Vanessa Kirby: ‘I wanted to feel like I’d lost a limb, like someone was missing’

The London actor plays a woman who loses her baby in the hard-hitting Pieces of a Woman

Vanessa Kirby: ‘I want to be the turbulent, complex sister. I don’t know why that is. I would have been a hopeless Queen Elizabeth.’

Vanessa Kirby: ‘I want to be the turbulent, complex sister. I don’t know why that is. I would have been a hopeless Queen Elizabeth.’

 

This month all eyes should be on Vanessa Kirby, as Netflix unveils her extraordinary turn at the centre of Pieces of a Woman, which is due to premiere on the streaming service on January 7th. Earlier this year Kirby rightly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. Gold Derby, the awards season trackers, currently have the Wimbledon-born actor at 9/2 to take home the Oscar for best actress.

There has, unfortunately, been some headline-stealing action on the part of  two on-screen colleagues.

FKA Twigs recently filed a lawsuit seeking damages for sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress against Kirby’s Pieces of a Woman co-star Shia LaBeouf. And in December Tom Cruise was recorded issuing stern words for crew members found in breach of Covid regulations on the set of Mission: Impossible 7 and 8. The franchise films will feature Kirby as White Widow, a role she originated in Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

If the jolly, unflappable Kirby is feeling the pressure described by Cruise, she keeps it well hidden. 

“My sister is an AD [assistant director],” she says, diplomatically. “She is someone who helps run a set. So this has been a really crazy experience for us since March. Our industry was one of the first to close because it’s all about having a lot of people in small spaces. But my sister was working on Jurassic World and that was one of the first movies to go back. That was amazing because it gave me tons of hope. She was off in Malta filming and they were doing lots of protocols and testing.

“I think we should be proud of anything that is filming right now. The fact that there are no cinemas and theatres in London makes me so upset. I don’t want everything that I’m going to watch in the future to be on my telly on the sofa.” 

Surreal elements

Pieces of a Woman is the eighth feature from Cannes favourite and White God director Kornél Mundruczó. To date, the filmmaker has incorporated surreal elements into his movies: White God offers a canine spin on Hitchcock’s The Birds, Joanna restages Joan of Arc’s life in a hospital, and Jupiter’s Moon concerns a Syrian refugee with the power to levitate. The hard-hitting naturalism of Pieces of a Woman is something of a departure. 

“I saw Kornél’s name and I thought: oh wow, this will be special,” says Kirby. “I mean, look at White God. Who on earth would attempt to work with dogs for an entire year to get those performances out of dogs? Pieces of a Woman is ambitious. It takes on a taboo subject. I knew that if anyone would, he would take the risks that needed to be taken.” 

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman
Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman
I have so much admiration now for pregnant women. I did admire them before. But after the film I think anyone who has given birth is a goddess

Pieces of a Woman concerns Bostonian couple Sean (LaBeouf) and Martha (Kirby) as they endure a home birth that becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous. By the time the midwife (Molly Parker) calls for an ambulance, there is nothing to be done. The couple’s grief and anger manifests in various, destructive ways, while Martha’s domineering, wealthy mother(Ellen Burstyn) seeks legal justice. 

“The prosthetic belly took about four to five hours. I wanted to feel the absence of that weight after the birth scene. I wanted to feel like I’d lost a limb, like someone was missing.” 

Kirby, additionally, consulted with a bereavement midwife, who counsels women who have lost babies after birth. The first half hour of Pieces of a Woman is, accordingly, not an easy watch. At times, Rosemary’s Baby probably makes for less unsettling pregnancy viewing. 

“I’m actually quite flattered to hear that,” laughs Kirby, “I have spoken to a couple of journalists who have been pregnant. I was a bit worried but they seemed okay. I have so much admiration now for pregnant women. I did admire them before. But after the film I think anyone who has given birth is a goddess.

“I remember someone saying that’s going to be a really hard film to finance. A woman losing a baby? And I thought, this is exactly why it needs to be made. It’s so much more exciting than the male-centric story because we literally haven’t seen it before. If men gave birth, it would be different. We have watched men die in film since the beginning of film history. And yet we haven’t seen a proper birth scene.

“That is so indicative of how many stories there are that haven’t made it to the screen. I mean, 54 per cent of women have lost a baby or know someone who has. So I feel really privileged to be part of something that allows for conversation about that.”

