December 12, 2011 12:00 PM

As Revenge’s devious villainess Victoria Grayson, Madeleine Stowe unleashes an icy stare so piercing, it could cut glass. But inside she’s fighting to keep from laughing. “When I’m glaring at somebody onscreen, I find it funny,” says the actress of her outrageous character, whom she admits strikes a little close to home. “I’m very easygoing until pushed to a certain point. Then I want to start hitting people upside the head!”

Good thing she’s been all smiles lately thanks to Revenge. ABC’s freshman hit drama marks a triumphant return to Hollywood for the actress, who stepped away for more than a dozen years to raise a family after ’80s and ’90s hit films like Stakeout, Unlawful Entry and The Last of the Mohicans. It took a juicy role like the Hamptons socialite to pull her back in. “She’s venal and conniving,” says Stowe, 53. “I love her!” Her costars feel the same way about Stowe. “She’s so lovely in real life,” says Emily VanCamp, who plays the revenge-seeking Emily Thorne. “Supportive and thoughtful.”

Her comeback is a culture shock of sorts for Stowe and her husband of 25 years, Private Practice actor Brian Benben. In the late 1990s the couple moved to a sprawling Texas ranch to raise their daughter, May, now 15, and live life at a decidedly slower pace. “I never thought, ‘I’m retiring,’ but I didn’t feel that ‘thing’ revving in me,” says Stowe, who sold the ranch five years ago, of acting. “I was much more focused on May.” Still, Stowe often wondered if she had made the right decision. “It was frustrating at times,” she says, “but now I see how she’s turned out, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

It was also important to give May the kind of childhood that Stowe herself never had growing up in Eagle Rock, Calif. When she was 10, her father, Robert Stowe, a civil engineer, developed multiple sclerosis. “He was debilitated to the point where he was an invalid, and he had violent rages,” recalls Stowe. As a result, she adds, “I had a tremendous fear, socially. I never felt I could bring people into the house.” Robert died in 1983. Stowe remains close to her mother, Mireya, 87.

In recent years Stowe has begun focusing on philanthropy, most notably her work with Artists for Peace and Justice for Haiti. The actress, who discussed efforts in Haiti with U.S. senators in Washington, D.C., last month, says her hands-on work before and after the 2010 earthquake “is the work that really feeds me.”

At home she gets sustenance from her “dynamic” 31-year relationship with Benben (they wed in 1986). Still, Stowe admits, “We’ve had enormous challenges to face. But if you really love somebody, you have the tenacity and mettle to see it through.”

It’s the same approach she’s taken to being Hollywood’s comeback queen. “It’s fun being noticed on the streets. When people begin dissecting your appearance, that’s where I have to tune out. But here I am. My forehead moves!” she says, laughing as she wrinkles it. “Some things, you have to let go.”

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