The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby: ‘I became completely obsessed with the Royal family’

Kate Finnigan

November 5, 2016

Article taken from The Telegraph

She had the world’s most famous sister, was forbidden to marry the man she loved and became the fashion idol of her age. Princess Margaret is the role of a lifetime – and  the one actress Vanessa Kirby feels she was born to play. She tells Stella about bringing the princess back to life in Netflix’s new blockbuster The Crown

I know this is crazy but I’ve suddenly twigged: I think I’m Princess Margaret!’ Actress Vanessa Kirby is recounting not a moment of insanity but the conversation she had with her agent last spring, after an epiphany on London’s South Bank.

Her hunch turned out to be a prediction. The 28-year-old Vanessa ‘is’ indeed Princess Margaret, and will perhaps always be known as such, having nabbed the part of the Queen’s younger sister in a new, 10-part British monarchy drama, The Crown.

The series has just debuted on the subscription channel Netflix and is set for royal success. It’s directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Peter Morgan, a man who knows this subject well, having written the 2006 film The Queen and the 2013 play The Audience, both starring Helen Mirren as the monarch.

The Crown is one of the most sophisticated and astonishing dramas of recent years. It’s certainly the most intimate portrayal of the British Royal family we’ve ever seen.

As Vanessa says, ‘It goes behind the closed doors of a world that we are so used to and think we know.’ But there’s the rub. We don’t know – which is what makes this show, hoped to run for six series, so compelling.

Did these conversations actually take place behind the walls of palaces? Did the Queen, played so empathetically by Claire Foy, really feel these emotions? Was the Queen Mother actually very lonely? Was Prince Philip such a rake? We can only guess, but the conviction with which Morgan imbues his scenes makes them mesmerising.

Correct or not, their power is such that they’ll be seen as at least one version of the truth. Vanessa plays the princess from her teens through to her 20s.

The story follows the early death of her father, King George VI, and the effect of the coronation of the 25-year-old Elizabeth on the people closest to her. Margaret is left rather adrift. As she says to Prince Philip (played with unnerving brilliance by Matt Smith), ‘I lost a father and a sister.’

Margaret – who died, aged 71, in 2002 after years of illness and disability – is, as Vanessa admits, ‘the part of a lifetime’. The actress originally had another role in the series but, when a friend told her that the director had failed to find someone to play Margaret, Vanessa had her moment.

‘It was just like a light bulb going on. Not in an arrogant way but I thought, “Oh, it’s because it’s me! Oh my God, I’m meant to be Margaret.”’ And after a screen test, she was.

We are talking in a period house in Hammersmith, west London, where Vanessa is about to have her portrait taken for Stella. Somehow more ethereal in real life than the solid, striking Margaret she plays on screen, she’s an attentive chatterbox – very cheerful, very enthusiastic and a self-confessed klutz.

There’s a brown stain on her cream top from coffee split at breakfast. ‘I looked in the mirror and thought, “Am I one of those people who will change my top because of it?” And decided no.’

For the Crown screen test she changed out of dungarees into a skirt. When Peter Morgan asked what on earth she’d done to her ankles, she realised she’d applied fake tan only halfway up her shins.

Vanessa is an award-winning stage actress who grew up in Wimbledon. The daughter of an editor of Country Living and a surgeon, she studied English at Exeter University and was twice turned down for drama school before landing a repertory job at Bolton’s Octagon, which led to further theatre roles.

On TV she has starred in the BBC’s The Hour and was Estella in Great Expectations. On the big screen, she appeared in the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending (2015), as did her Great Expectations co-star and ex-boyfriend Douglas Booth, and Thea Sharrock’s Me Before You (2016).

But Vanessa’s stage work – until now – has been the focus. She began this year in Uncle Vanya at the Almeida theatre. In the spring, she went to New York to reprise the role of Stella in a revival of the Young Vic’s 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, alongside her friend Gillian Anderson.

Until she won the Margaret role, Vanessa had little knowledge of the Princess. ‘I knew that she died quite tragically, was a bit of an alcoholic, smoked a lot and had lots of affairs,’ she says, ‘but that was it.’

So began months of research: reading ‘every book written about her – my house is full of her stuff’, watching archive footage, and, once filming started, listening to the princess’s Desert Island Discs (recorded in 1981) each day in make-up.

Vanessa shows me the tracklist on her phone, along with her favourite archive photographs. ‘I became completely obsessed with the Royal family, or at least the psychology behind them.’ Taking on such high-profile real-life figures was, naturally, rather intimidating.

