It’s 3 pm on a sunny September afternoon, and I am sitting in the University Ballroom in Toronto’s Park Hyatt Hotel, eagerly waiting for the most famous woman on the face of the planet.
Unlike many of the superstars that I have interviewed, Madonna is not merely a celebrity; she is an international icon, who has redefined pop culture with her music, broken societal rules and defied universal conventions and moral authorities with her fearless, uncompromising approach to art, shocked the world and irked conservative and religious groups with her outspoken political commentary and overt sexuality, and inspired millions of fans around the world and generations of young musicians who continue to admire and imitate her religiously.
Publicists come and go from the room, Blackberries glued to their ears, but there is no Madonna. Restless, I get out of my seat and peep out of the room. I see waves of hotel security personnel, dressed in black suits like the cast of Reservoir Dogs, flowing from the elevators or ascending the stairs from lower floors. Like ants protecting their kingdom, they nervously snoop around the hall and inside the surrounding rooms. One big guy stands in the middle of the hall, whispering into a mic strapped to his wrist, presumably firing orders to his troops.
Remarkably, the frenzy of activity is virtually noiseless. Everybody speaks in hushed voices, as if we were in a cathedral. I grab a bottle of water and down it, hoping to quench the fire inside me, but in vain. My recalcitrant heart inexorably races like a speeding car without brakes.
While waiting, I think of Madonna’s humble beginning. In 1977, the outcast dreamer from suburban Detroit arrived in New York with only $35 in savings to pursue a career in dancing. She had worked minimum wage service jobs, done some modelling, acted in a racy student film and danced in Paris until 1982 when she was signed by Sire Records, who released her first Emmy hit song “Everybody,” which sold eight million copies, unleashing a female cultural phenomenon. By the mid-eighties, at the age of 25, Madonna was crowned the indisputable queen of pop.
After a tediously long forty minutes, I sense a sudden frantic activity: the movements are faster and more agitated. I hear nervous hushed voices announcing, “Madonna’s here,” followed by an approaching rumbling of footsteps, like the sound of an advancing army. I am feeling a sensation akin to the sensation of a soldier before a battle. My heart throbs violently.
Flanked by four stern bodyguards, Madonna, smiling jovially, her face as taut as the red blouse and black pencil skirt she is wearing, walks calmly into the room, followed by an entourage of at least 20 personnel.
Although I was shocked and frankly disappointed by her unnatural look – her face is artificially puffed beyond recognition and her body is sickly skinny – I am still overwhelmed by the spectacle of her arrival. Her grandiose and dramatic entrance into the room made her look truly like a queen.
“Hello,” she greets cheerfully as one of the bodyguards grabs a folder lying on the desk and flicks through it, seemingly searching for a weapon.
Oblivious to my surrounding, I am totally focused on Madonna, who, sensing my anxiety, wraps her arm around my waist and says “Think of me as Santa Claus bringing you a gift on Christmas.”
“Madonna,” I stammer. “This is Christmas day and you are my gift.” She laughs, playfully tightening her grip around my waist, before she sits down, with business alacrity.
Madonna is in Toronto to promote her film, W.E., which was premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is showing here at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I’d rather stick to questions about my film,” she warned.
W.E. follows the love affair between King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and the American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), which leads to the royal’s abdication, and it’s told from the point of view of a contemporary woman, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), who becomes obsessed with the life of the Simpson, when she faces similar romantic challenges.
The motivation behind making this movie was Madonna’s quest to shed a positive light on Wallis Simpson, who had been so far described as a superficial woman interested in getting dressed up, wearing expensive jewellery and going to dinner parties, and had been vilified for robbing the kingdom of its king.
“My investigation led me to find out she was actually a very complex, complicated woman who was a victim of her circumstance, who was lonely and searching for love and happiness, who desperately wanted to have a job and a career, who felt trapped and misunderstood, and she never had the chance to defend herself,” Madonna enthuses.
Watching King Edward in the movie being shackled by the imperial power that was supposed to endow him with limitless freedom, I wondered how restrictive the power of the queen of pop is on her personal life.
“I think that duality exists in all areas of life,” Madonna muses. “I think if you’re a successful politician, a successful writer or a successful anything, you’re going to feel as much freedom as you’re going to feel restricted. That is the nature of life, and I am not exempt from that natural law,” she laughs.
