Madeleine in the Hill Country
Can a Hollywood actress keep up a successful career living in Central Texas? As Madeleine Stowe has discovered, it depends on how you define “successful.”
MADELEINE STOWE HAS A GREEN TONGUE. the actress best known for her performance as the strong-willed Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans has been sucking on a lollipop as she sits in the living room of her Hill Country house and talks about sobering issues such as the current state of cinema. Listening to this soft-spoken woman discuss her career and her family as her tongue turns an unsettling shade of lime green is more than a little disconcerting.
It is also strangely appropriate. Stowe is full of contradictions. She is a striking woman in person and on-screen, but one whose dark, unconventional beauty flies in the face of perpetually blond, blue-eyed Hollywood. Her features are delicate, but her laugh is raucous and deep. Stowe is often candid in interviews, but she’s also reserved and thoughtful.
Sometimes these juxtapositions work in her favor, as in The General’s Daughter, a military thriller due out this month in which Stowe co-stars, with John Travolta, as Army rape investigator Sarah Sunhill. The film’s director, Simon West, describes Stowe’s role as a difficult one to play because her character has to be no-nonsense and smart—someone you’d believe was in the Army—yet sexy enough to be Travolta’s unrequited love interest. “Madeleine’s very good at that,” West says. “Also, when I spoke to her, she totally got it. A lot of actresses were trying to play it very heavy and everything was a tragedy: the tragedy of the murder [of the rape victim] and then the tragedy of the unrequited love between her and the Travolta character. But she sort of took it in a much lighter vein.”
This is not the first time that Stowe has played a complicated character, but it may be the first time since The Last of the Mohicans that so many people will see her performance. Budgeted at $60 million, The General’s Daughter was being fine-tuned by West in Los Angeles as Stowe spoke about it thousands of miles away on her ranch just outside Fredericksburg. Paramount, the movie’s distributor, is so confident about it that the studio decided to release the film in early summer, one of the industry’s most competitive and lucrative seasons.
And if The General’s Daughter is a critical and commercial success, what might it mean for Stowe’s career? The forty-year-old actress has made fifteen feature films, but hers is not a household name. Nor is her face instantly recognizable, although it has recently appeared in fashion magazines in designer Emanuel Ungaro’s strikingly minimalist black-and-white spring ad campaign. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all is that, on the verge of a probable career upswing, Stowe seems more ambivalent than ever about being a Hollywood actress.
STOWE IS DRESSED IN JEANS AND AN OVERSIZED gray T-shirt, her trademark long chestnut hair—the same mane that rivaled Daniel Day-Lewis’ for screen time in The Last of the Mohicans—pulled back from her face in a loose knot. She moves easily around the kitchen of the airy, two-story limestone house she shares with her husband, actor Brian Benben (best known as the humorously neurotic protagonist of the HBO series Dream On), and their daughter, May, who turns three this month. Stowe met Benben in 1981 when they co-starred as husband and wife in NBC’s short-lived series The Gangster Chronicles. They married in real life in 1986.
May has just woken up from a nap, one that Stowe had hoped would last a bit longer. “We don’t have a nanny,” she explains as she and Benben casually negotiate their daughter’s next few hours. With long brown hair just like her mom’s, May makes sure she’s in the thick of the action, wandering out from the kitchen to size up their visitor. She pretends to be downright uninterested, but she’s reluctant to go outside with her father, almost suspicious of what’s going to happen in her absence. Stowe warmly reassures her daughter that she can come back in a little while.
“She’s very competitive when people come around,” Stowe says with a touch of pride as she waves good-bye to May and Benben. As if on cue, May turns just outside the screen door and screams out, “We’ll be right back!” Stowe laughs and says, “See ya!”
The house sits on a four-hundred-acre ranch about eighty miles west of Austin. Stowe and Benben bought the place in 1994 just after Stowe finished Bad Girls, the women-with-guns period piece shot in Brackettville and produced by Fredericksburg neighbor Lynda Obst. Making Bad Girls was not a pleasant experience for the actress. The studio switched directors after two weeks of shooting, and Stowe says she thought her co-stars (who included Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Drew Barrymore) viewed her approach to acting as “competitive.” “It could be very interesting, or it could not be,” Stowe told Newsweek just before the movie’s release, a comment that revealed her ambivalence about the project. The experience wasn’t a total wash, however. To escape the confines of the shoot, Stowe would drive northeast from Brackettville toward the Hill Country. She fell in love with the area, and a few months later she found the ranch.