‘For the first couple of days of filming, we were all saying, “We’ve watched so much footage of these people but now we actually have to play them.” I’m a lot taller than Margaret and, in the first scene, I wanted to take my shoes off. ‘I thought, people are going to care about this. But then I just stopped caring. You have to relinquish control over doing anything other than capturing their spirit, because otherwise you’re doing impersonations.’

As Margaret, Vanessa gets to wear fabulous clothes; more daring and fashionable than her sister’s. Costume designer Michele Clapton – a two-time Emmy winner for Game of Thrones – wanted to accentuate the differences between the two women, so Margaret is fashionable in brutalist prints and one-shouldered gowns, or film-star-fabulous in black shades and a silky mac.

‘I don’t have a lot of instinctive fashion style myself,’ says Vanessa, ‘but playing Margaret made me really realise the craft and artistry behind it. And the investment.’

Clapton copied pieces from recorded events such as the Coronation but, for private scenes, drew on the essence of clothes that Margaret had worn or took inspiration from fashion photography of the day. In one bedroom scene, the Princess wears fabulously glamorous printed silk pyjamas.

‘There were three different pairs,’ Vanessa recalls. ‘Michele asked me which I thought and we went for the most snazzy one. We developed this shorthand: “Yes, that’s Margaret. No, that’s not.” What a privilege to play someone who has that kind of life and say, “Ooh, I’ll go for the fun one!”’

The fact that the Princess is no longer alive made things a little easier for Vanessa than Wolf Hall star Claire Foy – who, as the Queen, has a rather scarier job.

However, one US journalist at a press conference did ask Vanessa whether ‘Princess Margaret was pleased’ she was playing her. ‘That was a bit awkward,’ she grimaces. But maybe it also illustrates how much of Margaret’s life has been brushed under the carpet or forgotten.

Many will be unaware of the scale of her celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s – ‘she was more famous,’ Vanessa points out, ‘than Elizabeth Taylor. She was the princess of the nation – of the globe, actually.’ Margaret was the glamorous, exciting counterpart of the sensible queen-in-waiting.

She fell in love with RAF officer Group Captain Peter Townsend – one of her father’s personal attendants, and a divorcee. After the King’s death, Townsend proposed to Margaret and the relationship ignited the public’s imagination.

Splashed across the pages of newspapers, they were the couple of their time. But his divorce was a problem for the state and the Church. After years of waiting and Townsend’s sidelining – by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, no less – to Brussels, the marriage was forbidden.

The psychology of Margaret and her place within the Royal family continues to grip Vanessa. ‘Margaret was six when her uncle abdicated,’ she notes.

‘From that moment, her older sister was being groomed to be queen and Margaret was sort of left to be the fun one without a real role. ‘But, even before that, I think Margaret was always questioning who she was and pushing boundaries. Even when she was tiny. In archive footage, you see she’s the one running around and Elizabeth is pulling her into line.’

In the series, the Queen Mother (played by Victoria Hamilton) senses the danger for Margaret and begs Elizabeth to give her sister ‘something to do’. When the Queen embarks on a six-month Commonwealth tour, Margaret, the most senior official member of the family, is left in charge. Trouble ensues.

‘The Royal family have this public presentation of who they are,’ says Vanessa. ‘I fell in love with Margaret because she was constantly trying to defy that.’

Margaret’s heartbreaking love story is what she feels most passionate about. ‘In the second episode, Peter [Morgan] indicates that, had the King not died, Margaret might not have fallen so hard for Peter. ‘In a sense, he was a replacement. It’s a dependency – emotionally, spiritually – and that’s the driving force for the fight she puts up against Elizabeth.’

In the series, Margaret’s fate is left in the Queen’s hands and captured in dramatic scenes between the two. ‘She was forbidden to marry him by her sister,’ Vanessa notes. ‘Bad enough it being your parents. It’s amazing and weird that this isn’t in the public consciousness any more.’

In 1955, Margaret issued an official statement announcing that she wouldn’t be marrying Townsend: ‘I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others.’

A couple of years later, Townsend announced his engagement to a 19-year-old Belgian woman. ‘A week later, Margaret was engaged [to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon]. It’s astonishing,’ says Vanessa.

‘Knowing where she ends up, it’s difficult not to play all that at the beginning. This perfect Polly Pocket princess becomes a really human thing.’

Vanessa will not be playing her in those later years – an older casting will take over. But in the second series, the actress will portray her living with heartbreak.

She’s certainly well prepped. During filming, Vanessa happened to meet someone whose parents had been in Margaret’s circle.

They got married in the 1970s, one of them a divorcee. ‘He said that Margaret was very, very unhappy about it and made that known publicly. I thought, “God, 20 years on, if you’re still resentful towards people who are able to do something you weren’t, it must mean that you haven’t forgiven everybody. Or yourself.”’

Script developed by Never Enough Design