Vanessa Kirby is a well-known English actor who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2020 for her role as a bereaved young mother in Pieces of a Woman. She rose to prominence in 2017 when she portrayed Princess Margaret in the Netflix series The Crown, for which she received an Emmy Award nomination and a BAFTA Award.
Kirby has appeared in theater, television, and cinema, including supporting roles in the Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious film franchises. Kirby will play Empress Josephine in Napoleon, the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed drama starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Vanessa Nuala Kirby was born in London on April 18, 1988, to Jane and Roger Kirby. Her father is a distinguished retired prostate surgeon who is currently president of the Royal Society of Medicine in London, and her mother is a former editor of Country Living magazine. Kirby grew up as the middle child of three siblings in Wimbledon, London. Her family and friends refer to her as “Nu,” a nickname derived from her middle name; Vanessa, according to Kirby, is “way too formal and mumsy.”
Kirby developed an interest in acting at a young age while watching movies with her father, but she decided to become an actor at the age of 11 after seeing Corin and Vanessa Redgrave in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre in London.
Despite her idyllic background, Kirby was teased in primary school and claimed she “became self-conscious about everything I did,” but she found an outlet in theatre and local theater. She also had giardia as a youngster, an intestinal parasite that made her sick.
After attending the Lady Eleanor Holles school in southwest London, Kirby applied for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School but was rejected, largely because she was too young. She took a year off to travel, then attended the University of Exeter, where she received an English degree and appeared in school plays.
Kirby made an appearance in the music video for British pop band McFly’s 2007 single “The Heart Never Lies,” which reached No. 3 on the UK chart, before her TV and film careers began. When she began her professional career, Kirby contemplated choosing a variant of “Nu” as a stage name, but decided to continue with Vanessa after her agency stated she reminded her of Vanessa Redgrave.
Kirby was offered and accepted a spot at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but she declined after meeting theater director David Thacker through her agency. This led to Kirby’s stage debut in prominent parts at the Octagon theatre in Bolton, Manchester, including productions of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Kirby described her Octagon audition as follows: “I flopped into the audition all sweaty, a total nobody who’d been taken on by an agent by chance.” Kirby’s incognito was short-lived, however, as she received the BIZA Rising Star Award at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards in 2009.
Over the next two years, Kirby played at the National Theatre in Marianne Elliott’s production of Women Beware Women and at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “For those things to happen in quick succession made me feel like less of a fraud,” Kirby subsequently told The Scotsman.
Kirby made her television debut in 2011 in The Hour, a BBC drama series starring Dominic West and Romola Garai, while continuing to perform in theater shows. Kirby starred as Estella Havisham in the BBC’s 2011 television production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Her character was the adopted daughter of Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham.
Kirby starred in Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters at the National Theatre in 2012. She also had an early cinematic role in the British crime picture The Rise. She played Queen Isabella in a 2013 National Theatre production of Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, and the following year, she co-starred in a Broadway and West End production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. During the course of the show, she became trapped in a spinning stage while carrying a birthday cake for Anderson’s character.
Achieving Stardom with The Crown
In the 2010s, Kirby appeared in various films, including Queen & Country (2014), Jupiter Ascending (2015), and Kill Command (2016). She rose to prominence in 2016, when she portrayed a young Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy), in the Netflix drama series The Crown.She described the experience of filming the episode as “the best time of my life.” Instead of just portraying Princess Margaret as a younger version of her adult image, Kirby wanted to “find the person she was before she hardened, before she became bitter and self-loathing.”
Kirby was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2018 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her performance, and she garnered two BAFTA Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, winning the award in 2018. The Crown’s cast rotates every two seasons to reflect Queen Elizabeth and others at various phases of their life, so Helena Bonham Carter took over as Princess Margaret in Season 3. “Saying goodbye to [the role] was awful, I really grieved it, actually,” said Kirby.
Becoming an Action Movie Star
Kirby was cast as Alanna Mitsopolis, popularly known as the White Widow, in Mission: Impossible-Fallout (2018), joining one of Hollywood’s most popular film franchises. Her character is a well-known philanthropist who engaged in clandestine arms trade and money laundering in the shadows. “I would never have thought of it myself to be somebody that sort of so in charge of this really dark, you know, hugely powerful organization, but to do it with lightness and play, rather than being assertive or menacing,” Kirby said. She performed many of her own stunts for the part and described the movie’s star Tom Cruise as “absolutely disciplined [and] super enthusiastic,” adding that he “always wants everything executed at a super-high level, so you have to train really hard.”
Kirby continued to appear in theatre productions throughout this time. In 2018, Kirby played the title character in Polly Stenham’s version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Julie, at the National Theatre.
She was cast in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, another popular action film franchise, in 2019. She portrayed Hattie Shaw, an MI6 agent and the younger sister of Jason Statham’s protagonist Deckard Shaw. The role required a lot of fighting, and Kirby once again performed many of her own stunts, despite the fact that she was “constantly in pain.” She was captivated to the character’s strength, she stated, noting: “I felt like it was so important as the lead female that she wasn’t falling into any tropes. Like she’s never got saved by the guys, she was a capable fighter, and she never got rescued.”
Academy Award Nomination
Kirby gained considerable critical acclaim for her performance in Kornél Mundruczó’s drama Pieces of a Woman (2020). Her character was a young woman who lost her baby shortly after birth. Kirby described the film as “almost a character study on grief [and] how this person reacts to this kind of trauma, because of the generations of trauma and unresolved grief that’s been passed down.” Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote, “Kirby’s performance is multilayered, with sorrow buried far down beneath strata of denial, stoicism, coping, fury.” Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang wrote, “Kirby’s authority is commanding, even unassailable.”
Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her portrayal, and she went on to get numerous more nominations, including a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award. It was her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, however she was defeated by Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020).
The publication of Pieces of a Woman was hampered in part because Kirby’s co-star Shia LaBeouf was accused of sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional trauma.Kirby said of the situation in a statement: “I stand with all survivors of abuse and respect the courage of anyone who speaks their truth. Regarding the recent news, I can’t comment on an ongoing legal case.”
Additional and Upcoming Movies
Kirby has continued to feature in films, including The World to Come (2020), Italian Studies (2021), and The Son (2022), all starring Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern.
She also played the White Widow again in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One.
“I love coming back to Mission: Impossible because it really is like a family,” she said. “It has such a history to it, and I’ve found the White Widow a very complex and unusual character to play.” Kirby will return for the next film in the installment, Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part Two, which is scheduled for release on June 28, 2024.
Kirby will also play Empress Josephine in Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s upcoming biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as the notorious French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte. On November 22, 2023, the film will be released in theaters. Jodie Comer was originally slated as Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, but Kirby took over after Comer left out due to schedule difficulties.
Kirby and Phoenix agreed to surprise each other and travel to dark places during production in order to avoid the traditional period drama clichés. This resulted in an unscripted sequence in which Phoenix slapped Kirby during a divorce scene, a decision that received widespread media scrutiny.
Kirby is not married, but she has dated several other actors, including Callum Turner, Douglas Booth, and Paul Rabil, over the years.