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James D’Arcy W.E. Interview
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James D’Arcy is a British actor who, having graduated from LAMDA, has gone onto make a name for himself as a period actor in many popular television dramas, including The History of Tom Jones, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Sherlock and Mansfield Park. Having moved onto the big screen he’s now playing another historical character alongside Andrea Riseborough, as they portray Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, in Madonna’s W.E. Talking to View’s Matthew Turner, he spoke about working under one of the most famous women in the world, learning to play the bagpipes better than the king and how the films is really about the eternal story of love.
It was nice to see the Fox family so well represented in the film.
James D'Arcy: I know, I was a bit annoyed actually, when I found out that James [Fox] was playing my and Laurence’s [Fox] father. I did suggest to Madonna that perhaps my mother should play the Queen, just to even things out. My mum’s a nurse, so that didn’t really work in the end.
But did James and Laurence find it amusing to continue this family tradition?
James D'Arcy: They didn’t really talk about it. You had Fox and Fox and it felt more peculiar perhaps to us than to them. I’m trying to think if they even had a scene together. They did have a scene but I don’t think it made it to the film. There’s a scene where I played the bagpipes, which I think has not made the final cut of the movie.
I should think not ...
James D'Arcy: I was very good as it happens. You get the DVD and have a go at that. I learned to play the bagpipes in six weeks.
What tune did you play?
James D'Arcy: I Enjoy Sporting with My Brown Haired Lass was the tune I played. But this is a good insight into working with Madonna. I went to see a wonderful man to teach me, and he said he couldn’t teach me to play the bagpipes in six weeks, it was impossible. You start with the chanter and you play that for six months, and then you do the bags for a few months, and then you put them together and after a year you might get a bit. But, he said,“What I can do is make it look like you can play the bagpipes.”
So I emailed Madonna and she wrote back and said “I need you to try and learn to play the bagpipes. Just because somebody says you can’t doesn’t mean you have to listen to them.” I thought, well alright, fuck it. I’m here for the film, so let’s see what I can do. I said to the man teaching me, “Here’s the email, what do we think about that? It’s really a gauntlet thrown down.” And we did it. I played three minutes of bagpipes, with all three pipes going, which we could have plugged up.
It was sort of amazing, and it did somehow sum up how it was working with Madonna because there was no space for the word no. It was always, challenge yourself to do more than you think is possible. Bend reality. And that’s quite exciting. All the way through I was thinking ‘I won’t be able to do it, I won’t be able to do it,’ and then I did it. And at the end of it there’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment that you did something that you truly didn’t think you could do.
How many cigarettes did you go through in the course of the film, he always seems to have one in his hand.
James D'Arcy: Well, that unfortunately is the truth. It’s disappointing that it was the truth. I smoked a lot, yeah.
Are you a smoker?
James D'Arcy: I used to smoke, probably almost as many as he did. But I haven’t smoked for a while, so it was a trip. We finished the film, and I stopped.
Maybe the bagpipes compensated for your lungs?
James D'Arcy: I’m sure that’s what it was.
Doing the research, and playing someone that there is such a visage of, is it difficult to bring your own interpretation to it?
James D'Arcy: I didn’t find that difficult because there isn’t a view of him.
There is a visual image though, and the stories that people have created around him.
James D'Arcy: There are stories, there’s no one definitive view of him so that’s immediately liberating. Firstly, to massively generalise, there’s a minimum of two views because one of them predominantly exists in America, which is that there was this extraordinary love affair. And the other one predominantly exists in Britain, which is that the man absented himself from his duties to his country. And both of those stories are true.
So like all of our lives it’s complicated, and that helped me a lot because there is no definitive image. There’s a lot of stuff that’s written about them that I personally came to the conclusion was not true, and was probably propaganda. But that’s neither here nor there. Really, ultimately, I’m not a historian, I’m not a documentary maker, I’m just an actor. I didn’t write the script and I didn’t direct the script, my job is to try and service the script and the vision of the director. And in this particular instance the good news was that the story Madonna wanted to tell was very clear.
