1. “A lot of really wild people” auditioned.
Including Tom Waits. “I had Tom Waits read the Madonna speech just so I could hear Tom Waits [read the opening spiel about “Like a Virgin”].” Tarantino recalled. He did an impression of the raspy-voiced singer calling the script “poetry”—one of the first “profound compliments” the director ever got.
2. Tarantino was aiming for a Coen Brothers type thing.
He cast Roth partly because he was a “budding art-film superstar” who would get critical attention. “I didn’t want Reservoir Dogs to be a straight-to-video genre movie, I wanted it to play at the Laemmles and all the art houses,” Tarantino said. “I wanted it to be a genre-based art film like Blood Simple.”
3. The film was almost a play.
As a result, there were multiple weeks of rehearsals, during which Keitel says Madsen told him, “You know, Harvey, sometimes I want to hug you and something I just want to punch you in the face.” Keitel responded, “I feel the same way about you.”
4. Tarantino isn’t great at pronouncing Harvey Keitel’s name.
Keitel recalled his first encounter with the director: “I was shooting in LA. I rented this house and he came knocking on my door. I open the door and he goes, “Mr. KEE-til?” It’s Kie-TELL.”
5. Steve “Why am I Mr. Pink” Buscemi is lucky he got to be Mr. Pink.
During casting in Los Angeles, Keitel convinced Tarantino to audition some New York actors as well. As Tarantino recalled, Keitel paid for him and Lawrence Tierney, who played crime boss Joe Cabot in the movie, to fly to New York. “Harvey was in first class, we were in coach. And I remember, halfway through the flight, we actually met in the middle to have a drink or kind of a talk with Harvey in the middle of the flight. And Harvey goes, ‘Yeah, you know, I mean, I guess in a perfect world there’d be no such thing as first class, but since there is, I’m going to fly in it.’ And so we met with a whole bunch of New York actors, and that’s where we got Steve.” Keitel added: “That’s why, to this day, I enjoy reminding Steve Buscemi that he owes me his career.” To which Buscemi responded, “You owe me 25 bucks.”
6. Michael Madsen wasn’t the most cooperative auditionee.
Tarantino described how the actor who played Mr. Blonde declined to do two of the three scenes he was asked to read during the audition. “I couldn’t believe the balls of this fucking guy. He’s just going to fucking ignore what I fucking said? Seventeen fucking guys [who also came in to audition] did exactly what I asked them to do. Oh, but not you, no: ‘Well, we’re going to it this way.’ So I’m like [with] very folded arms, ‘Come on, motherfucker let’s see you…’ But, you know, he was amazing.”
7. The first public screening, at Sundance, was “a fucking disaster.”
The projector didn’t have a scope lens, so the film looked “like caca, all the way through,” Tarantino said. Then, during the climactic scene where everyone confronts each other in the warehouse, “all of a sudden the lights come up, and then somebody realizes, ‘Oh, shit, what’s going on?’” After that was figured out, there was a power outage during the final standoff. “I was like, okay, this is what it’s like to watch your movie in public,” Tarantino said.
8. That might have been Steve Buscemi’s fault.
“You didn’t want me to go to the first screening,” Buscemi recalled to Tarantino. “You said it would be bad luck.” He went anyway, and came back reporting that everyone was talking about the torture scene. “They’re saying the torture scene just ruins the movie,” Tarantino recalled Buscemi saying. “And I go, ‘What are they talking about? It’s the best scene in the fucking movie. You see how many people walked out on us? It’s the shit!’”
9. A lot of people walked out on subsequent screenings, including a famous horror director.
During the year that Tarantino traveled around to film festivals, he started keeping track of how many people walked out. “Thirty-three, alright? That was the largest walkout,” he recalled. Tarantino figured he’d be safe at the Shock and Gore Film Festival, but no. “Five people walked out in that audience—including Wes Craven. The guy who did The Last House on the Left— my movie was too tough on him.”
10. Michael Madsen is okay with setting a cop on fire… up to a point.
During the torture scene, Mr. Blonde douses his captive with gasoline. Madsen remembers asking Tarantino, during rehearsal, “What if I just light him up?” The director thought about it for a second and decided, “Nah, that’s too much.” (“I haven’t said that that often, that might’ve been one of the few times,” Tarantino admitted.) At one point, the actor who played the cop improvised a line: “I got a little kid at home.” According to Tarantino, “Michael had just had a son, and that fucked him up.” The director did his Madsen impression: “I won’t fuckin’ do it if he’s got a little kid. When it was just killing a cop, that was fun… But now that he’s got a little kid, it’s not going to be so much fun.”
11. Madsen was “intimidated” by having to dance to “Stuck in the Middle With You” during the torture scene.
He recalled that “in the script, it says, ‘Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around.’ Specifically, that’s what it said. And I kept thinking, What the fuck does that mean? Mick Jagger or what? What the fuck am I going to do?”
12. His torture shuffle was inspired by James Cagney.
Though Madsen was supposed to do the shimmy during auditions, he avoided it then and during rehearsals. During filming, when the Stealers Wheel song started playing on set, Madsen “didn’t know what the hell to do,” he said. “I heard the music and said, ‘Oh fuck, I better do something…’ I remembered this weird little thing that Jimmy Cagney did [in a movie]… he did this crazy little dance thing. It just popped into my head at the last second.”
13. Just don’t ever ask Madsen to do that dance again.
Madsen recalled being invited to the opening of a theater in Michigan that was being named after him. It was an honor, except for one thing. “They sent me a memo of what I was supposed to do and it said, ‘First we’ll announce the naming of the theater and then Michael Madsen will come out doing the Mr Blonde dance. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way I’m going to do that. I started imagining myself like 80 years old, with someone asking me to do the Mr. Blonde dance.”