Weighty plays

With Pieces of a Woman and the incoming LGBT western The World to Come, Kirby’s film career appears to have caught up with her theatrical work. Since 2010 she has been nominated for five (and won two) Ian Charleson Awards for best classical performance in a series of such weighty plays as Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Ibsen’s Ghosts. 

Miserabilism and emotional labour, Kirby says, are exhilarating. 

“Ellen [Burstyn] talks about this a lot. And when you look at her work, like Requiem for a Dream, for example, and you wonder how she does it. And she always says that when you touch something real inside yourself, something universal, it’s the best feeling. And you go home at the end of the day and you feel incredible. But you don’t feel like you’ve nailed it. If a scene hasn’t gone well or you feel phoney, it’s the reverse feeling.

“I felt like I was attempting something really difficult with Three Sisters when I played Masha. But I’d be hopeless at the other two sisters. I’d be really bad at being the young, naive ingenue or the earnest sister. I want to be the turbulent, complex sister. I don’t know why that is. But it was the same for The Crown. I would have been a hopeless Queen Elizabeth. Duty is not something I wear well, I don’t think.” 

Landing the role of Princess Margaret on The Crown, she says, was “a crazy miracle”. It opened doors, earned her strange looks on the Tube, and was a lot more fun than playing her sister. 

Vanessa Kirby has played Princess Margaret in The Crown and White Widow in the Mission: Impossible franchise
Vanessa Kirby has played Princess Margaret in The Crown and White Widow in the Mission: Impossible franchise
I worked various temp jobs in London. I was making tea at the British Film Council and spilling it at their big meetings, desperate to impress them

“And I had the most fun playing her,” says Kirby. “I would go to meetings in LA and at the meeting the producers – who may or may not hire you down the line but never do when you meet them – would suddenly know who I was. That was the main difference of doing that show. It was such a relaxing feeling not having to explain to people who I was or what I could do. They had watched The Crown and could make up their minds.”

She laughs. “I had a meeting last year and one of the producers said to me: oh, my god, you just came out of nowhere. But I didn’t. I was working for eight years.”

Middle child

Kirby certainly has put the hours in. She is the middle child of a south London family; her mother is the former editor of Country Living and her father is a prostate surgeon. She was turned down by drama school twice before taking a gap year to go travelling, during which she worked at an Aids hospice in South Africa. 

 “Lamda [London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art] said, you know, you’re just too young,” she recalls. “And I didn’t really know what that meant but I went off. I worked various temp jobs in London. I was making tea at the British Film Council and spilling it at their big meetings, desperate to impress them. I saved up money that way and then I went travelling. And when I came back from that year I had learned about a spectrum of life that I had no idea about before. And I realised at that point the acting is about learning about life. And then I went to university and I read tons and went out a lot and that taught me even more.” 

At university she turned in a dissertation titled “The space of contemporary theatre in an age of post-capital modernity”, which sounds like an assault on private property that Friedrich Engels might be proud of. 

“It was post-post-modernity,” says Kirby. “It was basically an idea about deconstructing our reality and the invisible networks we need in order to function. We have to have mobile phones and bank cards and things in the ether. And we believe in these things like they are concrete even though they are entirely abstract.

“And when I wrote about this, I was seeing so much theatre at the Royal Court that I felt was dismantling these networks in this quite crazy capitalist world. I got really interested in the agricultural revolution and the idea that suddenly this piece of land is mine. As opposed to us being custodians of land and privileged to be here. Ownership allows us to forget that we should live in harmony with nature because we’re taking from it.”

She laughs. “Sorry. I’m prattling on. I’ll stop, I promise.”

Fiercely intellectual, quick-witted and delicately built, Kirby is not the first person one might think of as an action heroine. And yet her parallel Hollywood career has landed her work on three Mission: Impossible films (and counting) and Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw. 

“I definitely had to understand a whole physical dimension of myself I had no idea about,” she says. “That was really challenging because I’ve always been really bad at sports. Embarrassingly bad. I know that feeling of dread when you go to PE lessons and you don’t get picked at all. So okay. Now I have to learn to run really fast. And I have a fear of running because I’m always last.

“Being physical is massively difficult for me. And that’s been really good for me actually.”

Pieces of a Woman is on Netflix from January 7th

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