Heavy clouds hang low in the gray sky on a typically leaden afternoon in the East End of London, where sheets of cutting rain lash down on the neighborhood’s near-empty streets. Despite being well past noon, it is ominously dark outside. But inside the airy photo studio where James D’Arcy finds himself, the 36-year-old British actor wishes it weren’t so bright. “I’m blind!” he screams, while the popping flashbulbs burn rings of light into his retina. “My sight—it will come back, won’t it?” he says, blinking furiously. His publicist appears nonplussed, as if to suggest he’d better get used to the glare.
D’Arcy’s latest film, the period drama W.E., premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival. Of the experience, he says, “I thought I might cry because of the outpouring of emotion from everyone who came to support the film.” Photographers and fans of Madonna, the movie’s director and cowriter with Alek Keshishian, crowded the entrance to the theater where W.E. was being shown, shouting with adoration for the grand dame of power-pop. Back at the studio, dressed casually in a maroon sweater and a pair of jeans, James D’Arcy says, “You couldn’t help but love being there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone was saying they’d never seen anything like it. When we finally got into the cinema, someone said, ‘George Clooney was here last night and he got about a quarter of that.’”
In W.E., D’Arcy plays King Edward VIII, the controversial ruler who abdicated the royal throne in 1936 to marry his American lover, an upper-crust divorcée named Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). The film shifts back and forth between London in the ’30s and modern-day New York, where a despairing single woman, heavy-handedly named Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), pores over the details of what she considers to be the greatest love story ever told. As with most envied affairs, however, Edward and Wallis harbor secret moments of heartbreak and apathy.
D’Arcy insists that his own life is far less spotty. “Secrecy and gossip just don’t factor into my way of thinking,” he says. At the mention of the recent scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Of The World, which the media tycoon killed earlier this year following the admission that many of British tabloid’s stories had been sourced through illegal phone-tapping techniques, he says, “People would be so bored if they listened to my voicemail. I’ve just never cared to live in a secretive world.”
D’Arcy was born in Fulham, an affluent part of southwest London, where he and his younger sister were raised by their mother Caroline, a nurse. (His father passed away when he was still a young boy.) After graduating from boarding school in the Sussex countryside, D’Arcy spent a year in Australia, where he worked in the Drama department of a school in Perth. He returned to the UK to enroll in the acting program at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1995, after which he quickly started landing small roles on British television series. He then moved on to larger parts in sprawling literary adaptations (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby). Despite his already scroll-like resume, W.E. is the biggest opportunity of his career, and he’s already garnering early buzz for his superb performance as Madonna’s fallen king.
With the magnitude of pure hysteria constantly being directed at W.E.’s mega-famous filmmaker, it would be only natural for D’Arcy to worry that her stardom might overshadow the project—but he seems confident. “I don’t think it’s like that,” D’Arcy says. “When I first saw the movie, her name didn’t even appear until the end credits, which is when it really sunk in: Oh, right! It was directed by Madonna. I think she’s done a phenomenal job. She’s been famous for an incredibly long time, but she continues to stick her neck above the parapet by getting involved in these artistic endeavors. She strives to keep evolving and I think that’s deeply admirable. But, yes, it’s tricky with celebrities because people often have very strong opinions about them, and so they bring a lot of baggage to whatever it is they’re doing. I’ve worked with lots of different directors but this is the first time one has been a gazillion miles more famous than any of the actors in the film.”
It’s interesting that D’Arcy chooses the word “celebrity” to describe his director, as if to suggest it doesn’t also apply to him. Maybe it doesn’t. The life of a superstar—with the exception of the odd red carpet dalliance—doesn’t much appeal to him. He’d rather work with quality filmmakers who challenge him to improve his craft than get noticed by strangers at the supermarket. When I ask the private actor if he lives in London, he responds with a simple “yes.” When I then ask if he’s on either the east or west side of the city, he says, “I live in London.” Smiling coyly, he then adds, “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you my secrets; it’s that I actually can’t tell you them, because in telling you, they would no longer be secrets, would they?”
Tomorrow he’ll join Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Susan Sarandon on the highly anticipated production of Cloud Atlas, which is being co-directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, who also adapted the screenplay from David Mitchell’s era-traversing novel. “It’s the best script I’ve ever read,” D’Arcy gushes. “It’s phenomenal.” Before Cloud Atlas, he filmed The Philosophers, also a drama with intimations of the Rapture, in Indonesia. At the mention of that film, his face lights up. “I’ve got it! I’ve got a secret for you!” he says. “There is a series of islands in Indonesia that nobody—not even Indonesians—knows about. We shot there for a week and it was beautiful: white sand, turquoise ocean, total isolation. So there, I’ve just revealed to you where the last remaining undiscovered location on the planet is.” Our lips are sealed. “Yeah, sure. There will be a Starbucks there the next time I go.”