oscar nominee after his recent films American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, Madsen was convinced they would one day work together.

She was on a film festival jury in Dubai when she received an urgent message that Russell wanted to meet with her via Skype.

“He said, ‘Do you have any problem with playing the mother of Jennifer Lawrence?’” Madsen recalls. “I said, ‘I’ve never had a problem with ageing’. And I went on to tell him how much I liked her and how without knowing her I felt motherly towards her and I felt proud of her for what she’s done at such a young age. Well, I didn’t realise that Jennifer was sitting there.”

Even so, Madsen went through a series of auditions in which Russell began to shape the character for her until she was officially cast.

“Most of the roles I tend to do now are very much like my personality, and this was not at all; this was a complete character role for me,” she says. “David could see that he was going to sculpt me into something I’d never been before.”

She had to get used to the director’s style too. Madsen recalls how in one scene he sat under a table, another under a bed, all to be closer to the actors. Lawrence, De Niro and Cooper had all worked with Russell before, and so as Madsen says, “I thought, ‘They’re going with it, I should go with it.’”

Still, it was hard for the veteran actress not to get a little rattled.

“There’s still a part of me that was going, ‘Oh, my God, Robert De Niro is throwing things at me. This is so cool,’” she says. “I grew up admiring him as one of the greatest living actors ever. And there he is and such a dream come true, to meet him and work with him. The fact I got to scream and yell and have an on-screen fight, I was so high at the end of that day – I could do it, I could fight Robert De Niro. That’s a pretty cool thing to find out.”

Tribune News Service

Joy opens on December 31