Vanessa Kirby was recently watching a cut of her new film, Napoleon, with her best friend. As kids, they would star in school assembly plays together. But this – a film with hundreds of extras – was something else. “She turned to me at the beginning,” says Kirby, her voice dropping to a whisper, “and said, ‘What would your 16-year-old self say, right now?’” It’s a good question: for the past eight years, Kirby’s career has accelerated into overdrive ever since she was cast as Princess Margaret in the early seasons of The Crown.

Winning a BAFTA for her regal-but-real turn as the Queen’s sis, she’s since gone from blockbusters like the Mission: Impossible franchise, playing the alluring arms dealer, White Widow, to indie gems like Pieces Of A Woman, which won her an Oscar nomination for her searing portrayal of a grieving mother facing unfathomable loss. Now she’s Joséphine to Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott’s epic – and we do mean epic – historical humdinger.

Vanessa Kirby
Joséphine’s crowning ceremony in 1804. CREDIT: Sony Pictures

So what would the teenage Kirby have said if she’d known where her destiny lay? “I don’t think she would have believed it, not for one second,” says the actress, when we meet in a hotel suite at London’s Corinthia shortly after the SAG-AFTRA strike has ended. “I think if that little girl has thought about the fact that I got to do it professionally, [she would have been amazed].” She allows herself a moment of reflection. “God, I’m just so grateful.”

All morning, she’s been doing interviews with Phoenix, and time has run on a little. “I’m sorry you had to wait,” she says, initially, before enquiring if we’ve managed to get some lunch. “I was really worried about that.” That’s the first thing you notice about Kirby, aside from the black nail polish, is just how unfailingly polite she is. Raised in Wimbledon, the daughter of a retired surgeon and former writer on Country Living magazine, her ascent through the Hollywood ranks hasn’t dented her British reserve.

Despite all her talents, Kirby speaks like someone bewildered by her good fortune. “I couldn’t believe it, really, and it came up nowhere,” she says, when we ask about winning her role in Napoleon. “My agent called and said, ‘Oh, Ridley Scott’s gonna give you a call about something.’ And so I answered and straightaway he said, ‘You know, I’m doing this film with Joaquin about Napoleon, and Joséphine, I don’t know if you know her, but would you like to play her?’ And instantly, I said, ‘Absolutely, I would love to.’”

“My agent said, ‘Oh, Ridley Scott’s gonna give you a call…'”

Of course, Kirby had heard of Joséphine, the first wife of Napoleon until their marriage was annulled in 1810, and had picked up details “over the years” in school and elsewhere. “So I knew the feeling I had when I heard her name. And it’s funny that then you get to go so deep into this character and learn so much about this real person, her extraordinary life. My first instinct about her proved to be right, I think because… my association with her name. It just deepened as I then did all the research and learnt as much as I could about her.”

That research consisted of a wealth of reading, undertaken without any preconceptions. “I wasn’t sure I was ready for her to tell me anything. I was so open minded to go: ‘You tell me who you are.’ Because I played one real person before in The Crown. And I absolutely loved it. So I was really excited to have the same process of learning. It was a different thing with Joséphine, weirdly, because with Princess Margaret and The Crown, there was grainy footage, and the Desert Island Discs [radio broadcast]… that really helped because it was her. Joséphine, I didn’t have any of that material.”

Although there are books, they’re rather dwarfed by the sheer volumes written on Napoleon, the French emperor whose aggressive campaigns across Europe turned him into one of the most powerful figures in world history. “But what I found was, this most incredible life. And every account was extremely different, which made me think that she had a mercurial quality of adapting to her environment… [she] survived this lifetime of right at the epicentre of this empire, behind closed doors for a lot of it with this leader who wanted to conquer land and instigate war.”

With Joaquin Phoenix at the ‘Napoleon’ premiere. CREDIT: Sony Pictures

For all his warmongering, Phoenix’s Napoleon is smitten with Kirby’s Joséphine, even glimpsed in one moment wiping the sweat from his brow on a letter he sends her. When he discovers she’s taken a lover, while he’s on a foreign excursion conquering Egypt, he’s apoplectic. Although not everyone seems persuaded – French critics have been up in arms with the film, with French newspaper Le Figaro saying it could have been called “Barbie and Ken under the Empire” – Kirby’s turn as the resolute Joséphine is compelling.

