Vanessa Kirby’s Time Is… Now?

Photographs Tom Craig, Styling Bay Garnett, Alex Bilmes
·20-min read
Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

From Esquire

Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

What a moment to have a moment, what a year for it to be your year. Were the world operating under pre-pandemic conditions then Vanessa Kirby, the actress best known for playing Princess Margaret in the first two series of Netflix’s The Crown, would be on lap two, or lap three, or who knows how many laps of an international victory tour, ears ringing from the applause, eyes smarting from the camera flashes, head spinning from the intoxicating cocktail of jet lag and Champagne and acclaim. Instead, Kirby’s time is… now? In the middle of… this?

So rather than trotting the globe she’s mostly been at home, like the rest of us, in her case in south London, with her sister and their two housemates, watching old films, cooking big suppers, worrying about the state of the world and her profession, adjusting to the fact that Wednesdays are suddenly the same as Sundays, missing work but feeling grateful for the fact that unlike many in the creative industries she has the security that comes with high-profile gigs on TV and in the movies: “My friends are stage managers and they’re working in Tesco, you know?”

Of her own lockdown experience, she says, “I slept loads, which I haven’t done properly for years. We developed a routine. That’s something I’ve never had in my life, that kind of structure.”

Any revelations? “It’s soothing, isn’t it? I think it’s what human beings actually need.”

Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

There was, happily, one significant professional outing, at the beginning of September, when Kirby attended the Venice Film Festival — one of the few physical cultural events of 2020 not to have been cancelled or postponed — at which she had two films in competition. She says now that it was all a blur, and modestly attempts to shift focus anywhere but onto herself, but the fact is that she set Venice ablaze and came home triumphant, with the Volpi Cup for Best Actress in her hand luggage.

It was awarded for her performance in Pieces of a Woman, a searing drama of trauma, grief and family dysfunction, in which she plays the lead role — her first, on screen — of Martha, a young woman in contemporary Boston whose world collapses when she suffers a stillbirth. It didn’t end there: Kirby was also celebrated for her turn in The World to Come, a starkly beautiful film also set in Massachusetts, though this time in a 19th-century farming community. Again, it’s a film about love and death and loss and how we react to it and try to reconstruct our lives.

Kirby is now tipped as a strong contender for the Best Actress Oscar, for Pieces of a Woman, and the bookies are giving her an outside chance of Best Supporting Actress, too, for The World to Come. Whether she will be in Los Angeles to attend the awards in person — they’ve been moved from their usual slot in February to 25 April — or watching on video from south London, we can’t yet know. Either way, if she wins a prize, my money is on an eloquent speech in which she graciously refuses personal credit and pays tribute instead to her colleagues and to all the women who have suffered similar fates to those of her characters.

A month on from Venice, on a Thursday lunchtime, I find Kirby upstairs at the Electric House, a private members’ club attached to a famous old cinema in Notting Hill, west London. Today the cinema is, unlike so many others, open for business. In the absence of new Hollywood product, it is showing crowd-pleasing classics — Some Like it Hot, Cinema Paradiso — alongside the apparently obligatory Tenet.

Pieces of a Woman will — UK lockdown restrictions allowing — enjoy a week’s run in cinemas at the end of the year, before streaming in early January. I watched it in a Soho screening room, and while it is not one of those thundering CGI spectaculars best seen on the big screen to appreciate the full Sturm und Drang, it is a highly charged assault on the senses of a different kind. The remarkable, 30-minute, single-shot childbirth scene near the start of the film is one of the most harrowing and affecting I can remember witnessing in a cinema.

Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Netflix
Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Netflix

Kirby is philosophical about her movie’s modest run in cinemas. The downside is that fewer people will see it as it was intended to be seen. On the other hand, thanks to Netflix, which bought the film in Venice, infinitely more people will watch it than would normally be exposed to such a determinedly downbeat film.

In The World to Come, directed by Mona Fastvold, Katherine Waterston plays Abigail, a pinched young woman mourning the recent loss of her four-year-old daughter. “I have become my grief,” she says. Into her life like a meteor lands flame-haired Tallie, played by Kirby: passionate, impulsive and irreverent. “In the winter sun through the window,” writes the compulsive diarist Abigail, “her skin had an underflush of rose and violet which so disconcerted me that I had to look away.” And so begins a tragic love story.

That film must wait until further into 2021 for its release. I watched it on my laptop, which is no way to see a movie made on location in a gorgeous, austere wilderness (Romania doubling for the American sublime) and printed on 35mm film rather than shot on digital. Really, as Kirby concedes, it ought to be seen on a big screen in the dark, alongside an audience of hushed cinephiles, rather than at the kitchen table, with pauses to put a wash on and descale the kettle and answer emails and let the dog out.

