On a fall afternoon in New York's Central Park, hundreds of curious onlookers and paparazzi watched as two comely young actresses, Abbie Cornish and Andrea Riseborough, performed a scene on a park bench. When a rock band sound check across the park disrupted the scene , the movie's director trotted off to ask the band for a reprieve.
"The entirety of Central Park followed her," said Riseborough, "and left Abbie and I sitting on the bench, at which point we just looked at each other like, 'Well, this obviously isn't where it's happening.'"
That filmmaker has held crowds in thrall every time she's left the house for the last 30 years. Now, as the co-writer and director of the romantic drama "W.E.," she'll attempt to draw audiences from behind the lens. After four years in relative seclusion, Madonna is returning to the public eye: "W.E.," her second feature film as a director, arrives in theaters Friday; she'll perform in front of more than 100 million TV viewers at the Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 5; and "MDNA," her first album of new material since 2008, is due in March.
The busy period is just the latest iteration of a career of perpetual self-reinvention, one that has earned her a reputation as a reliable provocateur and miner of fresh cultural territory. But many of the things Madonna has sung about, done and worn over three decades that have been incendiary — teenage pregnancy, interracial kissing, cone bras — have since become mainstream. To attempt to live one step ahead of the moment indefinitely must be exhausting.
But in an interview at her sprawling Sunset Boulevard home, Madonna said she's driven by something much more stimulating — an inquiring disposition.
"I don't like to repeat myself," she said. "I'm a curious person who's interested in learning, and I like to take the road less traveled by. That's just my nature, so perhaps that leads me to subject matter or controversial or subversive waters. I don't know. It's not something that's intentional. I'm not calculating being subversive or trying to be ahead of people. I just work on things that interest me."
Madonna had just returned home from a Golden Globes rehearsal, where she practiced presenting the award for foreign language film. "There's only one country that's a little tricky — that's China," she said, nursing a cup of tea in a sitting room lighted by dozens of woodsy-smelling candles and decorated with rich fabrics, seven guitars and a grand piano. Compact, clad in all black, with a dancer's erect posture, she is that uncommon 53-year-old who can still get away with wearing a glittering, golf ball-sized skull ring.
(In less than 24 hours, she would be accepting a Golden Globe for "Masterpiece," a song she performed and co-wrote for "W.E.," and deflecting a sarcastic barb from host Ricky Gervais about being "just like a virgin." "If I'm still just like a virgin, Ricky, then why don't you come over here and do something about it?" Madonna taunted. "I haven't kissed a girl in a few years — on TV.")
In "W.E.," an unhappily married modern Manhattanite named Wally (Cornish) develops an obsessive curiosity about the romantic life of Wallis Simpson (Riseborough), the divorced American for whom Britain's King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) famously abdicated the throne in 1936. Wally's visits to a 1998 auction of the couple's estate serves as a narrative link between the periods — and a location for her flirtations with a handsome security guard (Oscar Isaac).
"I liked the idea of examining the cult of celebrity," Madonna said. "That Abbie's character would be looking at this story and thinking, 'Wow, I want that,' the way people do with famous people. They think that they have this kind of a life, and so they follow them around with this fairy tale notion of who they think they are."
At home, Madonna had a much softer, more vulnerable manner than her stage persona. She spoke slowly and deliberately, with no trace of the British accent that drifted into her diction a decade ago when she moved to London with now ex-husband English director Guy Ritchie. It's clear, however, that she's a woman accustomed to having things the way she wants them. "Ooh la la, I can't take this anymore," she said, yanking the cord out of a phone that wouldn't stop ringing.
As a woman once paired with such men as Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, Madonna is undoubtedly well equipped to direct a movie about a famous romance experienced from the inside. She researched and wrote the script for "W.E." with Alek Keshishian, the director of her 1991 tour documentary, "Truth or Dare," over three years, immersing herself in letters between Edward and Wallis and plastering the auction catalog pages of their belongings on the walls of her home in London.
"What they did was pretty controversial," she said, explaining her interest in the couple. "I found her to be a very complex person, and I found his sacrifice to be unusual.... People don't just get up and walk away from the most powerful position in the world. It's kind of unheard of."
Madonna said she supplied the bulk of the movie's $15-million budget, as well as several of her own furnishings and pieces of jewelry. While filming one scene, she was unhappy with the curtains and sent an assistant to tear down some gray satin drapes from her home.
"Madonna's work ethic is unrelenting," said "W.E." costume designer Arianne Phillips, who has been the singer's stylist for 15 years as well as creating the costumes for such movies as "Walk the Line" and "A Single Man." "She does whatever it takes to get the job done. She's a multitasker creatively."
"W.E.'s" 54-day shoot in 2010 spanned New York, London, the English countryside, Paris and the South of France. "It was hell," Madonna said. "In a way, I was very naive. I wrote the script, and I let my imagination go, and I didn't really think of the practicalities of all the different locations I had written and all the different places I was gonna have to go."
