Actress Vanessa Kirby talks sisterly love, anxiety and playing Princess Margaret
October 25, 2016
After a stint on Broadway and in Hollywood, Vanessa Kirby is back on home ground with her latest drama The Crown
I’ve always been pretty indifferent towards the royal family,” Vanessa Kirby cheerfully admits. “I went on a school trip once to Buckingham Palace and all I can remember is that it was really boring. Before filming The Crown, I couldn’t care less about the royal family. But now… I’m obsessed.”
After this Friday, the 28-year-old won’t be the only one. That’s when Netflix debuts the much-anticipated first 10 episodes of its most expensive drama to date (with a rumoured £100 milllion budget), which imagines life behind the gilded doors of Buckingham Palace. Commissioned for six series, The Crown follows the life of Queen Elizabeth from 1947 to present day and is written by Peter Morgan who, having already penned the 2006 biopic The Queen and the 2013 play The Audience, knows a thing or two about imagining royal life.
With Wolf Hall’s Claire Foy as the monarch and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith as Prince Phillip, Kirby plays Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, from the age of 18 to 25. “I saw Margaret as this rebel, and thought, ‘That’s so me!’” Kirby says of her character, who prior to her death in 2002 gained notoriety for her tumultuous love life – she called off her controversial engagement to the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1955 – and penchant for partying. Kirby’s performance is an emotional and compelling one. Her scenes with Foy are particularly tense, showcasing her on-screen presence while portraying Margaret’s early life as something of a tragedy as she realises she will lose the love of her life.
Alternating between confident and self-deprecating, Kirby has an endearing way of chattering on. She’s witty and expressive, peppering her conversation with enthusiastic exclamations (“Oh my God!” and “Yeah!”) while talking about the latest books she’s enjoyed or her attempts to meditate every day.
Perhaps it’s such passion and self-awareness that explains Kirby’s rise over the past seven years. After being rejected by a drama school in Bristol, Kirby took a gap year in South Africa then studied English at Exeter, where she was awarded a First. She turned down a place at LAMDA to join the Octagon Theatre in Bolton and hasn’t stopped working on stage since. She has also dabbled in Hollywood movies (most recently in Me Before You with Emilia Clarke).
Over the phone from Toronto, the actress reveals what exactly it was about playing Princess Margaret that inspired her right royal U-turn.
What attracted you to the role of Princess Margaret as opposed to Queen Elizabeth?
I always go for the underdog or the rogue or the rebel. There’s a book that I love about her called Princess Margaret: A Life Of Contrasts by Christopher Warwick that drew me in just by the title. She had these opposing elements in her life. She was innately royal, but at the same time she was resisting it. She was caught in this conflict between longing to be part of this family and also not wanting it.
In the first series of The Crown, Margaret is torn between her love for her family and her love for a divorced man. How much did you know about that situation before you started filming?
Very little. I remember Margaret when she was in her 60s, being very ill. I knew she had this tragic life, but I didn’t understand why. Getting to the bottom of it was fascinating. I was very apathetic towards the royal family and now I’m totally in love with them. It was really magical.
Margaret had a reputation for being the least popular royal, according to royal biographer Tim Heald. Is there anything you didn’t like about her character?
Of course there were elements of her that weren’t especially nice – especially later on. I heard lots stories about her putting people down or turning up drunk to events. The actress Harriet Walter, who’s a great friend of mine, had a terrible run-in with Princess Margaret when she was especially mean to her after one of her shows. But I love that she didn’t have a filter. I would always side with her intrinsically. Playing Margaret did make me realise how alone, unhappy and unhinged she was. She needed Peter to keep her together [they were together two years]. She was very self-destructive.
How has The Crown changed how you see the Royal family?
