After her acclaimed portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby gives one of the year’s most visceral performances in Pieces of a Woman, as a mother who loses her child mere moments after meeting her. When a home birth ends in tragedy, she must wrestle through agonizing grief, isolation, and the devastation of loss. For W‘s annual Best Performances issue, Kirby opens up about filming that haunting 30-minute birth scene, presenting a movie at a festival during the Covid-19 pandemic, and dipping into an American accent.
Pieces of a Woman is an intense character study of a woman who experiences the death of her newborn baby. What was it that drew you to this harrowing material?
I was looking for something demanding. I was being sent all the standard sorts of scripts, but Pieces of a Woman was so absorbing, so touching, that I was absolutely sure that I had to do it. Gena Rowlands is my hero, and her film A Woman Under the Influence is the kind of work that I’m aiming for. Rowlands is idiosyncratic—fierce, but still vulnerable.
In the film, your character witnesses the birth and death of her baby in less than an hour.
We shot the birth scene in a single half-hour take with no cuts on the first two days of shooting. In real life, I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never been a mother, and on top of those obstacles, to be naked in front of a film crew I’d just met was terrifying. I’d also never seen a birth gone wrong onscreen before, so there was a huge responsibility to show all the emotions of that moment. We see so many deaths onscreen, but we rarely see anyone giving birth and then losing their baby.
And you had to have an American accent for this movie. How’d you stay in character?
I’m British, and it was especially difficult to stay in an American accent when you are required to scream in pain. So I stayed in the American accent 24/7 while shooting. At the height of the birth scene, I didn’t want to suddenly sound foreign.
You won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival, which, due to Covid-19, was the only live and in-person European festival in 2020. Was there a red carpet?
Yes, and photographers, and an audience in masks watching the film in a theater! Cate Blanchett, the head of the jury in Venice, presented me with my award. Cate has always been an inspiration to me, so that alone was thrilling. The Venice Film Festival was like a miracle: a beautiful testament to the resilience of cinema.
After months of lockdown, was it fun to dress up?
I’m actually not that good at that kind of stuff. When I’m acting, I love to figure out how the personality of my character would reveal itself through clothing. But in my own life, I like to remain neutral, so I can turn into someone else.