Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Vanessa Kirby has been widely praised for her performance in Pieces of a Woman.

Benjamin Loeb/The Associated Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.”

Tremendous Vanessa Kirby leads Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman – just don’t watch if you’re pregnant

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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.”

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies