This awards season is like no other.
To date, there are no red carpets, no galas, no actors' roundtables, or flashing photographers.
Instead, on Wednesday afternoon when Vanessa Kirby calls from across an ocean – where she’s back on pandemic lockdown in virus-besieged Britain – the television is showing a riotous mob swarming the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s so bizarre,” says Kirby, 32, of the frenetic news cycle, in the minutes before she and the interviewer realize the unfathomable is about to occur.
But with the world momentarily on pause, the poised Brit opens up about her standout performance in “Pieces of a Woman” (streaming now on Netflix), which will likely earn the actress her first Oscar nomination.
If you don’t think you know Kirby, you probably do: The actress memorably played Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” and starred alongside Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” (No stranger to franchises, Kirby also played Hattie Shaw – aka Jason Statham's on-screen sister – in the “Fast and Furious” spinoff, “Hobbs & Shaw.”) But it’s the Martin Scorsese-backed “Pieces of a Woman” that’s poised to be her awards-season vehicle: Kirby won best actress at Venice Film Festival for her portrayal of a woman whose home birth goes tragically awry.
In the film, Martha (Kirby) and her explosive partner (Shia LaBeouf – we’ll get to him later) try to claw their way back to normal, as Martha’s intimidating mother (a shining Ellen Burstyn) besieges her to take their midwife to court.
Husband-and-wife duo director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, who indirectly share their story of pregnancy loss in "Pieces of a Woman," admit they initially had trouble finding an actress willing to take on the emotionally wrought role. “It’s like Lady Macbeth, it's not easy to go there,” says Mundruczó.
But Kirby jumped at it, shadowing midwives in a hospital ahead of portraying a woman giving birth to her first child in an incredible 24-minute-long single-shot sequence that launches the film.
She and LaBeouf shot the full scene four times in a row on their first day of filming, and twice the next day. “We all felt like the most important thing for the birth was to be true and to be as authentic to what birth is really like, not a movie version or a sanitized, edited version of it,” says Kirby.
After the fourth take, Mundruczó says Kirby sobbed for 10 minutes as he hugged her: "And later I just recognized that was exactly the take, what I (would) use for the movie."
Kirby, who does not have children, says she faced the experience with a similar anxiety to playing a public figure like Princess Margaret.
“The level of fear was just as great for both those things,” says the actress, recalling a plane ride before she began “The Crown” where she was “really panicking" about doing justice to the royal and "one of the most unknown love stories of that century, really."
“It just seemed so overwhelming that I had to just keep breathing and go, OK, one foot in front of the other. … And I definitely felt like that with Martha, too. I felt like I had to know everything I can about being pregnant and what that feels like as well as labor … and do justice to the women that so bravely shared all their stories with me.”
Burstyn (who delivers a withering bootstraps speech that also has her on most Oscars prognosticators’ lists) recalls inviting Kirby for a sleepover in her New York City apartment before filming. The two bonded over Burstyn's homemade dinner of salmon and salad. "She's a very sensitive person, very smart and talented and kind, empathic," the acting legend says of Kirby. "She's very easy to love, so my maternal instincts were activated pretty quickly.”
Then there’s the LaBeouf of it all.
While “Pieces of a Woman” is a showcase for its female stars, it arrives somewhat stymied by LaBeouf, who plays Martha’s combative significant other. Some may find his aggressive tactics on screen hard to stomach after a lawsuit was filed against the actor by his ex-girlfriend FKA twigs, alleging repeated abuse and assaults.
When asked about releasing the film amid LaBeouf's headlines, Kirby, who has publicly stated she stands with all survivors of abuse, says she's proud of "the story of female courage" that drives the movie.
“Hopefully, it does justice to the women that sat with me and talked about their experiences of losing a baby. Because society finds it really uncomfortable. We know from Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle and the reactions (to their stories) that it's a new thing to be talking about.”
For now, Kirby, a self-identified “people-person,” is under lockdown – again – in Britain. Eventually, she’ll go back to work on the seventh “Mission: Impossible.” “I'm not quite sure what that plan is actually yet. I’m sure they're trying to figure it out,” she says.
Her biggest wish in a post-vaccine world?
“Oh, traveling,” she sighs. “I miss it so much. I know American politics are really complicated right now, but I love America so much and I have so many friends there. I'm so looking forward to being with people that I love that I can't be because we're in different countries.”
At that, she signed off. The TV volume went back up. And the world changed again.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vanessa Kirby's 'Pieces of a Woman' comes at 'bizarre' time in history