Far from The Crown, Vanessa Kirby Talks Her Toughest Role Yet
September 6, 2020
The actress, best known for playing Princess Margaret on The Crown, tells V.F. about her bravura performance as a grieving mother opposite Ellen Burstyn and Shia LaBeouf in Pieces of a Woman.
Vanessa Kirby first captivated audiences on The Crown, playing Princess Margaret through tragic heartbreak and romantic rebound during the Netflix period drama’s first two seasons. The British actor has since transitioned to the big screen, playing an arms dealer opposite Tom Cruise in 2018’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout. But her staggering lead performance in Pieces of a Woman, the Martin Scorsese-executive produced drama premiering at the Venice Film Festival Saturday, is likely to launch her into a new career stratosphere—as well as this year’s award conversations. In the drama—directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó (White God), written by his partner Katá Weber, and inspired by their own personal experience—Kirby plays a woman on an “odyssey of grief” after losing her newborn baby. The first 30 minutes of the film, which were shot in one continuous take, are awe-inspiring and unprecedented: during the unflinching sequence, Kirby’s character goes into labor at home, suffers frightening complications, and delivers her baby alongside her partner, played by Shia LaBeouf. The technical challenge of that daunting scene is what Kirby said lured her to the project.
“Since playing Margaret, I’ve been really longing to do something as demanding and challenging. . . something that scared me. Because playing Margaret did,” Kirby told Vanity Fair on Friday morning, speaking by phone from Venice. “She was a real person, and she was very loved. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge—that’s what I always long for.”
With Pieces of a Woman, “the birth scene was 25 pages with no cuts in it at all,” said Kirby. “I’ve never given birth before. I haven’t watched anyone give birth. So I just thought, how on earth would I be able to authentically act labor over the course of a take that won’t even be edited?”
To prepare, Kirby shadowed obstetrician Claire Mellon in a North London hospital—spending time in the labor ward, speaking to midwives, and even watching a stranger give birth.
“There was a woman who came into the ward and was nine centimetres dilated, and Claire said, oh, maybe she would let you watch her,” recalled Kirby. “She was told that an actress was studying birth and would have to [act it]. . .And she was so generous and willing to share that sacred process with me. . .It definitely profoundly changed me.” (It was only after the delivery, during a follow-up conversation, that the woman recognized Kirby from The Crown—which happened to be one of the woman’s favorite TV shows.)
Kirby was intent on presenting the delivery as authentically as possible and “without any vanity,” so that audiences would emotionally invest themselves in her character, Martha. “I really wanted the audience to be with Martha fully through that experience,” said Kirby, explaining that she was struck by the “animal quality” childbirth has. The woman she watched was “completely transported to a whole other plane. It was like the animal of her body kind of took over from her mind.”
Ellen Burstyn co-stars as Martha’s mother—a woman whose own traumatic personal history echoes through Martha’s experiences. Burstyn had the opportunity to see Pieces of a Woman before Venice; the Oscar winner called the labor scene “breathtaking. It’s so harrowing and arduous, and without it ever cutting away… I’ve never seen a scene like that… I don’t think there’s ever been a scene like that filmed.”
Burstyn said the sequence—not to mention the film, which tracks Martha’s journey through grief—shows how far Hollywood has evolved in terms of representing women’s perspectives onscreen.
For Kirby, it was just as vital to accurately depict Martha’s grief. “This story hasn’t really been told onscreen before in the way that it is here,” said Kirby. “The responsibility of that, we didn’t take lightly. ”
Kirby said that she spoke at length to a friend who has suffered three miscarriages, bereavement midwives, and a woman named Kelly, whose real-life story of losing her baby paralleled Martha’s.
“I almost felt like the film was more for Kelly than anything,” said Kirby. “Because she talked a lot about how people found it extremely difficult to talk to her about [losing her baby]. Women find it very hard to talk about. So in a way, it’s opened up a conversation about how we, as a society, can support women through things like this.”
Kirby said that she, LaBoeuf, and Burstyn were so united in this vision that they became especially close during filming.
“Ellen talked about how sometimes with actors, there’s this synergy. . .something magical happens and sort of aligns. It was like that with us three,” said Kirby. The first time that Kirby and LaBeouf met Burstyn, they came bearing presents—chrysanthemums from Kirby, and a white unicorn planter from LaBeouf that Burstyn kept in her bedroom until recently. Before filming, Kirby said she and LaBeouf went baby shopping for their characters’ nursery to get into the headspace of expectant parents. Kirby, who is based in London, also spent several nights with Burstyn at Burstyn’s New York apartment so that the two could bond before playing mother and daughter.
“Vanessa and I bonded very quickly, and I felt very maternal toward her,” said Burstyn, who was a fan of Kirby’s portrayal of Princess Margaret. Before the actors began filming Pieces of a Woman in Montreal, Burstyn gave Kirby a gift appropriate for a co-star of The Crown.
“I had a stamp of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret from 1939, when they visited Canada and I was in a boarding school in Canada,” said Burstyn. “It has had been hanging on all my various walls. And I gave it to Vanessa.”
“She gave it to me in a little frame and wrote, ‘My princess, I can’t wait to do this with you. Love, Ellen,’” remembered Kirby. “I have it on my wall now in my bedroom. It was unbelievable, really.”
“We have a real connection because I respect her so much and love her,” said Burstyn. “She’s such a darling girl, and so talented and so bright. And I think the world of her.”
Kirby said that, after making Pieces of a Woman, she considers Burstyn family.
“We call each other most days,” said Kirby. “During lockdown, I checked up on her all the time and we just chatted about everything. When I stayed over at her house, we talked so much about her days in the Actors Studio… we talked about theater… Oh, and she read me all her favorite poems. It was beautiful.”
Burstyn did not travel to Venice for the film’s premiere, but has been in close contact with Kirby—and has insisted that her on-screen daughter call her after immediately after the film’s premiere. “I have a pact with her that she’s going to call me after the screening and tell me the audience’s reaction,” said Burstyn.
The legendary actor was so moved by Pieces of a Woman, and Kirby’s performance in it, that she expects the film to get the kind of response that Requiem for a Dream got in 2000 at the Cannes Film Festival. Burstyn, who went on to earn an Oscar nomination for the Darren Aronofsky drama, remembered, “There was a 10-minute standing ovation. . .It was so spectacular to be in an audience and have them clapping their hands for 10 minutes. I have a feeling something like that is going to happen for this film. And I’m so happy that Vanessa’s going to be there to feel it.”