Playing Princess Margaret has given the actress a taste for fashion. She talks to Laura Craik, and models the latest pieces by London’s most shoppable designers
Actors always look different in the flesh, but Vanessa Kirby looks so different, I wonder whether the person standing before me has come to the right studio. Surely this tall, blonde creature isn’t Princess Margaret, the pocket-sized brunette who proved so compelling in the Netflix drama The Crown? Late and apologetic, Kirby eschews handshakes in favour of a hug. There had been a problem with the car that was picking her up, so she hopped onto the Tube instead. Presumably, passengers on the Northern Line didn’t recognise Princess Margaret, either.
For those of you who have been living under a rock, The Crown is Netflix’s first British series and reportedly cost £100m for the first two seasons alone. Scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Audience) and part-directed by Stephen Daldry, it has been responsible for many a viewer’s exhausted appearance since its release last November. Like Stranger Things, it’s a compelling binge-watch. “Honestly, the first weekend it came out, I met people who had seen all 10 episodes by Monday,” says Kirby incredulously. “When I went to the Screen Actors Guild awards [SAGs], I met people who’d watched the whole thing twice, which blew me away. None of us knew what to expect. It’s a new format, landing everything on one day. We were, like, are people going to watch it?”
While Queen Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy) has some of the best lines, there’s no doubting who has the best wardrobe. From her cocktail gowns to her striking print headscarves, Margaret’s costumes are superb. “Every time I walked into the make-up trailer in the morning, Claire would go, ‘For God’s sake, it’s so unfair.’ ”
Kirby, 28, worked closely with the show’s costume designer, Michele Clapton (the talent behind the Emmy-winning Game of Thrones wardrobe), to recreate Margaret’s well-documented style. Royal consultants were enlisted to ensure the accuracy of the coronation costumes, while Kirby and Clapton kept a keen lookout in second-hand shops for Margaret-esque sunglasses, scarves and prints. Unlike her sister, Margaret frequently wore trousers, and was not averse to wearing risqué gowns. “She was such a fashion icon. I completely fell in love with her.”
The experience has sparked a nascent interest in fashion. “I wasn’t particularly bothered before, but working with Michele taught me so much,” Kirby says. “Now when I go into fittings, I have a different eye.” For red-carpet events, she loves Erdem, Emilia Wickstead and Calvin Klein. “I used to be really frightened of the red carpet,” she says. “For so many years, you stand on them and the photographers are all shouting other people’s names. They have no idea who you are and they’re like, ‘Move along, love.’ ” She eventually realised that, “even if you don’t look nice, no one cares. Also, you learn what works and what doesn’t.” She says that going to the SAGs in January (where Foy won best actress for her portrayal of Elizabeth) was a salutary lesson. “You watch these people you admire negotiating it — Amy Adams, for example. She’s amazing. She doesn’t take it at all seriously. You can’t. You just accept it’s part of the job. You wish it wasn’t, but you have to be gracious about it.”
Working in such an appearance-obsessed industry, the desire to slob out during your downtime must be strong. “Oh, God. I’m the messiest, scruffiest…” Kirby tails off. “I’ve always either had to put so much thought into it that my mind explodes and I give up, or I vaguely try and do something and end up wearing the same thing relentlessly. I’ve got one pair of jeans that I live in. Black ones from Topshop. They are the best.”
Does she wear anything special for auditions? “At one, I remember saying, ‘I’m wearing my lucky socks.’ They just sat there stony-faced. So embarrassing,” she recalls. “For most auditions, you wear a hint of what the part is. So for Margaret, I had some pearls on and my mum’s dodgy skirt that didn’t really fit.”
One imagines that her mum’s skirts are less dodgy than most, given that she’s a former editor of Country Living. Kirby’s father is a prostate surgeon (“My parents met on the school bus”), and she is one of three, the only actor in the family bar a great-aunt.
She loves doing theatre: last year, she played Elena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Almeida and made her Broadway debut alongside Gillian Anderson as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. She is currently filming the second season of The Crown, though fans will have to wait until November for that particular treat.
She won’t dish on her love life (“I wish I could talk about it, but I made a decision never to do so”), but she is seeing someone “under the radar”. For now, she’s living happily in a flat-share in Tooting Bec, south London, with her sister and two friends. She cringes at namechecking actor mates, but lists Matt Smith (who plays Prince Philip in The Crown), his girlfriend, Lily James (“She’s radiant”), Ben Whishaw (“I love him”) and Gillian Anderson (“She’s like a sister”).
She is also friends with the playwright Polly Stenham and hopes to collaborate with her on a writing project. Does she think parts for women are improving? “I feel really strongly about it. It’s so boring that it’s even a thing. Obviously it’s a male-dominated industry, but I think we are changing it. When I was in LA, I met so many great women producers and writers. There are loads of untold female stories.”
For the moment, though, Kirby is happily filming in Gloucestershire, playing Margaret for the last time before some of the cast are replaced by older actors for seasons 3-6. “It’s so amazing, and for Claire as well, to play women who are at the centre of the story, in a narrative where the men are in relationship to them,” she smiles. “That’s so rare. Why is a story about a man more fascinating than a story about a woman?” Why, indeed.