In 19th Century rural American drama The World to Come, she plays opposite Katherine Waterston, as two married women drawn to each other. But it’s in Pieces of a Woman, directed by White God’s Kornél Mundruczó, where she really stuns. This harrowing tale follows Boston couple Martha and Sean (Kirby, Shia LaBeouf), torn apart after their baby dies shortly after being born.
With Kirby a frontrunner for the festival’s Best Actress prize, she spoke to FilmInk about preparing for one of the roles of a lifetime.
The film opens with the jaw-dropping birth scene. How did you prepare?
I knew the minute I had to do a birth on screen, ‘I don’t want to pretend. I want it to feel as authentic as possible.’ I didn’t know what a birth was like. I hadn’t been around it. Obviously, your friends tell you little stories. But I started at the beginning by watching a tonne of documentaries, and none of them showed anything in its entirety. I also watched clips of home births, but that was all really curated – little moments that were really beautiful instead of all the rawness of it. I thought, ‘I don’t even know how to do this.’ I knew we wanted to do it in one take; I come from theatre, so the idea of doing something uninterrupted was really exciting. But then I started contacting a lot of obstetricians, to say ‘Is there any way I can come and shadow you, and spend time in the labour ward?’ And one said ‘yes’ and she was amazing. I spent many days at a labour ward with the midwives who would teach me all about birth. There was one afternoon – we could only come in for six hours and I just got in and they said, ‘A woman has come in and she’s nine centimetres dilated which means she’s about to start pushing. We can ask her if maybe you could watch.’ I was like, ‘That would be so incredible!’
Was this after The Crown? She probably knew you…
All they said to her was ‘an actress’. I just thought, there’s no way she’ll say ‘yes’, but she did. So, I got to see it and watch this profound moment in her life, over the course of five or six hours. It was a really difficult birth, but it taught me everything. I never, ever could’ve acted it had she not been so generous. It was only after the baby was born that they told her about The Crown and she was really confused – why my hair wasn’t blonde! It was a game-changer for me. I’d seen birth in its animalistic state. I was so surprised, by the things I saw her go through, and I wanted to represent that on screen in a way women and men, who have experienced it together, would recognise.
How was it for you to watch the scene later on?
Really difficult, because we did it as one take. We did six takes across two days. We did four one day and two the next. And, at the end, when the baby is blue and is being taken away by the ambulance, it took me a long time to reset. There was one take where I was sobbing after for about ten minutes. I tried to stop myself, but I guess your body doesn’t know the difference. It’s confused about what it’s gone through. You have to really believe in what you’re doing. For a second, it felt like I really, really had lost a baby. And Kornél hugged me really tight for ten minutes as I sobbed. It was such a bonding thing. He just said, ‘Remember this feeling.’ I took that feeling throughout the rest of the film, because that’s what we started the film with. It was a gift, but it was hard to watch because I didn’t want to go to that place again.
Was each take very different?
Very different. It was mainly improvised. We knew the shape of what we needed to do, but we didn’t know what we were going to say or how it was going to go. The burping, for example, just randomly came! The woman I watched was very sick and that was useful to see. Birth is often presented a lot differently in films, as I noticed when I tried to look at everything on screen about birth. Rather than the reality of it, which is really tough and magical and strange. When I watched the woman, I couldn’t believe the trip she was on. She was in another world and her body and the hormones were taking over. I just thought, ‘That’s such a gift to act that, to just get out of my mind and let the body take over.’ I feel proud that something’s represented on screen that’s so universal. Either it’s happened to us or we’ve watched it, or we’ve been through it…it was a privilege.
Ellen Burstyn plays your mother, and you get a great confrontation scene. How was that?
I loved doing that scene. I loved it. I really like playing characters who have contradictions. That’s why The Crown was such a gift to me. Playing someone with such fire and such fragility. And Martha is the opposite of that. She’s so strong in so many ways. Her strength was always overwhelming to me. I would never have been that strong going through that. But also, the opposite of that. So vulnerable and fragile. So, it was really amazing to have held everything in, all that feeling inside of her. Then for it to come out at that moment was a big release.
How would you describe Martha’s journey across the film?
Kornél has called it an odyssey through grief and I think it really is a poem to grief, and it’s a difficult and dark movie. It really is examining that. We’ve all experienced grief in so many different kinds of ways, I hope there is some universality to how we all deal with it in completely opposite and sometimes different ways. It’s also a journey to finding herself. The baby isn’t in her life in a way that she had hoped and wanted. But she is changed because of it and changed perhaps for the better. Sometimes loss can teach us about ourselves and maybe when you reflect on it, you go ‘I really changed because of that loss.’
What do you see as a challenge when you take on a job?
Something that pushes me way beyond the limit of what I think I could do. Something that frightens me. That’s the sign I now look for when I read something. If I go, ‘This is terrifying, I don’t know how I should do this’, that usually means I should do it. And it was that for Pieces. Even Mission: Impossible was frightening to me. I’d never been in that world. I didn’t know if I could do it. So, I’m looking for those things mainly. That’s the intention.
The Venice Film Festival runs until 12 September 2020
Main Photo: La Biennale di Venezia – Foto ASAC, Jacopo Salvi