Interview: Vanessa Kirby, Labyrinth star

Vanessa Kirby decided to become an actor after seeing her namesake Vanessa Redgrave on stage. now the young talent has landed a lead role in the Easter weekend’s big TV drama.

In a shabby chic bar on a dirty, grey day, in the middle of the afternoon the candles are already lit. Outside the wind feels cold enough to cut you in two. Inside, in a dingy back corner, next to the toilets, a young woman is sitting on top of a table looking at her phone while the photographer changes the lens on her camera.

The young woman’s name is Vanessa Kirby. Her friends call her Nu, short for Nuala, her middle name, since Vanessa is “way too formal and mumsy”, but her agent reminded her of Vanessa Redgrave so she decided to go with it. This Vanessa, Kirby, not Redgrave, is an actor too. You might have already seen her as Estella, adopted daughter of the icy-hearted Miss Havisham played by Gillian Anderson, in a recent TV adaptation of Great Expectations. Or maybe you clocked her in The Hour with Dominic West and Romola Garai. Prior to that you would have caught her mainly on stage in London or in Bolton, as she cut her teeth on Miller, Ibsen and Shakespeare, picking up awards and fine reviews with every production.

But it doesn’t matter if you have never seen her before in your life, as it seems Kirby’s star is on a steep upwards trajectory, and with a slew of projects on the go, it won’t be long before you see her everywhere. There is a Ridley Scott-produced TV adaptation of Kate Mosse’s novel, Labyrinth on Channel 4 next weekend, and then a small part in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman alongside Shia LaBeouf and a role in Richard Curtis’s new film, About Time. There are other film projects about which she’s been sworn to secrecy and an already planned return to the stage in Marlowe’s Edward II at the end of the year.

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    It’s quite a schedule. In a break from being photographed, Kirby checks her mobile phone, staring intently at the screen, and then her publicist introduces us. She shakes my hand enthusiastically and beams a smile. A few more photographs and a gentle arm-wrestle over who’s paying for the beers and we’re sitting at another table, where Kirby’s job is to tell me her story up until now and my job is to try to keep up.

    Kirby is genuinely good company – self-aware and clever and ebullient. Things are, by and large, “really, really great”. She says she’s tired because she’s doing night shoots at the moment for a short film about insomniacs. It means she’s not getting much sleep. Honestly, I’m grateful. Kirby speaks fast. Very fast.

    You’d maybe think that there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell about her career so far. After all it’s only been three years in the making. But, in fact, there’s plenty. There’s the fact that she can pinpoint the moment she knew she wanted to be an actor – she was 12 and she saw Corin and Vanessa Redgrave in Trevor Nunn’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre. And there’s the audition for the Bristol Old Vic when she was 17; she was turned down, mainly for being too young. So then there was the six months in Africa and four months in Asia (she studied conflict resolution at Stellenbosch University) followed by an English degree at Exeter University, where she performed in as many plays as she could. Then there were a couple of chance meetings and some fantastic luck, an award and another couple of nominations, some very good reviews and, well, here we are.

    But I’m doing Kirby an injustice by truncating her story like that, and I’m doing her a disservice as an interviewee because Kirby tells a good story. There’s plenty of animation and performance.

    She’s loud and funny. At one point, realising that the only other people in the bar, a couple sitting at a table at the other side of the room, might be wondering what’s going on at ours given that she’s barely stopped to draw breath and I’ve hardly uttered a word, she laughs. “Bloody hell, this must be so boring for them,” she says. “They must be thinking ‘what is she babbling on about? Shut up! So self-absorbed. Me and me and me and me and me’.” She laughs.

    So, to begin at the beginning. Sort of. Kirby was born in 1988. Her father is a surgeon, her mother a magazine editor. She was educated at The Lady Eleanor Holles School in south-west London, an exclusive, fee-paying girls’ school which gave her nice friends and a useful work ethic, but didn’t offer much for a girl who’d already decided that acting was the job she wanted. “It was one of these highly pressurised girls’ schools where you’ve got to get an A or you’ll feel shit about it,” she says matter of factly. “And I did get As but I don’t really know who I was doing it for.”

    University was “the best time ever”. She read “everything” and went out “loads”.

    “I spent my second year going out every single night and getting into all kinds of precarious life-threatening situations,” she says, smiling. “I was doing loads and loads of plays with friends in the theatre group. It was self-taught but it was really great. In my third year I thought, right, if I want to act and I’m studying English then I need to pull my finger out and do some work because otherwise what have I spent my last two years doing?”

    So she worked hard – “it was just plays and work, plays and work” – and got her First. And at the same time she was applying to drama schools.

    “I didn’t really know how to go about it,” she says, but she remembered a teacher who’d taught a drama course that she did when she was 15 and managed to track him down. “His name is Andy Johnson. There was no bullshit with him. If you were shit he’d tell you. I managed to get his number and I went to see him and he worked me so hard. And it meant that I got into several drama schools. I really don’t know whether I would have otherwise.

    “I owe Andy everything.”

    Johnson had taught Emily Blunt when she was still at school and had recommended her to an agent. He recommended Kirby to that agent too. “I had a cup of tea with him,” she says. “I think he saw something because he took me on.”

    Let’s just be clear, the agent had never seen Kirby act. She hadn’t been to drama school. And I believe her when she says she was completely shocked when she got the email from him confirming that he wanted to take her on. She accepted her place at Lamda, a back-up for if the work didn’t materialise. It was another phone call and another meeting that changed things yet again. This time it was her agent suggesting that she meet with David Thacker, a director who’d been at the Young Vic Theatre for 15 years. Thacker had just taken over a new theatre, the Octagon Bolton, and was casting his first two plays – Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Ibsen’s Ghosts. The deal was that he had half an hour or so to see Kirby and give her a practice theatre audition.

