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W.E. - James D'Arcy interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES D’Arcy talks about playing King Edward VI in Madonna’s W.E., getting into character and being told to drop the historically accurate voice!

He also talks about working with his director, working with other directors (sometimes clueless ones) and how an early meeting on Skype providing some comedy and unintentional stress.

Q. What were your thoughts on Edward VI prior to playing him?
James D’Arcy: The embarrassing truth is that I knew very little about them as a couple beforehand but in fact it served me in good stead because it was only quite a long way down the line that I became exposed to other people’s strongly held beliefs about both him and them as a couple by which time I’d started to read quite a lot of material. The first thing I really noticed that so much that’s written about them is contradictory. Whatever you believe, I could find in one of the books something that would support your theory… I found that quite liberating because it made them human, it made him a real three dimension person, because we’re all a bunch of complexities really. What I’d known was just the headlines – ‘king abdicates throne for twice divorced American woman’.

I was actually in America when I offered the job and the view of them in America is somewhat different to the view of them in Britain. It’s a big generalisation, but in Britain he did the most disgusting thing you could possibly do: he absented himself from his duty to be king. In America it’s perceived as the poster says – the greatest love story – in that the man was so wildly in love. He says it in his abdication speech that he wasn’t able to carry on his job without her – and he wasn’t allowed to carry on his job with her – so when the chips were down he felt he had no choice. He had to abdicate. I enjoyed the chaos in between those two theoretical realities.

Q. The film does give the American view, which is new to some of us…
James D’Arcy: She was completely unknown to the British public until about two weeks before he abdicated and what then happened was that a new king was put in his place. To our modern eyes we think we know who Bertie was because The King’s Speech came out and was a big success but that man wasn’t groomed to be the king, and he didn’t expect to be the king.

Stanley Baldwin had to ensure the public was fully behind him. In truth, I don’t think Wallis and David particularly helped themselves but lots of stories grew up around them, some of them wild exaggerations and some of them simply not true. All celebrities tend to be distilled into three or four sentences, and it was important in the late 30s for everyone to fall behind Bertie as the king… not that there was anything wrong with Bertie as king. But they had to believe the right thing had happened.

I don’t know that it is the American story. Actually, Madonna put it best: it was like discussing them in public is like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the conversation. And that’s one of the things that attracted her to telling this story. In the little that we all know about Madonna and her work in other arena, we know she’s not afraid of courting controversy. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think it did interest her that this story could be told from two extreme angles because people had such strongly held beliefs.

Q. Did you encounter the strength of people’s convictions at all?
James D’Arcy: It’s funny that no one has a conversation with me about it – they tell me what they were like and mainly I nod along and go: “Oh that’s interesting I hadn’t thought about it like that…” Or something bland because there’s very little point getting into it. You could find the evidence to support whatever view you want to believe. As an actor, my job is not to be a historian or a documentary maker, my job is to serve the script and the director’s vision of that script. Fortunately, Madonna was very clear as to the story she wanted to tell.

Q. Did that impose on how you played him?
James D’Arcy: Oh it informed it, absolutely. I read everything I could. I watched all the footage I good see. Andrea [Riseborough] and I read their letters to each other. You do that in rehearsal, that’s what the time is there for but ultimately you can’t play a book, you can’t play a photograph. For example, I’m much too tall to play this role, I’m about a foot taller than Edward. But it’s a film, it’s not a documentary, it’s not supposed to be the definitive version although it does open a conversation about them.

Q. Could you have had a drink with him?
James D’Arcy: I have no opinion on the royal family presently but I think it’s fair to say we feel we know more about William and Kate and that generation than we do about the Queens’ generation. And that mould started to be broken by Edward who used to travel around, occasionally on foot or by bicycle. And it’s in the film, the bit where he says “something must be done” about the Welsh miners and he was for his time, considered to be a man of the people. He was the first to relate to everyman and his subjects in a way that we familiar with today, but he broke lots and lots of moulds when he was Prince of Wales in a way that was not popular with the Establishment. So, from what I could gather he did seem to care deeply genuinely about people.

