Madonna & Wallis: Music icon conducts royal romance with 'W.E.'


Even given strictly limited time and access, there is no way one says no to the opportunity to interview Madonna. Besides being an indefatigable icon for some three decades now, along with her gifts as an entertainer she has now proven her mettle as a movie writer-director—first with the piquantly diverting Filth and Wisdom in 2008, and now with W.E.

Madonna’s new film for The Weinstein Company is the ultimate, posh chick flick, an ultra-stylish and moving meditation on the “love story of the 20th century”—that between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, who legendarily gave up his throne for the American woman he loved. As a “way in” to this historical account, Madonna dovetails it with a modern story involving a woman (Abbie Cornish) obsessed with the Duchess and trapped in a stiflingly unhappy New York marriage to a rich psychiatrist (Richard Coyle). The deep empathy Madonna obviously felt for Wallis is evident in every frame of her film, blessed with an exquisite performance—witty and sensual—by Andrea Riseborough, and is a snappy retort to the cartoonish portrayal of Simpson in The King’s Speech.

“What’s she going to be like?” of course was the question running through my mind during the lengthy wait for her at New York’s Waldorf Astoria. She walked in, accompanied by a burly, middle-aged bodyguard and her formidable, ever-present publicist, Liz Rosenberg (wearing a disconcerting pair of red sequined Mickey Mouse ears), immediately apologized for being late, and shook my hand in a manner I found, well, really gentlemanly. Smaller, more delicate and softer than she photographs, she amazingly looked prettier than ever, in a silky marine Vionnet couture gown, knee-high boots and fingerless leather gloves. Even better, she proved to be gloriously attitude-free and gracious, with the intelligently questing mind of a true autodidact, funny and real.

What drew her to this particular story? “I first heard about them in high school—doesn’t everybody?—in pre-War history, in a broad way…Edward VIII’s abdication. I didn’t really think about it again until I moved to England and was desperate to get to know the country I had just moved to, and didn’t want to feel like a foreigner. I was intrigued by the royal family and the history of the monarchy, so I started reading about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, sort of leading up to the Victorian era and Queen Victoria, and then essentially all the way up to George V and Edward VIII, and then I kind of got stuck there. Up until that point, there weren’t any kings who gave up the throne, certainly for the woman they loved, so that intrigued me. I was struggling with the idea of a man leaving this powerful position and trying to understand the nature of their love, their relationship, what they did for each other, what they gave to each other. And what she had that was so special, intriguing and magnetic that he would make this sacrifice. And that’s when the real deep research began.

“In England, people are still polarized about her, not so much here, because people are not as invested in kings and queens and who gave up what and stuff like that. That really intrigued me: If you did bring up her name at a social gathering, inevitably an argument would usually occur about whether she was a witch or not, a man or woman, an ambitious person or a clever, witty human being.”

Madonna could deeply relate to Wallis, she says. “That is obviously a big draw. In the letter sequence of the film, when I read those letters [she wrote], I felt like I could have written some of them, like: Can’t a girl just get a break? I think there was some kind of symbiotic connection to her character.”

I brought up the intriguing fact that Madonna bought Ashcombe, the country home belonging to Cecil Beaton, who famously photographed the Windsors on their wedding day. “Yes, that’s another strange connection, believe it or not. Also, in London, my house is right around the corner from Bryanston Court, where she lived with Ernest [Simpson, her former husband], so I used to wander around and loiter and hang around that building. In my film, when Wallis Simpson says, “Get a life” and slams the door, that’s literally around the corner. I used to hang around there like some strange stalker, trying to imagine the Prince’s mobile driving up and parking out there for his six o’clock cocktail and what that all must have all been like.”

Comparing the processes of writing and directing a film, Madonna observes, “Writing is simpler. There’s less people involved and you have a lot more freedom. When you’re writing, obviously there’s not a lot of people giving you their two cents. When you’re on the set of a movie, there are thousands of people around and there’s the clock ticking and a lot of things you have to get done in a short period of time. So I think the freedom is in the writing, and then in the directing you have to try to be in two places at the same time. One is in your practical shoes: I have a certain amount of time to get a certain amount of work done, and the other part is I need to be able to also be in this kind of dreamlike state where I’m allowing myself to channel this energy and capture a dream. So that was always a challenging balance.”

Asked if she was nervous about the film’s reception, Madonna confides, “Well, perhaps I was when I went to the Venice Film Festival. But it’s been at many festivals now: Venice, Toronto, London, and I had a screening at MoMA. A lot of people have seen it and written about it, although I have not read anything anyone’s written, so I’m not really thinking so much about nervousness. I think people will like it or not like it.”

Unconventional relationships always seem to fascinate Madonna, but she has a simple explanation. “Well, because really that’s what the world’s made up of. I don’t understand why everyone’s been bamboozled into thinking that conventional relationships essentially exist. Do you know of any? So, really, what I was interested in was what we’re all interested in.”

Wallis being an American and decidedly less formal in her treatment of Edward undoubtedly made her more attractive to him: “That was a big part of the draw. I discovered so many interesting, disturbing things—like in those days, with the first-born son of the royal family, the mother is actually meant to treat him in the coldest way without any affection or any love so they’re prepared to be the king. Because it’s country and duty before all, and in order to have that kind of mindset, you can’t be an emotional creature. Your behavior cannot be informed by emotion. It has to be informed by a sense of duty. Everyone’s really cold to you and very formal with you, so I think when Edward met Wallis Simpson, he was really attracted to her irreverence. Even though I think she was still very courteous and polite to him and said ‘Sir’ and all of that, she did it all with a wink and a smile. And she loved to dance.
“The other thing he loved about her, because he was raised with servants and staff, was when he went to her house, she would run into the kitchen—because her mother was a cook—and she would whip things up and bring them out. He couldn’t really get his mind around that, that she would make the cocktails and the food and put it down on the table. I think he really liked that. There was something very maternal and nurturing about her, and feminine, and I think all of those things were a big draw for him.”

