Madonna chats with Oscar Isaac, who plays a security guard in her second… (The Weinstein Company,…)
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.