Stowe’s reflective nature is suited to the pace of life in the Hill Country, and she traces a shift in the trajectory of her career to her move to Texas and the birth of her daughter two years later, in 1996. She realized that while she enjoyed making movies, the urge to work wasn’t as forceful as it had been in previous years. “My career had been going at a certain clip for a long time,” she explains. “I always considered myself very ambitious, but I knew that there was a distinction between myself and other actors. It’s what I’ve had to come to terms with.”
Ted and Carolyn Kyle, the parents of Stowe’s former assistant Kellie Macy, live in the ranch’s original homestead, only a few hundred feet from the main house. Stowe and Benben consider the Kyles family, and the older couple manage the ranch on a daily basis. When they’re not on location, Stowe and Benben actually work their ranch. On this particular April weekend, they’re preparing to fertilize the hay field and hoping for rain.
The couple has a small herd of cattle that roams “the back one-fifty,” as Stowe calls it, in addition to horses, antelope, swans, and sheep. “This is a very small operation,” says Stowe, “but Ted insists that we do everything the cowboy way.” “Everything” includes spraying the cattle with insecticides and castrating the bull calves in the spring and fall.
Stowe appears more relaxed talking about life on the ranch than discussing her career. “I’d much rather be talking about this,” she says as we tour the ranch in a Mule, a golf-cart-sized SUV. She pulls up to the barn, which houses six horses, and shows off the tack room, with everyone’s saddle hanging on a peg over a piece of duct tape marked with the owner’s name.
“Actually, I really rather like Los Angeles,” she says, steering the Mule over the uneven terrain and up a small hill. “I even like the film business. But this place has color. If the whole world were destroyed, they could take care of themselves here,” she says of her Texas neighbors. “I mean, it may be a complete fantasy, but that’s what you feel out here. There’s a certain kind of resourcefulness and a willingness to roll with whatever difficulties are given them.”
The same could be said about Stowe and the way she approaches her career. She has a talent for breathing life into lackluster characters. Her movies are not always good, as she’d be one of the first to admit. During a 1994 interview, when a journalist asked about China Moon, a contemporary film noir she made with Ed Harris, Stowe reportedly told him, “You’ll laugh your ass off!” (The movie is not a comedy.) Her opinion of The General’s Daughter, however, is considerably higher: “For me, it’s another good movie.”
Stowe’s career could use another good movie. After the success of The Last of the Mohicans in 1992, Stowe had a certain amount of bankability in Hollywood. Having spent the previous years playing characters whose most memorable attribute was their beauty, she became more discriminating about her roles. When Robert Altman approached her to play the part of an unhappily married painter in Short Cuts, she turned it down because of a scene in which she’d have to appear nude below the waist. That part went to Julianne Moore. When Short Cuts opened in 1993, the joke about Moore’s being a natural redhead appeared in almost every review of the film, and the scene got her noticed in more ways than one. Stowe chose instead to play Moore’s sister Sherri, a savvy, sardonic housewife married to Tim Robbins’ philandering cop. In the end, Stowe did appear nude in one scene, posing for her sister the painter. Though Stowe’s part was not nearly as memorable as Moore’s, it showcased what Lynda Obst describes as her “wicked, low-key sense of humor.”
Stowe continues to pick and choose roles on her own terms. And while she has done her share of interviews over the years, she hasn’t taken a traditional path in promoting her career, either. “I really don’t understand the nature of it,” Stowe muses. “Some [actors] are very, very good at expressing what’s going on or inventing things in order to be interesting,” she says. “But I never quite understood how to do that and do that comfortably.”
Back in the house, a copy of the latest Vanity Fair lies next to her on the couch. It is the magazine’s annual Hollywood issue, and a posse of up-and-coming young actors slouch across the cover. Stowe mentions that she occasionally watches Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, and she seems genuinely curious about the industry in which she has worked for the past two decades. She has more respect for Hollywood’s past than for its present, however, and she’s concerned about its future. “What worries me is that life experience is something that’s not cherished or valued anymore,” explains the actress. She has little tolerance for what she sees as a lack of context in contemporary acting. “I think that an older generation of actors like Pacino, they’re very, very articulate and very thoughtful,” she says. “I think they’ve lived lives. They have a sentimentality. They’re self-educated in a way, incredibly well-read. They understand what’s going on in the world. They understand the past. My generation and younger have very little context.
