Vanessa Kirby on moving on from Margaret
Since her breakthrough role in 'The Crown', the Oscar-nominated actor has captivated audiences worldwide with her compelling on-screen performances. Here, she talks about choosing the right parts, overcoming fears, and her next big project, 'The World To Come'
By Sophie Elmhirst Photography by Josh Shinner Friday 23 July, 2021
Not long ago, Vanessa Kirby was in LA meeting with a producer. After transatlantic success playing Princess Margaret for two seasons in The Crown, a performance she loaded with characteristic chutzpah and rising fury, the calls and opportunities flooded in. ‘I remember he said, “Gosh, you’ve come out of nowhere.”’ Kirby grins generously over Zoom. ‘I said, “That’s so interesting, that’s your experience. Honestly, I’ve been slogging away since 2009!”’
Kirby, 33, is at home in Tooting, south London, where she lives with her sister and some friends. But she’s about to travel to Iceland for rehearsals for one movie, then make another, and she’s only just wrapped Mission: Impossible 8. Her career trajectory, from the outside, looks both gilded and accelerated. Margaret propelled her straight to the Mission: Impossible franchise and lead roles in bold indie movies (Pieces Of A Woman; The World To Come). But the outside is never particularly reliable. In reality, before The Crown she spent years travelling the UK, ‘doing tonnes of plays that no one ever saw’, getting a break at the National Theatre in Women Beware Women, and feeling consumed by terror. ‘I shook permanently for months doing that: honestly, my knees were shaking in the wings, dressing rooms, all through rehearsals,’ she says.
It’s hard to square a trembling Kirby with the kind of ferocious self-possession that she now projects on screen. But there she was, on stage at the National, knees knocking, seeking advice from the actor Harriet Walter, who was playing her aunt. Walter told her: ‘Don’t worry, no one’s expecting anything of you because they haven’t seen you yet, whereas I’m expected to be good and I don’t know if I’m going to be.’
In her early years of acting, Kirby says she became so used to rejection that she developed a philosophy around it simply to survive. Auditioning was a job in itself, she decided; it didn’t matter about the outcome. ‘I remember having to get into the mindset that you don’t need a yes in order to feel or be creative.’
Now, things are a little different; Kirby’s reputation precedes her. There’s the wired presence of her, tangible even on Zoom. She laughs richly, asks frequent questions, and is quick to raw feeling, seeking it out. In Pieces Of A Woman, a film about the aftermath of a woman losing her baby in childbirth, Kirby performs a 20-minute, one-take birth scene, and a whole movie of ragged grief. (Her portrayals are now routinely described as ‘powerhouses’.)
Now that she can choose her parts, rather than process rejection, she only takes on projects where she feels there’s a deeper imperative at work. ‘I really have to care,’ she says. Not in a grand or preachy way, but in a bid for emotional resonance, an idea, or a person, or a message that she instinctively responds to. ‘I think what I care about most is now representing women on screen who I identify as being like me,’ she says with zeal. ‘Who are real, not movie versions of women.’
‘I remember having to get into the mindset that you don’t need a yes [after an audition] in order to feel or be creative’
One of Kirby’s latest roles, Tallie, in The World To Come, can be found in reality as a footnote. The film, based on a short story by Jim Shepard, is a beautifully told tale of love between two women, both farmers’ wives, in mid-19th century upstate New York. Tallie and Abigail (played by Katherine Waterston) are both miserable in different ways, oppressed by domestic duties, and in each other find not just intimacy, but hope. Shepard himself was originally inspired by a line he found in a logbook of chores kept by a farmer’s wife: ‘My best friend has just moved away and I’ll never see her again.’ Kirby, recounting this, is obviously moved. ‘That was the one trace of that woman’s life,’ she says. The rest of the logbook was filled with lists of the endless jobs the woman performed around the home. That they could bring such women to life in all their emotional complexity, women whose marks on the world were otherwise just records of drudgery, felt like a kind of triumph.
Kirby’s portrayal of Tallie, lit up by a rebellious flare, is often reminiscent of Margaret. She says the Princess still looms large in her mind. ‘I often have her as a kind of comparison thing,’ she says. ‘How much Margaret is in this?’ It’s not just the similarity of the characters, but the situation in which they find themselves, both trapped in a role they want to escape, kicking at its boundaries. ‘I’ve always been interested in women like that,’ says Kirby. ‘That’s why my favourite women are in Chekhov.’ Masha in Three Sisters and Yelena in Uncle Vanya are two of the favourite roles she’s ever played; women similarly yearning for something beyond the limited constraints of their existence.
