NEW YORK -- Very little sneaks past Madonna.
Details are important to me. The rugs, the lampshades, the jewelry, the one hair out of place. Little things like that drive me bonkers, if they're not just right," says the entertainer and first-time feature film director with a laugh.
Her penchant for perfectionism reveals itself promptly at the start of an interview in a swank Waldorf-Astoria room when symphonic notes begin clamoring out of hidden speakers. They're loud, discordant and distracting. And Madonna, looking around for the source, is miffed.
"We should turn the classical music off. It just came on. I'm sure there's a button somewhere," she says, as she surveys the ornate interior, where no such buttons are apparent. "This is apparently their suite, where they stayed."
The "they" in question are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, also known as Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. He was King Edward VIII of England when he fell in love with the married American socialite and ultimately abdicated the throne to be with her. Their odd yet resonant love story is the subject of Madonna's film directorial debut, W.E., in theaters Friday, which tells the parallel sagas of Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Wally (Abbie Cornish), a modern-day New Yorker frozen in a rigid marriage and obsessed with the Windsors. The title of the film refers to the couple's initials and their nickname for one another.
W.E. just earned an Oscar nod for costume design, and Madonna won a Golden Globe for best original song in January (much to the public displeasure of Elton John). The film aside, there's a lot of Madonna coming up.
She's performing at Sunday's Super Bowl halftime show. On March 24, her 14th studio album, MDNA, comes out on Interscope Records; the first single, Give Me All Your Luvin', is out on Friday.
"It's fun. It sounds different. It was nice to get away from the film and do something visceral and write songs and play the guitar," she says of the new release.
Expectations are high for MDNA, says Keith Caulfield, associate charts director atBillboard, and it's getting the most high-profile promotional platform on Sunday.
"She's headlining the Super Bowl halftime show. She has mass appeal," he says. "I suspect it's going to do well, but how well is still up in the air."
Between prepping for the show, promoting her film and working on her music, Madonna, 53, is raising her four kids, high school drama major Lourdes, 15, Rocco, 11, David and Mercy, both 5, in New York City. "A lot is happening. It wasn't planned that way but it turned out that way," she sums up.
In person, Madonna is crisp, thorough and businesslike, immaculately attired in a draped blue dress accessorized with fingerless leather Chanel gloves. There's no repartee. No pervasive need to be liked and no pretense of faux friendship. Just succinct, exacting answers, with tiny flashes of humor. On one of the things she has in common with Wallis Simpson: "She liked nice clothes, and I can relate to that."
Madonna the director sounds a lot like Madonna the person. "She is passionate, utterly prepared, tenacious, pragmatic, inspiring," says Riseborough. "Working with her was a wonderfully fulfilling experience."
That's because W.E. is truly Madonna's labor of love. She began researching the British royals when she lived in England with her ex-husband Guy Ritchie. She felt like an outsider in London, missing the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, for example, and she immersed herself in history to learn more about her new home. She started with Henry VIII and his six misbegotten wives, and read on through Wallis and Edward, whose story captivated her because of "the idea that someone in this very powerful position would give up the throne for love. I don't think that that happened very often, certainly not in the monarchies of England. I was very intrigued by that," she says.
And she had a clear vision for the two worlds she wanted to present onscreen.
"The great thing about Madonna is that she invites people to collaborate with her. She's not a micro-manager. She's very clear about direction but she's a true collaborator," says W.E. costume designer Arianne Phillips, who has known and worked with Madonna for 15 years. "She raises the bar because she has an aesthetic language that is uncompromised. We were creating this rarefied world of the duke and duchess, as well as the world of Park Avenue and Sotheby's and society New York. She knows those worlds."
Madonna immersed herself in Wallis Simpson's story, studying her mannerisms, style and diction with her typical attention to detail. In the film, Simpson emerges as a pragmatic, tragic figure, largely a victim of circumstance.
"When I first read about her, I thought she was clever and witty, and quite ambitious and calculating. And when I started to investigate and read, she seemed sort of like a trapped animal in many respects, quite fragile, in a lot of pain. She made the best of all her situations. She's been grossly misunderstood," she says.
Madonna had no intention of ever appearing onscreen, quipping that she looks nothing like Simpson. Films have beckoned to Madonna for years. Her forays into acting have been a mixed bag: duds like Swept Away and The Next Best Thing, as well as a charming turn in A League of Their Own and her Golden Globe-winning performance as Eva Peron in 1996's Evita. Since its debut in Venice last year, W.E. has divided critics and earned some unkind feedback, none of which Madonna says she's seen.
"I haven't read any of the reviews, so I don't know the nature of what people are saying specifically. I think yes, I'm gauged with a different measuring stick than an anonymous person would be. That goes with the territory," says Madonna. "The subject matter touches a nerve with people. I deal with relationships and I investigate the inner life of a woman, which isn't really dealt with in film very often."
Madonna co-wrote the screenplay, spending two years refining it. She connected to the dual stories of the protagonists, plus the cult of celebrity that surrounded Simpson.
"I see elements of myself in both of them. The girl who's dreaming about what it must feel like to be loved like that and having a bit of a naïve point of view," she says. "And then there's the Wallis Simpson character, who's dealt a series of challenging blows and has to deal with life and get on with it. She's quite practical about it. She says what she means and she means what she says and I can relate to that, for sure."
Given Madonna's romantic past, which includes marriages to Sean Penn and Ritchie, and relationships with Alex Rodriguez and her current one with a younger man, dancer Brahim Zaibat, what does Madonna think of the concept of all-encompassing love? Is it out there or a creation of Hollywood's romance machine?
"I think true love is really unconditional love. It's something one has to work towards. You have to come to an understanding that nobody's perfect. You have to learn to live with people's imperfections. You have to learn the art of negotiation. True love, it exists, but it doesn't exist in that fairy tale way," she says.
Madonna's life, she'll tell you, isn't quite as mythical and fabulous as you'd think. Because she's a single parent, Madonna says she's tough and often the bad cop with her kids. She works, a lot. Goes to the Kabbalah Centre. On rare mornings when she's feeling particularly self-indulgent, she'll hit the sack for a bit after her kids are out the door. On the weekends, she rides her horses in Long Island. And when she really wants to focus on her family, she puts away her BlackBerry, which is presently sitting on the table across from her.
"I have an office in my house, so I'm in my house and around my kids as much as possible. My work process is non-stop all day long," she says. "When I wake up in the morning, after the kids go to school, if I don't go back to sleep, I go to my office. I'm working until I have to leave. When I come back, I have dinner with my kids and put them to bed and then go back to my office."
Could Madonna imagine ever riding off into the proverbial sunset?
The question elicits an enigmatic smile.
"I fantasize about it, yeah. But I've never done it. Even if I say I'm going to take the day off, there's something hanging over me. I try to make periods of time for myself where I'm really not working and being with my family," she says. "And I fantasize when I pass my bed in the middle of the day and the sun is streaming through the window — I wonder what it would be like to lay on my bed in the middle of the day and watch a film and not feel any pressure."
Madonna grins, fleetingly. "I think I'll try it one day. I think I might like it."