There was a lot of material and I read all of it, and it’s all contradictory. But ultimately I can’t play all of those books. I must have read 15 books, and there’s some elements of this which are just not truthful. I’m over six foot and he’s not. I didn’t cut my legs off at the knees in order to play the role. And also he doesn’t sound anything like I did in the film. You can go online and hear him abdicate, and he sounds very weedy indeed, and it’s unexpected because you see these pictures of this young man and he was very beautiful and he was the most photographed man in the world at the time. And he was a major fashion icon and he single handedly invented turn ups and zips and stuff like that, and changed the way that we all dress.
But then you hear him speak when he abdicates and you think ‘Oh my Lord!’ And I understood that because beyond everything that I’m saying to you about not being historians and not making a documentary, this is a story told through Wally’s eyes, through a modern day character’s eyes, so it’s her idea of what that relationship looked like. It doesn’t even have to be ‘the truth’ although I don’t think that it is unfaithful to history.
I think the truth is there are lots of people in this country who, if they know anything at all about Edward and Wallis, they KNOW IT! Whatever it is they know it. And people don’t discuss it with me, they tell me. I find myself nodding along going ‘Oh that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it like that.’ Because people don’t really want to have a discussion about it, they want to tell me who they were. And they were Nazi sympathisers, she did have a penis, he was gay, or he had no penis, or she knew everything from brothels and all the rest of this stuff. Those are the main headlines that you get. And I don’t have any view on it. We just told this story.
There's a school of thought that he let down his country, but the film shows the vulnerability of the man when he overhears Elizabeth call him a Nazi and the woman he loves a trollop.
James D'Arcy: Right. But it had to be that way because the Second World War was about to break out and he was a new king and he was not the man who was groomed to be king and the public knew nothing about Wallis until two weeks before he abdicated. There had to be some propaganda put in place, which was that Edward would have been a terrible king. It has to be kept that way, and he had to be kept out of Britain, he couldn’t be brought back into the fold because it’s too confusing for the British public.
Were they worried about revolution?
James D'Arcy: I am unqualified to answer that question, I’ll be honest. But what I really liked about the script is that what one thinks one knows about Edward and Wallis is normally big headlines, it’s broad brushstrokes, and because it’s about the king it’s so far removed that it’s got nothing to do with me. They’re just a bunch of crazies who ran the country. But because of the modern day story I think it hopefully takes this very, very universal story which is: what would you be prepared to do for love, where does it stop for you? And because of the localised version of it in the modern day story, it hopefully helps us – the audience – get some sense of how it might have been for them just because it’s global.
People had never considered that she gave stuff up too.
James D'Arcy: Right, sure. That’s the other thing that I liked about this film, it’s a film about women, it’s a film about strong women and it’s a film that is made by a strong woman. And there aren’t that many films that are made like that. Most films are very male centric, so I actually found it something of a privilege to be involved in a film that is skewed slightly differently. It’s important for all these different stories to be told, but I really liked that it was a story about women.
And was that a wig?
James D'Arcy: Actually it is a wig. It’s a really good wig. There is one scene in which I’m not wearing a wig, but I won’t tell you which one it is, you’ll have to go and watch it again.
You weren't inspired to become a blond then?
James D'Arcy: I was blond, we were uncertain whether to use the wig or not use the wig, but the wig did something that my own hair didn’t. It’s difficult to describe without showing you two photographs, but the wig kind of added some gravitas that my own hair slightly didn’t.
The wig was a better actor than your hair?
James D'Arcy: I’m afraid that’s the truth. My hair is much too frivolous.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
James D'Arcy: Yeah, the bagpipe scene that’s not in the film.
But the world will know and should Hollywood need a piper ...
James D'Arcy”: With that one song. And to be clear ... John Angus was proud. I worked with him in London. I think it’s already on YouTube, not the scene but there’s a making of thing which in part covers the bagpipe learning scenario. So it’s not like no-one in the world will know I played the bagpipes.
Was it accurate in historical terms ...
James D'Arcy: Genuinely I think I was a better bagpiper than Edward. Although he apparently did write a song that wasn’t bad. He wrote a tune, I don’t know what it was, it’s no Greensleeves, but he wrote something that his Dad said ‘That’s quite good, what’s that?’ And it was one of the few times that he impressed him, because his Dad didn’t know it was him when he was enjoying it.