The scion of a Chicago acting family, Christian Madsen gazes at a bright future after fighting hard for his blockbuster debut.
Christian Madsen’s got movie-star material flowing through his veins: He’s the son of actor Michael Madsen and actress Jeannine Bisignano, nephew of Virginia Madsen, and grandson of Emmy-winning filmmaker Elaine Madsen. Equally influential is his Chicago heritage — Elaine was a South Side native, her husband was a Chicago firefighter who’s still well-known on the force, and Michael got his start at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
So when Christian, 24, landed a role in “Divergent,” the recently released futuristic flick set and filmed in Chicago, it afforded him a long overdue homecoming. “I was able to catch up with my grandpa, who I hadn’t seen much in my life,” he says. “Every time I was able to set something up where we could get dinner or breakfast, we’d go to the Greek Islands [200 S. Halsted], his favorite restaurant, and just catch up on what we missed. It was great being able to talk face-to-face.”
For Madsen, “Divergent” represented not just a chance to reconnect with his roots, but a turning point. Growing up in LA, Madsen was surrounded by acting (though it was his grandmother, not his father, who encouraged him to pursue a Hollywood career after watching him in high school plays). But even with raw talent and renowned lineage, it’s never easy to break into the industry. Before “Divergent,” Madsen’s movie roles were limited to a few jobs alongside his father and some low-budget indie films. “I think the last film I did never got made,” Madsen laughs. “It’s probably on YouTube. I’m not going to say the name — I’ll tell the guy to delete it!”
Just days before getting cast in the blockbuster film, Madsen was out of work (he’d d been laid off from his maintenance gig at a hotel), three months behind on rent, and about to be evicted from his apartment. “I was at a time in my acting life that I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore,’ ” he says. “I was auditioning every day and getting, ‘No, he’s too tall,’ or ‘No, he’s too short.’ It was killing me.” Luckily, the 6-foot-3-inch actor held on long enough to land a role in the much-buzzed-about “Divergent,” admitting that “when I got the movie, it was a last resort for me.” As a result, his life has done a complete reversal — he’s now on the edge of becoming a star.
The film, an adaptation of the popular young adult trilogy (penned by Chicagoan Veronica Roth), follows Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she struggles to survive in an oppressive society where citizens must conform to one of five groups. The groups — Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite — each value a different trait (selflessness, peace, honesty, bravery and intelligence, respectively). Madsen plays Al, Tris’ bashful companion and a new member of the risk-taking Dauntless faction.
Even though landing the part pulled Madsen from the brink of leaving Hollywood, the enormity of the opportunity didn’t immediately resonate with the actor. “I was fortunate enough to get the audition, but I didn’t look up what magnitude this movie could be. I didn’t know what size this movie was until I saw most of the sets,” he says. Even his friends and family seemed surprised by the scale of the film. “At the beginning of this, when I got the movie and went to Chicago, I called my grandma and told my friends, ‘Yeah, I’m in this movie called ‘Divergent.’ They were like, ‘Are you doing a charity thing for funding?’ ” he laughs. “No one knew what was going on. [Next thing you know], we’re going to Comic-Con.”
But the film’s $80 million budget and stellar cast (including Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd) didn’t throw the up-and-coming actor — after all, he grew up a Madsen. “You know, what was so great was that I was growing up and I would go on set with my dad and see how he treated other people. He was always so nice and humble,” he recalls. “I’ve seen him swarmed by fans, swamped by the paparazzi and I’ve seen people come up at restaurants and say, ‘Hey, can I get a photo?’ He never created a wall around himself. He was always approachable.”
On the “Divergent” set, Madsen instantly found common ground with his character. “I think I can relate to [Al’s] shyness,” he says. “I’ve been Al in high school, yearning to be accepted and going after the girl who didn’t like me.” As for which faction Madsen himself fits into? “I think I would go Erudite, because I want to seek more knowledge. I read a lot, so I would connect with that group. But I think of how much fun we had on set and all the training we did, and I think that I would at least attempt to be Dauntless,” he says. He pauses, then jokes, “I think on day two I would miss the train jump, [fail the test] and just go factionless.”
That’s one thing about Madsen: Despite his legendary family and brooding looks, he’s playful, quick to laugh and crack jokes. In fact, his affability was integral to the“Divergent” cast’s bonding. “Week two, Zoë [Kravitz] got us all tickets to see Erykah Badu. I remember that was still the week when everyone was trying to get to know each other,” Madsen says. “Everyone let go of all the ego, just dancing and having a good time.”
That night — plus two weeks of high-intensity tactical training with guns and knives — helped turn the cast of up-and-comers into a tightknit group with real chemistry. “We did some fun stuff together and it bled into the work we did in the movie,” he says.
The fun Madsen had off-screen was made more special by his strong familial and emotional ties to the city. When he wasn’t filming, the actor says he maximized his time in Chicago, connecting to his roots as much as possible. He threw out the opening pitch at Wrigley Field, watched the Blackhawks during the playoffs and attended the Stanley Cup victory parade, where he was given a ride by a firefighter who, by complete coincidence, knew his grandfather. “I just love the city so much,” he says. “It’s definitely a home away from home.”
Now that the film’s a hit (it’s grossed more than $62 million since its opening weekend), Madsen is setting his sights on bigger projects. “Since ‘Divergent’ I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to audition for things they wouldn’t see me for beforehand,” he explains. “You get into those rooms that you never thought you would. You get to be a little bit more choosy, which is good.”
His switch from indie flicks to studio productions wasn’t instantaneous: Right after filming “Divergent,” Madsen went to New York to film “Prism,” a small-budget drama due out later this year that follows his character as he searches for his long-lost father. He admits the dichotomy between the two sets was a bit of a shock to the system. “It was a complete turnaround. There was no money,” he says. “It was so funny to go from ‘Divergent,’ where we were comfortable and had lots of extras and everything was safe, to no permits and the cops are coming and everything’s improv. It was 14-hour days and no lunch breaks.”
Though the future looks bright for Madsen, he’s making sure not to get ahead of himself. He’s still in the same LA apartment he was getting evicted from last year — though, admittedly, he’s ready for a move. “I’ve seen my last cockroach go by me,” he laughs. Then he pauses. “I just don’t want to jump too soon,” he adds. “I want to find a place that I want to be in for a couple years.” If his current trajectory is any indication, he should be looking for a spot in the limelight.
Photographer: David Needleman
Stylist: Marissa Peden
Groomer: Erica Sauer
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios