Vanessa Kirby has just returned from Glastonbury, the five-day music festival held in the British countryside. She has a glint in her eye when talking about her party weekend, and a wrist band still attached to her arm. “It was the most special time ever so I am not taking this off until I have to,” she laughs.
Kirby is relaxed, she’s taken three months off, and has been reconnecting with friends, taking holidays in Costa Rica, going to festivals and enjoying life. “It’s definitely made me reassess how to do projects in future – to give them space and make sure you give yourself enough preparation time, and respect them in some ways, rather than back to back to back.”
We’re sitting in an east London park on a bright summers day - the sun is shining and children are playing on swings in the background. Kirby immediately connects with people - she sits close, hands around her coffee, lots of eye contact and laughs tumble out of her, almost as if she can’t control it. There is, in fact, a lot of laughing. And a lot of swearing too.
Vanessa Kirby is known to many as Princess Margaret from the Netflix series The Crown that won her a BAFTA and brought her to worldwide attention as the frustrated, rebellious and often bitchy sister to Queen Elizabeth. Her role finished two years ago and plenty has happened since but people around the world still know her as Margaret.
“I’ll never get fed up of talking about The Crown,” she says. “I honestly think I will be in my wheelchair, still talking about it on my deathbed.”
Kirby grew up in affluent south west London to a surgeon father and magazine editor mother. She has an older brother and a younger sister and has ‘middle child syndrome’: “Deep, complicated, sensitive, trouble-making – we have to fight for our position,” she jokes.
A love of the theatre, encouraged by her mother and highlighted by encounters with the actor Vanessa Redgrave opened the door to the allure of the stage from a young age. But the early advances of an acting agent were dismissed by her mother in her youth. “For years, I was like: ‘Mum! Why did you fucking do that,’ but now I am so grateful to her. I think she always felt guilty about it,” she laughs.
After not getting accepted to drama school at both 17 and 18 she decided to go travelling and spent months in Africa and Asia. “I was just not ready for [drama school] at 18 and needed to go to meet tones of people. I needed to go travelling. I couldn’t have acted then because I didn’t really know enough about life.”
She went on to get a first class degree from Exeter university before then meeting the theatre director David Thacker in 2009, who gave her three roles on stage in the north of England. A number of TV shows, film parts and more theatre followed before landing her “dream role” in The Crown. Kirby is clearly very grateful about the role that launched her career. “Everything else I’d done [prior to that] no one had really seen, so it was quite a weird thing for me, for people to have actually watched it without my agents asking them to,” she says.
Although Kirby had been acting for many years before her role in The Crown appeared, it was, she says, the right time. “I am glad it happened then, rather than earlier because I got to see all the industry, and different actors and how they behave, and how not to behave.”
How not to behave? The acting world is a bit ‘weird,’ she says. “It’s not reality, It’s not normal life. I just think it’s the amount of attention or adoration… You have power.” Kirby is quick to point out that she is referring to ‘others’ rather than herself when she refers to fame and power, and there is not the slightest air of diva about her. This could well be down to her gradual rise to prominence over the last decade rather than being suddenly thrust into the spotlight. It could be because she’s simply a mature, well-rounded young lady that is humbly aware how lucky her life has turned out.
“I always think that my job is no more special or better or more worthy than anything else. I put on a wig and an accent and just mess around. It’s nothing.” Her father is one of the UK’s foremost cancer surgeons, she talks proudly of the work he does saving lives and whilst his industry may well have the odd award here or there, the movie world has “a whole season of awards and the whole world is watching it. I think that in itself is quite unnatural.”
The role of Princes Margaret she says, was “the biggest gift in her career,” she says. “I knew she was the naughty one and I was so excited to play that and I always wanted to do that. I was so lucky I got to play her.” She talks fondly and frequently of what a joy it was to take on such a complicated character. She even credits Margaret for winning her awards (“the BAFTA felt for Margret not for me.”) But it was Kirby, with her majestic, soul-bearing performance, rather than Margaret, who stole the hearts of millions of fans around the world. Oozing sassy confidence and an understated flamboyance, it is now hard to imagine anyone else in the role that she has embodied so naturally. But her role was only ever going to last for two seasons before being passed on to Helena Bonham-Carter in the follow up seasons.
So was there a handover? “I always felt like Helena is such a fucking prolific, incredible actor that I felt like ‘oh you know what you’re doing better than me’.” It was however, “really beautiful sharing it with somebody else. But it’s always going to be odd when a show that is your family continues without you.”
Her dedication to research “endless research and reading” was no doubt instrumental in her exquisite execution of the role. “There is a whole generation that remembers Margaret and that really knew her so it was finding the lady-in-waiting and talk to them, and trying to find any little anecdote. Those tiny moments to helped you build the essence of who the person was.”
