In Pieces of a Woman, Vanessa Kirby plays Martha, a first-time mother who loses her baby daughter at birth. Based on the experiences of screenwriter Kata Wéber and her director partner Kornél Mundruczó, the narrative explores Martha’s journey through grief, forgiveness and identity, as her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) pushes her to seek legal retribution for the midwife’s supposed negligence. Nominated in the Academy’s Best Actress category, Kirby has also received Globes and BAFTA nominations for her eviscerating portrayal of a woman fighting for emotional survival. In order to authentically inhabit the role, she spoke with bereaved mothers, shadowed a doctor and even witnessed a birth.
DEADLINE: This is such a harrowing story, and it required such deep emotional connection, how did you protect yourself?
VANESSA KIRBY: I thought about it a lot in the middle of the movie when I thought, Oh, every day I’m tortured. I knew my main job was to try and access the collective experiences of all the different women I’d spoken to [for research], whether they’d lost babies really early on, or had to give birth to them, or lost them just after birth. The unbearable grief that came with losing your baby like that. I just knew that every day I had to try and do what they described to me justice. And so, I tried to live that every day.
I thought, God, I’m so grateful I’ve done theater, because doing A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, when you have to do a three-and-a-half-hour show, and then you’ve only got an hour break. And that play really is one of most harrowing pieces of writing ever. And you have to learn to wipe the slate and start at the beginning again.
And then the second part was—and Ellen and I talked about it a lot too—I think as an actor, it is a privilege to touch something that’s real, it’s a truth of somebody else’s that, however difficult it is, it feels like that’s your job to try and go as close to that as possible. And so that feels like an honor. It’s something that in a way, is more of a privilege.
I think I came away from it a really different kind of person and understanding so much more about grief and the level of pain other people have to go through. My life hasn’t been near that, but it was a privilege to try and understand people that have to navigate that course.
DEADLINE: It’s such a shame Ellen didn’t get nominated, she’s incredible as your mother in this.
KIRBY: I know. I think sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to these things, is there? I know that I’ve been on set with her and I witnessed some of the most powerful and present acting I’ve ever been around in my life. And she cares so much about the heart of the story, and she wore that as a mantle for women, the mother-daughter relationship. But also, she always felt that it’s a true story of forgiveness and finding a way to heal rather than to seek revenge or compensation. I think she’s very philosophical and gracious and only really wanted the story to live. She’s never concerned with herself solely. She’s one of the most gracious actors I’ve ever known. And she’s so soulful; she’s like living poetry, that woman.
DEADLINE: This is really a story about finding a way through, a story of hope, and I think that’s what people needed this year.
KIRBY: I really hope so. I felt that we all go through such difficult things, and you want to find a way to get through another day alone. I think that it’s such a story of female courage. Pregnancy and then the miscarriage, and it’s never spoken about and yet that affects 25% of women. All those unspoken stories of grief that people have to go through. I think so often we leave things and we have to let go, and we don’t ever know why. We can never explain it. And so many of the women I spoke to had lived alongside their loss, but the memory of having a baby and of being a mother—they’ll always be a mother to that child, and their child came in love. I think Martha finds her voice and her daughter teaches her how to heal.
DEADLINE: And she ultimately finds pride in her motherhood.
KIRBY: She’s a proud mother for her baby. And, and at that moment, the most precious moment in her whole life, that one that would be taken away, I think the message of grief is in some ways learning how to heal and let go. I think it’s something that unites us all, and it’s something I think we all have to navigate and know.
DEADLINE: You watched a woman give birth for real in preparing for the role?
KIRBY: Yes. Seeing another woman do it for real, live, was life-changing for me. Because I’m a woman and have full power, full surrender, in the most trying or feminine place you could ever be. I’m just so honored by this.
DEADLINE: You’ve been shooting the next two Mission Impossible films, resuming your White Widow role. Has that been a bit of a palate cleanser?
KIRBY: It’s just been so amazing to be back on set. Because Mission really wanted us to go back, and they had to work so hard to make sure it was possible. I’ve been in London with the whole industry closing down, and to be back on set is just a miracle. I’m so grateful for what we do and to do what we love and I don’t think any of us will take it for granted again, honestly. It was a whole industry completely shut down across the board for everyone, and I think I did feel a sense of everyone coming back with a renewed sense of clarity about the story that they wanted to tell and why. I know I definitely had that—just the responsibility we all have now to really, truly represent the whole spectrum of being that experience. And it’s so exciting because it’s telling stories that haven’t been told. I feel like the heart of it is that. There are just so many things that haven’t been finished on screen, and I’m really excited to begin being a part of that.