Vanessa Kirby is undoubtedly one of the most gifted actors working today. Which is why it’s perhaps surprising that her turn in Pieces of a Woman, is her debut lead film role.
In the March issue of marie claire—out Feb 11—Kirby explains that despite playing complex characters on stage—think Rosalind, the sharp heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—and on television—she’s now all but synonymous with Princess Margaret following her award-winning performance in The Crown—she struggled to find a compelling lead film role.
“I could never find those roles at all on-screen; the ones that make performing feel like flying when you step onstage,” she says. So she waited, using her smaller parts as opportunities to observe and learn, asking Anthony Hopkins about his craft when they worked together on the British TV drama The Dresser, and noting how generous Rachel McAdams was onset for the film About Time.
That all changed when she got the script for Pieces of A Woman. The film, currently streaming on Netflix, stars Kirby as Martha and Shia LaBeouf as Sean, a couple whose child dies during a home birth, leaving them to deal with the traumatic aftermath of neonatal death. Kirby’s devastating performance is garnering Oscar buzz, with her winning Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and nominated for a Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG award.
The pivotal event at the beginning of the film plays out in a 24-minute single-take. Kirby says the gruelling nature of the scene—shot six times over two days—evoked intense emotions in the cast, and left her sobbing after the first full take. “It was completely surreal because we were there, we were just there. We were witness to something,” she says.
While pregnancy loss is rarely featured in on-screen entertainment, recent outpourings from high profile women—including model Chrissy Teigen and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex—sharing their experiences publicly are helping to open up more of a dialogue on the subject, allowing women who have endured these traumas to more effectively process their grief.
Kirby agrees, saying that while researching for the role, she found women who had experienced pregnancy loss were “actually really relieved to talk about it”, and appreciated that someone wanted to understand.
Still, the experience left an emotional toll on the actor. While Pieces of a Woman was shot in just 29 days, Kirby says it took months for her to shake off the experience. “I knew my job was to feel it, to feel what she felt,” she says, but carrying that degree of empathy was “really difficult and disturbing”.
Not just a woman’s woman in real life, her commitment to telling female stories is laudable—Kirby’s next project will see her co-starring as Tallie, one of two farmers’ wives who fall in love in 19th century America in The World to Come, a meditative drama from the Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold. “We have a responsibility to portray women on screen that we identify with,” Kirby says. “There are so many women’s stories that haven’t been told yet, and we have an opportunity to go and find them.”
Read more of our interview with Vanessa Kirby in the March issue of marie claire Australia, out on February 11.