Critics at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where "W.E." premiered last year, found the most to praise in the film's look — its stylish re-creation of Wallis and Edward's decadent lifestyle. They were less impressed, however, with Madonna's period-bridging storytelling, with the Hollywood Reporter calling "W.E." "as easy on the eyes and ears as it is embalmed from any dramatic point of view." The Weinstein Co. acquired the film's U.S. rights ahead of its festival premieres and will open "W.E." in a limited release, beginning with four theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
Madonna said she hopes her movie will find its audience among women, who may relate to Wally's naive fantasies about Wallis' life, and the strength she draws from learning the more complex story. "There's three love stories in the film: There's Edward and Wallis, the blossoming love story between Wally and Evgeni, and there's the love affair between the two women," she said. "It's an important mythological story to tell ... of a woman helping another woman. I don't think it's something that we see very often in films. Mostly, we see women sabotaging other women."
Film fan Madonna
Madonna's film education started at an art-house theater near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which she attended for a year before moving to New York to become a dancer at age 19 in 1977. "My father was quite strict. We didn't watch a lot of movies growing up," she said. "When I went to the university, there was a foreign film cinema. Movies were playing every night, and it was like Pandora's box for me to suddenly discover the world of Visconti, Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini and Godard and Truffaut.... It was like walking into a world and suddenly feeling at home. There's a dreamlike quality to a lot of them. They transported me and inspired me."
In the 1980s, she was one of the earliest artists to exploit the cinematic potential of music videos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in 1985's "Material Girl" and performing in a "Metropolis"-style dystopia in the David Fincher-directed 1989 video for "Express Yourself." As an actor, she starred in "Desperately Seeking Susan," "A League of Their Own" and "Evita" but rarely enjoyed either the creative control or the critical approval she craved. Her directorial debut, "Filth and Wisdom," a low-budget comedy about three London flatmates, garnered just a token theatrical release in 2008.
The singer's best preparation for the demands of directing a movie may have been her ambitious, visually driven live shows, and she'll spend the latter half of 2012 on a global tour on behalf of "MDNA."
"When you're putting a show together, you're dealing with so many elements," she said. "You're creating a stage and working with lights and costumes and dancers, who you could say are the actors. You're paying attention to the minutiae and you're also stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. I always like to tell stories in my show and have some kind of an arc. I have a crew that I rely on desperately and ... I'm working with creative people, so I need to be judicious with the way that I speak with them. I've always been intricately involved in every aspect of my show. I know where all the nails are on the stage."
At the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, Madonna will have the unusual experience of surrendering much of the control she treasures, if not creatively, at least logistically, to the National Football League and NBC. That means staging a memorable performance within the rigid timing and space constraints of a football game and without any Federal Communications Commission-inciting offenses like the infamous wardrobe malfunction that accompanied Janet Jackson's 2004 show.
"I have 12 minutes and 40 seconds to do something extravagant and exciting in the middle of something that's quite sacred to all of America," she said. "No one's asked me to tone down my moves. They were curious about my costumes and the costumes of the dancers.... They were very clear with us up front that they don't want nipples or anything like that, and I didn't have any intention of doing that, so I was like, 'OK, we're cool.' I'm more nervous about this than most things I've done, simply because ... it's not how I'm used to working. I'm a perfectionist. I like everything to be done just so, and I like to run things and run things and run things until people can do it with their eyes closed."
Her high-stakes Indianapolis performance will serve as the launch for "Gimme All Your Lovin'," the first single off "MDNA." She's brought back two of her favorite collaborators for the album, producers William Orbit and Martin Solveig, and is working with new faces — the female rappers M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj.
One song on the album, "Beautiful Killer," is a tribute to French film star Alain Delon. "I've seen every movie Alain Delon's ever made," Madonna said. "He's so charismatic."
The album will be the first in a $40-million, three-record deal she signed with Interscope Records in December.
Though she is years past the typical pop star's peak age, Madonna hasn't shown signs of slowing creatively — the long wait for this album is due to the time she spent shooting the movie. "Hard Candy," her last album in a 25-year relationship with Warner Bros., debuted at No. 1 in 37 countries in 2008, including the U.S. Romantically, she keeps it young as well — she's dating a 24-year-old French dancer.
Lady Gaga's 2011 No. 1 single "Born This Way" sounds to many ears an awful lot like Madonna's 1989 anthem of sexual self-acceptance, "Express Yourself." In a recent "Nightline" interview that has since become a viral video sensation, Madonna dismissed the song as "reductive."
"I feel like all the records on the radio right now have a homogenized quality to them," she said in The Times interview. "I've made a huge effort to try and not sound like everybody else. The music that I've done with William is quite introspective, whereas Martin's is more ironic and funny and upbeat. There's a really up aspect to it and a really fun aspect to it."
Besides directing, which she said she'd like to do again, her list of interests is varied — she and business partner Guy Oseary are working on a dance channel for YouTube and have backed a chain of gyms. Madonna, who is the mother of four, also has launched a clothing line for teenagers called Material Girl with her now-15-year-old daughter, Lourdes.
"Sometimes, [Lourdes] will do certain things or say certain things and I'll feel like I'm looking in a mirror," Madonna said. "I'll get really irritated with her and then I'll stop and think, 'But that's what I used to do. Or that's what I do.' If I complain to my friends and say, 'Oh, she's so strong willed' or 'She's so opinionated,' they look at me and go, 'Well what did you expect?'"