“My best friend has moved away and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.” That tragedy sketched out in just one sentence, hidden in the diary of a frontier woman among “all these facts about how many potatoes there’d been,” inspired the short story on which Vanessa Kirby’s new film is based. In The World to Come, the newly-minted Oscar nominee (she received her first Academy Award nod earlier this year, for her turn as a grieving mother in Pieces of a Woman) plays Tallie, a farmer’s wife in 19th century upstate New York, who strikes up an all-consuming friendship with her neighbour Abigail (Katherine Waterston). Their bond tentatively segues into a romance that briefly lights up their harsh, isolated existence.
“Most frontier dramas have all been the men charging around, doing lots of action, taking people out,” the 33-year-old notes, speaking over Zoom from her London home. “So it was amazing to have a film that gave women the space to talk about their experience.” What immediately struck her was the sense of wasted potential - how circumscribed these women’s lives were, dedicated to and dictated by the men they were told to marry. “It just reminded you that it really wasn’t that long ago that women had no choice of what they did with their time, let alone who they loved,” she says. “[The film] felt like a voice for those women - who dreamed of other things, of fulfilling what they really wanted and who they really were.”
Her character Tallie is an exuberant foil to Waterston’s more reserved Abigail and has “such a life force energy” - “that’s why we chose this red wig,” she jokes, adding: “I imagined her in all these different eras, being able to do all these different things… the potential of her life.” Kirby, of course, has form when it comes to playing women encaged by their circumstances. The actress, who grew up in Wimbledon, quickly carved out a successful stage career after university (including starring opposite Gillian Anderson in the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire) but it was her scene-stealing reign as a young Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown that made her name internationally.
Though she is “usually a meticulous researcher” (she shadowed a London-based obstetrician and witnessed a live birth for Pieces of a Woman, and sought out as many illuminating anecdotes as possible when playing Margaret), this time she “surprised” herself, channelling Tallie’s “instinctive” nature by letting the landscape do some of the work. The cast were holed up in a tiny hotel in the Romanian countryside for two months, and “had to hike to set… You felt the space, the loneliness and the isolation.”
Filming “in the middle of nowhere” with “just a bit of dodgy wifi” meant she and Waterston forged “a really strong friendship” (“you can’t always get that for free,” she notes wryly) but also meant she was “two hours from the nearest hospital” when her first scene went awry. “I dislocated my ankle on the first day,” she recalls. “I was wearing these period shoes with no grip, it had been raining and it was the second take - I just fell down the whole set, landed at the bottom… We just had to find these random, very 70s type crutches and I was going around on them the whole time.”
When The World to Come debuted at Venice Film Festival (one of the few film festivals to take place in person last autumn), “someone came up to us afterwards [to say] ‘Oh my god, it’s just like Brokeback Mountain.’” That their “first reference” was a film shot “nearly 20 years ago” underlined to her that “there are so many films that haven’t represented” same-sex love stories (although that’s changed recently, with the release of period pieces like Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
The actress says she felt “a big responsibility” in capturing a story that’s been pushed to the margins of history. “It felt like an honour to bring some of this to light,” she explains. “So many of these women, there’s just no trace of them. Just think about their lives and their experiences and what they longed for, and what they imagined the future to be… I definitely feel I came away from the film being deeply grateful for the choices that I have in my life.”
Post-Oscar nomination, you imagine Kirby has plenty. Though she “took a pause,” along with the rest of her industry, during the early stages of lockdown (which she spent in a flatshare with her younger sister and some friends), she has since wrapped filming on Mission Impossible 7 (her co-star Tom Cruise might have watched the Euros final in a box at Wembley, but Kirby spent the evening in the pub, where “there was a guy who’d brought a trombone, and he was playing all the tunes all the way through”). She has signed up to appear in The Son, Florian Keller’s follow-up to awards season hit The Father, and when we speak, she is about to fly off to start work on Suddenly, a survival thriller which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal.
She is also in the process of setting up a production company, with the “intention and mission” to focus on female-led stories. “I’d always known I wanted to do it, it was just about being ready - knowing the responsibility of that, really knowing clearly the stories that I’d want to create,” she notes. “I felt ready after Pieces of a Woman and The World to Come... realising how much [they] gave me and how I loved the responsibility of the message of those two films.” The film world has, she notes, “been predominantly led by male directors and writers over the years… it’s our time now and that feels really special. I don’t think any of us are taking it for granted… And I’m really, really excited.”
The World to Come is in cinemas from July 23