    Kirby went straight to Waterstones to buy the plays, then got a cab to meet Thacker. “I flopped into the audition all sweaty, a total nobody who’d been taken on by an agent by chance,” she says. “We started and it was supposed to be 45 minutes but he cancelled all his other slots and we went for three hours.” At the end Thacker put Ghosts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All My Sons on the table in front of Kirby and told her that he was going to offer her parts in all three and asked if she was going to say yes?

    She shakes her head. “Those first few months were almost like someone had written it,” she says.

    “The way I describe it makes it sound like it happened easily to me. But actually I’d worked f**king hard before that. When I was 17 I’d tried so hard to get into drama school. When I was at uni I’d gone for so many auditions. I remember skipping lectures to go for an audition for an online teaching video for PriceWaterhouseCooper; I had to be a bad candidate and a good candidate. I borrowed my sister’s school uniform and coloured in the badge which my mum was fuming about and I had to go and buy another one. I went in with all these bankers and stuff and at the reception I was like ‘I’m an actress, well, actually I’m not really an actress, not yet anyway...’.” She didn’t get the part.

    The day Kirby started rehearsals for her first professional gig, the people she would have been studying with started their first classes. She says that she felt “a bit bereft” and for the first few months she worried about the decision she’d made. But she needn’t have, as once again what she calls “a luck thing” happened. Actually a couple of luck things happened. First, she was nominated for a Manchester Evening News best newcomer award (she lost out to Tom Sturridge) but she landed the rising star award instead. A week later, she was called into the National Theatre for a meeting. She was offered a role in Marianne Elliott’s production of Women Beware Women alongside Harriet Walter.

    “For those things to happen in succession made me feel like less of a fraud,” Kirby says. “I mean I still feel like a fraud. John Hurt when we were doing Labyrinth said he feels like a fraud. Harriet Walter said it so many times to me. I don’t think it ever goes away; that’s reassuring and at the same time terrifying.”

    By the end of that year, when she played Rosalind in As You Like It at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Kirby felt sure that she’d made the right decision about drama school. She’s learned on the job. She knows there have been mistakes she says – she’s been good in some things, not so good in others – but she says she’s also starting to trust herself to know when it’s working. And there was a perfect moment during her run as Rosalind when she got a little reminder about what it’s all about.

    “Matinees were usually filled with school parties and they were eating crisps and you know,” she shrugs, “but I remember doing this one speech about Hermia, my best friend who’s let me down and I’m in the love with the person who loves her – hellish. I remember speaking to this bank of kids and suddenly there were three girls who lent forward, the look in their eyes just changed. They were really listening to me. I did the whole thing to them.

    “I just thought if they’re having even half the moment that I did when I saw The Cherry Orchard then what I’m doing matters. That’s why I would have stayed at the Octagon Bolton for years.”

    Kirby means that acting for her is about something other than what she calls “fame or glory or celeb...” so dreadful is that final word she can’t quite bring herself to finish it. Of course it’s easy to say that when it’s patently obvious that your star is inexorably rising, but actually, I believe her.

    “I sometimes get a bit embarrassed when I tell people I’m an actor,” she says. “The perception of the job has changed a lot.” She tells me that she’s been viewing flats and estate agents first ask her if she’s got a guarantor – everyone knows that it’s a tough industry to crack, it seems – and then ask her what she’s been in. When she tells them about some stage roles they commiserate with her – it’s only the commercial stuff that they’re impressed by.

    For Kirby, though, it’s not nearly so clear cut.

    “On screen you have to worry about what you look like,” she says. “You’ve got ten people doing your hair and make-up right before you go for a take, just to remind you that you’ve got a dodgy eye so they need to make it look a bit bigger.

    “Then when you see it,” she shakes her head. “No one sees themselves like that – from that many angles, that close up, wearing different clothes that you wouldn’t usually wear, your hair all weird.

    “You don’t look how you think you look. It’s not the same as looking in a mirror. For a while I cared and I was all tense and nervous but you know what I’m not a model, I’m not ever going to be a model, I don’t look like a model and do you know what I don’t give a f**k.”

    The irony, of course, is that Kirby is very pretty. And tall. And slim. Still, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t mean it when she says that she wants to be a character actress. And by that she means “someone who plays real people who at some point in their career tries to move someone in the same way that people have moved me. If that happens then I don’t have to worry about who thinks I’m pretty and who thinks I’m ugly. I’m trying to care less and less. But it is hard.”

    She says she’s philosophical about rejection too, although I suggest to her that there can’t have been very much of that in her career so far.

    “Well, there are a lot of things that you don’t get,” she says. “But now that I’m feeling more relaxed and comfortable I think I can get the jobs that I want. And when I don’t I always lose out to people who have more profile. My mum always tells me about reading an interview with Carey Mulligan who always used to lose out to Emily Blunt.” She smiles. “I’ve only been working for the last three years. It feels like a lifetime to me but in relative terms it’s nothing. I honestly feel like the luckiest person in the world.”

    I tell her that I’ve never interviewed a male actor who’s claimed to be lucky, just women. But she’s not having any of it. First she tells me there are plenty of neurotic male actors out there, “they just hide it” and then she tells me that really what it means is an awareness of how tough the acting business is.

    “I know so many people who’ve graduated from the best unis and drama schools and they’re brilliant and they’re trying so many different ways. But it’s hard and that’s why I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to carry on working and people, for whatever reason, say ‘yeah, I want this girl to work on this with me’. I do feel that’s lucky.”

    • Labyrinth is on Channel 4 on 30 and 31 March.