For Vanessa Kirby, playing Princess Margaret in The Crown was equal parts thrilling and terrifying.
Most actors will tell you, playing a real person is tough.
It can be even harder when you are a British subject playing a member of the Royal Family. That was Vanessa Kirby's initial reaction to playing Princess Margaret, younger sister of the reigning queen of the U.K. in the Netflix series, The Crown.
"It was terrifying just because playing someone of her lot comes with a lot of responsibility, but also just becoming somebody iconic like that felt like a huge task and very daunting, especially as a core person to the series."
Research was absolutely essential to capture the woman Margaret was, and Kirby dove into it. "I obviously ordered every book I could find, every biography, and they were all very different and all represented different things, so I tried to see the essence and the spirit of her work, her voice, and all the different bits and dimensions, all different kinds of viewpoints on her.
"And then, I listened to all her favorite music and ordered everything I could find and put them all over my house. I sort of immersed myself in her and who she was and tried to not worry so much about impersonating her, but just capture her psychology and the conditions that she found herself in. And, I did watch some of the recordings."
Because The Crown is an intimate look at the personages in the Royal Family, much of what the series portrays is supposition based on the imagination of the writers and sometimes second and third hand accounts of what went on within the palace.
Kirby says, "I think with The Crown, what was interesting to explore was the difference between public and private and finding what happened behind closed doors and who the human beings were behind this, and after this, and moved to public figures. And, it still remains a mystery. And, Margaret, I think, was the boldest of them all. And, so it was just really, the biggest gift ever to try and work her out."
Playing the younger, bolder of the Royal princesses gave Kirby quite a challenge. She notes of Margaret, "I think she must have born like that, wasn't she really? She was just born with this fire and this courage and this need to break the mold. And, it was so exciting to get the part, because I just thought, Oh, God, this is such a rare opportunity to play somebody that's in technicolor.
"And, it doesn't apologize for who she is, and questions everything that she's in and tries to do things differently, both with Pete Townsend and then Tony, but also in her attitude to her family and the role that she takes within it. And, also to her relationships and the world outside the palace. I just felt incredibly lucky."
A unique feature of The Crown is that, as the characters age, the producers chose to change actors, as well, with Helena Bonham Carter taking over the role of Princess Margaret starting in the third season. While some actors might resent handing over a role they had worked so hard to find, Kirby is thrilled with her next incarnation.
"How amazing! How lucky am I? She has been so gracious and kind about it and so generous and really respectful. She is an amazing human being. I feel totally honored that I get to share Margaret with her. And I really feel like I could have passed her [Margaret] on to her in a sense. She and I talked a lot, and I could see her just begin to really go there with her.
"I'm very excited for her. I feel that it's really, really special that someone as wonderful as Helena has [the role]. I fully get to share this person that I love with her.
"She's asked me more than I would have imagined she ever needed, really. And I think, in that way, she's just been so generous, just the sensitivity, of taking over from somebody and what that means, and it's a wonderful thing to share, more than anything. And, you know, I'm incredibly envious, because you really start to become more and more unhinged, and those were the elements that I loved exploring the most.
"But, I really had to make sure that I get Margaret right, in a sense that this young girl who was 17, going through extraordinary and difficult and complex situations and comes out and is hardened and wounded and fragile and vivid, and I really wanted to make sure I had all those colors in the spectrum, so that the next person could take over and really go there with the torment and the turmoil that goes on in her life."
When playing real people, an actor naturally wonders how the subject feels about the performance. Margaret, herself is, sadly, gone, but what about the rest of the royals?
While the Royal Family is notoriously silent on portrayals of themselves, Kirby says, "They never comment on anything like this in any personal way. But, we did hear that they had watched it, which is very funny. And, we heard that Phillip hadn't watched it. I'm not that sure that he knows, and it must be strange for them thinking that their life has been documented in this marathon experience show, that has really tried to go on as much fact as possible.
"But, also inevitably, the conversations are imagined or the middle of their emotional journeys are imagined. So, it's really, it's quite a strange relationship, I imagine, that we have to them and they have to us. But, obviously, there has to be respect and they just let us get on with it."
Thus far in her career, Kirby has found herself exploring similar themes in her work. Currently appearing in Julie, a modern adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie, she is again exploring the idea of depression and mental health, as she has with Princess Margaret. She says of the play, "It's based on Miss Julie, the original play by Strindberg. It's a modern adaptation.
"It explores mental health and depression that comes from privilege, and a sort of listlessness and malaise, the modern condition of having all these things at once, and yet unable to find your place within the world. In a sense, it is a modern-day Margaret, and she's been a really fascinating character to get to know. But, we're only in the beginning, and there's still lots more to explore and these things often take a while to grow. So, yes, it will be an interesting journey."
Almost as a precursor to her portrayal of Margaret was her turn as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire in a 2014 production with Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster. She says of that experience, "That was another sister. I did Three Sisters two or three years ago, and I really enjoy the sister dynamic. And Stella and Blanche were just an incredibly interesting, complex sibling rivalry, in a way.
"The key to unlocking Stella, which was magical, actually, was realizing that, on the face of it, she's such a fairly simple and straightforward and sort of passionate but relatively, what's the word I'd say, maybe the underdog. But, actually what I realized that they key to unlocking it was that actually she's run away from her family and she is as worried about her mental health as Blanche is.
"Because they come from the same family and they come from the same sort of fragility, in a way. And that was a really wonderful thing to unlock. It finally unlocked the whole play for me, to find that, her fear of family finding out that she's just like Blanche. And that was a really interesting thing that I think is rarely found - not that I found it, but it's just an unexpected thing to discover. I loved it, and I love to talk about it. I absolutely loved them, and we had such a lovely time in it."
With all that behind her, Kirby still has a great deal of work coming up. "There's lots of things that are about to happen. I won't know for another couple of weeks. I wish I could tell you. I just feel really, really passionate about trying to find complex, complicated unusual women. Margaret just set the foundation for me.
"I always want to find the unusual or the unexpected or unpredictable in characters and I think it's really important for us today that, as women, that people that we represent onscreen are representative of people that we would recognize as being people we know in our lives or the messiness of life or the fragility of life or the complexity of it.
"And I felt proud of the character of Margaret that, even though she's in these extraordinary circumstances I didn't identify with, I could see the human being that's wrestling with the things, the stuff in life that we all do, that are universal in a sense. I feel very passionate about that."