There’s another parallel too: in much of Kirby’s time on The Crown, and in the whole of The World To Come, the central relationship is between two women. ‘It was such a pivotal moment for Claire [Foy] and I,’ recalls Kirby. She remembers them turning to each other halfway through filming and saying, ‘Don’t you feel, like, really happy?’ Over 20 hours of television, they had time to explore the depths of their characters, let their stories unfold, and be given due prominence. ‘I’m not just in the background or the wife of,’ as Kirby puts it. In fact, Prince Philip and Margaret’s partners, Peter Townsend and Antony Armstrong-Jones, are unquestionably secondary characters. The main event is the sisters: their relationship the most intriguing of all.
‘You have to make sure your life outside of acting is so solid. Otherwise, you have so many split versions of who you are, and you’re sort of living through them’
In The World To Come, this is even more pronounced: the husbands are background figures, one cruel and abusive, the other withdrawn. The whole energy and momentum of the movie rests with the two women; not just their physical relationship, which is condensed into a quick montage towards the end, but the emotional connection they give each other in brutal circumstances. ‘We always felt it was about intimacy: of being seen, of understanding,’ says Kirby. ‘I’m listening and I’m with you.’
This all comes naturally to the actor. Her relationship with her sister, Juliet, is probably the most important of her life. They live together in Tooting, and it was her sister who accompanied her to all the Zoom awards ceremonies: ‘We ended up howling with laughter throughout the whole thing.’ They kept each other company through the lockdowns, too, and both have, as Kirby puts it, ‘the same kind of bad hair’. It’s not just that they’re close, ‘we’re virtually inseparable.’ Juliet is an assistant director on films, and ‘the best person everyone knows’. Sometimes, crew who have worked with her, will later come on to a set of one of Kirby’s films. When they work out that she’s Juliet’s sister, ‘they think I’m so cool: she brings up my street cred by about a million.’
Growing up in south-west London, Kirby is the middle child – they also have an older brother – and was ‘definitely the most emotional for sure’. She describes her sister, who’s four years younger, as deeply relaxed by contrast. But it works as a double act; and the relationship keeps Kirby tethered as her career goes wild. They’re both part of a wider group of friends, about 20 of them, mostly from university (Exeter) and others they’ve picked up along the way. ‘No matter what, they’re the people I return home to,’ she says. ‘Most of them are sort of very nonchalant about it all.’ They’re more concerned at having missed Glastonbury for two years in row, usually a fixture on the calendar, than whatever movie Kirby’s currently making.
Her sister and friends are crucial for sanity. As Kirby juggles roles, slotting in parts where she can, rehearsing one thing while filming another, the effect can be overwhelming. ‘It does get tricky when things are busy, for sure,’ she says. ‘You have to compartmentalise.’ She started to realise, as the juggle became more elaborate, that you’re constantly inhabiting different versions of yourself, slicing up your intrinsic sense of identity. The advice she gives to younger actors is ‘to make sure your life outside of acting is so solid. Otherwise, you have so many split versions of who you are, and you’re sort of living through them.’ Coming to success a little later means Kirby has also learnt to take her work into her own hands: she spent much of lockdown searching for stories for her new production company to adapt, another bid to tell stories of women that would otherwise have sunk without trace.
Right now, having just wrapped on Mission: Impossible, Kirby is preparing for the next iteration of herself. In Iceland, she’ll be rehearsing with Jake Gyllenhaal for a movie about a couple stranded on a bleak island in the South Atlantic, then she’ll film The Son, Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father. ‘I’m trying to work out how to keep the characters separate,’ says Kirby, a little anxiously. Doubtless she will, and anyway the fear is what keeps her going. ‘One of the things I look for is if I’m scared,’ she says. ‘I think if I’m scared that means there’s something I don’t know about, which means perhaps there’s something I could learn, which means I’m going to have to put my fear aside to do it.’ She pauses and smiles broadly. ‘Maybe that’s quite sadistic, I don’t know.’ Fearless, more like.
All images Josh Shinner/KINTZING