Vanessa Kirby stars in “Pieces of a Woman” as Martha Weiss, a woman who suffers the unimaginable loss of a child. Her performance has landed her nominations from the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, BAFTA and now the Academy Awards.
Kirby spoke with Gold Derby’s Rob Licuria in early March about how she was personally affected by “Pieces of a Woman,” the harrowing first act of the film and what it feels like to get major awards recognition. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Vanessa, this story is so riveting from the first frame to the last breath because it contemplates how unbearable loss and grief can tear people apart and families apart. What was your key takeaway from this story?
Vanessa Kirby: What a lovely question to start with. Oh, my God, I mean, it’s taught me so much, and quite lovely that you said from the beginning to the end because, honestly, every moment of this film taught me personally about something, if that’s your question. The first thing, obviously, I haven’t given birth and I knew nothing about that and you occasionally hear moments of friends’ birthing stories, but because you haven’t done it yourself, you can’t really relate to what they mean. And so when I started researching and thinking, “Oh, my God, I haven’t given birth and so many women on the planet have and so many men have watched that happen and if I get a second of this wrong then maybe 90 percent of the audience would be like, “Well, that’s not… I don’t buy that,” and then wouldn’t care about the film and her. She’s such an internal, seemingly cold character that I thought if you’re not with her in that trauma, I always thought of it like “Saving Private Ryan.” It just has to be like that, the opening, because you have to be with her. You have to know that in all her strange behaviors and seemingly outwardly unusual ways of processing grief, at least the audience will be with her, which matters so much to me.
So yeah, I managed to watch someone do it for real in the labor ward who allowed me to be there with her and it was just the most extraordinary experience of my life because I saw this woman be in her full power, just totally present and on that journey, which I’m sure you witnessed with your kids, of just what we really are, like creation. It was just so magical for me, those eight hours, and I barely moved. I was humbled by her and she just wasn’t in her thinking mind at all. She was just in her being, in her animal, primal body. It taught me so much about the power of women and completely awestruck by that, something that also is so sanitized and behind closed curtains somehow and when I started watching documentaries about birth, all I could find was little moments. It never showed me the full thing. It never showed me a full contraction or how much space there is between or what water breakings are like. Everything was just so theoretical rather than actual experiential.
I felt honored to learn about that whole journey and then I felt even more honored to sit with so many women who had lost babies at all different stages and feel like I might be a small part of helping serve the need to break the silence around the subject, which is so rarely spoken about in society because it’s, I think, so unimaginably painful that society doesn’t know how to talk about it. When a society or collective global community doesn’t know how to talk about something, it means that there’s less attention on it and there’s less support and I felt that from every woman I spoke to from all different places, different countries, some friends in America, England and across Europe. All of them said, “I just felt so alone with it.” So if the film can be even a tiny part of helping anyone, even one person that feels isolated, it might feel less so because they see their experience represented and they know that they’re not the only one that has been through something like that. And that also applies to anybody who has been in that horrendous, unavoidable human journey and experience of deep grief. That journey is so personal and singular and you can only do it with just yourself. So it always felt like in honor and in service of that. It never felt like, “Oh, this is a performance and this is what we want to do in this scene.” It always felt I had those women always with me. Did that answer your question?
GD: You sure did. You’re bringing me back. You can tell. This was very harrowing to watch for many of us because it’s so universal and as you say, it’s also kind of inexplicably taboo that this experience that many of us experience, either with a stillborn or with miscarriage, it just happens to almost everybody. Whenever I hear someone tell me, “I’ve just had this huge loss,” it’s like, “I’ve been there,” and this other person will say, “I’ve been there.” So that’s why I think this movie brings a lot of us together to experience this journey that Martha goes on. This brings me to this. I’m surprised that you’ve never gone through it yourself personally because it came across really authentically for me and I’m wondering, when you’re playing someone like that, grieving, untethered, traumatized, does it inevitably take an emotional toll on you personally afterwards or during the shooting of the film?
VK: Yeah, I remembered halfway through the shooting and I knew that, just as you say, my biggest responsibility is, one part of it, was to embody the nature of grief that those women had described and the depth of that. I have so luckily never been close to that but I knew that my job was to try and touch it for them just so at least I try to represent it as truthfully for them as possible. So I knew I had to live in that day to day, and I really did. I remember thinking at the time, I remembered doing “Streetcar Named Desire” on stage and that is the most harrowing piece of writing ever. I mean, I remember, I think Arthur Miller called it a cry of pain or something, probably misquoted it. But we sort of were living that every night. We were doing eight shows a week and for many hours and I remember having a discussion with the actors, Ben Foster, mutual friend of mine, and Gillian Anderson, and we were talking about how, if you went to the gym for that many hours, your body would completely change. So if you’re doing that many hours and it’s your psyche you’re engaging with, what is it doing to your psyche? And we really questioned it and did some reading around it and really tried to get into it. So I understood the nature of what happens when you do it. But on the other hand, as an actor, when you feel like you’re finding something truthful, there’s no better feeling.
