LONDON—Binge-watching can sometimes be exhausting. But, Vanessa Kirby’s scrumptiously limned portrayal of Princess Margaret in the 10-episode sophomore season of Netflix’s acclaimed series “The Crown,” which begins streaming today, gives viewers compelling reason to watch it in one go.
But, we also learned that the 29-year-old actress is just as transfixing in the flesh. When we came face-to-face with her last month to discuss how she has managed to demystify Queen Elizabeth II’s fun-loving younger sister, Vanessa proved that there was more to her than her scenery-chewing thespic skills.
Vanessa inhabits her character as if it were second skin to her. But, her fondness for the princess isn’t put on. Her relationship with her father King George VI’s equerry Peter Townsend (played by Ben Miles) was largely frowned upon.
A tantalizing backstory: Margaret met the handsome but shy former war hero when she was merely 14 years old.
Their relationship blossomed into a raging romance eight years later but, because Peter was a divorcé, Margaret was forced to choose between love and royal duty. This bittersweet episode in Margaret’s much-buzzed-about romantic life has struck a chord with Vanessa.
“Growing up, the image I had of Princess Margaret was completely different,” she disclosed. “I knew that she was a slightly tragic figure, but I didn’t know why. Now, I love her with my all my heart. She was such an amazing person, and getting to ‘know’ her better was an honor.
“I’m pleased to have been entrusted to portray this most tragic love story. So, I have loads of empathy for her. I prejudged her and Peter as being privileged, and a bit distant and cold. Now I see them as human beings born into a situation they didn’t choose. They struggled with life as much as anyone.”
Vanessa’s gift of empathy sets her apart from other talented actors, who mostly get by on skill and technique. During our interview with the blonde actress at the Corinthia Hotel, the chilly autumn air was made warmer by her unexpurgated honesty and incandescent beauty.
The actress is no stranger to high praise. In fact, when she portrayed Elena in a 2016 restaging of “Uncle Vanya,” the review Variety gave her was nothing short of superlative: “It’s a performance that confirms [Kirby] as the outstanding stage actress of her generation, capable of the most unexpected choices.”
Vanessa says she’s proud of the series because “it doesn’t feel like a stuffy period drama.” She explained to us further: “It just tells the story of a young woman going through everyday struggles—and that’s something we can all relate to.”
Excerpts from our interview with Vanessa:
How would you describe the relationship of Elizabeth and Margaret this season? Their relationship has always been difficult, especially after their father’s death. Given what happens at the end of Season 1, episode 10, I don’t know how you recover from that. As siblings, how do you heal if you don’t talk about the points of conflict? That’s part of the dilemma with Peter. Nothing gets resolved, because everyone pretends that everything’s hunky-dory.
When the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) sees that Margaret has made a complete mess of her bedroom, because she’s clearly not in a good place, she brushes it off. There’s deeper resentment, which makes the situation more contentious.
This season, Margaret has a new love interest—society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), who eventually marries her. Did she really love him, or was she just desperate to tie the knot with whoever was most available? I think she genuinely loved him because she found his mystique intoxicating and unique.
It’s a form of rebellion, because Tony is so anti-establishment. He represents the antithesis of her family, combined with the fact that, at 27, she has waited so long for her shot at happiness.
In those days, the idea of a princess getting married was a huge thing. Elizabeth was married to Philip and became queen at age 21. So, the pressure to marry was massive, especially after the breakdown of her relationship with Peter.
Everybody grows up and gets much older in Season 2 (laughs). Margaret has always been somebody who feels in extremes—she’s either ecstatic or in very low spirits. She can’t hide her feelings, whereas the queen maintains a steady composure, so you’re not quite sure which side she’s on sometimes. In episode four, we got to explore those differences.
Do you think you’ve made her more human to the public? I hope so. I’ve grown to love her because there aren’t a lot of people like her. She doesn’t care what people think. Plus, it’s an amazing character to play—because I’m not like that! I wanted to do a good job for her, as a service to her memory.
If you could talk to Princess Margaret, who passed away in 2002 at age 71, to help you with characterization, what would you ask her? Did you ever get over Peter? And for how long did you love him?
You’ve made her relatable to people who aren’t very familiar with the royal family. What hurdles did you go through in your portrayal of the princess? To play anybody real and famous is very scary. The royal family is still around and iconic. We were lucky to have Peter (Morgan, the showrunner). He’s done it with “The Audience” and “The Queen,” so we felt it was safe to do it.
Also, do I look anything like Princess Margaret? The physical consideration became an issue initially, especially after I tried a wig on for the first time and realized I was a lot taller (5’6”) than Claire (5’3”) and Victoria (Hamilton, who plays the Queen Mom). Margaret was the shortest of them all, so I kept taking my heels off. All those were hurdles. I was nervous till the very end of my last scene.
Margaret was said to be jealous of her sister. Did you imagine yourself in the queen’s part? I’m nowhere near as good as Claire. She’s better at internalizing not showing how she feels (laughs), so the role is a perfect fit for her. It was easy to imagine what it felt like for her to always be one step behind her sister.
Margaret knows how to fit into everything, but she goes through so much struggle inside because of the man she loves. She’s not jealous. This season, she says, “I know who I am and what I represent. I am a woman for the modern age.”
She says that after meeting Tony, who’s a very modern man. I always thought this season was about Margaret trying to find herself. She didn’t give up being a princess, yet she said she wanted to break away. So, there was that conflict.
What was it like working with Matthew Goode? He’s a brilliant actor and a great friend. We laughed from morning till night. He was perfect, because we needed a Tony who could credibly intimidate Margaret. That isn’t easy because Margaret is never intimidated by anyone, not even by Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).
In one episode, there’s a line that says Margaret is more fit to be queen. What’s your take on that? That would have been amazing (laughs), but somehow, I don’t think that would work. While Margaret being queen would be more fun, it also would be risky!
It’s been said that the “right one” was born first. When you hear that as a child, you’re likely to develop inferiority complex, so you counteract that by becoming your father’s joy, whereas Elizabeth is her dad’s pride. You become more entertaining and vibrant to get the validation you seek.
Any feedback from the royal family about the show? Not directly—just rumors. I heard that the queen has seen it and quite liked it. But, apparently, Philip hasn’t, which I also love. It’s probably better that way (laughs).