Ray of Light

Photo: Gerhard Kassner

Madonna recently claimed that she was over New York; she still liked to stick her finger in our socket from time to time, but there were no longer so many thrilling sparks. She’s since recanted (see below), and in any event, whether in London or Africa, she still acts just like a New Yorker, control-freaking her way to world domination yet again. Which brings us to her new projects: She’s produced and narrated the documentary I Am Because We Are, about Malawi and its AIDS orphans, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. She’s directed a feature, Filth and Wisdom, about a would-be rocker. She’s got a new album, Hard Candy. And then there’s all that writhing with Justin Timberlake. She filled us in.

We were a little upset to hear that you don’t find New York exciting anymore.
People have to stop being so literal. I was referring to when I first came to New York and the convergence of the music and art scenes—I mean, my friends were Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. There was this crazy interface for me of art and life, and I don’t see that so much anymore in New York.

It’s not so bad now.
I’m not saying there aren’t exciting people doing exciting things. I’m pretty much being melancholic.

Do you think you could make it in New York now?
I think it would be almost impossible. Record companies are pretty much defunct.

Speaking of the eighties, you were one of the first pop stars to talk about the AIDS crisis. But I’ve never heard you discuss any connection between that and your work in Malawi. Is there one?
There are a lot. One is that I myself feel like a motherless child. I grew up that way. But also the idea that I felt so helpless by the AIDS epidemic that seemed to sweep through Manhattan and claim the lives of so many people that I loved. And I saw how stigmatized the gay community was, and that freaked me out.

You’re now something of an expert on Malawi. But when the activist Victoria Keelan first called you about getting involved, you said, “I don’t even know where that is.” And she hung up on you. Not too many people hang up on you, do they?
I thought that was rather cheeky. She found me quite impertinent in the beginning. Like, “You’re asking the stupidest questions—do you want to help or not?” And she was absolutely correct.

In the movie, you look at one ritual in which a young woman is told she must have sex with a man three times in a day, in order to “cleanse” her.
It’s not my place to judge that tradition. But to have a conversation with a village headsman and say, “Do you realize this is spreading a deadly disease?” and have him say, “Yes, but there’s nothing I can do” is mind-bogglingly frustrating. But we drop bombs on children during wartime, so you think, Well, who’s practicing black magic?

You and Angelina Jolie take a lot of flak for your charity work. People say it’s a fad.
It’s not just celebrities. I think people are just strangely suspicious of people who want to do something good.

The documentary catches your son David on film before you tried to adopt him. What was that first meeting like?
He was basically going to the bathroom on himself. Of course, next day you come back with a truckload of Pampers. It sounds corny, but he just has these big, bright, intelligent, so-aware eyes, and I felt a connection to him.

The legal ground for the adoption was a little murky, setting off controversy [a court is set to review the matter this week]. Meanwhile, a British professor has coined the term “Madonna effect” to describe Westerners who do international adoptions, supposedly at the expense of local kids.
Cool. That’s a grumpy person. You know, there isn’t an AIDS crisis in England. Yes, there are children that need to be adopted here and in the U.K., but no one’s going to die in an orphanage in America.

There’s also been some controversy over links between the Kabbalah Centre and your aid group, Raising Malawi. Could you clarify that connection?
Studying Kabbalah has inspired me to understand that the world does not revolve around me. Who knows if I would have become involved [otherwise]? But Raising Malawi is a separate entity utterly consumed with children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tom Cruise was at a recent fund-raiser. Do you sympathize with him?
I do. I don’t care if people worship turtles or frogs—if they’re good people, that’s all I care about, and he is a good person. I think he gets a raw deal, just as I think the orphans in Malawi get a raw deal, just as I think a lot of marginalized people get a raw deal.

Madonna out and about, looking at real estate in Manhattan, March 2007.Photo: Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

Tell me about your documentary’s director, Nathan Rissman. This is his first film. He’s a friend?
He’s the husband of my nanny, to tell you the truth. When Nathan showed up, it’s like, “Well, he just can’t hang around, he’s got to have a job.” He would make QuickTime movies of my children and e-mail them to me when I was on trips. They were so clever. So when this project came up, it just seemed like a no-brainer. He did everything from gardening to manning the camera for behind-the-scenes B-roll footage. Never did he say, “I’m not going to Starbucks—I’m too good for that.”

You just directed your first movie, too. And you almost sound more excited about film than music.
Yeah, actually. I have a record to promote and that’s great, but I loved going to the Berlin Film Festival—it was the first time in my career that no one asked me a personal question. When you’re a pop star, everyone feels entitled to know what color your underpants are.

Well, on your new album, Hard Candy, you sing about your great sex life with Guy Ritchie. If you made a movie about that, you might get some of those questions.
Well, if they’re in a film [I direct], I won’t be saying those lines, will I?

The video for your new single, “4 Minutes,” is a tease: You and Justin Timberlake almost crawl into bed, then you dance. You mount him, then you dance …
It’s meant to be a tease, you know. You’ve only got four minutes to save the world. There’s no time for frivolous behavior!

So you weren’t mocking this expectation that you would kiss Justin, after famously kissing Britney?

Does that lyric “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” relate to your charity work?
No. It’s about, Do I understand this opinion that I’ve adopted or this Zeitgeist that I’ve allowed myself to be swept up in? Because you could have the best intentions but not have enough information and make huge mistakes …

Which presidential candidate do you think will make the least huge mistakes?
I’m excited about one of the candidates.

But you can’t talk about him because the other one’s husband is in your movie?
That’s not nice … Um … I’m actually a big fan of the Clintons and Obama. There’s me being political—I should run for office!

Ray of Light