I was told by somebody that historically they would think about the Prince of Wales that ‘this one’s going to fuck it up’, ‘this one’s going to be a terrible king’ and then they go on to be king and they’re terrific. Edward, or David as they called him, was the only one where they went: “He’s going to be a great king!” And he didn’t even make it to the coronation.


Q. You portray is so different to Guy Pearce in The King’s Speech with his talk of “kinging”…
James D’Arcy: I did see it yeah. I’m not enthusiastic about making comparisons; it was a very different film telling a different story. Having read whatever I could lay my hands on, I know there’s an argument to support all of it. I never heard, did Guy Pearce talk about “kinging”?

Q. Yes, his version of David did…
James D’Arcy: I never heard that exactly that expression, I never saw it written down anywhere. It’s not part of our story. In that film the characters are bit players. In our film it’s the other way around. I’m not the right person to judge where the sympathy of this film lies, I’m not the director, it’s not my job. I just try to be as honest as possible in terms of what the script is asking me to do.

Q. Did you audition? Was there a lot of time to research beforehand?
James D’Arcy: No, there isn’t a lot on YouTube but you can find his abdication speech, you can hear him and he doesn’t sound anything like he does in this film. He’s got a very reedy voice and I think he was one of the most photographed men in the world in the 20s and 30s and he was the first wave of that sort of royal celebrity that was accessible to the public. But he opened his mouth you thought, ”oh my god”. You can listen to his abdication speech and it is [thins voice] quite reedy. I got somewhere towards sounding like him. I read the abdication speech at one point for Madonna and she said: “Yes, that does sound just like him. Don’t do that ever again.” And I think she’s right because to our ears we wouldn’t understand. If I played the whole part sounding like that you’d have a very different take on him.

Q. You’ve had period dramas in your past, was that what got you called in?
James D’Arcy: I hope not, I worked in period dramas and I’ve worked in modern dramas. I wouldn’t want to be an actor if I just had to play the same thing over and over again. It wouldn’t be very interesting for me

Q. No, but you proved you had the chops for period dramas…
James D’Arcy: I know what you’re trying to say, but I’m just going to try to skirt round it. It seems to me unfair just because one is placed in a different time that some actors can and some actors can’t. You just judge everything on its own merits.


Q. Had she seen you in anything else before you met?
James D’Arcy: I don’t know, we never discussed it and I don’t know that it matters to her. I know that she saw everybody because a lot of my friends were up for it. It’s a reasonably small crowd so I knew who she was meeting. She was just looking for whatever it was she was looking for – and now I’m starting to feel I’m putting words into her mouth which I’m really reluctant to do.

Q. What was the reaction amongst your friends to the idea that Madonna was casting for a film?
James D’Arcy: It was afterwards. I have actor friends but we don’t sit around discussing acting. You guys when you have a drink you don’t sit around discussing journalism – or maybe you do. It was only afterwards that people would say: “Oh yeah, I read that script.” And it’s not like we’re 22. We know that some jobs are yours, some jobs are somebody ele’s. There’s space for everybody

Q. But was there more interest because it was Madonna’s film?
James D’Arcy: Um. Hmm. I don’t, from my perspective I was obviously initially very interested to meet her because why wouldn’t you want to meet the most famous woman on the planet? Um it was really helped by the fact that I enjoyed the script, and then when I did meet her, she was so knowledgeable about this time period and them and eventually after she cast me she sent me all these books. And there are some hefty tomes written about them and I’m not exaggerating – every other line would be underlined with a note next to it or it would be highlighted with a post-it note next to it. The whole book would be highlighted basically, She’d done her research in a way that honestly not every director I’ve worked with has done. It was wildly impressive and it does give you a feeling of security as an actor because, I speak for myself, but I like directors who know what they want. That’s why they’re called directors, they direct the ship. She had a clear vision and she communicated it very well and she was good fun while she did it as well

