Vanessa Kirby: Next Big Thing? Road to Stardom via Venice Film Fest

Vanessa Kirby, Star of Two Venice Fest Films: ‘Pieces of a Woman’ and ‘The World To Come’


'The World to Come' and 'Pieces of A Woman' Split - Publicity - H 2020
Andre Chemetoff/Cinetic; Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival

‘The World to Come’ and ‘Pieces of A Woman’

Can International Film Fest Catapult Actors into Major Stardom? 

Yes, They Can!

Vanessa Kirby, the British actress, best known for her turn as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown and supporting roles in Hobbs & Shaw and the Mission: Impossible franchise, wowed the Venice arthouse crowd with her performances in competition titles Pieces of a Woman and The World To Come.

Based on the critical response to the two films over the weekend, Kirby has shot straight into the frontrunner status for the best actor honors.

Kirby shot Pieces of a Woman and The World to Come back-to-back in late 2019 and early 2020, but the characters are poles apart and as different from one another as they are from glam action roles —femme fatale gunrunner the White Widow in Mission: Impossible, the butt-kicking sister to Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw in Hobbs & Shaw— that have made Kirby’s name in Hollywood.

In Pieces of a Woman, Kirby plays Martha, a mother devastated by the death of her daughter in a homebirth gone horribly wrong who struggles to deal with her personal trauma as well as the reaction to the death from her husband (Shia LaBeouf) and mother (Ellen Burstyn), who want to sue the midwife (Molly Parker) for criminal negligence causing the child’s death. In the period romance The World to Come, Kirby plays Tallie, a woman who initiates a forbidden, and for the time and place —the 19th-century American frontier—nearly impossible love affair with her neighbor Abigail (Katherine Waterston).

Both were well-received by the Venice critics, who have already anointed Kirby the next big star of indie cinema.

The theatrical reference is telling. Pieces of a Woman may be a sharp departure from Hobbs & Shaw or M:I but it is of a piece with Kirby’s theater work, which has included playing Queen Isabella in Edward II, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Julie in Polly Stenham’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie for the National Theatre in 2018.

“I think there are many, many great female roles on stage and now cinema is making more space for these kinds of female performances,” Kirby said, speaking at the press conference in Venice for The World to Come. “My great inspirations are Gena Rowlands and Jessica Lange —women from that era who did these difficult, complicated, often dark performances. I want to try and continue with these kinds of roles, with performances that are scary to approach.”

Pieces of a Woman director Kornél Mundruczó compares Kirby —who he said he previously only knew from her role in The Crown —to melodramatic masters Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygulla. “That sort of 1970s, early 80s, classic actress, who have a strong personality, but who also can tell a story with their quietness.  When I saw that, I was like: ‘it’s her. She’s my Martha.’

Pieces of a Woman marks Kirby’s first onscreen leading role.  Kirby said she “felt ready to lead a movie for a long time but to actually do it was such a gift. Now that I’ve done it, it feels like a new stage for me.”

Pieces of a Woman enters this season’s unusual awards race with the imprimatur of a Scorcese executive producer credit and the indie cache of director/screenwriter team Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Weber, whose White God won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2014.

But the Oscars aren’t the only measure of success or recognition. Vanessa Kirby isn’t giving up her action franchise roles anytime soon —she’s set to resume shooting on Mission: Impossible 7 later this month and will return for M:I 8—but Venice 2020 could mark a turning point in her career.

Shooting Pieces of a Woman and The World to Come left her with a feeling of “great responsibility,” Kirby said. The responsibility to show female characters on screen that “women can relate to, that they see part of themselves in [it has] made me even more passionate to have the faith to tell more female stories, stories that haven’t been told on screen before.”

Looking for roles that frightened you?

Vanessa Kirby: I was really looking for something that scared me, because I find that those projects always challenge you the most. I’m not a mother, I haven’t given birth before. So even that intention that we had to do a birth that was as authentic as possible, I felt a duty to every mother to try and represent on-screen, true to life and raw and it’s kind of animal process. So, that was really challenging. But also I guess, accessing the level of grief that she experiences because I don’t have a child, I wanted to accurately represent for the women that I spent a long time with and spoke to and they told me their stories. I felt that it was a duty to try and somehow include all of the essences of the loss of those unborn children and how they stay present, even though they’re not physically here. And it was my first lead in a movie so that in itself was challenging. And it was a great honor to do this one.

The work process

VK: I think when you approach anything, that’s really difficult, I think prior to day one, you have to collectively hold hands and know that you’re going to go into something really deep. And we talked a lot about the process to safely do that and to try and create a container in which we felt trust and respect for each other. And I have to say, I haven’t felt as much respect in my life than the two of them. And that allowed me to go to the place that I needed to go to. Especially when the characters are having such different experiences of their own grief, even though it’s over the same soul. And we had to be really together in that. And it was an incredible bond between all of us and it allowed me the space to go that deep every day, which was scary, but also one of the best filming experiences of my life.

Your character doesn’t grieve in visible way?

VK: It was a challenge for me actually, because I’m naturally quite an expressive person and quite emotional. So to kind of try and just push it all down inside was really challenging. And Shia is so present and so immediate and so giving in the scenes that it was hard sometimes not to meet both Ellen and Shia with their power and restrain it all. The thing that helped me most was one of the women I spoke to was called Kelly and she was so generous in sharing her story. She had a very, very similar story with her baby Luciana who died just after being born. I was really trying to imagine what the feeling was, of feeling that alone. She said, “Just imagine that you’re on the tallest, the highest mountain, you’re on the top of Everest. And you’re trying to scream and the wind is just wooshing past you, screaming past you so that you can’t make a noise. And then you look down, and all the people you love and everyone else in the world is just carrying on as normal.” And so I had to try and access that head space all the time. And I had lots of little things like that, just to try and remember that the loneliness and the isolation is the very personal journey that this character, given the nature of her family, finds the route through grief. But yeah, it was difficult for me because I would want to express it all. But Kornél just kept saying, “Bring it back.” Didn’t you?

Untold female stories

VK: I’m really excited by the idea that there’s so many untold female stories. This felt like one of them, and I’m really excited as an actor to move towards all the stories, the female ones that haven’t yet been written and done.