When Vanessa Kirby was 21, she did a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, outside Manchester, England. She played Helena, in love with Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia instead. “All these schools used to come in, loads of kids,” she says. “They were always super bored or fidgeting.”
During her monologue at one performance, speaking desperately of a love that has been thwarted, someone dropped a box of candy down the stairs, and they rolled all over the stage in front of her. “And I was like, ‘Oh, God, fucking hell. What am I doing wrong? And then I saw this girl, off to the left. And she was, I don’t know, 13 or something, and she was listening to every word,” Kirby recalls.
“And there was something in that little girl that wanted to hear what Shakespeare was saying, via me … perhaps she was feeling something,” she says. “So I just did it to her.”
Kirby, 32, is magnetic, even on Zoom—there is a way the texture of the screen shifts, gets more lively, when she comes on any screen—and watching her recount this story felt like a glimpse into how she is able to channel discomfort into performance.
She is on the verge: both of breaking out into that coveted carries-the-movie, Oscar-nominated category of actor and of figuring out the kind of actor she wants to be. She’s tried out action franchises—she’s currently filming the next two installments of Mission: Impossible, continuing the role of the White Widow that she originated in 2018’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout, and starred in the latest Fast & Furious film—and is best known for her devastating performance as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown. It’s her latest role, though, in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s first English-language film, Pieces of a Woman, which premieres on Netflix in January, that promises to propel Kirby to that next tier. Her portrayal of Martha is being touted as a breakthrough; the term “Oscar-worthy” has been uttered countless times.
We met over Zoom on a Saturday: She was in London; I was in New York. It was my morning, her early afternoon. We both wore turtlenecks. I planned to take notes as we talked, but instead I leaned forward, rapt. Both of us gestured a lot. Pieces of a Woman is about motherhood and grief. The film, with a screenplay by Kata Wéber, stars Kirby and Shia LaBeouf as a couple whose child dies during a home birth; it assiduously, unflinchingly chronicles their struggle to come to terms with the loss.
The opening scene of Pieces of a Woman is a nearly 30-minute-long take of a labor that ends in the baby’s death. The scene is painful, gorgeous, terrifying—moments of it feel like horror. Kirby says that each time they finished filming, she and her fellow actors felt a sort of ecstasy, running out into the snow—they hugged and screamed; Kirby sobbed after the first time through. “It was completely surreal because we were there,” she says. “We were just there. We were witness to something.”
Kirby, who doesn’t have children, prepared for this scene for months. “I started watching everything I could find,” she says. “Endless documentaries, home birth videos, but everything was so sanitized; everything was so edited.” She ultimately got in touch with an obstetrician, Claire Mellon, who agreed to let Kirby shadow her. Kirby had to go to shoot another movie and had only two weeks on the labor ward, at Whittington Hospital in Islington. Pregnant women she’d met agreed to let her watch them give birth, but none of them ended up going into labor over the period she was there. On the last day, “I had my suitcase, and I was flying to Romania that night [to film The World to Come], and a woman came in nine centimeters dilated. Claire said, ‘I’m going to ask her.’ ” Much to Kirby’s surprise—“Why would anyone want some stranger there? An actress? During this most sacred moment?”—the woman agreed. “I watched her for six hours go through a really difficult labor, no painkillers, forceps. It got really, really difficult … . I watched her go on a completely lone journey, like an odyssey, through the most primal, almost divine … . And I saw the power and the fear in all of it.”
“I came away far more of a woman in appreciating the sacredness of the feminine in a way that I don’t think I had fully realized,” Kirby tells me. “I feel like I had lived something in human experience I hadn’t lived before.”
For parts of the scene, as my husband and I watched, I looked over at him, and he was, just as he had for some of the 40 hours I was in a very complicated labor, staring at his phone to avoid having to look at it. “I’m not sure I can finish this,” he said.
At one point during the scene, Kirby’s character, Martha, starts burping. The third burp, I tell Kirby, was the moment when my husband had to look away. It helps us not just see but smell the various dimensions of the female body, how close it is to animal, how at its mercy Martha is.
And yet Kirby manages to inhabit the power in that moment. She says of watching the labor that day: “It brought everything that I sort of had known intellectually into being, which is, this is like the magnificence of being a woman, and its creation essentially …. It almost gave birth to the film inside my heart.”
Kirby speaks too about discomfort as an opportunity to force people to look at things and think about things they might not otherwise. “I think getting in touch with something that makes someone deeply uncomfortable, and deeply feeling … ,” she says. “I think you search beyond, you look outside places that you usually look, for resolution, or for understanding, or for connection.”
The idea that there is no space for women to talk, to be heard when it comes to the traumas our bodies have experienced, feels so entrenched in what it is to live inside a female body, it feels necessary to say out loud how important this film feels. And when it comes to infant loss and miscarriage, in particular, these silences feel that much more pointed, since so often women—and Kirby’s Martha is no exception—misperceive these experiences as their fault. But if the outpouring of feeling that arose in the aftermath of Chrissy Teigen’s posting about her pregnancy loss is any indication, Pieces of a Woman could function too as a catalyst for more of these conversations, another opportunity for women who have endured these traumas and these losses to find spaces to feel seen and understood. I ask Kirby what she learned in these observations prior to filming: “To know pain,” she tells me, “is power.”