As with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Madonna has spiced her period film with verve-y, anachronistic music, like her use of The Sex Pistols for a party scene: “When I first started reading the script, I had lots of different points of views on different titles and for a while my working title was The Punk Rock King. Because I was really focused on him and his behavior and how irreverent he was and how he broke all the rules and pushed away some conventions. How he didn’t dress the way he was supposed to dress and date the people he was supposed to date and how he did drink Benzedrine cocktails and did have parties and loved hanging out with Americans. He wanted to fight in the war and effect change in the world around him. He wanted to get rid of the old guard and bring new energy into Windsor Castle and the royal world. Many things about him were unconventional. As for getting the rights to that song, I just asked and then I paid. It’s not that hard!”

The King’s Speech was something of a primer introduction to Madonna’s film. As she notes, “It does help my film in a way, because it introduces the idea and it shows the other side of the story, it shows the guy who is suddenly thrust into this role of king when he had no preparation for it whatsoever. Edward was the dashing, debonair one, the one everyone loved, who could speak in front of people. He was the people’s prince; his little brother was shy and had a speech impediment and was really awkward and he didn’t want that part at all and neither did his wife. In fact, when they were dating, she didn’t want to marry him and Edward was instrumental in putting them together. She didn’t want to marry a royal because even though she was an aristocrat, she didn’t want to be in that world, in the limelight, didn’t want to have to go to any sort of ambassadorial functions. She didn’t want that life and Edward talked her into it. He said, ‘But he’s my little brother. You’re never going to be expected to do any of those things.’ He really played cupid in that relationship and they were really, really close.”

Madonna continues, “While I’m happy about The King’s Speech because it does really set up my movie in so many ways and gives people a reference point, aside from the fact that I didn’t like the way Wallis Simpson was portrayed, they didn’t portray how close the brothers were. It was a heartbreaking experience for both of them when he was exiled and they weren’t allowed to communicate anymore. I felt bad about [the film’s portrayal of the brothers’ relationship] because I knew that wasn’t the truth. I thought the relationship between the king and the speech therapist was the witty aspect of the film. But in terms of how it sets up my movie, that’s good, because now people see it and they go, ‘Oh, right, it’s that guy. That’s what happened before he became the king.’”

Madonna is assuredly no Norma Desmond, watching her old videos, or even her 1991 concert documentary Truth or Dare. “Alek Keshishian [her W.E. co-writer and the director of Truth or Dare] and I do play a lot when we write, however, and [since Truth or Dare], we’ve worked on and off on things. But I don’t really like to watch myself and I certainly don’t watch any old things. I’m very much ‘done that, moved on.’ I don’t even want to see something I did last week.”

Madonna wrote a song, “Masterpiece,” which she sings over W.E.’s closing credits. Asked if she plans to maybe sing it during her upcoming Super Bowl appearance, which coincides with her film’s general release date, she hesitates. “Um, maybe, I don’t know. I’m thinking about all the songs I’m going to perform and haven’t really made my final decision. Oh God, I’m so nervous. That I’m really nervous about. Eight minutes to set up the stage, twelve minutes to make the most amazing performance, and then ten minutes to take it down. The pressure!”

For all her success in music, Madonna loves directing films “because I’m a storyteller and I love film and always have. I wanted to direct something for a really long time and I did something [Filth and Wisdom] before this to prepare myself for this. I’ve grown up around directors and been involved with directors and learned a lot from directors, and been very informed and inspired by film, so to me it’s not such a big leap.

“[Coming up] I have some stories and ideas, things that people have brought to me that I’m interested in, but I’m not committing to anything, just letting it stew in my brain right now without making a decision.”

Madonna keeps up with current music through “a lot of friends who are DJs and a lot who are musicians. I go out and listen and dance and hear things and I say, ‘Ooh, what’s that? Ooh, I love that. Who did that remix?’ And that’s how we ended up collaborating with [DJ] Martin Solveig on this new album. And I have a teenage daughter.”

With four kids to raise, music, and now movie directing, “I’m very tired. Very organized, but very tired, yeah.”

Madonna was wearing a gorgeous bracelet that had a Wallis-inspired jeweled crucifix hanging from it. She explained, “This is not the actual one she wore [given to her by Edward]. This is what Cartier gave me at the end of the shoot, as a gift. I actually wanted the one they created for Andrea, but they wouldn’t give it to me. They made two for us [one of which got lost during a beach shooting], but because they’re considered works of art, I think they’re actually going to destroy it. They are copies, and they don’t want them to be recreated in any way, shape or form. I don’t know if they’re really gonna destroy it. Maybe they’re going to put it in a vault somewhere.”

At this point, the redoubtable Rosenberg announced the interview’s termination, which Madonna genuinely seemed reluctant to stop. In answer to a final question about whether she considers herself a romantic, she replies, “Oh yeah. I’m very romantic. I love the idea of love. I love poetry, love the idea of two people being inextricably intertwined with one another, and informed and inspired by and attached to one another. As for being like Wallis, she was much wittier than I am. She always had a good one-liner.”