W.E. - Andrea Riseborough interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ANDREA Riseborough talks about getting into character for W.E., Madonna’s new film about the affair between King Edward VIII and American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
She also talks about working with Madonna and becoming friends, inhabiting historical characters and why she is full of admiration for Meryl Streep.
Q. Tell us about your first meeting with your co-star James D’Arcy…
Andrea Riseborough: The first time I met him we were on the hunt for princes and many sat down in front of us. I’d gone very briefly to the bathroom and Madonna was sitting down with James and he was sitting like this… Madonna said: “Look at this…” He had these pink socks on and he had his trousers tucked into his pink socks because he’d found out that Edward used to do that sometimes, which I thought was really charming.
Q. He was surprised at how well you’d recaptured the look of Wallis Simpson…
Andrea Riseborough: Yes, when we came to meet each other, Wallis had come to me maybe a month before if you know what I mean. So, I was part of the way towards the transformation of how she may stand, position herself, and be… aesthetically as well, because it affects your aesthetic for quite a time as well, even in your personal life. You don’t realise it but you sometimes pass the mirror and realise that ‘my goodness, I’ve completely changed my own aesthetic’.
Q. This isn’t your first historical character. Do they sort of take you over?
Andrea Riseborough: This one did. What I would say is that you have an almost strangely dualistic experience. You could almost look at anything and have two opinions about it. It’s not that there are two people living inside of you because that’s quite clearly not the case. But you certainly have a feel for what they might appreciate or not. So yes, they enter into your life in a way that they never leave you, I suppose.
Q. Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about Wallis?
Andrea Riseborough: I had no emotional link to her. I just had no… my perception of her was peripheral. It was like a footnote in a text book. It was monochrome, it was black and white enigmatic image. I had no emotional connection to her. I do have a feeling, and I’m not sure at what stage this was, but I had a feeling when I was young, perhaps around 10 or 11, of being somewhere and people bristling when somebody mentioned her name. It could have been in my family. I think it may have been my family. So, really, really tenuous.
Q. Most portrayals show her as a negative character…
Andrea Riseborough: Well, then you start researching and 15-20 minutes in I realised that most of the negative things about her were completely unfounded and were this extraordinarily successful propaganda campaign devised by Stanley Baldwin, which was totally essential and I understand why he did it. There was a real need for the Royal family to be, potentially… Bertie, who was not in any way groomed to be king, for them to step forward and be really the perfect and idealised family.
So, Stanley Baldwin did a very clever thing where he kind of cradled Wallis and Edward into this comfort zone whereby they thought he was protecting them by putting an embargo on the press in Britain, so that the papers would run pictures of them all over the world getting off and on yachts and so on. But in England the working man wouldn’t be party to it. The upper classes all read New York Magazine and society magazines, so they had an idea of what was going on, but on the ground, the people who really supported Edward, the working people he went down amongst and wanted to have a voice for, and was interested in reforming socially, they were the people who had know idea until two weeks before the abdication when Baldwin realised it was going to go the way it was, he released these images of this twice divorcee from Baltimore clad head to toe in couture paid for by our country and dripping with half of the Crown’s jewels, which obviously did not bode well, especially with the working man who has no association or connection with couture or what it might be. That was alienating. Her image was alienating. She certainly didn’t look like Grace Kelly.
I think, en masse, the country were bemused and it was terribly clever as a propaganda campaign and it worked. So, once I got past all of the chaff [laughs] – Nazism, the same photo that Hitler had with so many other people, brothels in Beijing and Shanghai, her being a man – and once I got to the wheat and very hearty it was. There are so many piece of, what seems to me, real information and interesting information about this woman’s life and about their life together. One of the greatest things, of course, which is on public display – and people may have been slightly misunderstood – the letters you can read now but in the film, the modern part of the story is set in the ‘90s, so at that point they weren’t on public display.
