After attending the Ted Liss Acting Studio in Chicago, Madsen went to Hollywood, landing a bit part in 1983's Class. The following year, she played Princess Irulan (the opening narrator) in Dune and the female lead in Electric Dreams. Throughout the '80s and '90s, she lit up many a routine film -- Fire with Fire, Creator, Slamdance, Hot to Trot, The Hot Spot, Highlander 2, Mr. North, Candyman and Ghosts of Mississippi.
She was rescued from mid-career obscurity by Alexander Payne, who cast her as Maya in his 2004 smash Sideways. Her touching performance as a lonely waitress/wine expert resulted in a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.