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Actresses Abbie Cornish, left, and Andrea Risebrough in Toronto for TIFF, September, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Actresses Abbie Cornish, left, and Andrea Risebrough in Toronto for TIFF, September, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Johanna Schneller

Two actresses, one sweet, one scary. You figure it out Add to ...

If you’re the writer/director of a movie about the parallel lives of a sweet character and an imperious one, why not keep it simple and hire a sweet actress and an imperious one?

Based on back-to-back interviews in Toronto with her two rising stars, that’s what Madonna did for W.E., her new drama about Wally, an unhappy wife (Abbie Cornish) who becomes entranced by the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). And if reviewers haven’t liked the film much (it opened in select cities yesterday), her casting is beyond reproach.

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Cornish, 29, is the sweet one. She bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Nicole Kidman, a fellow Australian, but she’s dreamier, more fleshly and sensual. She speaks languidly, in a warm, throaty voice, and when she laughs it builds slowly, eventually taking both me and the other journalist in our joint interview. Cornish has worked steadily, floating seamlessly from modelling to Australian TV to films ( Candy, Bright Star, Limitless) and she has at least one movie-star ex, her Stop-Loss co-star Ryan Phillippe. Her attitude, though, is one of gentle wonder. When she says, “Growing up in a valley on a 170-acre farm, I used to dream, kind of stare up at the sky and wonder what’s out there,” it’s easy to picture.

Riseborough, 30, is the imperious one. Excellent as Mrs. Simpson, she pretty much terrorizes her interlocutors. Petite and pale, she has the dark hair and red lips of Snow White, coupled with the thrilling frostiness of an evil queen. Her intelligence is evident, her diction absolute. Raised near Newcastle, England, she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the National Youth Theatre. She played Margaret Thatcher in a TV movie, had succulent parts in Made in Dagenham and Never Let Me Go, and held her own opposite Helen Mirren in Brighton Rock. Lately, she’s been making the awards-show rounds at Madonna’s side. (I don’t know why Cornish isn’t with them. I hope Riseborough didn’t eat her.)

Unfortunately, our first two questions fail to impress her, and the conversation turns tense and icy, never to recover. I still haven’t recovered.

So I’m going to print some questions and responses, and let you take a wild guess who’s talking. (There’s an answer key at the end.)

1. What was Madonna like as a director? “She always said, ‘I’m here if you need anything from me,’ but she gave us a sense of freedom in regards to embodying the characters. When it came to shooting, she’s a very visual, detailed director. She loves blocking things out. She was specific with the way she wanted everything – the furniture in the room, how I should walk from here to there, and then look over there. Before I walked on-set, she would choose my shoes and jewellery. It was her little ritual.”

2. Based on Madonna’s reputation, did she surprise you in any way? “I don’t know what most people would think. I can’t answer the question.”

3. Did you do a lot of research? “No, I just winged it. Yes, of course. There is no sound bite not listened to, no visual clip or still not looked at, and it was the same for Madonna. Those things are an historical truth, and they serve you. But when you create a character, you have to trust they’re in your DNA, unzip the suit that you’ve acquired and leave yourself raw to the possibility of anything that might happen.”

4. Did any particular piece of research stand out? “I was fascinated by this detail in a documentary about Edward. Later in life, when he and Wallis were living together, he would wait at the bottom of the stairs while she was dressing. After a certain amount of time, the butler would bring him a chair, and he would sit and wait. In a little more time, the butler would bring him a cigarette, and he’d sit there and smoke and wait. He’d wait and wait. Sometimes she would come down and they would leave. And sometimes he’d wait so long that he would end up in tears. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about that story that hit me in my heart.”

5. Was it ... “You’re going to ask if it was fun to wear the clothes. There are five questions that everybody asks. You must know that. You must have already figured that out.” (Note: I wish I’d had the composure to ask what the five are. It would have made my job so much easier for evermore. But I was rattled.)

6. Okay, did the wardrobe help you to find the character? “No. Sorry, I’m playing with you now. But, of course. Ask me something I can say more than yes or no to, because I want to give you my best, I really do.”

7. What elements must a project have to make you say yes to it?

A) “The work has to inspire me. I have to want to invest in that character or world. It all comes from somewhere within you and is channelled through you.”

B) “I’m horribly picky. I’m looking for the best thing out there. Full stop. I want to be fulfilled; I want to explore; I want to be enlightened. Long order. I want to learn and experience, and feel the rhythm of somebody else’s soul. I say no to things all the time. All the time. I’ve no interest in being involved in things that don’t fulfill me.”

8. When did you know you wanted to act?

A) “I don’t know. I do remember the moment I decided to go to RADA – I was shredding a duck at a Chinese restaurant. But I’d had this love affair with an amazing guy called William Shakespeare since the age of 9. And before that, with black-and-white movies on the BBC at 2:30 in the afternoon. Even when I was very little, like 3, I responded to them. Everything from Bogart to Bergman, Tarkovsky and Cassavetes. And I had a feverish want to create. I would get unbearably excited about painting a picture all day, or writing a book at age 6.”

B) “I wanted to be a musician or a vet, or travel. I loved painting; my mum’s a painter. Then, my first audition, I got the role, and my first day, I couldn’t believe how fun it was. I called my mum from set and said, ‘Mum, I’m having the time of my life. Do you think I could do more of this?’ She said, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ ”

Answers: Riseborough: 1, 4, 7A, 8B; Cornish: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7B, 8A.

No. Sorry, I’m playing with you now. I must admit that it’s kind of infectious. Of course, it’s the other way around.

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