People keep saying to me: “You got to read the letters…” But you can all read the letters! We can all read them! You can pull them up on the Internet. But the letters were so useful because it’s their dialogue and once you read enough of them you understand their language, they have certain words of their own… some of them are mentioned in the film – ‘enum’, which means small. “Without you I feel enum and scared,” she says in the film. Or ‘W.E.’, of course, which was their main insignia. I think i was really a way they felt they could unite in this world of turmoil around them – you and me against the world. And then the letters to Aunt Bessie… and they were sometimes even more insightful because Wallis felt she could tell things to her Aunt Bessie, who really raised her to a certain extent, from afar but was the ne family member still living and very caring. She tells things to Aunt Bessie that she couldn’t tell to Edward. We all have that person where we don’t want to hurt the one we love so much and if they’re going through something you need somebody else to be able to reflect with through that time. She had hundreds and hundreds of letters, maybe thousands, to Aunt Bessie.
Q. Do you have an Aunt Bessie?
Andrea Riseborough: [Pauses] I try and keep those things that I do have for myself, for myself if you understand? [Laughs] But she had hers and of course now I’ve delved into them and she no longer has them.
Q. Do you find yourself being protective of her? I mean, films like The King’s Speech aren’t particularly flattering of her…
Andrea Riseborough: Yes but what The King’s Speech is, which I thought was a fantastic film, and what it really did – totally inadvertently because it was its own beautiful thing – is that it put Edward and Wallis in context at least, so that now when people go and see the film [W.E.] they feel almost like they’re seeing the other half of something and that’s a great thing. I think Tom Hooper is a fantastic director and that was a brilliant film. The whole cast was extraordinary, especially Helena [Bonham Carter]. But yes, Helena’s character – ‘Cake’ as she was called – is very different in our film and it’s almost exactly flip. It’s truly the other side of the coin.
Q. But do you get outraged when you see Wallis being portrayed in a negative way?
Andrea Riseborough: I don’t feel outraged at all because I understood that, like any narrative story that is told in a cinematic sense, there needs to be a crux. And that story surrounded a family who weren’t groomed for the life they entered into. So, I understood why we had to be on their side and I understood why it had to mean something to us, each part of their journey. I’m sure it was horribly difficult for them. In our film, we’re trying to see it from the other perspective and so there’s a reason for both sides artistically. And I suppose that is the definition of artistic licence! So, I wasn’t in any way offended. But I certainly do feel in a way that you almost begin to feel a strange artistic representative for a historical figure if you play them – not that you want to be in any way.
But when people question their motivation or attack them you perhaps, if you’re very close to it, feel offended for them being perceived, such as The Duchess of Windsor for example, frivolous or shallow or only interested in the aesthetic. Of course, having read the letters and done all the work that I’ve done on her, and having read all the things that you read, I believe that the reason she was interested in all of that was that she sought always to be the best woman, the best young woman, the best wife… and, I’m sure, mother if she could have been. And part of that meant not eating for a week so you can throw a dinner party that is catered by Fortnum & Masons or making sure that each candle is at a perfect level. Things like that meant something to someone like Wallis, but that does not mean she is shallow and has no feelings! It doesn’t mean that she didn’t have a good heart. It also doesn’t mean that she’s perfect because we all are confused at different times in our life and when she saw the writing on the wall in terms of how their relationship was going to play out, which was that she knew there would always be a feeling that she hadn’t lived up to a kingdom – I mean, how could you live up the responsibility of a kingdom? – she desperately tried to back out of the marriage.
That’s quite evident in anything that you read that I would have personally trusted. So, the more that I did read, the more I became excited about how it supported everything that Madonna had excavated and it had been done in such a way that was so graceful and gentle and well judged. It made it more and more exciting. The more we uncovered, the more exciting it got.