Q. Did it give you a glimpse into her level of fame?
James D’Arcy: No, the glimpse of fame was when we went to the Venice film festival and oh my god it was extraordinary. I’d never experienced anything like that sort of outpouring of emotion. But on the set there’s no time for that kind of outpouring of emotion. But on the set there’s no time for that idolatry. She was the director, we were the actors, you’ve got four pages to shoot today. We didn’t sit around thinking about what she has done in her life…

Q. The downside must have been the paps?
James D’Arcy: There were some paps around from time to time, yeah.

Q. Like Mrs Simpson, we tend to have an opinion as to who Madonna is without meeting her?
James D’Arcy: For 30 seconds it’s different to meeting any other director, and then it isn’t. You go: “Oh my god I’m in the room with Madonna!” And then you’re talking about the work. You’re in a very familiar place then because like all directors you have to find out what’s the best way to communicate with each other. And for me that’s familiar and comfortable and necessary. It’s something I go through quite regularly with a new director. She didn’t in any way disappoint me on that score because she was so passionate about the project. It wasn’t like we sat around talking about what she did as a musician or her personal life or anything like that, do you know what I mean? It was very focused, as it usually is, it was very focused on the work as you’ll know because you’ve been on movie sets it’s very boring because it is all about getting that shot and then at the end of the day at 7 or 8 o’clock at night when you’re finished everyone falls apart. We worked really very long hours; you stopped and then you slept and then you started again. But it was honestly, exciting.


Q. Did you Skype Madonna for your audition?
James D’Arcy: That wasn’t really an audition, I just met her and we talked. It tends to be now that if you’re not in the same country, you meet directors on Skype but it was the first time it happened to me, and it happened to be with her. It was first of all unexpected and second of all slightly surreal enough that it was quite a good way to have met her. I’m sure all of you have made Skype calls. The Skype fucked up a bit and she froze. But her voice kept going, and I could hear her really clearly. And then 85 thoughts go through your head. Do you say something, do you not say something? Have I frozen? Have I frozen in a really unflattering pose? That was my main worry – that she was now talking to this sort of ogre, so that was a trip [laughs].

Q. Did you audition with other Wallis’?
James D’Arcy: No, I think Andrea was cast about a week before I was, so I just met Andrea although it didn’t even feel like Andrea when we met because she was in semi-costume. She had her hair done as Wallis and as you can see in the film she looks remarkably similar, and she already did in rehearsal. It was extraordinary. I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t expecting her to walk through the door dressed as Wallis.

Q. Without being flip is there…?
James D’Arcy: A sequel in the works? Yes.

Q. Even more than flip – is there a “I’ve played a member of the house of Windsor” club?
James D’Arcy: Yes, we meet every Thursday and talk about it! Although I did meet Guy Pearce at the Venice Film Festival and we very briefly discussed that we’d both played the same character.

Q. Have you met the royals?
James D’Arcy: I’ve met Charles and Edward. I mean, I stood in a line-up and shook their hands and said ‘hello‘… but not since playing the role.

Q. Have you worked with any directors who have been clueless to work with?
James D’Arcy: There’s a beauty in the cluelessness though because even if a director is asking you to do something exactly, it’s not possible to do what is exactly in their head so I try to embrace the chaos between the director and my interpretation. Even if it’s a line reading, I still can’t do it exactly. I like direction like: “Now remember, you left a bit of fish in the fridge this morning – action!” It makes no sense at all, but it makes me stop thinking, which is a really good place for an actor to be in. The minute you’re thinking about direction, you’re not free for surprises to happen so there’s a beauty in the weird direction as well, which I quite embrace. NOT, to be quite clear, that this was the kind of direction I was getting in this film!

Read our review of W.E.

Read our interview with Andrea Riseborough