• Interviews

Vanessa Kirby on “Pieces of a Woman” and “The World to Come”

Some may remember British actress Vanessa Kirby, 32, as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of the TV series The Crown, or as black market arms dealer White Widow in Mission: Impossible-Fallout, with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. This year she received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Drama from the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for her performance in Pieces of a Woman, by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, a role which had already earned her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at last year’s Venice Film Festival. She costars with Katherine Waterston in The World to Come, by Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold, which also premiered in Venice, and won the Queer Lion award for Best LGBTQ-Themed Film.

The story of Pieces of a Woman is based on a tragic loss that really happened to the director and his wife, Kata Wéber, who wrote the screenplay. What did they communicate to you about their experience?

I knew that for Kornél and Kata this was a personal story, I didn’t know exactly the circumstances of how they lost a baby, but as we started approaching the movie, they did share that with me. I felt that it came from such a viscerally deep part of Kata and from a real need to share and break the silence around something that for women is so rarely talked about. So, this was a quite therapeutic journey for them, and it was very healing, between them as a couple, to go through this process. I literally saw that every day on set, the conversation that was happening between them, the facing of really painful moments, and their very different grieving experiences. That taught me a lot actually because when you go through any kind of loss or trauma, everyone processes it differently, but sharing that it’s healing, so we always hoped that the film would offer some small comfort for people out there who might need it.


Ellen Burstyn plays your mother in the film. What was it like for you to work with such an experienced actress and to get to know her as a person?

Ellen has always been such an icon in my life and such a legend, I’ve seen all of her performances, and she reminds me of Gena Rowlands, who’s also one of my favorite actresses. She has such a fire as an actress, such a strong energy and presence, and yet you always feel this vulnerability, this fragility, underneath. So, I was excited to go head-to-head with Ellen, because she’s done so many incredible films and she’s head of the Actors’ Studio. It was amazing to work with her and actually, we became really good friends. During rehearsals she invited me over to her house for a sleepover, she called it a pajama party, and we really bonded, we spent many hours talking, we went to bed at 3 am. Since then, we’ve been really close, and she’s definitely very maternal towards me. She’s such a soulful spiritual person and she’s so wise, that I’m very lucky to have her in my life.

In The World to Come you play a farmer’s wife living in Upstate New York during the 1850s. What did you discover about how women lived back then?

When I was researching the film, I couldn’t believe how ignorant I was that, not that long ago, women were completely owned by their husbands, that the home was your domain, you should serve your husband in his home and the children that you had, that it was your husband’s choice what you did with your time, what your name was and everything. That was the law, that was the religion and the way it was. In those days it was all about convention, what you were expected to do, who you were told to be by society and by the structures of a completely patriarchal system. These women, who are literally our ancestors in a way, had to make so many sacrifices and simply didn’t have the choices in their lives that we have now. So that made me incredibly grateful for the choices that I have today, whether it’s what I do with my afternoon or who I love, or how freely I can love. So, I felt very passionate about that story.


Did you come to understand some of the elements that make it so liberating for women to have romantic or sexual relationships with other women as opposed to relationships with men?

Mona Fastvold, the director, told us that these relationships between women have always been there, throughout history, and it’s important to tell those stories now, because, even in times when it was almost completely impossible, there would have been moments when two humans really wanted to be together and didn’t have the choice to be able to, because the only union that should happen is between a man and woman. I’m really proud of the film because it’s a brief moment in these women’s lives, when they are seen for who they really are and they really connect, they feel what they should have a right to feel, and they had the courage to actually do it and to be true to who they were.  The film is an ode to those women, like a cry for them in a way. I really imagined all those moments in life that may have been lit up by a person or something that made you feel so free in yourself, and you may have had that only for a moment, because of the system and the restrictions on who you were allowed to be by society.

We have all had a very difficult year, because of the Covid pandemic, and many other problems in the world. What have been some of your thoughts during this time, and do you hope that this crisis could bring about a change for a better future?

Yes, this last year has been so hard on everyone, and so much of it has been about readjusting. We’ve all had a year, when in many different ways there has been loss and our idea of how our life always has been having completely changed, for everyone across the whole planet. I finished filming Pieces of a Woman about a week before the pandemic happened, and we filmed The World to Come right before that, and both films were about the loss of a child, so they strangely seem spiritually linked. They are also both about women who don’t have voices, so I felt like they were giving voice to a female experience that is so rarely if ever, depicted and represented on the screen. Doing those films definitely left me with a sense of hope, that we can come to terms with tragedies and come out of them stronger somehow, whether that means that we’re more united or more compassionate, that we feel more empathy or more solidarity with what every single person is facing right now across the world. That’s what I hope.