Amy Madigan has a voice like industrial-strength sandpaper, and a street urchin's face. At 34, she's been an actress for only five years, but has packed more memorable parts into that short time than some performers do in a career.
She was a "tough little kid turned responsible parent" in "Love Child," her first film -- and first leading role. In "Streets of Fire," a curious rock 'n' roll "fable" released with a loud thud last summer, she stood out as a hard-bitten street punk. In "Places in the Heart," which won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, she played the wistful "Sylvia Plath-type woman," the schoolteacher who had an affair with Sally Field's brother-in-law.
And now, as Glory in "Alamo Bay," she plays her best role yet, a brash small-town woman in Texas who discovers she has principles when faced with a confrontation between Vietnamese immigrants and the redneck locals who resent the newcomers' intrusion into the shrimping trade. Her character, the daughter of a fish wholesaler, is a simple soul whose pleasures run to beer halls, country-western music and an affair with her married high school sweetheart, who happens to be the leader of the rednecks.
"Glory is just this kind of real person, who has as many problems and is as wishy-washy as any of us, and somehow through it learns somethin' about herself," she says. "She's a simple character in that sense, which was the appeal to me of her. She doesn't pick all the cotton and stop the river and do all those things -- you know what I mean."
Her skin isn't perfect, her lean figure offers a bosom any self-respecting starlet would scoff at, and she has a cocky walk that cries out for cowboy boots (which she wears during an interview). She talks rapidly, dropping g's with abandon. She looks anything but glamorous in "Alamo Bay," with her hair bleached platinum and crimped to look as if she's had a bad home permanent.
"I'm lucky to have hair at this point," she snorts. "It's been burned, fuzzed, dyed, rolled, curled . . . But I'd shave my head for the right movie. That just makes it all the more fun."
She's had a rather extraordinary run of luck for someone who turned to acting when she was 29. Before that she was a rock singer (she sings on the soundtrack of "Alamo Bay"), with 10 years of beer joints, starting bands and disbanding them, fighting off unappreciative patrons and learning to take rejection.
"I actually had people pull me offstage by my pants legs because I offended them," she says. "They hated me, they hated the music, they hated my singing, they hated everything. Once we were playin' a beer bar in Madison, Wisconsin, and a guy looked at me and I was lookin' at him and he took a pitcher of beer and poured it into the PA system, and blew it up.
"I don't think this guy really liked my singing a lot. I picked up a mike stand and kind of went over at the guy to kind of get him off of what he was doing and probably reeled off a few obscenities. I suppose that was the early days of punk, in a sense."
But rock 'n' roll is performing, and not an unlikely route to film. It was a good training ground for all the guff, hype and guile of show business, too.
"I got into a band my first week in college Marquette . I met these guys at a party who were playing in this band, and I lied to them. I said I had sung and played in bands. I lied. So they said, 'Well, great, be in our band.' And I was pretty bad, but I was so undaunted, and I just knew I could do it. Which I know sounds egotistical and presumptuous, but you have to have those qualities if you're going to stand up and perform for people.
"But I'm one of those people who literally from a little teeny kid fantasizing in her bedroom putting clothes on her head, I knew what I was going to do. I was in all the school plays and all the piano adjudications, and I played sports -- in all the speech contests, it was just very clear to me. A life of performing and standing in front of people -- it was obvious -- I'm sure obnoxiously obvious to a lot of my friends and family."
She is from Chicago, where her father, John Madigan, is political editor and media critic for WBBM, a CBS-owned radio station. "Her aunt used to call her the Toe Dancer," he says. "But she was not obnoxious. She's worked very hard."
After 10 years of having "put together bands, loaded equipment, borrowed money and driven the vans," as well as singing and playing keyboards, she decided it was time for a change. As a singer, she says, she was a good performer. She'd made one record that "aside from my family and about two friends didn't go too far. It's a real Madigan cult favorite."
So she moved to Los Angeles, got a job as a waitress and began studying full time at the Lee Strasberg Institute, the West Coast temple to Method acting. "I just worked every day, all day, and did about 8,000 scenes, and got to work with Mr. Strasberg," she says. "It was a really good experience for me. And then I just kind of hit the streets. Auditioned for plays and parts, met my current manager, he introduced me to my agents, and they said, 'Well, there's something about you we like, we'll send you out for something.'
"And they sent me out for a television show, a 'Hart to Hart' show. And I got it. And they kind of went 'Hmh!' They sent me on a movie of the week and I got that. So it happened very naturally."
Last year, while filming "Places in the Heart" in Texas, she married her longtime beau, actor Ed Harris, who also is her costar in "Alamo Bay." "We'd been living together and talking about getting married, and being in Waxahachie, in that kind of small-town situation, we thought, yeah, it seems like a good time to do this.
"We got up and had breakfast in this little coffee shop. Then we went over to the justice of the peace with our dog and got married, and then we had to go work that afternoon. So we went back to work and we were kind of giggling and saying, 'Well, guess what we did!' It was a really great day. And I think we drank a lot of beer and played pool that evening."
Madigan may be "hot," but she says her phone is not exactly ringing off the hook with offers. "I am an unemployed person for the first time in a long time and it feels just fine," she says. "I'm also in a different situation. I can pick and choose a little. But people are not breakin' down my door, I'm not gettin' offered a lot. But I feel sometimes that these parts are picking me, in a sense. And if I don't take some time for just myself, I'll be closing myself off to a lot of things.
"I mean, how many movies do you see that you really like? There are not that many parts to begin with, and women's parts -- forget it. You're either the prostitute or now there's this rash of this contemporary woman who's like the city D.A., who's divorced, who has these two fabulous kids and can take care of them, and also has a great sex life -- that superwoman kind of thing. That's why I like 'Alamo Bay.' "
She likes to play people who "have edges to them." Her goals run more to Ratso Rizzo (the street person Dustin Hoffman played in "Midnight Cowboy") than glamorous heroines, and she's prepared to wait. Home (in California) and time to walk the dogs look pretty good right now.
"You hear stories and you wonder, 'Why are creature comforts so important to actors on location ?' Why is it so important to have a nice Winnebago, why do they need that certain kind of tea -- it's because you basically give up any kind of normalcy in your life. I'm home one month of the year. You're always disrupting some community's life, and then you're saying goodbye. You're away from home and family and a place to kind of hang out. The rewards are great, I'm not complaining, but emotionally it's very taxing. So those kinds of things -- like I want dry toast, and if you give me butter -- these things all of sudden take on such . . .
"I'm looking forward to just being able to read."