In Madonna's film "W.E.," Andrea Riseborough plays one of history's most enigmatic and reviled women, American divorcée Wallis Simpson, who caused a global scandal still felt today when she prompted Edward VIII to give up the English throne to be with her. The rising British actress couldn't have taken on two more different characters over the last year than shy, mousy waitress Rose in "Brighton Rock," and the stylish, sophisticated, empire-toppling Wallis in "W.E." As portrayed in the recent Oscar-winning "The King's Speech," Wallis was a scheming, ambitious socialite, but this film paints a different picture, one of a woman who's desperate for love but not necessarily for the glare of the spotlight that goes along with her chosen mate.
In an interview with Moviefone, Riseborough warmly defended both the scandalous Wallis, and her director, Madonna, who's suffered nearly as many slings and arrows with her sumptuous-looking but widely criticized directorial debut.
What did you know about Wallis Simpson going into this project?
I had a still image of her in my mind. I had no sense of emotional attachment to her. Nor did I really understand who she was in terms of her place in history and how her and Edward's romance so affected our monarchy. It didn't affect the politics of the country a great deal, but it certainly affected the historical and traditional elements of what Britain is. So my image of her was an enigmatic, matronly, monochrome still image. And then of course all of that changed.
She's usually been portrayed, at least at the time, as something of a villainess. How did making this movie change your mind about her?
I would have been too naive to think that she was a villain, having had no evidence, having not leafed through everything that I could, which I did. Any "villainess" traits that she might have were rooted in very, very little and they were really part of a very cleverly orchestrated propaganda campaign. That was [Prime Minister] Stanley Baldwin['s doing] who, at the time, very much needed the new royal family to be well-loved. It was a time when Edward was the best-loved prince that the family had had for hundreds and hundreds of years. He went down among the laymen and you see in the film, where he visits a Welsh mining village and [speaks out about the conditions] that's an example of some of the things that he did in terms of taking a very active role in social reform. And I think that was a little threatening to Stanley Baldwin's government at the time. He was treading a little too much on British toes at that point. But this is all history. You can read that. [Laughs] I don't want to bore you with my knowledge.
So you were definitely on her side, despite all the negative things that have been said about her?
I was absorbing a whole wealth of opinions across the board. So it was very diverse, the different perceptions that I found of her. She was very amiable, in the sense that she was an extraordinary hostess and she was very generous in that way. And so people who had an encounter with her always had a wonderful anecdote about how she was so very aware of her own frivolity. That she was a very genuine and tenacious woman who only really sought to be the best wife that she could possibly be.
You were able to talk to some people who actually knew her?
Yes. Lots of people had dinner with them! [Laughs] It's not awfully difficult to find somebody who did.
And what other kinds of research did you do?
All sorts. When you're playing someone who really existed, you start off with the literature and anything that anybody ever said about them and anything that they ever said about themselves, and word that's written about them and that would be weeks, months of research. Doorstep upon doorstep of supposed fact and often fiction. It's endless. And then you look at archival footage if you can get any. And all of this is only necessary if it serves the purposes of the piece There would have been no point in my researching sections of her life that our film hadn't dealt with. It would have been interesting, intellectually, but it would have been futile artistically. Of course she didn't know what was going to happen. None of us do. [Laughs]
What's Madonna like as a director?
She was extraordinary. She was really wonderful. I felt totally supported. She was always prepared. Hugely passionate. She'd been working on the piece for 10 years, I think it was. I felt like every moment was vital and that we were creating something that was really valid and special. It was wonderful.
How did you end up getting the part?
She sent me the script because she'd seen me playing Margaret Thatcher [in the 2008 British TV movie "Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley "] and I went to meet her. We did some work together and very much liked one another. And really that was it. I read for her and I responded to the script. I felt it was really unique and brave. Especially in its structure. And I was really interested to see what it ignited in her and once we spent some time together, that very same thing was ignited in me, as it were.
Why do you think Madonna wanted to tell this story?
Oh, that's a Madonna question. You'll have to ask her that.
The film's gotten some savage reviews. Why do you think that is? Do you think they're being extra critical because it's Madonna?
Well, I haven't read any reviews. I don't read reviews, and it's not because I don't think I can learn something, I'm sure I could learn a lot. I just that I feel very passionately about the work and especially when you're doing theater, you really only need one director and when you read reviews, you feel like you have twelve, because you respond to them, naturally. Even if it's a good review, especially, it can ruin a wonderful moment. So I'm afraid I feel uneducated to be able to give you a good answer on that one.
But do you think people might be unfairly harsh since this is a film from a famous pop star?
I don't know.
Is the finished film how you pictured it would be?
I didn't really have an idea what it was going to be like. I had implicit trust that it would be beautiful both in its narrative and in terms of its cinematic aesthetic. Because I trust her implicitly in that way. We share many of the same film references. She has a huge wealth of passion and knowledge about film. So it surpassed anything I could have imagined, not that I did imagined what it was going to be like. I think my brain doesn't operate that way.
What were some of those film references that influenced her with "W.E.?"
You should ask her because she would have the most fantastic answer. I don't want to answer for her because she would be far better at it.
She didn't share any of her influences with you?
Of course, we shared a million. We spent seven months of our lives every day chronicling a woman's life, so absolutely we shared an awful lot of things that I feel very privileged to share with somebody.
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