So while doing it, it was such a privilege and it was only when I got home, I flew home at the end of January, and a few weeks later, the pandemic hit. So obviously, we were all then confined and I literally spent many months just in my home, mainly my bedroom, which is obviously so strange for all of us but mainly, it was really interesting because I couldn’t escape how I was feeling. I couldn’t go into another job, I couldn’t distract myself, I couldn’t go out with my friends or have a glass of wine in the pub or whatever. I actually had to sit with and process and actually, so much grief came up and I realized it was Martha’s and it wasn’t just hers. It was probably feeling for all the women that I’ve spoken to and really trying to get inside that experience and it was several months of that, actually. But in a way, I don’t know, I wonder if I sort of would have buried it and carried on if I’d been able to distract myself. I don’t know. But I definitely did process it and that in itself was a kind of privilege because one thing the film has taught me about grief generally and all the people, anyone who talks about it now I feel so much more acutely attuned to the sensation and the journey they’re on and I feel so compassionate and empathetic for them because even though, of course, it wasn’t my grief, Vanessa, it was a form of grieving process and that, I think, always teaches you so much about life and how to live and other humans. So I was lucky, really.
GD: Yeah, it certainly does, it gives you perspective. Everybody wants to talk about the extended scene at the beginning because it is so harrowing and visceral as an experience and as you say, the best word for it is primal because this couple is living their lives and excited about what’s to come and then when it hits them, it is really quite harrowing to watch. And I’m just wondering, because it was done so long ago now, you filmed that quite a while ago, when you think back or when you’re asked by journalists to talk about it, what first comes to mind when you’re looking back at shooting that pivotal sequence in the film?
VK: What a beautiful question. Even you just asking me about it now it just fills my heart with so much. I have to be careful I don’t go too acutely into it because it’s so sensorial for me. It was weirdly like I lived it because Kornél [Mundruczó] had this incredible courage to allow us, trust the actors to be able to do a birth scene when none of us had been in birth apart from Molly [Parker], and certainly had never done any midwifery and had to pick up the tools and we had barely any rehearsal. We shot it one walkthrough on an iPhone the night before and then we just did four takes the first day and two the second. So it was such a headfirst plunge in the deep end, like completely freezing cold water, just get in and do it. But I look back now and I wonder, it’s probably that once-in-a-lifetime experience as an actor to be able to shoot on film, a quarter of the film with no cuts. There’s that beautiful “Victoria,” a German film I love that’s an hour and a half, one take, and they come once in a blue moon and it was such a gift as an actor because it’s a bit like doing a play. The minute “Action” is called, the minute you get onstage, you can’t get off and you have to keep going and you can’t judge yourself. And so much of the time you’re doing tiny little moments of the scene, you’re doing a really big emotional scene, but you only get a second, like five frames or something, so small. Then you have to break, you turn around, someone does the lights, and you wait and you’re outside chatting to everyone. Then you have to go back into it.
Now I look back and I go, “That birth scene would’ve been so crap,” because I would have been so pretend-y, because I would’ve been in the bath having just chatted to someone else and got in the bath and had to be full labor. But I got to go on the journey that women did, in a way, an imaginary one but it was still a true journey. So when I think about it, I think, unbelievable gratitude and it lives in my heart, the whole thing. I was talking to Ellen [Burstyn] about it earlier today, she said to me, “Do you remember what it was like when the baby looked to you?” And it makes me so emotional thinking about it because I haven’t had a baby but for a second, it was almost like I had, and I got to imagine that feeling that you guys must have gone through having had kids where they come out and they’re in your arms and they’re looking at you for the first time and their little eyes are just staring at you, looking at you. So I hope one day I get to give birth. I always get so excited when people have kids now, “What are your kids like? What was the birth like and how brave was she to do it?” But I feel like, in a way, I’ve had an imaginary experience with it and it was so beautiful for me.
GD: Yeah, you’re right, because when my 10-year-old son looks at me when we’re talking, I still see him as a little baby on my chest 10 years ago, which was the moment of my whole life and as well as my daughter. So I get it and we felt that when Martha’s holding the baby. Everyone wants to talk about the beginning scene, but for me, honestly, and by the way, I think Kornél and Benjamin [Loeb], the cinematographer and director, should get so much more credit for what they did in that first 24 minutes. That’s another interview.
VK: I know, yeah. I’d love to talk to you about all of that. They were just amazing.
GD: I thought the film really flies towards the end. It’s such a gut punch when Martha addresses Eva, beautifully played by Molly Parker, and she doesn’t blame her and it’s so much about letting go and forgiveness as opposed to retribution and I did not see that coming at all and found it so immensely satisfying. You could hear a pin drop in our place. Take us back to that scene, because it was a really effective one.
