Last week, we ran a q+a with the copiously talented Andrea Riseborough about her role as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s newest film, W.E. To mark the film’s commercial release today, we follow it up with a chat with her co-star James D’arcy, who plays a disgraced King Edward VIII.
What intrigued you about the role, initially?
It’s a great part of British history – y’know, the king who abdicated. And he abdicated to marry a divorcee American, which at the time was incredibly scandalous. And I liked the complexity of that: is this a man who deserted his duties, or is this the greatest love affair of the Twentieth Century. And depending on who you talk to, people have wildly opposing views about that. I like the fact that this is a story about women. There aren’t that many films that are female-centric, and I thought that was quite courageous. I like that it took this very big, global story and somewhat contextualised it by seeing it through the prism of a modern day character. So the film becomes a meditation about what you would be prepared to sacrifice for love – which I think it accessible to me, as an audience member. Whereas, if I just look at the headlines of the story – y’know, “King Edward abdicates”, I have no connection to that, that’s too far away from me.
Madonna spent ten years researching the story. Did you find that a bit daunting before arriving at the set?
No, I thought it was exciting. I mean, working with a director, you want them to be prepared, you don’t want them to show up not knowing anything. So you want them to have all the information. You hope that the director will have the answers for you, because there are a lot of questions when you’re starting out. Madonna compares with Peter Weir in terms of sheer preparation. I was totally blown away by her.
What was she like to work with as a director? She was everyone’s personal mentor – more so than your average filmmaker – in terms of getting out of her actors what she had interpreted of their parts…
That’s as it should be. They are the person who’s vision you’re there to serve. What I really admire about Madonna is that she had a very clear vision of the story she wanted to tell, and that’s not always the case on every set: sometimes directors are uncertain, and that leads to confusion and un-confidence.
Did you feel you had a personal connection with Madonna? She was challenging you to learn knew skills – such as dancing and horse-riding – for the part.
Yeah. The bit that most terrified me about the entire endeavour was learning to dance. I’m not the world’s most natural dancer, and the dance I learned didn’t even make it into the film in the end. But it was like something out of Strictly Come Dancing – it was very complex. And honestly, doing that in front of one of the most famous dancers in the world is not a picnic. But as you say, she challenged us to not allow time for the word ‘no’, and to feel the fear and do it anyway. You feel pretty good about yourself when you realise you can do things you never thought you could.
And for the role did you do a lot of your own…
Stunts? Yes, all of them!
Well I knew that, that was fairly obvious [D’arcy laughs]. The many stunts that there are in it, obviously…What I meant to ask was how extensively you researched for the role.
I read a lot – as much as I could in the time allowed. At some point it has to fall away though, because the real blueprint is the script. That’s the thing that you have to try and serve. And in the case of Wallis and Edward, there are so many conflicting stories out there about them that at some point it starts to become slightly counter-productive to keep reading, because you can’t play all of it – you can’t be true to all of those books. We’re not making a documentary here, we’re not historians, we’re telling a story.
You feel that the love affair sparks up immediately. Have you got quite a healthy relationship with Andrea off-screen?
Yeah, we get on really great. We did from the minute we met, actually. We had a very fun and playful relationship immediately, which made things very easy on set.
W.E. is out today.
Words: Jack Mills