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“I was always trying to find the vulnerability under the hard edges and vibrancy.” Vanessa Kirby on Playing ‘The Crown’s’ Princess Margaret

Vanessa Kirby has hung up her royal gowns as Princess Margaret on the smash Netflix show, The Crown. For two seasons, the actress played the younger royal sibling. Controversy surrounded her life and Kirby’s regal portrayal takes the young Princess into her 30’s. We see a young woman trying to find her place in the world, being told who she can and can not love, and a woman who was born second.

Kirby’s portrayal of the Princess dealing with all of this is one of the most thrilling performances to watch on the small screen this year. I caught up with Kirby who was in LA to talk about taking on this role and learned about the surprising photo hanging on her toilet wall.

She is a fascinating character to watch this season seeing her story and that arc. Were you always a royalist. Where were you with the Royal Family?

I was pretty indifferent to be honest. I learned about the Tudors at school. As far as the modern royal family, I’d walk past Buckingham Palace and be like, “whatever.” Now, every time I see an ad for the Crown Jewels exhibition, I think I simply have to go. I did a complete 180.

I feel so lucky because the show is so much about the human beings and the people inside it, as opposed to being royal and playing royal or what it is to be royal. A handful of people in the history of the world have been in that position and all of that is amazing. I felt so lucky.

Was it less daunting coming into season two?

Yes, but it had different challenges really. I knew I wanted to push it and really go there with her. Season one had different challenges because I was just so nervous and I thought, “Oh my God! What if I get this horribly wrong. Someone who has led a different life totally different to me. How do I get inside her without sending her up or doing any pastiche version of her? I knew a lot of people have described her as being this tragic character and that was interesting to think about, this notion being attached to a character.

I felt I got to know her intimately by the second season. Peter could put me in lots of different circumstances and I would fundamentally know who she is. The beginning of season two was this really interesting journey as she was going into the depths of despair and then pulling herself out, thinking she’s found herself. It was definitely her.

You talk about the dark side. We saw the frivolous side of her and then you see that moment when she’s so drunk in the room. What was that like exploring that moment?

It was a great privilege because in the first season, I was trying to work out who she was. Inside, I thought she’s someone who feels things so incredibly deep and feels these emotions. Everything she’d gone through in the first season, I always imagined what she was like on her own. A lot of books wrote about her isolation and her loneliness and that was something that became a real part of finding her.

After her father died she really didn’t really have anyone. Her sister was so busy being Queen of England and suddenly she’s second fiddle to her sister just because she was born second. Her mother was quite alone in her grief and she was rattling around Buckingham Palace. I thought she was orbiting in isolation. I always imagined she had these dark nights of the soul. What was Margaret like alone? Why did she later become an alcoholic? Why did she pick up alcohol or cigarettes? Where did she pick up that inner anger from? I always imagined those nights.

After Billy Wallace and the engagement which is the last attempt at normality within the palace and conforming to what her parents or society would have wanted, Peter wrote, “She does a melancholy dance.” I thought I didn’t know if she would stand there and do a melancholy dance. If she’s going to do something, she’s really going to do something.

We had an afternoon to explore what that night would have looked like. I always said to Ben who really is the most amazing director, “After this point, she’s really made a last attempt to fit in and she’s been rejected.”

We closed the curtains, we chose a song and I got to play around in the room with the camera following you. It felt intimate and I felt it was my duty to show a side of a character who has so many faces and so much color and is so strong and so powerful. Her vulnerability and fragility underneath which is such an important part of building her. I was always trying to find the vulnerability under the hard edges and vibrancy.

You talked about the sibling rivalry which is so well done in this because it’s largely unspoken.

A really useful thing first was to read of what they were like as children. I often thought what it would be like for a sibling to be born second and your sister has an inherited job and you don’t. There was this really interesting sentence in the first season of the king saying, “Elizabeth is my favorite, Margaret is my joy.” The father is affirming the qualities in you he most admires and likes and you get praise for, you’re likely to exacerbate those things, I think. I read lots of things about “the right one being born first.” If you hear the sentence, it was born first, it suggests the wrong one was born second. So, for me, in trying to find her there was this thing of “Why am I not good enough as I am?” I think “maybe I have a role because my father says I’m joyful and therefore I’m going to be naughty and be brilliant, bedazzling and try to get attention.” Then your father dies and he’s your greatest ally, at 21, you’re relegated even further and all the pain that comes with that. This inability to find a sense of identity in the world you’re born into and the struggle to assimilate that and for the two seasons it was such a joy to ask, “Who am I?” and ask those questions however horrible they are.