I now see them as human beings. They had no choice but to be born into this family, and then you either conform or rebel and become ostracised, like King Edward VIII who escaped to America with Wallace Simpson. I would have been like Margaret – utterly torn. Towards the end of the series, you begin to understand her – she could have been so unruly. But really she’s just a little girl at heart who’s desperate to be loved and she’s denied that by her big sister. It’s horrifying.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
I read every book I could find and watched a lot of archive footage. But it was the details that really helped. I happened to be sitting next to a cousin in the royal family at dinner at somebody’s house – I won’t name him. He said when his parents got together in the Seventies, one of them was already divorced, and Margaret was really bitter and jealous of the fact that they were allowed to get married. Twenty years later, she was so resentful and she still felt cheated. There’s a brilliant Desert Island Discs with Margaret from 1981, so I listened to her favourite songs all the time. At one point, my sister and the two best friends I live with arrived back at our home in south London and Scotland The Brave – played on the bagpipes – was blasting out. They said, “Please, stop it”. I’m fully immersed in her life. We’ve even got a picture of Margaret in our loo.
Why are people obsessed with the royals?
I think it’s because we know nothing about their private lives. We know all about actors and singers because they do interviews but with the royals, everything’s so tightly controlled. They live this strange reality behind closed doors.
There’s a lot of tension on-screen between Princess Margaret and the Queen – especially when the Queen forbids her marriage to the love of her life. Are you close to your sister in real life?
My younger sister Juliet and I are very close – we live together and she’s a theatrical agent so we have a lot in common. But we’re very different. I’m bossy, while she’s more chilled.
When you were filming The Crown earlier this year, you were also rehearsing for Uncle Vanya and preparing to make your Broadway debut in A Streetcar Named Desire. Do you ever say no to anything?
I have a strong work ethic, but sometimes, yes. I turned down something this summer actually. Streetcar was incredible, but exhausting. I cut my wrist on glass on stage in two performances. There was this whole bit of skin hanging off the second time. I just carried on with the scene at the time, but it was quite bad. I still have the scars. I was so tired when I came home that I decided to take a couple of months off. I went to Glastonbury and Greece with friends. Downtime is just as important as working.
As well as music festivals and travelling, how else do you fill your spare time?
I love watching films. Victoria – a German heist movie – is my hands-down favourite film of the past couple of years. It was shot in one take and is ingenious. I don’t read much for pleasure but I recently read Love’s Executioner by the psychiatrist Irvin D Yalom for a radio series I’m in. It’s about 10 of his patients and is fascinating.
You’ve done a huge amount of theatre, from Chekhov to Miller, but have been open about suffering from crippling stage fright. How do you deal with it?
It’s odd because I get stage fright every time a production opens and yet I always forget that I have had it before. Reading actress Olga Knipper’s Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters Of Anton Chekhov And Olga Knipper has really helped. She constantly thought she was terrible and could never act again. It’s made me realise that even great actors have it. Jared Harris, who plays King George VI in The Crown, told me it never goes away – it’s oddly comforting to think that he goes through it, too. Sometimes you just feel self-conscious in the middle of a scene for no reason. It can be terrifying to suddenly realise that people are looking at you. But I’m learning to live with it. When it appears, I say, “Hi,” and get on with it.
Do you have any techniques you use to stay calm?
I meditate – David Lynch, the film and TV director behind Twin Peaks, wrote this amazing book called Catching The Big Fish about how meditation has helped his creativity. It really inspired me. I try to meditate every day, although that doesn’t really happen to be honest, so I’d say it’s more like three times a week. Before going on stage or walking on to a set I also listen to music so I don’t hear the audience. When I’m in a play, the stage manager will have a heart attack because just before I go on, I’ll throw them my iPhone and my earphones. It has been the same with The Crown, even though we’re just performing in front of the crew and a camera. Just before I walk into view, I listen to Margaret’s favourite music – Mack The Knife from The Threepenny Opera or the music from Swan Lake.
You’ve said in the past that you’re a big worrier – what do you think is behind the rise in anxiety?
I think social media can be anxiety-inducing because you can spend your life in a kind of virtual reality and never really be yourself. Trying to find out who you are is really tough. I find everyone’s always comparing themselves to each other, but you can do the whole ‘compare and despair’ thing for ever. It sounds very clichéd, but writing a gratitude list in the morning has really helped. It puts a positive spin on your day.
It’s been a hectic 2016, what’s on your agenda for next year?
We’re filming the second season of The Crown until May. It feels like a whole different project as we move into the Sixties and she meets Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who she marries. It gets really explosive. I’m desperate to do another play – I love the energy of it – and there are so many amazing film-makers I’d like to work with, too. Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) is at the top of the list.