Last updated at 2:04 AM on 13th January 2012
Andrea Riseborough plays Wallis Simpson in the film W.E. which is out next Friday
Madonna has never been someone who does things by halves.
So when she married film director Guy Ritchie and moved to England, feeling ‘sort of lost and a little bit like an outsider’ she says, she decided to work her hardest to fit in.
‘I thought, OK, if I’m going to make myself more comfortable in this country, I’m going to have to learn some of its history’, Madonna explains.
‘I began with Henry VIII and worked my way up to Edward VII, and I stopped there because I was so struck with what he’d done. He gave up his throne for the woman he loved.
‘I was intrigued and mystified. Why would he do this? Men since the beginning of time have fought to get on the throne. Men are power-seeking animals, so why would this man run away from it?
‘What did this woman have that would inspire him to make such a great sacrifice? I wanted to know more about her.’
The more Madonna learned about Wallis the closer she felt to her. They were both Americans struggling to fit into the British Establishment.
They were the most famous women of their day and style icons who constantly had their characters pored over and demonised. Both were criticised for their ambition.
‘I became completely and utterly swept up in the subject. I developed an unconscious attraction to Wallis. She’d come to England from the USA and found herself being treated like an outsider,’ Madonna says.
‘That was the connection between us, although in time I realized I was welcome here, unlike Wallis, who was never accepted.’
Madonna became obsessed with the story and her fascination with Wallis far outlasted her eight-year marriage to Guy.
She learned that Wallis had once lived around the corner from her home in central London when her affair with Edward started, although she was still married to businessman Ernest Simpson. Madonna says she would sit outside the apartment ‘like a stalker’, as she tried to put herself in Wallis’ shoes.
Happy couple: Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis plays to James D’Arcy’s Edward VIII, in Madonna’s ‘three year labour of love’ about the force that moves us all
She wanted to make a film of the story, but in spite of her superstar status opening many doors, found the odds were stacked against her.
When she was turned down from buying the rights to a new Wallis book she was thinking about ending the project until a chance coincidence.
Answering a knock on her front door one night, nobody was there – but parked outside was a van with the name Montague Removals on the side. Montague was Wallis’s maiden name. ‘I thought, “right, that’s a sign”, recalls the singer. So she persevered.
The result is W.E., Madonna’s cinematic re-telling of the Wallis story, which she calls ‘a three-year labour of love’.
The title – which Madonna pronounces as ‘we’ – comes from the way Wallis and Edward always ended their letters to each other, binding their initials.
‘I never saw it as a simple love story’, explains Madonna.’ Nor is it particularly sentimental. I think love is impossible to describe or explain – it’s like trying to understand the nature of God, or the laws of the universe.
‘What I do know is that it’s the force that moves us all and without it we couldn’t exist’.
Andrea Riseborough is directed by Madonna in a scene from the film
The film is a two handed look at Wallis; the story is told through the prism of a modern American, Wally Winthrop (her mother was such a fan that she was named after Wallis) who – as her marriage collapses around her – becomes obsessed with the story of what she considers the greatest love affair of the 20th century.
Like Madonna before her, Wally becomes entranced with the minutiae of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s lives as their possessions go on sale at Sothebys.
In 1998 a sale of just some of their possessions reached £15million.
Wally discovers the prosaic truths behind their romance as she reads their private letters.
With Madonna – a self-confessed control freak – micro-managing as director, writer, and with a producer credit, filming did not get off to a good start.
Several actors, including Ewan McGregor and Margo Stilley, changed their mind about taking roles before they had even reached the set. And another producer, David Parfitt, and casting expert Nina Gold both also walked out citing creative differences with Madonna .
But no-one could divert Madonna from her clear vision of what she wanted. She put her heart and soul – and her house, jewellery and furniture – into the film.
‘I literally robbed my own house to dress the set’, she says. ‘Half the paintings and drapes came from my home. Every day we would go there and pick up different bits of furniture’.
She insisted on using Art Deco furniture and wallpaper for the re-created Wallis apartment, even though she was told by set decorator Celia Bobak that the real place had been decorated with some good 18th century antiques.
Inside story: Andrea Riseborough, left, as Wallis Simpson, right,
enjoyed wearing recreations of some of Wallis’ most iconic jewels and
‘But as this was Madonna’s project, and it was her personal approach, we had to take our lead from her’, she says.
James D’Arcy, who plays Edward, recalls how in one scene champagne was spilled on Madonna’s original Art Deco chairs.
were doing this scene where Edward and Wallis are having a party but
half the people have fallen asleep so we their spike their drinks with
Benzedrine. Madonna told everyone, “now I want you all to look you are
having a wild party, but stay away from those two chairs”.’
Madonna’s iron rule earned her the nickname ‘God’ from D’Arcy.
filming, several actors had to undergo a number of lessons including
dancing and deportment. Oscar Isaac who plays Wally’s love interest had
to learn the piano while James also had to learn to shoot, ride horses
and play the bagpipes.
Madonna and cast at the Premiere at The Odeon on Kensington High Street. Left to right, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Madonna, Richard Coyle and Natalie Dorma
D’Arcy ‘I went to see a guy about learning how to play the bagpipes and
he said, ‘you can’t do it in six weeks – it takes at least a year – the
only thing I can teach you is how to look like you are playing them’.
I wrote to Madonna and told her what the man had said. She wrote back,
‘just because somebody says you can’t do something doesn’t mean you
should listen to them’.