Like King Edward who didn’t let politics stand in the way of his heart, the undisputed heavyweight champ of reinvention has never succumbed to social pressures, but continued to pursue her dreams, consistently creating new characters and concepts. Hence, her recent metamorphosis as a film director seems quite natural for her.
“I think people have opinions about what they think I should and shouldn’t do. I never imagined for a minute that I was going to be a singer and songwriter. I left myself open to experiences and auditions and meeting people, and one thing led to the next. I was open to things even though I was trained as a dancer.”
The music icon doesn’t think that making a movie was a big leap for her. “It’s, of course, a completely different discipline but when I do my shows, I am completely and utterly involved in the minutiae of every aspect of the show: I am checking the scenes or a costume, the buttons, the hooks, the hair, the make-up of the dancers, the lights, the rear screen, choreography and the overall as well as the small picture, and there’s a lot of that goes on in film making. I’m already an oriented person and I would like to think of myself as a visionary.”
Before embarking on making W.E, Madonna immersed herself in learning the craft of filmmaking, watching Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s and French director Alain Resnais’s movies for inspiration, and spending a lot of time with her cinematographer learning about lenses, steadicam, film stocks and lights. She even consulted with her former husbands director/actor Sean Penn and director Guy Ritchie, who were supportive of her.
“They never gave me specific advice about telling the story in particular, but Guy would give me technical advice about cameras or using digital versus film,” Madonna laughs.
“I was really a student in every way you can imagine. I was just lapping up as much information as I could from my incredibly experienced and talented crew as I went along,” she adds.
Having absorbed the technical knowledge, the master of music developed a musical approach to film directing.
“When I was shooting or rehearsing a scene, I would close my eyes and just listen to the actors, and a lot of the times I would eliminate words or bits of dialogue because it didn’t sound musical enough to me. There needed to be a rhythm to the speech, to the conversation and the camera movement.”
In spite of the technical similarity between making music and making films, Madonna experiences them differently.
“One’s subjective and one’s objective,” she stresses. “Singing is an intimate expression and much more visceral, and when I am performing in front of audience I get immediate response, and the give and take is instantaneous. It feels more primal in many ways and less intellectual than filmmaking, which feels more removed because I am on the other side of the camera and I’m living in my head.”
Consistently drawing sell-out crowds to her lavish, theatrical shows, the 53-year-old icon remained unchallenged in the touring arena. Her single and album sales qualified her as the top-selling female artist in America, and the most played artist in the United Kingdom, yet oddly Madonna prefers to be a story-teller.
“Making a film encompasses everything that I love,” Madonna enthuses. Though she is aware and feels the pressure of the high expectation from her because of who she is.
“I think you have more expectations of people when you’ve seen their work before and then you expect them to be as good as or like or whatever. I think people are more critical of me than an anonymous director would be because I’ve been successful in other areas in my life.”
Indeed, W.E. has been excoriated by the critics in Venice and Toronto, but Madonna is undeterred. She is currently reading books and thinking about a possible subject matter for her next project.
Madonna speaks calmly and eloquently. And contrary to the image of the wild woman that we have grown to perceive her, she is meticulously formal and organised. When I stand up to have a photo with her, she calls to her make-up team “Fix me!”
Promptly, five make-up personnel dart towards her with bags filled with all kind of make-up equipment. They cluster around like bees attending to their queen, one carefully realigning a stray strand of hair, one gingerly retouching the powder on her face, one diligently combing her eyelashes, one delicately fixing her lipstick and one methodically brushing and surgically plucking an invisible dust grain from her blouse.
As I watch this scene unraveling before my eyes, I wonder about the meaning of a life drenched in such immense luxury.
“It means nothing if I am not happy,” Madonna laughs. “I feel privileged to have any kind of luxurious life. I feel privileged to own a great work of art or to have a piece of couture or something like that but it certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of my life.”
It takes the make-up team a couple of minutes to accomplish their mission, but frankly the result of their hard work is imperceptible to my naked eyes.
Having taking the photo, Madonna says “Goodbye” and marches out, enveloped by her entourage, leaving me cogitating about what I have just witnessed while my mind slowly retreats back to reality.