Madonna doesn’t deny it: There are more than a few strands of her own DNA, her own experiences, in ”W.E.,” her drama about Wallis Warfield Simpson, the forever-controversial American socialite for whom Britain’s King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936.”That’s obviously a big draw,” she says. ”I felt like I could relate. The letters sequence in the film, when I read a lot of her letters, I felt like I could have written some of those letters. Like, ‘Can’t a girl just get a break?’ But, yeah, I did. I think there was some kind of symbiotic connection to her character.” Madonna is, of course, one of the world’s most famous people, at once revered and reviled more than virtually any of her contemporaries. She’s also powerful enough and, frankly, wealthy enough to do anything she pleases. She’s still recording and releasing music, and reportedly is preparing for a major concert tour – which will, no doubt, be huge. Her iconic status in the music world has never extended to her film career, however. Though she pleased critics and audiences alike in ”Desperately Seeking Susan’’ (1985), ”Dick Tracy’’ (1990), ”A League of Their Own’’ (1992) and ”Evita’’ (1996), moviegoers have stayed away in droves from the likes of ”Shanghai Surprise’’ (1986), ”Body of Evidence’’ (1992), ”The Next Best Thing’’ (2000) and ”Swept Away’’ (2006).
Never one to give up easily, however, she’s continued her movie career and even doubled down with ”W.E.” The film finds Madonna behind the camera as director and co-writer. The story unfolds both in the 1930s, when it follows the romance between Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy), and in 1998, when Wally (Abbie Cornish) escapes from an abusive marriage for hours at a time by checking out the personal effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – as Edward and Wallis were known after his abdication – which are to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. Wally was named after Wallis and is a touch obsessed with the late duchess, even imagining conversations with her.
Madonna is in good spirits as she settles in to talk about ”W.E.” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Trendy as ever at 53, the petite star sports a blue dress, long, blond hair, fingerless black gloves and a skull ring on her right index finger.
The first she ever heard about Wallis and Edward was back in high school in Bay City, Mich., where the singer-to-be grew up as Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. ”It was part of my English prewar history,” she says. ”Doesn’t everybody hear about Edward VIII’s abdication in a broad-stroke kind of way? But I didn’t then really think about it again until I moved to England.”I was desperate to get to know the country that I’d just moved to,” she recalls, ”and I didn’t really want to feel like a foreigner. So I was very intrigued by the royal family and the history of the monarchy. I started reading about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, sort of leading up to the era of Queen Victoria, then eventually all the way up to George V and Edward VIII.
”Then I kind of got stuck there,” Madonna admits, ”because up until that point there weren’t really any kings that gave up the throne, certainly not for the woman he loved. So that intrigued me, and I was struggling with the idea of that, a man leaving this powerful position.
”I tried 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 and intriguing and magnetic and powerful that he would make this sacrifice,” she says. ”That’s when the deep research began.” Writing the film was far simpler than directing it, says Madonna, who previously had directed only the little-seen comedy ”Filth & Wisdom’’ (2008). ”There’s less people involved,” she explains, ”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 (as a director), there are thousands of people around and there’s a clock ticking and there’s a lot of things you have to get done in a short period of time. ”So I think the freedom is really in the writing,” Madonna continues, ”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 and I have to get a certain amount of work done.’ The other part is, ‘I need to also be in this dreamlike state where I’m allowing myself to channel this energy and capture a dream.’ ”So that was always a challenging balance to strike.”
The film has opened in some parts of the world, drawing mixed reviews. Madonna barely reacts when asked if some people may hate ”W.E.” simply because she made it and they believe that she’s already had enough success in her life. ”I don’t know what they mean,” Madonna says. ”I can’t speak for them. You’ll have to ask them.” Then there’s the matter of ”The King’s Speech’’ (2010). That film, which uses the Wallis-Edward relationship to explore a very different story about Edward’s brother, who succeeded him as George V, won the Academy Award as Best Picture and may have stolen some of ”W.E.’s’’ thunder. Madonna admits that she’s of two minds about that film. ”While I’m happy about ‘The King’s Speech,’ because it does really set up my movie in so many ways and it gives people a reference point,” she explains, ”the one thing – aside from the fact that I didn’t like the way Wallis Simpson was portrayed – was that they didn’t portray how close the brothers were. They really were very close, and it was a heartbreaking experience for both of them when he was exiled and they weren’t really allowed to communicate anymore. ”I felt bad about that because I knew that it wasn’t the truth,” Madonna says. ”I felt the relationship between him and the speech therapist was the winning aspect of the film. But in terms of how it sets up my movie, I think it’s good, because now people see it and they go, ‘Oh, right, that’s that guy and that’s what happened before he became the king.”’
Beyond ”W.E.,” Madonna is deeply involved in several other current and upcoming projects. Last years she and her daughter Lourdes launched the Material Girl clothing line, and Madonna will introduce another fashion brand, Truth or Dare by Madonna, later this year. Her 12th studio album, ”M.D.N.A.,” was just released.