The birth scene in the film gives us discomfort; it initiates a descent into an almost unimaginable grief, but then Kirby performs for the rest of the film another way of being, harder and more complicated, maybe, to inhabit as an actor, which is to say an almost stultifying way of locking one’s self up. Martha doesn’t yell or scream; she hardly speaks through many of the scenes. Instead the film seems to get at something truer, deeper, about the singular experience of female trauma—the way that so often the expectation is just to be quiet and to carry on.
In The Crown, Kirby as Margaret cries and yells; she instigates. Her eyes are almost always wet. She performs her grief if only because performance is perhaps the only way she knows to get people to look. There’s a sophistication, but also a surrender and a resignation in knowing the limits of this type of performance. Kirby has taken on a harder role with Martha, who stays pinned up and stoic almost the entire time. “I was worried,” says Kirby. She gestures to show me the length of a piano. “Martha is functioning on a more limited scale.”
Speaking of Kirby’s ability to perform this subtle agony, the film’s director, Mundruczó, says, “She has this nervousness inside her.” He compares her magnetism to Catherine Deneuve. “You have to find someone who is rich inside. The icon, which I believe she is, you can see yourself inside her. She is always facing you somehow.”
I’m not sure I have ever, as a mother, as a woman, been so wholly moved by a performance; to my mind, great art is a process of forcing people to look, and there is something extraordinary about what Kirby forces us to see. She says she wanted to “serve the women who had been through this,” but also “grief generally.” “I almost want the movie to hold people’s hands somehow,” Kirby tells me. “To feel less alone because of the shared experience that it is.”
The second of three children, Kirby was born and raised in Wimbledon, with a magazine editor mother and a urologist father. “I always felt really different at school when I was little, and really lonely,” she tells me. She studied English at the University of Exeter and turned down a place at the prestigious London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to do Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, and Shakespeare with David Thacker at the Octagon Theatre. She always wanted to be an actor: “I found that space of drama and theater was the least judgmental,” she says. “I felt my calmest, most connected, most accepted spaces were always those.”
If there is a through line in her disparate performances, it’s “subversion,” says Kirby. Finding roles where the characters are “nonconformist … the marginal, or the outsider, or the one that lives on the outskirts.” I would add that there’s an openness, a confidence and a willingness to press into spaces that feel uncomfortable and hard. During the filming of Mission Impossible—Fallout, Kirby went barefoot throughout the shoot as a way of living that subversion. “I wanted to be something different than another femme fatale.”
One of the most compelling moments in Pieces of a Woman turns out to be an unscripted choice, pushed by Kirby. Martha’s mother, played by a stolid, stunning Ellen Burstyn, yells at her daughter to convince her to testify in court against the midwife accused of causing her baby’s death. Burstyn’s character is unrelenting. Her face turns red. Right before they shot the scene, Burstyn says Kirby approached her: “Make me go to court,” Kirby told her. Burstyn says she went through the lines she’d been given, every bit she’d practiced, but she knew she had not yet convinced Martha to go to court. “So I kept going,” says Burstyn. “I have no recollection of what I said after that.” She laughs.
I ask Burstyn to explain how Kirby was able to get her to open up like that (and did not ask but thought, “What chutzpah!,” to press on an icon like Burstyn that way). “You can’t explain magic,” she says.
Mundruczó describes this process as necessary for making the film feel life-like. “You have to wait for things like this to be born in front of you,” he says. “It takes an immeasurable amount of trust.” You wait, he adds, and make the space for, “[w]hat they create that is way more than what you have on the page.”
I ask Burstyn, no stranger to portraying complicated women, what she thinks Kirby has accomplished in this movie, and she thinks for a minute before answering. “Rawness,” she says. “Vanessa is helping to reveal the depth of womanness in a way that’s true.”
“Raw”—it’s the same word that Crown creator Peter Morgan used to describe Kirby’s acting. That kind of performance derived from an ineffable internal force. He recalls her audition for Princess Margaret as “catastrophic in every way.” She had “fake tan smeared all on her shins, but even more of it on the palms of her hands, which were a darker shade than any of the rest of her. She was sweating,” he continues. “It was so terrible.” He laughs. And yet, as Morgan tells it, even “the whirlwind of energy and chaos” that she entered with couldn’t distract from “her honesty, electricity, and magnetism. The fearlessness and raw exposing of herself” she showed in everything she did. “This woman is going to be magic,” he recalls thinking. “And that’s borne out.”
Kirby’s father is a well-known prostate surgeon who treated cancer patients. “I saw him save people’s lives, and here I was, going on stage,” she tells me, “putting on these silly costumes. I never thought it was any more important than what anyone else does.” And yet, as I talk to Kirby, as I’ve thought over the past year about what matters to me, how art might function in times of crisis, the idea of making space for other people to feel deeply and complexly feels more urgent than it ever has. “I know that in my experience,” says Kirby, “whenever I’ve had the most difficult times, I think you want to transcend it, so you search more. So when people say to me, ‘God, this must have been so hard,’ I say actually, ‘It was truly the most profound experience.’ Because I got to go to a place that I hadn’t been before, and that changed me, you know?”
“I feel that the faith,” she adds, “that creativity and art—and that includes the audience as being an essential part of that relationship—that in the darkest of times, creativity, I think, has this impulse to flourish somehow, to speak about experience. I have faith that there will be a lot of spaces where people find a need to speak.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands December 1.
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