An audience with Madonna
For a celebrity journalist, there are few occasions that get your nerves a-jangling like the prospect of interviewing Madonna. But nerves or not, when offered a rare chat with Ms Ciccone about her upcoming film project, there’s no way you can turn it down. We’re here to talk about W.E., a biopic that Madonna researched for three years. Dual narratives tell the story of the controversial relationship between King Edward VIII and American divorcée Wallis Simpson, and that of ’90s New York housewife Wally, who becomes fixated with the Duchess of Windsor’s possessions as they go up for auction at Sotheby’s. Madonna admits the subject “fascinated” her and as we talk, she reveals how she identified with the Duchess, and how she tried — and failed — to get into Windsor Castle. Er, don’t they know who she is?
So Madonna, why did you want to make a film about Wallis Simpson?
The effect she had on English history and on the world was fascinating, and what drew me to the story was trying to understand the nature of Edward VIII and Wallis’s relationship, and why a man would give up such a powerful position for a woman. It seemed revolutionary — extremely romantic, not terribly rational, but it took me by surprise. Their story is a polemic subject — every time I mentioned the name at social gatherings, the table would erupt into argument about who they were and what they stood for.
What did you use as source material?
I’m sure I’ve read every book that was ever written about the Duchess of Windsor. And once people knew I was doing research and writing the script they wanted to sell me their letters. I didn’t purchase any, but I read them, noted the information and then said thanks, but no thanks. I watched every documentary ever made, and stayed at the house in the south of France that they lived in during the war — it’s now owned by Roman Abramovich. I tried to go to places that they were at and soak up their energy. Of course, I wasn’t allowed in Windsor Castle — how very dare they!
How did you want to portray Wallis and Edward’s relationship?
[I wanted to show] how Wallis made it clear to the King that life was going to be very tough. He felt incarcerated by the responsibilities of being King and she was clear that he was then going to incarcerate them in a different prison. She said, “I will be the most hated woman in the world,” and did try to run away from him. I thought it was important to tell her side of the story.
As an American who moved to the UK, could you relate to Wallis?
Definitely. When you move to a new country there’s an anonymity; you can start all over again. That was refreshing when I moved to England, but then there’s the feeling of being an outsider, of being lonely, of not having roots, of not quite being understood.
How did you connect with Wally’s (the latter-day character) story?
Mostly in the kind of obsession of trying to get to the bottom of the story. She started off thinking: “This is the greatest love story of the 20th century,” only to find out that all love requires compromise. There is no such thing as perfect love, you can’t rely on one man to make your life complete and, in the end, happiness lies in your own hands. That is a discovery I can relate to.
How challenging was it to find the perfect actress to play Wallis?
I couldn’t cast the King until I cast her and she took the longest to find because Wallis Simpson is so specific. On the one hand, she was extremely feminine and on the other hand, she was very androgynous. She had a steely veneer to her but at the same time she was extremely vulnerable. And also her physicality, the way she held herself, it really needed someone who could carry off wearing all the couture that Wallis wore.
The fashion is exquisite, particularly Wallis’s wardrobe. How many changes did the character have during the film?
At least 80. We borrowed a few real pieces, and then some couture houses that made clothes for her originally re-made stuff for us. Christian Dior and the V&A were extremely generous and made many pieces, and Arianne [Phillips, the costume designer] rented some vintage pieces that were similar to clothes she would have worn.
Is it true that your own furniture appeared in the film?
I used some of my own everything in the movie. My paintings, my rugs, my chairs, my jewellery, some of my clothes Abbie [Cornish, who plays Wally] wears. There were cars constantly going back and forth from my house in London.
Finally, you’re the ultimate GLAMOUR icon — a musician, actress, director, designer and businesswoman. What career advice would you give to our readers?
If you want to do anything right, you have to put your heart and soul into it. There are always challenges, and you have to be prepared to go to the wall and be on your knees to get something done correctly, so if you don’t love something then it’s just going to feel like a form of torture with no reward. Love your work and no sacrifice will be too big or too small. My other advice is: if you want the job done right, do it yourself. Sorry to use that tired old cliché, but it is true!
W.E. is in cinemas January 20