And so James learned how to play the bagpipes in six weeks – although the scene was cut from the final film.
then there were the clothes. Her friend the milliner Stephen Jones, who
made hats for the film and had a cameo appearance on screen, says,
‘She worked herself to the bone for this project.
ran a tight ship and expected everyone else to go that extra mile for
her. People were thrilled to be working with her – she knows what she is
talking about and she is gracious with it too.’
Stephen would see her after each hat was designed, once again when it was finished and for a third time as the costume went on.
would demand changes even as the scene was about to be filmed. ‘Small
alterations were done on the spot as Madonna might say, ‘I need a more
opaque veil’ or ‘I need this to be smaller’,’ he says. But then he is
used to working with her.
Sparkling: James D’arcy and Andrea Riseborough – in exquisite jewels and gown – dance in a romantic scene from W.E.
was one of the first to combine a strong sense of style with her
singing and she has always known exactly what she wants. Everyone has
said how wonderful the film looks but that is no surprise to me; if
Madonna is doing something I cannot imagine it being any other way.’
used her own long standing relationships with fashion houses to beg
borrow and steal costumes for the always stylish scenes.
‘We had great
fun putting it together,’ says the film’s wardrobe mistress Arianne
Phillips, who has worked with the singer on many projects over the last
two decades. ‘We went to fashion houses such as Vionnet and Dior and
asked if they could re-create some of the dresses that Wallis famously
and Arianne spoke to jewelers at Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels
about recreating some of Wallis’s most iconic and fabulous gems.
also brought in her own collection of jewels for Andrea and Australian
actress Abbie Cornish who plays Wally to wear.
morning we would have this lovely calming ritual; it was a moment of
complicity when Madonna would adorn the Duchess with jewels,’ says
Andrea. ‘But then at every other point of the day I would be followed
around by six burly security guards and that was not as calming.’
the minders being there to ensure that the many priceless jewels did
not go missing there was one expensive loss. A Cartier replica of
Wallis’s cross bracelet – Edward bought Wallis jeweled crosses for
different occasions to celebrate their love – came undone during a beach
scene in Cannes. Crew members borrowed snorkeling masks to search the
sea, but to no avail.
Love story: Madonna says she has never felt as loved by a man as Wallis Simpson was by King Edward VIII
awful,’ says Andrea. ‘We had to do this scene where we run through the
surf before he drops this tiny emerald cross in the sand.
It was going
really well and we had done the scene five times before we walked out to
get some notes from Madonna and that was when I realized the bracelet
had completely detached itself and fallen into the water.’
bracelet Cartier made for Andrea was so beautiful that when shooting
finished, Madonna said she’d like to keep it. Cartier wouldn’t agree,
but they made her another one instead. ‘See’, says Madonna. ‘Not everyone says yes to me.’
the most controversial element about the film is the way Madonna
portrays Wallis – more positively than ever seen before on film.
to this retelling, Wallis did not have Nazi sympathies, was desperate
to be a mother, never wanted Edward to give up his throne
for her – and even tried to break off their relationship.
think Wallis Simpson was much maligned in the history books,’ says
Madonna. ‘I think that people didn’t understand the choice the King had
made so they tried to diminish her as a human being because he had given
up his position.
wasn’t a saint by any stretch of the imagination but she was a human
being and it was important to me to show that human side to her.’
Despite the controversy, it is a revisionistic view of Wallis shared by at least one historian.
Sebba, who like Wally in the film found some genuinely new letters from
Wallis, brought out her book That Woman as Madonna was making W.E. but
she says they both came to the same conclusion about her.
has really understood a critical part of Wallis,’ says Anne. ‘It is
what Wallis called her dual nature; her fearfulness on the one hand and
on the other hand her driving ambition.’
adds: ‘I could, if I wanted to sound clever, take issue with historical
inaccuracies in the film but it doesn’t matter if a date is fudged.
Wallis has been misunderstood for years and what people don’t realize is
that she did not want to be Queen.
Secret love code: The King, when he was Prince of Wales, often doodled the letters W.E., their Christian name initials, on scraps of paper and on this photograph he wrote, WE are two
tried to get out of the relationship – she never thought it would last –
but the more she tried to leave him the more he behaved like a petulant
school boy and refused to let her go. He threatened suicide if she
‘I do think Madonna
romanticises Wallis – unlike her I don’t think Wallis was maternal. She
also flatters Edward – he is too witty and charming but I think it is
fair enough to put those down to artistic license.
‘For a long time
Wallis has been mistreated by history – she has been called a Nazi (she
wasn’t although she was pro-German), a spy, a hermaphrodite. She could
never express her own opinions so it is nice to see this interpretation
The film is not out
for another week but critics already appear divided over W.E. All, however, are agreed that it is a beautiful
looking film, although many question the modern element of the story and
wonder if Madonna is going a step too far in trying to completely
only thing certain is that the £18million movie is far from being a
total failure and the film has already been nominated for several film
That has to be
considered as an achievement in itself as Madonna has not had a film hit
in the 15 years since Evita. While she is known as the Queen of Pop,
her movie career has always been more troublesome.
the panning she got for Swept Away, the straight-to-video film she made
with Guy, lesser mortals would have given up the idea of a film career
But it is a
timely insight into the way Madonna works. They said she couldn’t make a
successful movie if she tried. She may just prove them wrong.
is out next Friday (January 20). Madonna, Andrea Riseborough and James
D’Arcy appear on The Graham Norton Show on January 13 at 10.35pm on