VK: Well, do you know what? Just as you’re saying that I just was thinking about how connected it is to seeing her little face, because I knew that what happens with Martha, and I had to really understand that nature of her character because I’m a really outwardly expressive person, so I just really show everything I’m feeling all the time and suddenly there was this person I was having to play and I’m trying to understand who, to the outward eye, would seem like she’s totally OK, but inside she’s dying. I think the pain is so overwhelming that she quite literally can’t allow herself to feel it even though it’s all going on, because then she would have to acknowledge that her daughter’s gone, so for the majority of the film, she quite literally pushes it down so much and yet, always had to feel sort of volcanic inside. I always prayed that the audience would see that because I was so worried that I wasn’t showing the audience any signs of grief, but I knew I was feeling. Like, “Is that enough? Is that enough for the audience to be with her?” It was so important that they did or else she would seem quite robotic, but I understood that the journey of hers is she doesn’t want a funeral, she doesn’t want a memorial, she doesn’t want to look at the gravestone. She donates the body to the university. She doesn’t talk about it once and I had to work out why then would she stand up in a room full of complete strangers and talk about it?
I found that psychologically difficult to understand, and then I realized that this is someone who blames herself so much and so many mothers I spoke to felt like they failed some way or they failed their children. They didn’t know, was it their body, was it something they’ve eaten, was it something they’ve done? “What could I have done differently?” And so many cases, there’s no explanation, as Martha has, and so that feeling of guilt and blame and her sort of paranoia, thinking everyone’s thinking she’s to blame, too, therefore can’t talk to anyone, can’t share, can’t be seen or witnessed in her grief, really, so she freezes it. It reminded me of “Three Colours: Blue.” I studied that film so much and it’s only when she’s so triggered that the valve suddenly breaks and she has that confrontation with her mother and her mother says such a horrific thing to her, which forces her to go to the trial and it’s only when the very aggressive prosecutor is pushing her so much to take her back to that memory of the face with her daughter, what she looked like, because I think she blocked all those memories.
I remember watching a documentary and one lady had lost twins and she couldn’t look at them when they were born because then she would have to acknowledge that they weren’t with her anymore. So when the prosecutor takes Martha back to that memory I always thought this is the beginning of the thawing. There’s ice all around her and it’s just the very beginning of the few droplets just falling off her. It’s then that she goes to the photographer’s place because she knows she needs to see her and once she sees her, she knows that she’s going to begin acknowledging, and then at the courtroom, then I understood that once she’s allowed that, once she’s acknowledged it and seen her and that memory has come back, that moment that you describe, your son in your arms, that was the most precious moment of Martha’s whole life and always will be, no doubt. I’m sure for every parent, it really is like the memory as a human being that is locked forever. But she goes back to the courtroom because in a way, standing up in front of a roomful of strangers, acknowledging her daughter, saying this is who she is, she was here for love and she wasn’t here for revenge or blame or pain or suffering on somebody else, “My daughter has graced me with love in this moment and this is everything and always will be. Even though she’s not here for my whole life, she is.” And so, that was the journey, really, to the courtroom and then it made the courtroom much easier to play because otherwise it felt a bit declamatory, and I couldn’t understand why someone who’s so seemingly unemotional would then stand up in front of a room. It was almost like a witness statement to her, to my daughter. So that’s how I got to that.
GD: Wow, that’s deep. I need to watch it again because now I’ve got that perspective. Before I let you go, I want to get a little bit more superficial just for a bit, have a bit of a laugh. Well, it’s not a laugh. It’s so cool. You have won and been nominated for so many awards and Gold Derby, this is what we live for. So you won at Venice. You’ve got a bunch of regional critics mentions, you’re on the BAFTA longlist, you even got a nomination from the Australian Academy. But what’s really cool is you’ve got the holy trifecta, the Golden Globe nomination, Critics Choice and the SAG Awards nomination. Fingers crossed, touching wood and burning the sage, you’re on your way, hopefully, to an Oscar nomination. That’s insane. Do you know how difficult it is to get that kind of run? How do you feel about that?
VK: I mean, I feel just as disbelieving as how you described, honestly. I started off in theater and I always thought I’d probably stay on stage forever. So it’s such an honor. I think more than anything, to be honest, I’m feeling so immensely grateful for every minute of it because it’s a film I care about so much. I think it maybe would be weird if it was something that you thought, “Oh, this didn’t mean anything to me,” but there’s something because it means so much and the message is so important to me, I’m so grateful that people watched it and have been watching it. So that recognition, it touches me so much because I was so glad to be part of it, and I loved every single minute on set. Everything about it was just a complete joy and it’s my first lead. I waited a really long time to do it. I’ve watched so many people do it. I’ve been on so many sets, playing little parts watching all these big actors like Rachel McAdams and Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, I’d watched everybody from the sidelines and I felt so ready to take on the responsibility of playing a lead and knowing what that meant. So every second on set was just, God, I just loved it, so it means so much because of that.