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.”

Madonna was also surprised to learn that Simpson was not necessarily the gung ho thronewrecker that she is often painted to be. “She tried to avoid the actual marriage taking place … she tried her best to get Edward-slash-David to see the writing on the wall and see what they were both in store for. And I think she was very astute in her observations, but obviously she couldn’t talk him into her point of view. He was just “cuntstruck,” as the say in England.”

Yes, Madonna just said “cuntstruck”.

Madonna with star Andrea Riseborough

The film’s parallel structure of two love stories in two time periods is one of the film’s most notable features, and one that has received the most divisive response from audiences. Madonna says that she never considered doing it any other way. “I wasn’t interested in making a straightforward biopic – I don’t think it’s possible to tell the story of one person from beginning to end in two hours. I think that that’s actually an unfair challenge to give oneself. And also because I think truth is so subjective. You know, each of us could read the same five books about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and each walk away with different interpretations. It would mean something different to us, it would impact us in a different way. And so it was important for me to establish that as much as I did all the research that I did, and as close as I tried to stay to the truth, and as authentic as I wanted to be, it was important that I be clear that it is a point of view.”

This mention of “point of view” calls back to a moment in the film when Wally says that it is important to “tell [Simpson’s] story from a foreigner’s perspective.” Madonna elaborates: “From the Duchess’s point of view. Because most of the stories you read on the story are like ’Wow, look what he gave up’ and it’s told from the male point of view. And when Wally starts to make all these decisions and discoveries about the Duchess, she appeals to Mohammed Al-Fayed as an outsider, because he is, you know – he lives as a foreigner and an outsider in England, not really accepted by society.

“And really, in my movie each character is an outsider. Everyone is living in a kind of alienation. Wally is living on the Upper East Side and she doesn’t fit in. Evgeni is the Ukrainian immigrant who is working as a security guard but he is really an intellectual and an artist and he doesn’t fit in. The Duchess doesn’t really fit in. Wallace Simpson doesn’t fit into this aristocratic world that she found herself in. And Edward doesn’t fit into the Victorian world that he was raised in. So it’s how all these people who feel like outsiders try to come to terms with it and find their way in the world.”

She hopes that it’s a message with which audiences can identify. “I think a lot of people can relate to it. I think a lot of us feel like we don’t fit in, strangely enough. That we don’t fit into the conventional norm or what society expects from us, and I think more and more and more, people are redefining what makes a family, what makes a couple, what makes love, what is romance, what are soul mates, all these things – we are reinventing this because family is what you make it. I’m sure everybody sitting at this table has friends that they feel like are their brothers and sisters versus their actual brothers and sisters are their brothers and sisters. It’s funny how things turn out that way – sometimes your parents aren’t really the people that nurture you, and you have other role models in your life that become your mother and your father. So I think it’s unusual when the family that you are born into is actually the people that feel like your family.”

Madonna as Eva Peron in Evita

Of course, it’s not the first time that Madonna has tackled one of history’s more polarizing strong female political figures: in 1997 she won the Golden Globe for playing Eva Peron in the movie musical Evita. When asked if she sees any similarities between the two women, she answers, “Well, I think that what they have in common is what many people have in common who are public figures who become iconic and who have some kind of historical impact – especially women, strong women. I think that people have a tendency to feel intimidated by the strength of these women, and in order to accept – actually, the word ’accept’ is wrong, because I don’t think they’re actually accepting – in order to deal with them, I think a lot of people who write history books and humanity in general have a tendency to diminish women … to undermine their strength or their accomplishments or their intelligence. So I think they have those things in common. Now, I’m not saying that Evita Peron was without flaws or that Wallace Simpson was this perfect, holy human being – but I think that they were both dealt with in a very unfair way in the history books.”

She’s asked if she feels that she has been treated the same way, and she chuckles. “Yeah – okay, sure. Of course. I don’t think it’s just me – I think it’s strong women in general.” And why? “It’s just the nature of the universe, it’s the nature of the world that we live in. We live in a patriarchal society, and strong women have to … they are held under a microscope and they are judged and measured in a different a way. It’s just the law of the universe right now, it seems.”

Madonna also hopes that her film has a message for women about letting go of the fairy tale endings that they grow up being taught. “This is something that we all have to deal with when we grow up – that one person isn’t gonna be all of those things to us and that ultimately we have to make our own happiness. Find our own happiness. And when we can own that, and take responsibility for our own happiness, then we can find a mate for ourselves – or a companion, or a significant other or whatever you wanna call it. But I think that’s certainly what the Duchess imparts to Wally, and I hope that I can inspire other women – other young women – to think that way with my own life, and my behavior.”

When someone points out that her film has a theme of reinvention and that she is the Queen of Reinvention, she is quick to brush it off: “Let’s not bring out those tired old cliches…” And when asked how she will define the next era of Madonna – including a new film, a new album, and a highly buzzed Super Bowl halftime performance – her reply is simple. “Busy.”

Sure, it may not be as catchy as “Blonde Ambition” or provocative as “The Girlie Show”. But for a woman still topping herself thirty years into her career, “Busy” might be music to her fans’ ears.

Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.