‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ Director Remembers Madonna’s ‘Naughty Sense of Humor’

With prominent supporting roles in classics like “A League of Their Own” and “Dick Tracy,” as well as the lead in the screen adaptation of the musical “Evita,” Madonna’s film career is well-established, but might never have happened without her star turn in the 1985 cult comedy “Desperately Seeking Susan.” A modern farce set in the scuzzy beauty of ‘80s New York City, the film follows a straight-laced housewife and a bohemian drifter who become intertwined in a criminal plot involving a pair of stolen earrings. While the film is led by actress Roseanna Arquette, it quickly became known as the “Madonna movie,” with her character’s fashion sense — which mirrored Madonna’s own — and her free-spirit energy coming to define the popular culture of the era.

“Everyone’s concern was to find the right actor for the role of Susan,” wrote the film’s director, Susan Seidelman, in her memoir, “Desperately Seeking Something,” an excerpt of which was recently published in Vanity Fair. “We considered every young actress who was generating excitement in the early 1980s. Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Fiorentino, Kim Cattrall, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith. Even singer Suzanne Vega came in to audition. But I knew of another singer who happened to live only a few blocks away, in a loft on Broome Street, and thought she might be an interesting possibility.”

More from IndieWire

That other singer — you guessed it — was none other than Madonna. Her second album, “Like a Virgin,” had just propelled her to global-phenom status and Seidelman was paying attention.

“The first thing that struck me was her naughty sense of humor. A confident swagger worn like a protective second skin to cover up any hint of insecurity,” Seidelman wrote. “Later on, Madonna would admit to sharing a lot with the character of Susan. Both used their powers of persuasion to get friends and lovers to do what they wanted. Both were charming con artists that didn’t let you know you were being conned. There was an art to seduction, and Madonna had mastered it. She was a flirt who made everyone she flirted with feel a little bit sexier. Men and women. That was her gift.”

Despite her worldwide popularity, studio executives on the film didn’t know who she was. In a pitch to prove her bonafides for the role, Seidelman wrote that Madonna flew to Los Angeles to meet with producer Barbara Boyle.

“Madonna walked into Barbara’s office,” she wrote, “fell on her knees, and said, ‘I’ll do anything to get this part.’ Barbara responded: ‘Sorry, I’m heterosexual.’ And Madonna replied: ‘How do you know unless you try?’ Instantly, Barbara knew Madonna had the sass to play the role.”

“Desperately Seeking Something” by Susan Seidelman will be available to read on June 18.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.