“Basically,” Stowe concludes, “I don’t find it interesting to hear any of my contemporaries talk about acting. It’s not interesting when I talk about it. I haven’t heard anyone in my generation say one interesting thing about it.”
Stowe freely admits that she fell into acting. She grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and the glamorous Hollywood images that provided the backdrop for her adolescence motivated her plan to major in journalism at the University of Southern California, where she briefly considered a career in film criticism. As a freshman at USC, she was “discovered” in 1977 by the veteran Hollywood agent Meyer Mishkin, who at the time was representing Richard Dreyfuss and had come to see his client perform in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man at the Solari Theatre in Beverly Hills. Stowe was passing out programs when she met Mishkin, and he signed her as a client almost immediately. She became one of the first actresses to be represented by the agent, who was better known for handling macho actors such as Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.
Stowe had been hanging out at the Solari as a way to prepare for her future career as a critic, cutting classes to be there. She found the actors exotic and felt accepted in a way she never had during her awkward high school years, which she sums up with characteristic self-deprecating humor: “I used to hang around the circle [of popular girls] all the time, and if I said one thing, that was like a really, really good day.”
For many years after her opportune meeting with Mishkin, Stowe was cast in television movies and miniseries. In 1987 she played the object of Richard Dreyfuss’ voyeuristic affections in her first feature film, the cop-buddy movie Stakeout, and this led to a steady stream of roles—Stowe was always the girlfriend or a woman in distress—in films such as Revenge and Unlawful Entry. Although she was often cast in nondescript parts, her reviews were usually strong. As Stuart Klawans, a film critic for The Nation, once wrote, Stowe “always makes whatever picture she’s in a little better.”
Then came Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. The movie was a box-office success and brought her to the attention of directors like Terry Gilliam, with whom she would later work in 12 Monkeys. Stowe has called Mann the most driven director she’s ever worked with. “He would want us in hair and makeup just to say some lines of dialogue with him. And that’s how he would make his wardrobe choice,” she remembers. “That’s the way a lot of people did it a long time ago, but it’s sort of a forgotten art.”
Stowe has worked with both male and female directors, and while she acknowledges that all directors are different, she prefers to work with men. “In all frankness, there’s a part of me that really likes the slightly more dogmatic approach that certain men have,” she says. With the women directors, on the other hand, “There was a tendency to talk about a scene or take over and over and over after it was done, asking other people, ‘Well, what did you think?’” Stowe says. “I think that you have to run certain things more like you would an army.”
Stowe is equally forthright about another complaint commonly voiced by actresses. “People always ask me, ‘What about the fact that there are no women’s roles?’ I don’t have an answer for it. I don’t feel like bitching about it. I’m not doing anything to [make it better]. When I feel that I have something that’s really, really wonderful on paper and somebody’s not wanting to do it—then I’ll bitch!” she says, laughing.
Stowe hints that she and Benben would like to work together again, perhaps to produce and direct a Texas-themed project, but neither actor offers specifics. When asked if she’d like to move beyond acting, however, Stowe is more candid. “I’ve always been interested in directing,” she says. “I don’t particularly relish the thought of, between takes, going back to my trailer and amusing myself with something,” she says of the tedium of an actor’s life on the set. “I feel really ungrateful saying it, because acting is an incredible opportunity to have in life. But that’s a part of making movies that is such a crashing bore. And there’s a lot of it.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stowe goes on. “In some ways I think that I’ve picked a path that is not as easy for me in terms of generating tons of work. I mean, there’s a certain path I could take that is a far more sociable and traditional thing.” Such a path might include living in Los Angeles and making the rounds socially, something she has rarely enjoyed. But there are those Hollywood insiders who support Stowe’s decision to have a life outside the film industry. Says Obst, who witnesses career desperation on a regular basis: “She’s not on the hustle.”
WHILE DRIVING AROUND THE PROPERTY earlier in the day, Stowe recalled that, not too long after she and Benben moved to their ranch, a friend had phoned to ask when she was returning to California. As Stowe remembered it, her friend said, “You’re still living your Texas fantasy. Okay, well, just call me when you get back,” as if her move to Texas were just one more location shoot.
Stowe laughed at the memory and the idea that her life in the Hill Country is just another role in her filmography. “I mean, it is a part. It always will be,” she admitted as she unhooked the last gate that separates the living quarters from the rest of the ranch. Then she paused as she climbed back into the Mule, shifted out of neutral, and looked toward the house, where Benben and May were playing in the sandbox. “Why not, right?”