Vanessa Kirby on Playing “Tragic” Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’

Julie Kosin

November 4, 2016

Article taken from Harper's Bazaar

Much like the furtive relationship she’s portraying onscreen, Vanessa Kirby makes only a few fleeting appearances in early episodes of The Crown, the $100-million series about Britain’s royal family, streaming today on Netflix. But binge-watchers’ diligence will pay off, as this forbidden affair—between Kirby’s Princess Margaret and scandalous divorcé Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a trusted advisor of King George VI—becomes integral to the plot of the series’ first season. Though modern audiences may not remember much of Margaret, who died in 2002 at the age of 72, Kirby’s riveting, sympathetic portrayal of a lively young woman caught between her family and her lover is likely to conjure a renewed fascination with the late royal.

Much like Margaret, who had a reputation for being the life of the party, Kirby is a ball of energy, her words tumbling over one another as she discusses the complexities of her character, especially the striking contrasts between the princess and her sister, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy): “They’re trying to establish their identity in the world alongside each other and in relation to this establishment which only those two were a part of.” Below, Kirby opens up about researching the “exhibitionist” princess, portraying the heartbreaks of Margaret’s life and why her costumes are better than Elizabeth’s:

Harper’s Bazaar: When you were cast as Margaret did you do any research into the role? How extensive did you get?
Vanessa Kirby:
I did a lot before [being cast] because I knew how important it would be for playing somebody real, or attempting to—to show the team [the role] was something I would be fascinated to do. I read a couple of biographies and I watched everything I could find. Some of the biographies were really sensationalist, News of the World sorts, but they were great because they also gave first and secondhand accounts of her at home. The butlers come forward and give little moments, some of which you discard and some which ring somehow true and you use. The other [books] were really scholarly, biographical, factual, sentimental historian-type books which were a bit dry but you can find a few real moments. I watched tons of archive footage of her and listened to the music she loved; that was really immersive and brilliant…Then once you start [filming] you have researchers who are constantly giving you information. Ultimately it isn’t about impersonating or trying to be an image of somebody and more trying to capture the spirit and the soul of the person somehow.

HB: Did you study her movements? Did you try to copy them, or did you just let yourself be you as her?
 I remember somebody saying something to me about Frost/Nixon, when Anthony Hopkins does his famous speech, and the difference in the way Anthony did it was to dramatize, essentially, what was a documentary-style version of that speech. I remember someone saying to me, “There is artistic liberty.” I watched her do speeches, but the only footage we could find of Margaret was archive footage, which was of her public presentation of herself.

I felt too tall when I first started. I was stood next to Claire and Victoria [Hamilton] at these big state funerals and often I thought, “Oh my God, I’m like a head taller than them.” I would try to take off my heels or something in the first couple of days. Eventually you go, “Oh, fuck it.” You’ve got to surrender to the fact that you are you playing [show creator] Peter [Morgan]’s version of her and let it all go, basically.

HB: Margaret is younger, but in comparison to Claire’s Elizabeth, she’s portrayed as more casual; she lies around the house in her glamorous robes and she’s also the life of every party. Where did that come from?
Well naturally I’m probably a bit louder than Claire, anyway. Claire is so beautiful and measured and cool and amazing and together and I’m more sort of more messy. I think when they were casting us, they knew. It was always said you couldn’t have two sisters less alike. In a way Elizabeth was always internalizing everything and Margaret was always externalizing everything, so that became the basis. The storyline becomes about these two sisters: they’re fighting for their position or trying to establish their identity in the world alongside each other and in relation to this establishment which only those two were a part of.

Really marking the differences between them was really important. It just became second nature. When we were choosing pajamas or something, instantly you’d be able to spot: those are Margaret, those are Elizabeth. It became this sort of language, really, of the two sisters.

“It isn’t about impersonating or trying to be an image of somebody. It’s trying to capture the spirit and the soul of the person.”

HB: What’s the hardest part about playing someone both real and so public?
I guess the preconceptions. Everybody has an image of her, to a certain extent. But I felt it would have been harder if we were playing them as they are now. In a way, I don’t know how much of a living memory we as a collective have of them in the ’50s, when Margaret was 21 and this sort of Elizabeth Taylor. You don’t think of your grandparents as being teenagers. You just can’t—your brain just can’t go there!

HB: Before watching this, I never really thought about Queen Elizabeth when she was younger. She just seemed like a granny to me.
She’s just the granny queen! She’s our granny queen who shakes people’s hands! [Laughs] That’s exactly how I felt. So getting to suddenly know this young Margaret, who had this extraordinary life—it was sad and tragic and difficult and sort of astonishing and getting to know her young self was amazing because it completely defied all my expectations. It’s like, you know when you suddenly find a picture of your grandparents? And you’re like, “Oh my God! That was you?! That’s mad!” because your brain hasn’t made that connection? It’s amazing. I’m so glad, in a way, that anybody who watches [the show] with their preconceptions of the old granny might suddenly go, “Oh my God, these are human beings that have lived through some really difficult stuff.” I would argue Margaret is the tragic figure of the century.

HB: In your research of Margaret, what surprised you most?
Well I knew she was a party girl. The book I liked most on her was called Margaret: A Life of Contrasts and getting to know her, it was how conflicted her position and her internal life—or self—was. She is so fiercely royal and so fiercely “sister of the queen” or “daughter of the king” because that is her identity and it’s all she’s ever known. And at the same time she is struggling to push the boundaries and to break away from it, to be different or to modernize the monarchy, to turn it on its head, and you see that in Episode 8, where she takes over and does it her way. There’s a part of me that goes, “God, she would’ve made a great queen.” I mean, she might have brought it tumbling down, but Margaret says something like, “How would’ve Elizabeth I have done it?” And I feel like she would’ve been more a sovereign like Elizabeth I compared to her sister.

“There’s a part of me that goes, ‘God, she would’ve made a great queen.'”

So that external struggle mirrors the struggle of this life force of energy that she was. She was loud, an extrovert, an exhibitionist, loved fashion, loved color, loved music, loved drama, loved the theater, wanted to be a ballerina or actress, was always the little one putting on the school plays, and Elizabeth reluctantly did it and got stage fright. [Margaret] was out until 5 a.m. and she lit up at 17 in public, which was not a done thing. She was always trying to radicalize things. But at the same time, she had a fragility and an insecurity in who she was and her position, because her sister had always got the education ever since David [Edward VIII] abdicated. It’s this amazing combination to play, really, of somebody who’s actually very fragile and hasn’t really grown up properly yet—at least in a healthy environment—and has suffered immense loss with her dad—like that line where she says, [in the words of her father], “Yes, ‘Elizabeth is my pride but Margaret’s my joy.” She holds onto it!

HB: Do you enjoy public speaking like Margaret does? The scene where she addresses the party actually made my stomach hurt. I was nervous for her and you.
It’s quite nerve-wracking, actually! Because you’re in a room full of people you don’t know, extras, and you’re just thinking, “Oh, God.” She’s supposed to be funny. I never minded [public speaking] so much. My dad is a big extrovert—he’s a doctor—but he always loved Shakespeare and he took us to tons of theater. I mean, I still get stage fright horribly. I still get nervous. I do tend to find when you’re playing characters, often—just for the time you’re playing them—there are sides of your personality that get stronger because you draw on them more. So I started to really enjoy the fact that Margaret was an exhibitionist. Even on a day-to-day basis, Margaret’s costumes were always so much more dramatic and bold than Elizabeth’s were. I really enjoyed stepping into that side of her and being silly and naughty and fun. You really see that in Season 2.

Script developed by Never Enough Design