But none of this appears to have unduly dampened Kirby’s spirits. She seems to me relatively content to enjoy her moment in the spotlight quietly and at one remove. Perhaps it suits her. On stage and screen, Kirby possesses a rare magnetism: wherever she is and whatever she is doing, your eye is drawn to her. In person, she is certainly glamorous — tall and slim, with messy blonde hair and pale blue eyes that turn grey in the light — but hers is not an overwhelming presence, she doesn’t alter the molecular makeup of the room just by being in it, or any of that guff.

She is wearing black: black jumper, black trousers, black boots. Her nail varnish is black, too. So is her eyeliner. She always wears black, she tells me. It’s not, I suggest, a colour worn by people who want to stand out from the crowd. She says that when she was starting out on auditions she dyed her hair brown, to make sure she couldn’t be typecast in the plastic roles, as she calls them. Brown hair, she figured, was neutral. Maybe, she says, the black clothes are neutral, too. (Her friend Tim says she looks like a bank robber.)

Understandably, perhaps, many people believe her to have arrived, fully formed, on the set of The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic saga of the royal family. But Kirby’s was no overnight fame. At 32, she has been a leading light of the British stage for a decade. She has taken prominent roles in classy TV dramas besides The Crown, and at the cinema she has mixed arthouse films with blockbusters. As far back as she can remember, she says, “my days have been filled with thinking about acting, trying to do it, wondering how I’m going to do it, yearning to do it.”

Not that she is content, now that she is doing it, to coast on her success. Her role models are actors who use their mainstream appeal to do demanding work in hard-hitting films. She mentions Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, and she is enamoured of the serious-minded female stars of the lost world of 1970s cinema — Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda — who could be leading ladies in mainstream hits but also the protagonists in challenging independent dramas. Another hero is Gena Rowlands, particularly in A Woman Under the Influence, the hair-raising 1974 melodrama of sexual politics, family breakdown, and madness, written and directed by the pioneering indie film-maker John Cassavetes.

“I love her,” she says of Rowlands in that film. “Her messiness. Her total strength but total fragility. That’s the kind of woman I want to see on screen, so I can go, ‘Oh, God, that’s me!’ Not a boxed-in kind of woman, who’s palatable; not the film version of what a woman should be. I want to watch women on screen, and play women on screen, that my sister and my best mates and everyone else can go, ‘I know her!’”

The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and discrimination, she says, “changed things overnight.” Before, “I think people just accepted that men are the heroes, they get the journeys, they’re the protagonists, and women are the supporting roles: the wife, the girlfriend.” There is now, she says, “an active desire for people in power to create [fully realised, three-dimensional] parts for women. And a realisation that female-led movies can make money.

“I’m really excited by that,” she says. “There are so many stories about women that haven’t been told. And it’s not about putting a woman in a male role and her playing the equivalent of the masculine alpha. Which I also can’t identify with. I don’t feel like I recognise that person, this invincible woman. I want to see women who are humans. I want to see those really raw, big journeys that [female characters] used to have. I really feel that’s my mission, to play a part in bringing that back.”

Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

“I felt, looking at her expression, as if she were in full sail on a flood tide.”

So says Katherine Waterston, as Abigail, of Kirby’s character in The World to Come. Abigail’s lot is to “bob along backwaters” while Tallie conquers oceans. The line is taken directly, like many lines in the film, from the short story by Jim Shepard on which The World to Come is based. And it seems to me to apply to the actor as much as her character: earnest, ardent, questing. “I think I’ve always wanted to do the thing that demanded the most from me,” Kirby tells me. “I’ve always looked for that.”

Here’s Kirby talking about Princess Margaret: “She’s this incredible mixture, this huge colour palette. She has this range, that’s what’s so fun to play. On a piano it’s all the scales. Those people are rare, especially on screen. I loved her for that. She was the strongest person, the most potent energy. Intense as hell. A major life force. Burn bright, live hard. And at the same time, underneath, like a scared little girl.”

Tallie, in The World to Come: “She thinks big, beyond what she knows. She comes into a room and asks, ‘How can I have the most expansive version of this experience?’”

Martha, in Pieces of a Woman: “She doesn’t let on to people. She’s a minimalist. She closes everything down.”

“My job,” she says, “is to understand why someone is like that. To have empathy. To go, ‘What’s the pain, the unhappiness?’ To feel it. Ultimately,” she says, “it probably comes down to me being very little and looking for other things outside of what I knew.”