Q. The photos of her wedding seem to suggest she’s sad…
Andrea Riseborough: I think it was very hard for her. I think what was even harder for her was that it wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted it, because she was desperately in love with him… and he with her. It was a whirlwind romance and she was ignited. She’d been living in comfort and support with Earnest and really in great and friendly complicity with a partner and best friend for such a long time. But she’d been lacking feeling like a woman, she’d been lacking feeling alive, and when this happened and her heart went in that direction, she hated herself. She hated herself. It was a very, very difficult time. And then when she tried to back out of the marriage, or she tried to pull away and cut him off… not in an aggressive way, but a silent way because she needed to remove herself from him, he wouldn’t allow it and was totally fixated on the idea that they should be together. And of course she wanted that because she loved him. So, it was very difficult. The two things were spinning around at the same time inside of her.
Q. Another famous woman you’ve played, Margaret Thatcher… have you seen The Iron Lady?
Andrea Riseborough: Oh, it’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I think she [Meryl Streep] is just totally amazing. I think she’s amazing! I think she should get an Oscar for having breakfast. She’s unbelievable. I think she’s so, so incredible.
Q. Are you a little bit in envy?
Andrea Riseborough: No! I don’t feel I would put myself on the same par as Meryl Streep and so I can’t feel envious of her! In the past, I would have said we’re not similar casting but of course, yes, I did play Margaret Thatcher as well. But that was a very different film and much earlier on. What I loved about the film, and I think Phyllida Lloyd is just incredible, is that it was really a film about a woman clearing out her dead husband’s closet. And that in itself is a movie! It just so happened that the woman is Margaret Thatcher. I just think it’s the most wonderful idea. The bravery and devotion and sadness and… the just completely captivating dedication with which she played the part was jaw-dropping. I think she’s phenomenal in it. Can you tell I enjoyed it [laughs]? I’ve watched it three times.
Q. Are you going to leave historical figures behind now?
Andrea Riseborough: I don’t know. It depends which ones pop up from the grave [laughs]. And more importantly it depends how they are explored because the thing that I felt about The Iron Lady and My Week With Marilyn as well is that instead of trying to encompass an entire person’s life in a stick biopic, what’s interesting is to see it through the backdoor, or through one person’s small encounter, or this clearing out of the closet, or in W.E. the way that we experience Wallis’ life through the eyes of a woman [Abbie Cornish] in a different time, in a more modern time, who is vicariously living through this 1930s romance in the hope that her own life might get better yet ironically has all of the freedom right in front of her but ironically can’t see it. And then at the end has the liberation and freedom to be able to escape, which is something that Wallis never achieved.
Q. It’s funny because you must get asked for your own encounter story and a tale about Madonna that can give us an idea about what she’s really like? Is Madonna has hard to sum up as someone like Margaret Thatcher or Marilyn Monroe?
Andrea Riseborough: Yes and I’m perhaps ill qualified to answer that question in the sense that my relationship with her is… the beginnings of my relationship with her were that of an actor and director. So, that was our first foot. And of course we’ve become close because of that. And you do. We spent seven months of our lives every day together and that means such a great deal when you share a passion with someone. And so the way that I can talk about her is as a director and as a friend.
But I’m ill qualified to talk about her in any other way and I think sometimes people want to imagine that I was paralysed by fear…. goodness, I was nervous because I was excited about meeting her and I was excited about meeting a director as well. And I was excited about the project. The other thing is, there’s so little time. I think that may be another common misperception – that there’s more time than there actually is in filming. It’s hurry up and wait. From the moment you start a film it’s ‘we’re just about to go, we’re just about to go, we’re just about to go…. [pauses then shouts] we’re just about to go!”
So, you almost feel that even though you might not be filming a scene for three months there will not be a day off until you film that scene, so you have to almost prepare the entire movie before you’ve started it because you know that when you have started it, it’s going to be like this cannonball that just keeps rolling and rolling and rolling. And within that, you get so little time to do anything else. From the moment that you think I might be doing this film, you’re diving in head first and thinking about the character, the story and what you might be trying to achieve. And anything else around that is out the window.