Vanessa Kirby is that actress. The one you’ve been wondering about, who plays Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown and the White Widow in the Mission: Impossible franchise, who’s on every award list for her lead role in Pieces of a Woman (now on Netflix). The one who’s beautiful, sure, but immediately conveys her depths. Who, the minute you see her, just feels inevitable.
In Pieces of a Woman, a home birth turns harrowing for Martha and Sean (Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) and their midwife, Eva (Molly Parker). Screenwriter Kata Weber and director Kornel Mundruczo plunge us into the action with a seemingly unbroken 20-minute take that rubs the actors and viewers raw. Kirby loved it. She’s compelled by the tough stuff, the moments when the light in a character’s eyes darkens.
“I’ve always been drawn to that,” the British actress said in a phone interview last week, where she was a generous subject, complimenting questions and answering in a strong, forthright voice. “When I played Masha in Three Sisters” – at the Young Vic in London in 2012 – “a rigorous, modern interpretation, I spent a long time trying to understand how someone who has so much potential, and is such a life force, is trapped within her own psyche. Why does she not go to Moscow when she could get on a train? She stops herself.
“So what is the relationship between the things we restrict ourselves with – our limiting self-beliefs, our unworthiness, self-doubt – and the limitations that society dictates: expectations of who you should be, especially who you should be as a woman?” she continues. “What you’re entitled to and what you’re not? I’m really interested in that intersection. I’m voraciously trying to find characters like that.”
Princess Margaret was one; over Kirby’s 17 episodes, we watch her harden. So were the theatre roles in which Kirby honed her talent: Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (opposite Gillian Anderson’s Blanche), Rosalind in As You Like It. In The World to Come, due in March, she plays Tallie, a farm wife in 1850s upstate New York. “Tallie has that same energy yet is extinguished somehow,” Kirby says. “Who gives us permission to burn as brightly as we can? Is it ourselves? Society? What can we do more of to free us from those limitations?”
Kirby, 32, has some limiting self-beliefs of her own. “I really have to push myself,” she says. “Every time I take a job, I don’t think I can do it.” The uncertainty is a holdover from her youth. Though she grew up with privilege – raised in Wimbledon by her father, Roger, a urologist, and her mother, Jane, a founder of Country Living magazine – she was bullied at her private school. Acting was her refuge, “the place I’ve felt most alive, most free, least judged,” she says.
Though she was accepted at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she opted to take a deal offered by a theatre director – three starring roles in one year. That allowed her to skip the merely decorative roles that young actresses endure on the way to having choice. Now that she has it, she’s vowed to use it mindfully.
“I feel a huge responsibility to find female stories that haven’t been told yet and represent them,” Kirby says. “Where men can get a glimpse into the female experience, too. It’s important to find female writers. We’ve seen so many men die on screen. How many times have we seen a woman give birth, in an uncensored way? And the experience of losing a baby is so common but so rarely talked about.”
We find it uncomfortable, Kirby continues, like so much of the female experience. “Even more reason for us to put it on screen. I’m grateful to Netflix that Pieces of a Woman is playing in people’s homes. As difficult as the movie is, if that means more conversations start happening about things we find hard to talk about, I couldn’t hope for anything else.”
Many actors talk about being scared of their roles. Kirby knows why she wants to be. “If I’m scared, it usually means it’s something I know nothing about. And that means I’ll have to find out.” For Pieces of a Woman, that meant “trying to empathize with a level of pain, a lonely experience, that so many people have. Including people in my life – which I didn’t know, because they found it impossible to talk about. I love being changed by something, seeing something in a different light. The pursuit of that makes me lean into things that are frightening.”
Pieces of a Woman also explores the notion, highly relevant right now, that if someone is in pain, someone else must be blamed. And pay. “This idea that there needs to be compensation and culpability for things in life which we can’t control,” Kirby says. “My dad, a doctor, has had to navigate his whole career the fear of someone suing him because something happened that no one can explain. I hope this movie articulates that ephemeral unknown for people. There are things in life we will never know, can’t find explanations for, and yet have to come to terms with. And learn to live alongside.”
Kirby knows that pain “is an inevitable part of life. Watching a woman give birth, as part of my research, really taught me that. I saw her in the most excruciating pain, with no painkillers, really surrendering to the whole experience. Then birth, the most miraculous thing, happened as the result.
“A contraction, which is so unbelievably painful, and then an expansion – the birth, or rebirth, or creation that comes out of that – they go hand in hand,” she concludes. “There’s something about light and dark, shadow and illumination, being not in polarity, but being as one. That’s what I’m looking for.”
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