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June 2014 / People / by Cassia Geller

Vanessa Kirby

Pictures: Uzo Oleh

Vanessa Kirby is on a one-woman mission to make the world a nicer place. Oh, and she’s doing a bit of acting while she’s at it…

London’s a weird place, I know that. But no oddity or intricacy in our beloved city had quite prepared me for the strange sight of my chirpy, chestnut-haired lunch date lunging in denim dungarees on a Marylebone afternoon – not least because I’d thought my lunch date was blonde. 

But it was a brunette vision who’d whirling-dervished towards me with hugs and 150-word-a-minute apologies an hour before, and was now demonstrating the pitfalls of not trying clothes before you buy. “It’s so embarrassing. I went to meet this big producer at dinner, and spent most of the time in the loo trying to stretch them out. Look at the strain!”

Welcome to the wonderful world of Vanessa Kirby – the 26-year-old London-bred actress who’s been systematically bossing it in everything from Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov to Richard Curtis romcoms and gritty British dramas since graduating four years ago.

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Some things you should know about her: she’s smart (first-class English degree, studied conflict resolution at Stellenbosch Uni smart), she swears with all the abandon of someone who says exactly what they feel, very quickly, and she seems to make friends everywhere.

Hence all the apologies – she’s just bumped into two friends between Bond Street and here, one whom she hasn’t seen since Stellenbosch seven years ago. “I look so weird I was amazed she even recognised me.” I agree I’d expected to see a little blonde head bobbing along the high street. “Everyone does – even my mum.” 

Unsurpisingly, the disconcerting colour is for a part; Vanessa (or Noo, as she’d have you know her) is fresh from filming real-life drama Everest opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. And just this morning the new do gained an even newer fringe in readiness for her latest project, East End film noir Bone in the Throat. Then when filming ends this month, she’ll be straight into rehearsals at the Young Vic, playing Stella to Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in the hotly-anticipated newest coming of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. And the hair? “They haven’t seen it yet,” she says, toying gingerly with her fringe. “Oh god, they’ll probably recast!”

It’s not just the hair colour that’s hard to keep up with though, what with all this, plus parts in John Boorman’s Queen and Country, which competed in Cannes, star-studded Wachowski epic Jupiter Ascending coming out next month, and dystopian vision Kill Command due for release in September. It’s certainly a heady mix.

“It’s so weird – they’re all so different. It is the most random career. But that’s my dream really – I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been – to be playing such different people all the time.” 

Different, yes, but her past credits do suggest a penchant for playing the difficult girl, whether as the Medusan Estella in Great Expectations opposite Douglas Booth (“It was so incredibly tiring not smiling – I couldn’t bear it.”) or as Rachel McAdams’ insufferable best friend in Richard Curtis’ About Time

“Actually, what’s odd is that on stage I play really fun people, but if you haven’t seen the play you’ll never know. Screen is so much more accesssible.” She mentions her role in Anya Reiss’ Acid Test at the Royal Court: “You’d havef—king loved it – you should have seen it!” 

That’s another thing about Vanessa, she’s singularly enthusiastic. It’s an enthusiasm that means she manages to turn off my Dictaphone while talking conspiratorially into it. One that explains her ever-expanding social group. And one that, she says, can get a little embarrassing.

I say I’d seen her at London Fashion Week, sitting two seats down from Kate Moss. “That was so bizarre. Lana Del Rey was sitting on my right, and she asked how I was and I said ‘I’m really tired, I’m doing this Chekhov play’ – then I started babbling on to her about Chekhov for ages. She’s so nice, but I bet she was just praying for the show to start and stop this unknown random banging on about Russian theatre!”

“And I’m sitting there, in between Lana Del Rey and Alexa Chung thinking, ‘Is this serious? What am I doing here?’” 

This is also a bit of a recurring theme. “There are just so many great actors, so many, I think, ‘Why would you go for someone like me?!’”

Some of this self-doubt comes from skipping  any ‘classical training’. After uni, Vanessa won a coveted place at LAMDA, but her long-held plan to study drama derailed after meeting director David Thacker, who immediately cast her in three starring roles at the Octagon Theatre Bolton.

“I felt like it was a rite of passage – RADA or LAMDA…. So at the beginning I was this wide-eyed, naïve, self-critical, anxious, nervous, neurotic thing… all those words I was. Because I thought I was going to drama school and suddenly got an amazing opportunity. And I looked around at the people I was working with and thought, ‘Do I have a right to be here?’”

“Then when I first went into film, I’d never really seen myself. I found it so difficult to be like, ‘Oh, this is what I look like’ – which makes you a little bit more self-conscious.”

But she’s working on it: “I’m much more able to take care of myself. If I get anxious, I’m able to step back and think how incredible everything is. It sounds so lame, but there’s no reason to worry or feel bad – it’s a bloody waste of time. But I did do it for a while.”

She still gets nervous, of course (on playing Stella: “I’m terrified”), but is trying not to overthink things, and enjoy being with herself.

“Someone said to me, ‘Just go out and date yourself’. And I’m like, ‘That sounds so boring’. But I started doing it – going to art galleries, and just walking around London, going to the cinema – and I’ve noticed I’m even enjoying my own jokes more. I make myself laugh all the time now, it’s becoming really bad actually.”

She’s also trying not to get hung up on other people. “I’m ok with myself now. That’s why I try to avoid making any comparison to anybody else, because the only person that’s going to be bad for is me. Instead of worrying I’m not as good as x, y and z, the best thing I can do is celebrate how amazing they are. It’s empowering, you know, when people do well – it’s such a hard industry. And it makes me excited, and have a nicer day!”

Which means she must have had quite a few nice days of late, because Vanessa is in complete awe of, well, everyone. Of her family: “My brother’s reforming education, my Dad’s a cancer surgeon; they’re really helping people.” Of her friends: “They’re just incredible.” Of the critics, even: “It’s not for me, but you’re all amazing at what you do.” But, most of all, of her contemporaries: “Jessica Brown Findlay, Imogen Poots, Holiday Granger… there are so many girls, they’re just so good. And I’m so proud – I feel lucky to have worked with them. They amaze me every day. I think, ‘Bloody hell, I’m gonna be playing the third maid they’re all so brilliant.’”

Which is why her part in Streetcar seems a nice fit: “Stella is such a beautiful person. She’s my dream role. It’s going to be lovely to play someone like that every night.”

“And I feel so honoured, and so flattered, and so privileged that Benno [director Benedict Andrews, who also directed her in the wildly-acclaimed Three Sisters] would collaborate with me again. To do something this iconic with him – I’d like to do that lifelong.”

But Vanessa has plenty to do in the short term, too – in, and out of work. She’ll be dating herself, of course, picking up friends and, as of late, eating her way around London: “We shadowed in the Dorchester’s kitchen for a few nights, and they gave us this amazing book: Alain Ducasse’s 100 best restaurants in London. And when the Everest cast were here we started going through the book, visiting these cute little places… Ten Greek Street, Duck Soup.” 

Sorry, the Everest cast? A cast that includes one Jake Gyllenhaal? I’m a little overcome. But Vanessa doesn’t really get starstruck anymore: “You get used to people. These actors, they’re my friends now.”

“Actually,” she says later, “you’ll love my friends.” Duh. I think I’d quite happily join the Noo love-in, even without la Gyllenhaal…

Is, I wonder as the brunette head bobs off after lunch, Vanessa Kirby the nicest person, like, ever? No actually, not if she’s to be believed. “I’m really lucky – I never meet any idiots. Everyone is just so bloody nice.”

I guess it takes one to know one. 

A Streetcar Named Desire runs from 23 July to 3 September at the Young Vic