Kirby grew up in Wimbledon, the leafy south west London suburb. Her mother, Jane, was editor of Country Living. Her father, if you can countenance it, had an even more important job than glossy magazine editor: Roger Kirby is retired now, but when Vanessa was growing up he was an eminent prostate surgeon and professor of urology, as well as a lover of the theatre. “He is totally obsessed with Shakespeare,” she says. “His glory moment was playing Mark Antony in Julius Caesar at uni. I think he fancies himself as a bit of an actor.”

Vanessa has an elder brother, Joe, a teacher and prominent writer and thinker on education, and a younger sister, Juliet, an assistant director on movies and TV, to whom she is devoted. To friends and family Juliet is Boo, Vanessa is Noo, to the extent that she sometimes fails to recognise herself when her name is spoken aloud.

Their childhood was privileged but not idyllic: from an early age, Kirby was bullied at school. Her escape was into acting. She was a drama geek, joining clubs after school and at weekends. “It was an area where I was totally accepted,” she says. “Somewhere I could truly be myself.”

Her parents took her and her siblings on regular outings to the theatre. She speaks rapturously, leaning forwards, widening her eyes in wonder, when remembering a performance of The Cherry Orchard, at the National Theatre, starring Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, when she was 11. “It was in the round,” she says, “and I was right there in that garden with them. Whatever that magic is, I started to absorb it.”

At her all-girls secondary school, she met a teacher, Monique Fare, who “loved the fact that someone was as enthusiastic about Pinter as she was. She had a tiny little office and at lunchtimes we would read plays together.” At the National Youth Theatre, “I remember walking in and thinking, ‘Oh! You’re my people! I recognise you!’ It was something about being uninhibited. No matter what you did or what you looked like or where you were from, everyone was there for the same reason.” There is, she says, “a beautiful communion that happens in a creative space like that. You can just be you, with no judgement.”

The first time she experienced the transformative thrill of putting herself inside the head of a fictional character, or allowing a fictional character to inhabit her own head, was playing Gertrude in a school production of Hamlet.

Photo credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

“There was maybe five or 10 minutes, when I was off stage, when I was thinking as her. I couldn’t stop the thoughts coming. In the back of mind there was me, going, ‘Huh?’ And the next scene was so amazing to play.”

What she took from this experience is that, rather than simply pretending to be another person, “acting is thinking. It’s literally thinking someone else’s thoughts.”

At 17, “horribly unprepared and completely clueless,” she applied to drama schools, all of which told her she was too inexperienced. She took a gap year, travelled for nine months, and by the time she came back she had a plan.

“I thought, ‘I have to go to uni. I have to meet tons of people who aren’t actors. I want to get to know people who do philosophy and science and maths.’” She went to Exeter to study English. “Met the most incredible group of friends. Went out like crazy. Up all night. And every day from five until nine I’d rehearse plays with my friends.” By the time her degree was finishing, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. No idea how I would do it, but I didn’t want to look back and say I didn’t try.”

She was accepted at LAMDA, the prestigious drama school. But by then she’d been offered significant roles in three plays at the Octagon in Bolton: Miller’s All My Sons, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was 2010. She was 24.

Quickly she established herself as a leading actor on the stage: Rosalind in As You Like It. Masha in Three Sisters. Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian Anderson terrific as Blanche, in a production that later transferred from the Young Vic to Broadway. Kirby’s Stella was sexy, carnal, ravenous, her presence as muscular as Ben Foster’s as Stanley. Variety described her as: “the outstanding stage actress of her generation”. To those who saw her, this didn’t sound like hyperbole. Most recently she was the title character in Julie, Polly Stenham’s reinterpretation of Miss Julie, Strindberg’s drama of class and sex, at the National. Her Julie was a tragic, coke-snorting, London party girl, petulant, lonely, spoilt and sly: another superb performance.

On screen until recently, her parts were, perhaps, less fulfilling. Last year, she was Jason Statham’s shit-kicking sister in Hobbs and Shaw, a spin-off from the turbo-charged Fast and Furious franchise. If nothing else, she got to swing a crash helmet into The Rock’s nuts, a tell-the-grandkids experience to add to the moment in Mission: Impossible – Fallout in which she snogged Tom Cruise. Many, if not all of her films and TV shows have been entertaining (especially Mission: Impossible, for which she has signed up for two further instalments) and Kirby is never less than committed to them, but it is hard not to sympathise with her desire for more substantial material to work with on screen.

The Crown was a different matter. Here she was presented with a bold, complicated character living a widescreen life. Kirby’s Margaret was dazzling, her charisma undeniable. “It was just a gift of a part,” she says. “I’ll never forget it.” And, of course, it changed her life.

Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

In Pieces of a Woman, we meet Kirby’s Martha on her final day at the office before she takes maternity leave. We see her and her blue-collar baby-daddy, an excellent, understated performance from Shia LaBeouf, collect a new car: a people carrier, paid for by her overbearing mother, played by the great Ellen Burstyn.

Then we are plunged into a domestic nightmare: a home birth that, from the moment Martha’s waters break, is clearly not going the way it should. “This is really awful!” Martha moans. And, ferociously crossing and uncrossing my legs in the screening room, it was hard to disagree.

There are further upsetting scenes to follow, but nothing to compare to that torturous half-hour and its shattering climax. The sequence was shot in a flat in Montreal. Kirby, LaBeouf and Molly Parker, who plays a midwife, and the film’s director, the Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó, were joined by a real-life doula, and together they spent a day-and-a-half working out how they would film it. Then, over two days, they did six takes. The fourth take, filmed at the end of the first day, is the one in the film.

Kirby undertook extensive research to prepare herself: “I had to understand what it’s like to be expecting your first kid, which I’ve never done. I had to understand birth and labour. I had never seen that in real life. And then understand the grief of not having that person that you’ve been preparing for in your life.”

Photo credit: https://www.lostincinema.it/
Photo credit: https://www.lostincinema.it/

She watched documentaries about childbirth, but none of them, she felt, showed the “horror of it, the madness of it. It was all just kind of PG. I realised I had to try and see someone in partum.” She found a gynaecologist, Claire Mellon, at the Whittington Hospital in north London, who said she could go to the labour ward there and if a prospective mother agreed, she could witness a birth.

One afternoon, Mellon told her that a woman had just come in, nine centimetres dilated, and she was going to ask her. “And, of course, you think, ‘Why would she ever let some random fucking actress in?’” But the woman agreed. “And so I sat there with my scrubs on and I watched for five or six hours as she went through this really difficult birth, with no painkillers. An emergency button was pressed, forceps were used, it was so mind-blowing. I couldn’t have done it without that amazing woman giving me that gift.”

She also spent time with women who had suffered stillbirths. She became close to one in particular, Kelly, who had lost her daughter, Luciana. “I spent so much time with her and I realised I have a duty to her to do her story justice, as authentically as I possibly can. That became the great responsibility of it.”

I tell her I can’t remember seeing that story told before on film. “I’m so proud of that!” she says. “That makes me so happy!”

Photo credit: Tom Craig
Photo credit: Tom Craig

At the same time, the movie is difficult to watch, even for her. “I was shaking in the screening room,” she says. And remembering it now, she has to fight back tears and take a moment to collect herself. I apologise for upsetting her.

“Don’t worry,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I don’t feel bad. It’s a sense memory. It didn’t happen, but it did.” She rephrases that. “I lived through it but it didn’t really happen.” She laughs. “It’s bizarre, I know.”

How, I wonder, does she do it? More than that, why would she want to deliberately put herself inside the head of a person who loses a child?

“It’s my job,” she says. “And this was the most fulfilling part of it. Some people say, ‘Wasn’t the birth hard to go through? I’m like, ‘No! It was exhilarating. I haven’t given birth but I got to experience someone else’s.”

Does she feel that she has given birth?

“Yes.”

That’s crazy, isn’t it?

“Yes.”

Because she hasn’t.

“Mmm.”

But Martha did?

“Exactly.”

Photo credit: PLANET PHOTOS
Photo credit: PLANET PHOTOS

Kirby has been working towards this since that revelatory moment as Gertrude, when she was at school. On The Crown, she felt, in between takes, that what she was feeling were not her own emotions, but Margaret’s. It happens to her a lot. Kirby is interested in states of consciousness, in the unconscious, in psychology, in the imagination. She describes acting as “kind of pseudo-living.”

“It’s almost like lucid dreaming,” she says. “Like when you wake up from a dream and it really stays with you. You’re not sure: did that really happen, or did you just imagine it?”

Something, perhaps, like the experience of living through the past year, which many of us have experienced, at times, as dreamlike, hallucinatory, surreal: “like being in a movie,” as we sometimes say. Maybe, on reflection, Vanessa Kirby is the perfect actor for this fraught, frightening period. Perhaps her moment has arrived bang on time.

“I’ve learned to understand it,” she says, of the lucid dreaming. “And I know how to do it without making it risky. I have boundaries and I have tools. Once you know it’s happening you can handle it.”

Pieces of a Woman is due to be released in cinemas on 30 December and on Netflix on 7 January.

The World to Come will be released in 2021

This article is taken from the January/February issue of Esquire, available now

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Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

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