Interview: Madonna on Directing, Finding One’s Own Family and Her Busiest Year Yet

Shortly before the Christmas I received an invitation to a pre-holiday gathering that I couldn’t refuse. Which is how I came to find myself on a crisp, bright December day playing Tourist Pinball through midtown Manhattan on the way to a once-in-a-lifetime press opportunity.

I know I’m not Barbara Walters. I’m not even Wendy Williams. But it’s not my first time at the rodeo, either. So I am surprised when I feel the first tingles of anxiety creep under my collar as I enter the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. Nervous? I’ve done this a hundred times, some in more ostentatious settings than these. Heck, I’d been flown to the Bahamas for the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory junket for the fanboy two-hitter of Johnny Depp AND Tim Burton. I’d interviewed stars before.

But there are stars, and there are Big Stars.

…and then there’s Madonna.

I realize that Madonna has gotten more press than the Pope’s linens. But this would be a first for her as well – because instead of meeting the journalists as an actress, musician or all-around iconoclast, she was coming to the table to discuss her first major feature film, W.E. It’s a sprawling, opulent, history-based art film, and as both co-writer and director Madonna dedicated several years of time, energy and emotional investment to it.

So I’m not sure what to expect when I enter the suite for the roundtable (which, amusingly enough, is a small group almost exclusively made up of gay male journalists). When I was working retail in college a colleague and I would pass the time by yelling, “Which Madonna am I?!” across the store and then pantomiming an iconic moment from one of her videos or performances. Today, I have no clue which Madonna is going to walk into the room (although I doubt it will be my favorite, “Spraypainting a Car in the ‘Borderline’ Video Madonna”).

Turns out it is a new Madonna entirely. Though I expected that the star might have her defenses securely in place, Madonna is warm, bright, and welcoming when she enters the room. (Naturally, she looks flawless. And of course she’s late.). She shakes each of our hands and asks our names (wearing her now-trademark fingerless gloves) and makes small talk as the group settles. One of the writers points out that she is apparently in “the gay room”. After a pause and an almost shy smile, she replies: “Cool.”

When discussing her film, Madonna is engaged, deliberate, and passionate – it’s clearly a project that she took very seriously and into which she poured considerable thought and effort. The film tells two parallel stories: One is the based-in-truth tale of Wallace Simpson, an American socialite with whom King Edward VIII fell madly in love, leading him to abdicate his throne to his brother; the other is a fictional love story set around the actual auction of much of Wallace and Edward’s estate at Sotheby’s in the 1990’s.

As modern-day Wally (Abbie Cornish) learns about Wallace (Andrea Riseborough) via her belongings, as do we – and it’s a journey that Madonna herself took in researching the story. “I think the discoveries that Wally makes in her journey and her investigations were essentially mine … My point of view from the beginning when I started studying when I heard about the story were what a magnanimous, romantic gesture Edward VIII made toward Wallace Simpson. And really I thought the same thing that Wally says when she’s looking in the mirror and trying on the necklace – ‘What must it feel to be loved that much?’ So as I started to unravel the story and read the letters and go on the journey that I went on to write the script I realized that in fact it wasn’t this fairy tale romance, as I had imagined it to be.”

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