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You know the old saying: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because you got two seasons of a young Princess Margaret wreaking royal havoc in the House of Windsor. So concluded Vanessa Kirby’s tenure as everyone’s favorite princess in Netflix’s The Crown, where, after 20 episodes filled with poignant heartbreak, wild exploits, and a marriage to a sexy society photographer, Kirby is now passing the tiara over to Helena Bonham Carter for Margaret’s adult years. Vulture called Kirby on a recent afternoon to discuss her role as Margaret, which she calls the “happiest time” of her life. We also discussed the aftermath of the show’s pay gap drama, how she and Carter text about Margaret all the time, and how she chose the song that accompanies one of Margaret’s most memorable moments.
I’m still going through the five stages of grief about you not returning as Margaret next season.
You and me both. [Laughs.] It’s so nice. I’m feeling it too. We can feel it together.
You revealed on Instagram that Helena would be the next Margaret — even before Netflix! Tell me all about this bonding session, because it looked really fun.
It’s funny because I bumped into her at a play and I knew she got the part at that point. She made her mom take pictures of us, and she sent me the pictures. I put one on Instagram, because of course I was really honored! And then I get a message from someone on the show going like, “We haven’t announced it yet.” Oh, shit. So I’m like, “Oh no, what do I do?!” They’re like, “Don’t say anything else!” Everyone kept asking me and I had to be cheeky about it. But it was fine, she was announced a few months later.
Did you offer any advice about playing Margaret? I find it amusing how she played the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech, and now she’s now playing her daughter.
That evolution is so fun, isn’t it? Mainly we’ve been discussing her essence, really. It was quite daunting to take on at the beginning because playing anybody real is scary, but to be in the same boat of knowing it can’t be an impersonation is even scarier. You have to find the spirit of who they really are. Helena has totally gone for it that way, I can tell. She’s really tried to capture the essence of Margaret, rather than copy me. Not that she would anyway. [Laughs.] Oscar-nominated actress! Her process is very much similar to mine. She asks for my playlists, my scripts, my notes. We just text about our love for Margaret nonstop, little anecdotes and stories like that.
Did you create playlists based on Margaret’s music tastes?
Exactly. There are so many discs you now can find on YouTube that she recorded when she was in her 70s. Her favorite songs were, like, “Scotland the Brave” on the bagpipes. From what she described, I downloaded all of her favorite music. I had a big playlist I’d play in the makeup trailer in the morning, or at my house. My poor sister who lives with me had to put up with so many bagpipes. I wanted to immerse myself in her world and what she loved, more than anything.
You have fulfilled my fantasy of being romanced by Matthew Goode, even if it’s just in a fictional setting. When he signed on to play Tony, what conversations did you two have about what you wanted to convey with their relationship? Especially in comparison to Margaret’s previous courtship with Peter?
Psychologically, it seemed Peter and Margaret had a paternal and comforting relationship. He was everything to her. I understood the nature of their relationship. At the beginning, I wanted this fantasy world for Margaret — for her to find her true love and for her to be happy with a Romeo and Juliet romance. But at the end of the first season, she’s left with such a wound. The last thing she says that season is something along the lines of, “You don’t understand what it’s like to feel unhinged.” She’s genuinely worried for herself and her fantasy, and the road she knows she can’t go down. In some way, losing Peter was like losing her father again.
So, she meets Tony when this wound is incredibly raw. It becomes toxic and intoxicating and dynamic and exhilarating. It was really important for me to chart that sequence of how much pain she’s truly in, and that’s the place where she meets Tony. That was my goal, to make sure the romance of Tony came out of pain.
I’d love to ask you about the sequence when Margaret comes to Tony’s studio and he treats her with such contempt. What was shooting that like? It played out like a beautiful dance.
It really does. Even with her outfit, I got so specific and anal about it. This is her seduction outfit! This is what she spends half of the episode in! She cares so much about clothes, and how she represents herself is always through her clothes. We spent weeks trying to find the right outfit, as she probably would’ve too, to meet him for the first time privately. It was magical to shoot. I remember sitting there and having my photograph by Matthew, who was so convincing as a photographer, and I felt so exposed as Margaret than never before. I felt like a deer in headlights.
