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James D’Arcy, actor
She’s the Queen of Pop and probably the most famous woman on the planet. But what’s Madonna like as a film director? James D’Arcy, who plays Edward VIII in her debut film, W.E., out today, gives Siobhan Synnot the inside story.
‘SHE used to curtsey to me quite a lot and call me ‘your Royal Highness’,” says James D’Arcy, casually. “Come to think of it, M still calls me by my title when we’re on e-mail.” “M” is Madonna, royalty herself in the sense that Ricky Gervais called her “The Queen of Pop” (“sit down, Elton”) at the Golden Globes this week. And her movie prince is a wry 36-year-old who says he learned ballet, the bagpipes and clay-pigeon shooting in six weeks to please her Madgesty. “No-one calls her Madge,” says D’Arcy. “I found that out on day one.”
D’Arcy wasn’t Madonna’s first choice to play Edward VIII in her fantasy about the love affair between the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. Ewan McGregor was in the running, until he chose to walk away from talks with M. And another British actor, currently enjoying success in a big TV series, told me he’d biked round to audition at her London home, partly “to see what she was like”. When they started rehearsals, she’d struggled to switch on the video camera. “The actress playing Wallis walked round and round her living room with me, while Madonna kept asking us how we would drink our tea,” he said blithely, “I don’t think she’s a very good director.”
James D’Arcy disagrees vehemently. “She didn’t disappoint me on that score because she was so passionate about the project,” he says. As soon as he was cast, she sent him a stack of hefty biographies and when he opened them up, he realised that she had been through all of them already.
“Every other line was underlined with a note next to it or highlighted with a Post-it note next to it. The whole book was highlighted basically. She’d done her research in a way that not every director I’ve worked with has done. It was wildly impressive and it does give you a feeling of security. She was very clear as to the story she wanted to tell.”
He also knew he wasn’t the only actor she was talking to. “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.” He grinds to a halt.
“I don’t want to put words in her mouth,” he says, apologetically. “Obviously initially I was very interested to meet her, because why wouldn’t you want to meet the most famous woman on the planet? But it was really helped by the fact that I enjoyed the script.”
The screenplay was co-written by Madonna and Alek Keshishian, who previously worked with the singer on her 1991 documentary In Bed With Madonna. Like everything Madonna-related, W.E. works best as a provocation. As romantic as a Mills & Boon rose, the film portraying Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) as vulnerable and misunderstood, the Windsors as rebellious and impassioned, and inconvenient blemishes, such as their Nazi links, are glossed as unsubstantiated.
“It’s funny that no-one has a conversation with me about the Windsors,” says D’Arcy, dryly, when it’s suggested that the British attitude to the couple tends to focus on the disruption they caused rather than the intensity of the affair. “People just tell me what they were like. 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. But I think 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.”
Madonna is doing very few interviews to promote W.E., but she couldn’t wish for a more loyal or personable representative than D’Arcy, who is fiercely protective of her, even though she left the ballet dance, the bagpipe solo and his clay shoot on the cutting room floor.
Sometimes, he’s unnecessarily cautious. We get into a brief fankle about playing period characters. He’s essayed a respectable number in some very respectable dramas, including Master and Commander alongside Russell Crowe, a First World War film called The Trench, a TV Mansfield Park here and a Churchill at War there. But D’Arcy suspects an agenda, and curls away . “I know what you’re trying to say, but I’m just going to try to skirt round it,” he says, with a small smile.I have no idea what we’re skirting, so I have another go. “I just wondered if Madonna had seen you in anything that suggested you could play a 1930s Edward VIII?” “Oh,” he says, a little relieved. “No.”
And finally he relaxes a little.
At 6ft 3in (1.9m), D’Arcy is about a foot taller than the real Edward VIII, and although he recently shaved his head for his upcoming movie Clouds of Atlas, the stubble is clearly much darker than Windsor’s blond coif. Vocally, he’s about an octave deeper too. Madonna dyed his hair, and disguised the height difference with smart camera angles, but decided against an impersonation of Edward VIII’s tinny regal timbre.
“You can listen to his abdication speech, and it does sound quite reedy,” he says, thinning his voice to illustrate the point. “I got somewhere towards sounding like him, and at one point I read the abdication speech for Madonna in his voice. After I’d finished, she said, ‘Yes that does sound just like him. Don’t do that ever again.’”
We both laugh. “But 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.”
When he does not have to defend Madonna against cynical journalists, D’Arcy is good fun, especially if he can tell a story against himself. He enjoys recounting his first meeting with Madonna. She was working on another continent, so they arranged to chat over a Skype video connection. D’Arcy logged on successfully but a few minutes into their chat, Madonna’s image had stuck in an unbecoming rictus, while her voice continued.
D’Arcy racked his brain for the correct netiquette. “It was slightly surreal. Do you say something? Do you not say something? Have I frozen on her laptop too? And have I frozen in a really unflattering position?” He strikes a gargoyle pose. “That was my main worry – that she was now talking to this ogre.”
With his sharp bone structure and the Jane Austenish surname, D’Arcy is more usually mistaken for artistocratic stock, rather than Shrek. In fact, he’s from Fulham, West London, where he and his younger sister were brought up on his widowed mother’s NHS nurse’s salary.
Fresh out of drama school, he was offered the lead in a Hollywood script, with Morgan Freeman attached. Heady stuff, given that his chief credit at that point was an episode of the cop show Dalziel and Pascoe. “I started reading the script and it became apparent that it was written for a 35-year-old man with a fantastic body. I had nothing to lose by auditioning, so we sent them a photograph of me. It was only later that I realised that Pride And Prejudice had just come out in America and the casting director had obviously said, ‘How about that Mr Darcy guy?’ And I’d got a script intended for Colin Firth.”
If nothing else, the noise caused by W.E. should bring D’Arcy a higher profile, and more literate directors. He might even reunite with Madonna, since she’s vowed to return to moviemaking. A question starts to form.
“Is there –“
But D’Arcy has already second-guessed a final inquiry for W.E.
“Is there a sequel in the works?” he says gravely. “Oh yes.”