Vanessa Kirby interview: ‘I’m interested in what stops people fulfilling their dreams’

Kaleem Aftab

October 31, 2016


Article taken from The Independent

“All I knew was that she was sort of a tragic figure,” says actress Vanessa Kirby about Princess Margaret. “It didn’t really cross my consciousness that much. I knew she smoked and drank, and was kind of this old lady in a wheelchair.”

The 28-year-old Londoner’s attitude to the royals changed when she was cast in The Crown. Inspired by the award-winning play The Audience, the Netflix series tells the inside story of the Queen’s early reign. The first series begins with the end of the reign of King George VI and shows the new Queen getting to grips with both her civic responsibility and also keeping her wayward younger sister in check.

Her mother may have been one of the founders of the magazine Country Living, but Kirby says growing up she “didn’t understand what the royal’s place in British society was before, particularly, in our time. But now I see it”.

And what of the woman she previously only thought of as being “Charlie’s aunt”? She now sees Princess Margaret as being part of the most tragic love story of the past century, a woman who had to forsake love for convention, excitement for tradition. “She is resisting and rebelling, trying to defy the conventions that you can’t escape. I suppose you see it a little bit with Harry, and you see with him deal with it in different ways, to the way that Diana dealt with it. The coping mechanisms.”

Kirby is fascinated by characters who are paralysed, prevented from fulfilling their dreams because of some apparent obligation to the greater good. “Some of my favourite characters have been people like Masha in Three Sisters, and Elena in Uncle Vanya. I’m interested in what stops people getting what they want.”

These characters, like so many of her more celebrated turns, she has played on stage. As a teenager, she had to battle to fulfil her dream as a stage actress. She was rejected by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and while attending the National Youth Theatre, she never got to audition for any of the plays that they did.

“I remember Elizabeth Gilbert, [who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear] saying that whenever you do something creative, or something you really love to do, there’s always going to be a shit sandwich, it’s never all going to be plain sailing and I love that, because I’ve eaten many of those on this journey that I’m on. It’s a long slog, there are many ups and downs, and you have to swallow things that are uncomfortable.”

Once she graduated from Exeter University, where she appeared in several productions, she turned down a drama spot at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to take up three starring roles at the Octagon Theatre Bolton, in classic plays directed by David Thacker. As she has ventured from stage to screen, Kirby has come to cherish these experiences.

“I think my natural home was always the stage. I always saw myself as a stage actress, and that was the reason I wanted to act, but very slowly I’ve changed,” she recounts. “But film is also a craft and you have to learn screen acting and I’ve always felt that it’s also the kind of place that you have to do time, much like when you’re on stage, I was doing my time at school, in bad amateur productions – that’s mean, but some were bad, or at least I was bad in them – tons of university plays, so that when I went on stage as a professional, I felt ready to take the plunge.”

Her stagecraft improved under the direction of Benedict Andrews, who cast her in Three Sisters at the Old Vic. The Australian-born director has a reputation for being hard on actors: “Oh God, yeah, he’s brutal but in the most amazing way. I have so much faith in him, so you take the leap, you kind of leap and the net appears and you hope for the best.”

Andrews updated Three Sisters to modern day Russia, replete with four-letter expletives. He then asked her to play Stella, with Gillian Anderson as elder sister Blanche in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. She had introduced Anderson to Andrews after appearing with The X-Files actress in a 2011 television adaptation of Great Expectations in which Kirby played Estella to Anderson’s Miss Havisham. After a critically acclaimed sell-out run on the London stage in the summer of 2014, the much-admired revolving stage transferred to New York earlier this year.

They shared a dressing room, with Anderson occasionally getting frustrated at how messy Kirby can be. “She would say look at the state of that! One time she took a picture of the picture of the mess and showed it to me, it was only in the picture that I saw the mess. I’m so relaxed and don’t stress about things, I just didn’t really notice it was out of control.”

The one time she did feel Anderson’s ire was after handing her fellow cast member a black eye: “We were rushing onto stage and I forgot to open a curtain for her and she whacked her head hard against a pillar. I was late coming back from the loo or something. Luckily Blanche is drunk in that scene, but I could tell she was hurt and was thinking, oh my God, she might faint at any minute. She was slurring way more. Throughout the whole scene, I was saying sorry to her with my eyes.”

But generally the experience in New York was one of the best times in her life. “The American audiences are generally – from my perspective – positive and slightly less judgmental. We had a year and a half in between and so we had all grown up loads and the play got much deeper. It was really amazing to do it again. I think there might be plans to do it again, and I think we would all do it.”

Even as she is about to film a second series of The Crown, the Wimbledon-born actress cannot imagine abandoning the stage. She cites Juliette Binoche, Jessica Chastain, Michelle Williams, Amy Adams and “the most incredible screen actress”, Kristin Scott Thomas, as actors that she would like to emulate in their balancing on stage and screen. As for what that might be, she murmurs that she is friends with Polly Stenham and that they’re trying to develop a play with the former Royal Court artistic director Ian Rickson.

So having had so much fun in New York, is America calling? The actress says she has no plans to move Stateside and anyway her American ambitions are not Hollywood. “It’s not the big American films that I want to do. It’s the independent American cinema, directors like Charlie Kaufman, Drake Doremus, and Derek Cianfrance. Equally there are many Europeans, like Paolo Sorrentino, that I’m completely obsessed with. So I think you have to find your tribe in a way.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design