For Margaret and Tony, it’s the first place where she’s truly felt out of her depth. She’s never really been in a space where she doesn’t know how to be. Tony doesn’t want any of those things. Tony’s like, “I don’t want any of those things. I want you to forget the title, the privileges, I just want you to be you.” It was stripping the layers of the princess off and seeing who was underneath. Someone, for the first time, wanted to know her and not Princess Margaret. So much of her identity is already projected upon her and objectified in many ways.
The whole scene is capped off by one of the most beautiful songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
You know what? That song is my and my boyfriend’s favorite song in real life. That day when we were shooting, I’m darting around and undressing in front of the whole crew. I said to the director, Ben Caron, “I’ll tell you what, I love this song, my boyfriend loves this song, put it on and I’ll feel really happy.” So they did, and Ben was like, “Would you mind if we use it in the show if we get the rights?” When I showed my boyfriend the episode, we were laughing. It suddenly became a popular song again.
Hey, since you aren’t coming back as Margaret, maybe you could be the music supervisor next season.
You know, that’s not such a bad idea. With my boyfriend!
You’ve talked a lot about the research you conducted to embody Margaret. Were there any facts you learned about her that you would’ve loved to see on the show, but didn’t?
Too many! Her life in the clubs in London. Her life in fashion as well, and how she spent a lot of time in Paris with the fashion shows. The designers were obsessed with her. She had a lot of American friends, American showgirls. She loved the theater. She always dreamed of becoming a ballerina herself. For awhile, Peter [Morgan] considered in the first episode of season two that we see her drunk at a table. I wanted people to see her wild life outside of the palace. We only really see that through Tony, and there was only room in the narrative for her and Tony’s story. But yeah, her life in London and how that exploded out of the palace would’ve been great. How she became the rebel in that sense — on the front page of every paper, coming out of clubs at 5 a.m. — I’m sure Helena will have more of that. Matthew and I would’ve loved to have more of that.
One of the biggest stories that emerged from the show’s second season was the gender pay gap. How surprised were you to learn that Claire Foy was being paid substantially less than Matt Smith?
I’ve spoken to Claire recently about it, and she’s talked so eloquently about the whole thing. It’s incited a change in her and all of us. The best thing about it is now the conversation is open and it’s less likely to happen again. This is partly why I feel proud at the moment to be in this industry, because for better or worse, us women are talking about it. Hopefully, this will impact other sectors and industries that don’t get the media coverage. If Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow talk about these issues, people are reading about it. I hope we can be the instigator of change. I’m sure Claire felt like that too.
I was surprised how openly the producers admitted the disparity, and how they assured it won’t happen again. You don’t see that level of candor a lot.
I’m so glad you said that. It’s true. Suzanne [Mackie], the producer, is the most amazing woman. What she did was actually begin the conversation that was so essential. I think that it’ll help a lot of people.
After the disparity was revealed, did you investigate how your pay compared to men’s roles?
My situation is separate, really. It wasn’t comparable with Claire’s issue. I think a lot of it has to do with market value, and there’s a lot of problems with that, too, in the sense that women haven’t been giving as many opportunities for leading roles for men. You’re actually at a disadvantage, even when people are negotiating for you, because you haven’t had as many opportunities to get your position in the market. There are a lot of complications, which is why the pendulum has to swing as much as possible with everything that we do know. For all women as much as possible. It’s desperately unequal.
Yeah, whether someone’s “market value” is a justifiable argument to be made or not. Even if Claire wasn’t too well known in America at the time, she was the crown.
Totally. Also, I think it’s about people getting conscious and mindful of the norms and questioning them. Challenging them. Trying to do things differently. Having a commitment to change. It’s crucial. I definitely feel galvanized, as I’m sure women across our industry do, to speak up and stand up for equal rights and equal representation on the screen. A representation of women we can identify with as being women we would know, who are idiosyncratic and real and flawed and messy and brilliant. We have to really fight for that representation on screen now. I felt so blessed to find Margaret in that way.
In a lighter topic, do you have someone in mind to play Margaret at her oldest age?
You know, I haven’t even thought about it! No, I don’t know! Ah! [Laughs.] You’ll have to ask Helena that. Maybe she’ll have someone good for you. I’m very excited and totally envious to see who will be cast next. It was the happiest time of my life. It was just a dream come true from start to finish. I’ll miss it forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.