Kirby says she was absorbed by every element of the character. “Because Margaret cared so much about her clothes, I did too. Even in the second season when Margaret is having that breakdown, she’s crying in her bedroom, I want her to wear a robe and I need it to be evocative of what’s going on for her so we went through so many. The poor costume designer – I was like, ‘no that’s wrong, that’s wrong,’ and then ‘that’s right.’ It’s really dark and macabre – everything was really considered.”
Her research also led her to fall in love with the same 1950s-era music as the Princess. “I know that she loved Bobby Darin, and I used to play it all the time in the make-up trailer when we were getting ready,” she says. One Darin song was eventually used in the episode where she is sauntering around her room, throwing off her clothes as it felt a lot more natural to dance to that rather than have some track overlaid in the edit.
When we start to talk her new film Hobbs and Shaw she lets out a stifled or even embarrassed little giggle. She describes the film, which is an offshoot of the Fast and Furious franchise, as “very different” to what she has done before.
Although she had a role in Mission Impossible – Fallout, her role in this action movie might surprise some of her fans from The Crown. The all action, shoot ‘em up is full of the car chases, explosions and cheesy lines expected from a film featuring Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson but she has clearly justified her reasons for doing it.
“There is a responsibility to try and change things even within the structures that are there,” she says. “This is an extremely male franchise and suddenly there was this opportunity where, [director] David Leitch and I made sure that every turn [her character] was never upstaged by the man, which always happens all the time, not necessarily in these movies but in, well, all movies.”
She says that with all characters she plays she wants to bring a personality to them so that her “mates would want to go for a drink with her.” She seems to do it well. Who wouldn’t want to go for a night out with party princess Margret, or with the sultry White Widow in Mission Impossible or with the unattainable girl next door in Richard Curtis’ About Time. Maybe it’s because that’s Kirby herself is someone you’d want to take down the pub to introduce to your mates.
Conversations veers off agenda on to topics such as social media (“Twitter is hell, it’s so scary”); music and the close bond she still has with her family. But much of what we talk about is the role of women in film of today. Even the in the modern action genre, the role of ‘feme fatale to the rescue’ or ‘sexy damsel in distress’ is become an old trope she says.
“If we do this right, there can be 13-year-old girls in the audience next to their brothers who come out and feel, even on a subliminal level, ‘I’m just as capable now.’ Especially in that genre.”
Yes, Kirby ensured her character was going to be a great role model for young girls watching the film but it seems like she was taking a calculated risk. Joining one of the world’s biggest franchise films has given her greater visibility internationally – and in turn furthers the awareness of the charity War Child (of which she is an ambassador). It has given her access to Hollywood studio execs and it has also given her the financial ability to do projects she feels passionate about.
Joining forces with director friend Adam Leon she has just produced and starred in her own indie film, shot in New York about the life of a woman lost in a fugue state. “I was literally on the streets of New York with a tiny crew and all cast from these incredible teenagers from Brooklyn.” The story delves in to the world of a woman who is lost in her own mind. The conversation veers on to multiple personality disorders and people who have woken up not knowing who they are or where they are. She talks about the rag-tag bunch of gender-fluid cast she worked with “they’re not actors, just teens,” she’s animated, talking with passion, the light in her blue eyes sparkling with excited energy.
She talks a lot about her big dreams and ‘what’s next’. At only 31, she’s been nominated for an Emmy, won a BAFTA, starred in not one but two of the world’s biggest movie franchises, and has produced her own movie. This girl is not without ambition.
When I ask about the rumours she in line to play Catwoman in the Batman franchise, she claps her hands together. “Oh my god, I would love to do it. That is something I would absolutely love to do!” Although, for the record, she’d not heard anything about it apart from rumours either.
Kirby is at the stage in her career where most of the scripts that land on her desk are rejected. She’s very much in demand and she can pick and choose only what interests her. And right now that a movie called The World to Come. “It is the most beautiful script I have ever read. Oh my god, my whole heart is in it.”
I’m sure the lure of the mega-franchise movies is always calling but her heart, she says, is in independent movies and finding roles she wants to play. “I’m so determined to find them and I know that I will so it’s just a question of waiting and finding the things that somehow change or move people or do something different.”
Kirby has already done something different. She sits among an elite group of young British women who have shaken up the film and TV industry and successfully ridden the wave of the feminist awakening of the post Metoo era. The Favourite, The Crown, Fleabag, Killing Eve have all shown that strong, multi-dimensional female characters played by talented, confident actors have eschewed the need for dominant male leads. By getting some of the men out the way, it really has allowed the women to shine. And I expect Kirby’s future career to shine very brightly indeed.
First published in September 2019 edition of Vogue China