The film spans from their first encounter, via Napoleon’s exile in Elba, to his famed defeat at the Battle Of Waterloo. Again, Kirby marvels at her character’s fortitude. “Me personally, I would have collapsed, I would have been out on day three! Taken out! [Like] most people of the 21st century! And in those times to be a woman… I just thought the nature of that strength is very particular. And despite her immense pain and grief throughout her whole life, she remained the course and that told me that she must have this kind of quiet power.”

Kirby speaks fondly of the intense bond she forged with Phoenix, which frequently spilled over into hilarity. “We laughed all the way through the shoot,” she says, which presumably included the animalistic sex scenes, with Napoleon’s rather rustic attempts to get her pregnant. What she didn’t get was a chance to witness the film’s remarkable battles, vividly orchestrated by the remarkable 85-year-old Scott, who surpasses his work even on Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven here.

“I would have loved to be on the battle lines. I did ask!”

Most of her work was early in the shoot, which meant she missed out. “The battle scenes were [filmed] towards the end,” she says. “But I felt very connected to the production. I was checking in with Kevin Walsh [the producer] and Ridley and Joaquin all the time and I’d text them, going, ‘Hey, how’s it going today?’ I felt very much like Joséphine would have felt, which was kind of removed from that. And yet always invested. And I would have loved to be there on the battle lines. I think I did ask!”

You can imagine that’s the case. The middle child of three, Kirby has wanted to be an actress ever since she saw a production of The Cherry Orchard with Vanessa and Colin Redgrave in her early teens. The Bristol Old Vic told her to come back in a year, when she auditioned aged 17. Instead, she took a year out, volunteering in Africa, before returning to study English at the University Of Exeter. In her spare time, she did plays and still romanticises those early days with her friends. “Night after night,” she reminisces, “we’d be rehearsing and we’d go out all night and the next day, go to lectures.”

Then, in 2010, just as she was offered a place at acting college LAMDA, she auditioned for a trio of roles in All My Sons, Ghosts and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all at Bolton’s Octagon theatre. The Olivier-winning director David Thacker told her it’d be a big mistake if she didn’t take the parts. So she did. “I remember my first paycheque, when I was doing [the] three plays up in Bolton and I got paid… and it was something like £180 for the week. And I couldn’t believe that you got paid for the hours that you did this job for. And I still feel like that.”

Vanessa Kirby
Passion and fury typified the Napoleons’ marriage. CREDIT: Sony Pictures

A year later, Kirby was on television in the BBC’s drama The Hour and an adaptation of Great Expectations. Small roles in prestigious films soon came, including Queen And Country by acclaimed director John Boorman and the survival drama Everest. And she even popped up in the Wachowskis’ (who made The Matrix movies) batty space opera Jupiter Ascending. But it wasn’t until she starred opposite Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of The Crown, essaying her sister with exquisite detail, that audiences fully took notice.

Now eight years on, the 35-year-old Kirby is ready to give back. She recently set up a production company, Aluna Entertainment, with former Film4 executive Lauren Dark. “Stuff’s now really about ready and we’ve landed at certain places. And we’re about to make some of those things soon. And that has been an incredible journey because I realise there’s so many characters and so many female experiences we haven’t seen yet on screen. And that has been my biggest motivation over the last couple of years: just to create those projects.”

She and Dark recently boarded Thunder, a Swiss period drama which will be the nation’s official entry for the Oscars next year, written and directed by Carmen Jacquier. You can bet it won’t be the last female-driven movie they exec, as Kirby wants to use her standing in the industry. “I feel like it’s my responsibility now to create those things,” she says, earnestly. “But it’s always about what you want to explore at that point in your life.” 

Right now, there’s talk she will play Sue Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, which would mark her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the lure of indie cinema still remains. “I mean, I’m always looking to be challenged,” she says. “I always want the stuff that makes me feel most scared and that I could be perhaps bravest in. I wait for those projects a lot. And they’re rare. But that’s really my main thing. Does it feel unfamiliar and scary? And could I possibly do this? I don’t know. And then I want to try it. As scary as it is to fail massively.”

‘Napoleon’ is in cinemas from November 22

The post How Vanessa Kirby became Napoleon’s empress: “Joaquin Phoenix and I laughed all the way through” appeared first on NME.


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