Vanessa Kirby
Photo by Kerry Hallihan © August Image

Vanessa Kirby: “Empathy is the job for an actor”

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Short Profile

Name: Vanessa Nuala Kirby
DOB: 18 April 1988
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Kirby, where do you find the stamina to play the kind of emotionally and physically grueling roles you are best known for?

I guess it’s belief in the story. I love depth of feeling in characters. The deeper I can go into feeling is the happiest in terms of, for me, the challenge of a performance; that pushes me into a different space. That’s the kind of thing that propels me through. I just love playing really visceral characters. Margaret in The Crown was very visceral and a real livewire, she had an incredible depth of feeling but she was also unlikeable to many people sometimes. So I am drawn to those characters… But I also always want to do things that are outside of my comfort zone and that are different.

When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone on set?

Well, with Mission Impossible and these other action films… I come from stage acting, so I had no idea even how to even do that world. It was really scary and challenging. And I like to do things that frighten me. Mission Impossible, especially, really did change me. It taught me about discipline and stamina, it taught me the physicality of what is required for different roles. The training really requires you to step up and push yourself. It’s like switching on a different switch.

“I realized early on that acting is about thoughts. Especially on camera, if you think the character’s thoughts, the camera can read it. It’s about trusting in that process.”

And you embraced that challenge?

I really like pushing past my limits in that way — I love it. When I read something and go, “Uh, I don’t know how I am going to do this,” then I know I should do it. I don’t think it feels as challenging when you read a script and go, “I know exactly how I am going to do this.”

Does that ring true in an emotional sense as well as a physical one?

I knew the importance of playing Tallie in The World To Come, for example, was try to portray a burning light. It burns brightly and then it burns out and she gets extinguished. And that was the challenging thing to know how to play. How do you play someone who has such a life force and energy? There was a responsibility that was quite daunting. And to make the love story believable… That also felt new.

How do you go about making those types of roles come to life?

I realized early on that acting is about thoughts. Especially on camera, if you think the character’s thoughts, the camera can read it. So it’s about trusting in that process. With Tallie, I imagined her thoughts to be of total imagination and wonder and faith and hope and strength of will; believing in something more and in something better, imagining a world outside of what she finds herself in. That is simply it. If you think like that, you are likely to enter into a room differently, you are likely to talk about things differently or share yourself with people in a different way. And hopefully it’s what you see on camera.

Some actors say that immersing oneself in a character so deeply can be harmful emotionally if you don’t know how to protect yourself.

I like it when a character stays with me. I really like it, I’ve never been afraid of that. Shia LeBoeuf and I talked a lot about that for Pieces of a Woman. We realized that we have to go to some really dark places and that we have to court each other through that with a lot of respect and trust and delicacy. When you are all dark, you need to throw light, too. There is not one without the other. For me, going deep into dark nights of the soul is kind of the joy of being a human. Feeling a wide range of things as possible. If you feel intense pain, on the flip side there is a lot of exhilaration. It’s a gift going to dark places. I never feel scared.

Even when exploring topics like death and grief?

Grief is such an individual process. For Pieces of a Woman, I spent time with a bereavement midwife, who counsels women who have lost babies after birth. She said, “There is no one way to grieve.” And for the role of Martha, I was trying to understand someone who does not allow herself to feel this — because for me, I would be so immediate with it, I would try to find help wherever I could. But she does it so alone. I wanted to understand the mindset of someone who is so different from me. The midwife told me about a lot of cases of women who have this delayed reaction because you repress it but it’s still there… They feel they have failed, and their body has failed. The shame on top of that is something I wanted to examine.

“The love for theater helped me in realizing the power of standing up in front of people and telling stories. With that experience I felt most connected and most alive.”

Those dark places have also existed in your stage roles as well, right?

A lot of the plays that I have done have been very dark — A Streetcar Named Desire, In All My Sons by Arthur Miller. It can be really tough. But both The World to Come and Pieces of a Woman have been a dream for me because I have always been looking for parts that are similar to the ones on stage like Chekov, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, all these amazing female parts. I have been looking for similar character arcs like in the great plays.

How did you first get into stage acting?

I always knew I wanted to act, but I had no idea how I was to go about it. It was quite daunting feeling to know how passionate you feel about something without knowing whether you can achieve it… But my parents love theater and my dad loves Shakespeare, so I grew up with a lot of Shakespeare stories and plays. And the love for theater helped me in realizing the power of standing up in front of people and telling stories as a group. The audience is as important as the people on stage, so it always felt like a shared experience. With that experience I felt most connected and most alive.

Is that human connection something that also helps keep you grounded?

Sharing your experience with other people… That’s what acting is, too. It tries to touch something so that people feel empathy for each other. Looking back, I realize I was an intensely sensitive child, very emotional. I was, like lots of children, bullied when I was little, but it helps you to not judge, because you have been judged. And I think that fragility and vulnerability has helped me so much in the job because I understand the sensitivity. It helped me empathize with people that are going through a difficult time. And empathy is the job for an actor.