She plays the Queen of Mean in her latest role as Victoria Grayson on ABC's "Revenge," but off-camera, actress Madeleine Stowe is working to help children in Haiti get a fresh start.
"If I had all the money in the world, I would know where it would go," Stowe said. "I know exactly where it would go."
It's been two years since a massive earthquake tore through the impoverished Caribbean country, but Haiti continues to feel its ravaged effects. Through a group called Artists for Peace and Justice, Stowe is helping to build Haiti's first free seconday school -- 100 percent of donations to the organization go towards work on the ground.
"It will eventually have 3,000 students," Stowe said. "The beauty of it is that it is enclosed in this 40-acre compound where this hospital exists so the children are also getting health care."
Stowe has been traveling to Haiti since before the 2010 earthquake and said when she returns from her trips, she feels new heartache.
"When I come back the same thing always happens, I'm hungry but I can't eat," she said. "I feel an ache in my stomach and variably weep. I never weep when I'm there because the people are so alive and present and when I come back, that's generally when I fall apart."
It's a world away from the fictional Grayson Manor on "Revenge," which has become one of the most popular TV dramas this season after launching last fall, and Stowe's role as Victoria, the scheming socialite with ice in her veins and that tantalizing, evil smile, is far from the real person.
"She's full of hate... she's very venal, but she also loves very deeply," Stowe said of her character. "I have it in me to be mean. We all have a little mean, but I try to keep it down. It happens if I am politically outraged or have a bad day with my husband maybe. Definitely comes through."
"Revenge" is like "The Count of Monte Cristo" set in the luxurious Hamptons, present day -- although Grayson Manor was recreated on a sound stage in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and is modeled on a house in North Carolina where they initially filmed the pilot episode. The Graysons are American blue bloods with a hedge fund and a few skeletons in the closet.
In some ways, it's a throwback to classic primetime soaps from the 1980s like "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which famously chronicled the ups and downs of the wealthy elite. Today, the real life economic climate couldn't be more different, and yet viewers are still drawn to "Revenge." Stowe said she thought the show might provide a sort of release for Americans who have been struggling.
"I thought it would be interesting for the viewers to watch -- have their cake and eat it too," Stowe said. "In other words, see people with a very extravagant lifestyle, but having terrible things happen to them."
The actress, who admitted she has never actually been to the Hamptons, said she imagines her character would have been a perfect role for Hollywood icon Barbara Stanwyck.
"There's a bit of a noir-ish quality to Victoria," Stowe said. "There was a sense of something very dangerous in Stanwyck. Unpredictable."
"Revenge" is a second round of stardom for Stowe, who launched her career as a film star in the 1980s and '90s, starring opposite Tim Robbins in "Short Cuts," opposite Richard Dreyfus in "Stakeout" and with Daniel Day-Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans."
In her film roles, she often played the femme fatale and the damsel in distress -- quite different from the icy vixen Victoria Grayson.
"It's great fun," she said. "It allows me to sort of exercise a streak that I have. I hope it's not a b----y streak."
As Victoria, Stowe may be the best-dressed woman on television, with every outfit custom tailored to fit her body -- she admitted with a laugh that she doesn't get to keep the clothes. But while her character lives like a diva, Stowe is passionately private. It's one reason the actress said she took a step back from working in movies 15 years ago.
"There is a part of me that likes the attention, but mostly I would disappear and recede," she said. "It's always about, for me, trying to find the thing I am very engaged in and feel clean about, which is sort of the anti-thesis to this character."