Michael Madsen doesn't want to hurt me.
''I've been drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes -- my breath is probably horrendous,'' says the husky-voiced Kill Bill -- Vol. 2 star from behind his trademark Ray-Bans. ''I'm sorry if I'm blowing you out of the chair.''
Honestly, I hadn't noticed. Not with the breeze rolling across the veranda of the beachfront L.A. home Madsen, 45, shares with his wife, De Anna, a place filled with McQueen and Mitchum movie posters as well as original Wanted flyers for John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. Not with three of his five young sons firing spuds from a homemade potato cannon off the porch 200 feet into the Pacific. And not with the family's shrieking pet macaw, Marlon, threatening to destroy every last piece of furniture with its sharp beak.
Rather, what I'm considering, sitting here on a brisk Easter Sunday, is how this Ugg boot-wearing family man -- the same guy whose face adorns the walls of 98 percent of America's frat houses because he sliced off that poor fella's ear in Reservoir Dogs -- clearly isn't a scoundrel. ''There's always that moment where you go to pick up your son's friend,'' he says with a smile, ''where the parents give you the once-over, you know? 'Oh, s -- -, there he is! Oh my God, there's that f -- -in' guy!' And then there's that long pause where they kind of evaluate and say, 'Do I really want my son to go over to his house?'''
Indeed, a large number of Madsen's 60-odd film and TV roles land on the heavy side of the nice -- mean spectrum. But he seems to have much more in common with his benevolent characters from Thelma & Louise and Free Willy than with the tough guys he's played in The Natural, The Getaway, Donnie Brasco, and several cheapie thrillers with names like The Thief and the Stripper that he admits he did to put food in the fridge. ''If I was single,'' he says, ''I could sit around and wait for the kind of roles that I'd like to have'' -- a very frequent lament -- ''but that's not what my life is.''
Spend an afternoon with Madsen and you get lots of this sort of morality, a quality that undoubtedly informed his portrayal of Kill Bill's Budd -- a sleazy murderer who nonetheless wears the white hat of a good cowboy and, in many ways, is the conscience of the piece. ''What's funny is how incredibly likable he is even though he buries Uma alive,'' says Quentin Tarantino. ''He does this horrible thing, but people think he's the most sympathetic person in the movie.''
He's come quite a way, this firefighter's son from Chicago, who followed his younger sister, Virginia, to Hollywood more than 20 years ago. Madsen's big break came when a girl he met while working at a gas station in Beverly Hills introduced him to an agent. (''I met a lot of girls there,'' he laughs mischievously.) His spare time still revolves around cars and motorcycles. He also writes autobiographical short stories and poems -- his latest book of personal musings, 46 Down, is due in June -- which hint, somewhat regretfully, at a past checkered with drugs and petty crime. ''It's not something I want to dwell on,'' he says, ''because I don't want [my sons] to think that it was cool.''
These days, however, coolness is definitely something Madsen has mastered. And he hopes to bring it to a pet project about 1930s crook Pretty Boy Floyd, for which he's cowritten a script and which he hopes to produce and possibly direct if he can land the financing. He'd also love to play Johnny Cash, if anyone's looking. And he's game for any future Tarantino flick -- perhaps even the long-discussed The Vega Brothers, which would unite Madsen's Vic from Dogs and John Travolta's Vincent from Pulp Fiction. ''S -- -, I'd make a commercial about toilet seats with Quentin, if he wanted me to,'' Madsen says.
Of course, then we'd all be afraid to go to the bathroom.