In episode seven she says, “I know who I am.” Even though I think she doesn’t really know who she is, she’s grasped onto something that’s meaningful for her. The second season was always an attempt to find herself. It was so tempting to play the later on stuff, drunk and out of control. I really wanted to do that but I have to leave that for the next actress and it killed me. [laughs].

I didn’t want to play the ending or pre-empt the person she really became.

It’s so sad this is it. (Helena Bonham Carter has been cast to play Princess Margaret in season three).

It’s final. It was exactly like the characters, I was so emotional and at the end, I absolutely sobbed my eyes out. Claire was so pulled together and it was absolutely like who we played. I have a picture of us where I’m crying my eyes out and she’s not.

There was champagne and little disco lights. All the producers came out, it was so magical and heartbreaking. It was really the happiest time of my life, I would have continued to play her.

The costumes were divine this season.

It was so fun. She was the person that really traveled into the 60’s and was at the forefront. Jane Petrie and I collaborated a lot. We’d find fun fabrics and shapes and try things and push boundaries. I loved experimenting with the hair and makeup.

She was going towards the beehive and the flick of the eyeliner, she loved breaking out of the princess and becoming Tony’s girl. The special thing about The Crown was that it never tried to be a period drama, it always tried to represent the internal life of the characters at any point.

At the first half of episode four, we chose neutral colors that were quite dull. It reminded us of a sanitorium, that was what her inner life was doing. As we got into the 60’s, it got more colorful and we tried different shapes. By the end of episode ten, I’m wearing the most garish blue. We really wanted to push it and make her utterly different from the Queen.

You carried it off well. [laughs]

On the day, I was saying, “We shouldn’t be wearing the headband, but fuck it.” [laughs]

What was the pressure in playing a member of the Royal Family? You know, The Queen could be watching this?

I think we were all terrified but the only thing that helped was that we were all in the same boat and if we were going to sink, we were going to sink together. It was weird knowing that people would have known her, but also that she wasn’t alive anymore. I felt a duty to try to find the truth of her and her essence. I felt a responsibility and the more I grew to love her with all my heart, the more I felt it was important to do that. I immersed myself in everything Margaret. I had pictures of her in my toilet and my walls. It’s absurd, but I really tried to not mimic her and tried to get inside her and that vibrant personality.

photo credit: Netflix
When you were watching those DVD’s or reading did anything strike you about her?

People always spoke about her as this old lady who later on in life was a tragic figure and had a problem with alcohol and wasn’t happy. I didn’t know what that meant, it was just people’s opinions and I didn’t know if that was actually true.

Having the opportunity to explore someone’s life and ask, “What made that person?” There was a lot of damage, vulnerability and fragility. She was the naughty one. She was a rebel. She was ahead of her time and she pushed boundaries. She was the first royal to ever light up in public. She was always being super controversial with her fashion choices and was striving for change. She really wanted to modernize the royal family and make them accessible in a way that her sister wasn’t preoccupied with.

The most surprising thing was this incredible woman and this tragic love story at the center of her life. Even when I was doing it, it felt special that we were bringing her back to the public consciousness.

I loved those scenes with Matthew because it made me wonder about her and whether she truly loved him or the idea of who he was.

That’s exactly what I thought. In the first rehearsal, I kept saying to Ben, the director, I feel it’s so fine that she met her match. I wanted it for her. We talked and talked and I realized it was me who wanted it for her. Actually, if I really think about it and I really want to go there with the darkness she goes into, I think she’s terrified of her own sanity. We want it for that side. She’s meeting this man in that state of mind and what she meets is this energy that she’s been craving which is aggressively anti-royal, wild and liberating that bring her sensuality and sexuality that hasn’t been awakened yet. Peter was very much paternal and almost a father replacement. Suddenly, you have this man that is undressing you with his eyes and telling you your family is dysfunctional and being royal is a joke. Because she questioned that her whole life, I think it’s so compelling and totally seductive. I think she goes head first into that. I think it’s because it’s what she needs.

Did you get to keep anything from the set?

I wanted to steal everything but I wasn’t allowed to. I got to keep one little ring, it was the Peter ring that I always put on at the end of the first season.

By mistake, I went home from set, by accident with this really garish diamante plastic necklace that is now hanging on my bedroom door. It’s so tacky. I think I Was going to dinner somewhere and someone went, “What is that?”

It needs to go in the bathroom.

It’s her and her sister on horseback and she’s about 13. Both of them look awful and I hung it in my bathroom. I desperately needed to absorb her and that Tatler cover is still on my wall. It’s what my granny would have. People must think I’m so obsessed with the Queen.