When Virginia Madsen showed up to audition for the new suspense film Slamdance, the temperature-humidity index seemed about ready to go off the charts. A sizzling blonde even in a snowstorm, Madsen felt drawn to the role of Yolanda, a high-class call girl whose murder draws her lover into a web of corruption and intrigue. "I loved this mysterious woman, and I asked if I could read for the part," says Madsen. "It was very strange. I disappeared inside myself. I didn't remember what I did later on, but there was silence, and they stared at me after I was done. They must have seen something in me."

That they did. "My glasses steamed up after reading with Virginia," says actor-screenwriter Don Opper, who scripted Slamdance and plays the killer. "She melted the socks off everybody in the room." Though the movie opened recently to lukewarm reviews, Madsen's erotic performance tended to blister the paint off projection-room walls. In the film, she plays a steamy hilltop love scene with Tom Hulce, and the rest of the time her voluptuous bod is sheathed (barely) in a split-to-the-navel dress so tight it had to be sewn on. Add her cascades of shimmering golden hair and you have an actress who invites predictable, but not farfetched, comparisons with Marilyn Monroe. While she has yet to have a memorable hit (her other credits include Dune and Electric Dreams), the 26-year-old Chicagoan is currently Hollywood's sex symbol of choice. Since she started acting five years ago, she has appeared in no fewer than 14 movies, and she hasn't had more than a week off in the past 52. Since wrapping Slamdance, Madsen has logged three more credits, including the movie Gotham, scheduled for Showtime, in which she plays a sexually voracious ghost who does some hot-and-heavy haunting of co-star Tommy Lee Jones.

Madsen, however, doesn't identify with the sex-symbol role she has come to inhabit. "I felt somewhat sexy," she says of her part in Slamdance, "but I really felt more goofy, since I don't wear heels a lot, and I was extremely clumsy on the set." Those feelings of awkwardness date back to her high school days at suburban New Trier, where she always felt like a bit of a freak among the preppy crowd. "I was very unpopular," she says. "I was always so much the thespian that I was constantly overdramatizing everything and seeking attention." Perhaps in anticipation of roles to come, Madsen played up a reputation for sexual wild-ness. In fact, she says, all her trips to the makeout room at parties never led to more than a kiss, but she loved to tweak her peers by gasping in shocked surprise, "You mean you don't know what it looks like?"

Madsen's first real love was actor Bill Campbell, who played Steven Carrington's gay paramour in Dynasty. Madsen met him while acting in Chicago, and he followed her to California, where they eventually bought a house together and settled down, only to break up a year and a half ago. "Getting over a breakup was hard for me," says Madsen. "It's fine now, but it was very lonely and scary for a time. I got out of it with [the help of] a psychiatrist." She also relied on her brother, Michael, 30, an actor, and her sister, Sherri, 35, for solace. "When things are tough, I go to my family," she says. "We've been through some tough times together."

Madsen's parents divorced when she was 6, and she remains close to her father, Cal, and her mother, Elaine, an award-winning documentary writer who had custody of the three Madsen kids. Five weeks ago, Virginia was working as a cocktail waitress when agent Loree Rodkin arrived in Chicago in search of new talent and was immediately attracted to her "street quality." "Virginia was glamorous, but I wanted to dirty her up," she says. "I knew she could be a great psychotic, sex-raving creature."

While her career barrels along according to plan, Madsen spends her off hours relaxing at her two-bedroom home in the Beverly Hills canyon area, listening to classical music or old recordings of Marilyn Monroe. For all the Madsen-Monroe comparisons, she has yet to find a role to match the legend of Norma Jean. At this point, though, Rodkin is concerned that the Monroe image is omnipresent and potentially harmful. "If there's any problem for Virginia in getting parts, it's that she's too pretty," she says. "The trouble is, genetics still get in the way."

  • Contributors:
  • David Hutchings.