Actress Madeleine Stowe at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Madeleine Stowe drops the L-word frequently — L as in "love." She is a woman who loves love.
Not that you'd know it from her stark, unsentimental appearance: She is swathed in black, from her raven mane to her ankle boots. And her on-screen persona as the icy, detached Victoria Grayson on ABC's "Revenge" only adds to her image as a woman without an obvious soft spot. But the pensive tone in Stowe's voice turns ever so lively when romance enters the conversation — which is often.
"To me, love is vital," she said, gingerly dipping a tea bag in her cup on a gloomy weekday. "I've always felt most connected to material through a love story. That's kind of what I live for. It's something that consumes me, tantalizes me.... It heals things for me in real life."
Although the 53-year-old actress had mostly avoided TV in her prime, she found "Revenge" alluring because, she said, "love, in a weird way, is woven into every aspect of the show. That's what reeled me in."
It's her highest-profile role in the last decade. Stowe launched her career as a film star in the '80s and '90s, starring in "Stakeout," "The Last of the Mohicans" and "12 Monkeys." But Stowe eventually stepped out of the spotlight and moved to a small town in Texas to concentrate on motherhood.
"I had never considered leaving the business," she said. "But after I had [my daughter] May, something just sort of broke in me a little bit. I felt very vigilant as a parent. And that engine to be an actor sort of disappeared. And it was odd to me. I was always very driven — maybe not as driven as some other actors — but I didn't know how to call that thing back up in me that I once had — it almost didn't exist anymore."
During that time, calls from close friends often went unreturned and roles for projects such as Michael Mann's "Heat" fell by the wayside.
"It wasn't out of rudeness or lack of affection," she said. "I don't know how to describe it. I just became so immersed in this other world." A world in which Stowe donned scuffed cowboy boots and tattered jeans, tended to cattle on her ranch, and plunked herself into Native American history — more specifically, Comanche Indians.
"I loved learning about these people," she said. "I just became engrossed by it all. I read stacks of books and just became obsessed." She put pen to paper in 2003 — literally handwriting a screenplay with husband Brian Benben ("Private Practice") — for what has become her passion project: an epic romantic western film titled "Unbound Captives."
She had originally intended it as a vehicle for herself, noting, "Once female actors hit 40, it becomes increasingly difficult." But that intention fizzled as she declined deals and the years piled up. Instead, she cast Rachel Weisz in the role she originally wrote for herself and will direct the film, in which Hugh Jackman is also slated.
The frustrations and delays in bringing the film to the big screen — she hopes to begin production in 2013 — led Stowe to search for a role to keep her busy instead of "keeping my life in suspension waiting for all the pieces to fall together."
"I had given up the idea of wanting to be an actress," she said. "And then my agent said, 'Would you like to try stuff out this pilot season?' This was the one thing that spoke to me, because I thought the character was very twisted and compelling. She's not like anyone I've ever seen before."
Reminiscent of the classic, campy nighttime soaps of the past ("Knots Landing," "Dynasty" and "Dallas"), "Revenge" has proved to be an addictive force, averaging a solid 7 million viewers in its 10 p.m. Wednesday slot. Loosely inspired by Alexandre Dumas' classic book "The Count of Monte Cristo," the drama centers on a young woman returning to the Hamptons for vengeance on the wealthy elite — Victoria Grayson among them — who caused the destruction of her family.
Victoria is a figure whose smile can cut like a dagger, and her scheming ways as a society queen have earned Stowe a Golden Globe nomination.
"I was such a fan of the movies she did back in the '90s," said show creator Mike Kelley. "She was such a specific actress — you just don't forget her. That's the kind of power we needed for Victoria. Someone who is very grounded and commanding. I think that the reason Victoria works is that while she does all these reprehensible, wicked things, Madeleine infuses some humanity at just the right moment so you can really understand her behavior is driven by deep pain and insecurity."
The role, from afar, might not seem that much of a stretch; Stowe's shyness can be mistaken for aloofness.
"I'm nice, I swear," she insists. "I've had people say they are afraid of me!" she added. "Most times they just stand back because they're too afraid. You just hear their whispers."