Priceless Cartier jewels and exquisite Dior dresses...The inside story of the real stars of Madonna's Wallis movie
By Nicole Lampert
Last updated at 11:44 AM on 13th January 2012
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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 outfits
'But as this was Madonna's project, and it was her personal approach, we had to take our lead from her', she says.
Actor James D'Arcy, who plays Edward, recalls how in one scene champagne was spilled on Madonna's original Art Deco chairs.
'We 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.
Before 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
Says 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'.
'So 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.
And 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.
'She 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.
She 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.
'Madonna 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.'
Madonna 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 wore.'
Similarly Madonna and Arianne spoke to jewelers at Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels about recreating some of Wallis's most iconic and fabulous gems.
Madonna also brought in her own collection of jewels for Andrea and Australian actress Abbie Cornish who plays Wally to wear.
'Every 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.'
Despite 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
'I felt 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.'
Another 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.'
Perhaps the most controversial element about the film is the way Madonna portrays Wallis - more positively than ever seen before on film.
According 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.
'I 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.
'She 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.
Anne 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.
'Madonna 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.'
She 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
'She 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 went.
'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 of her.'
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 rehabilitate Wallis.
The 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 awards .
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.
After 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 altogether.
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.
W.E. is out next Friday (January 20). Madonna, Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy appear on The Graham Norton Show on January
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