For Vanessa Kirby, the Christmas break in 2021 was a time to read. She’d just gotten a call from Ridley Scott, who offered her the role of Joséphine in his epic film “Napoleon,” and of course she said yes. But she only had vague impressions about the woman who became Empress of the French during her marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte (played by Joaquin Phoenix in the film), so her holiday suddenly became a time of intense study.
The problem was that Joséphine Bonaparte, a.k.a. Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, a.k.a. Joséphine de Beauharnais, a.k.a. Marie-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, remained elusive no matter how much research Kirby did.
“Every book I read contradicted the last one and every firsthand account said something completely different about her,” Kirby told TheWrap. “It was confusing because I wanted to absorb all of them. The real gift of a process of playing someone in real life is to try and go, ‘How do I distill their essence and be true to that rather than invent too much?’”
Kirby, who is best known for playing Princess Margaret on “The Crown,” an arms dealer known as the White Widow in two “Mission: Impossible” films and a grieving woman in the searing “Pieces of a Woman,” said she found Joséphine “one of the most deeply surprising and interesting people I’ve ever learned about. She lived about six lifetimes in one life, and she had many different versions of herself. I had to try to understand who she was by finding a central core, but it was challenging because she had such an ability to shape-shift.”
Scott’s movie is a portrait of the relationship against the backdrop of enormous battles, and Kirby was warned in advance that the director works quickly and uses detailed storyboards to get exactly what he wants.
“He might shoot with eight to 11 cameras,” she said. “You can’t do that without knowing where every camera is going to be.” Knowing that he would move fast and she’d better be ready, she asked Scott for his storyboards, printed them out and hung them on her walls. “You’ve only got one or two takes, so you’ve got to be as prepared as Ridley is,” she said.
One key to her character, she decided, came in Joséphine’s experience shortly before she met Napoleon. After growing up on a Caribbean island in the French Antilles, she married politician and general Alexandre de Beauharnais, a supporter of the French Revolution who was imprisoned and executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror in the late 18th century. Joséphine was also imprisoned, but was released five days after her husband’s death, on the day she herself was scheduled to be executed.
“She came extremely close to death, so she had a kind of survivor’s rage inside that I think was always there,” Kirby said. “It gave her a weight of experience, a deep well of having lived through something very hard.”
She also had numerous affairs before marrying Napoleon — and because the women of the day used acid as a form of contraception, she may have damaged her womb in a way that prevented her from having a child who could succeed Napoleon as emperor. “There was the pressure of an entire empire to produce an heir, and she was publicly divorced because of it,” she said. “I felt so deeply for her.”
In a way, that aspect of Joséphine’s life — the fact that the couple were forced to divorce even though they were in love because the union didn’t produce a child — has faint echoes of a very different project of Kirby’s. Her characters in both “Napoleon” and “Pieces of a Woman” are tormented by the absence of a child; in Scott’s movie it’s her inability to produce an heir, while in Kornél Mundruczó’s 2020 drama it’s the death of her character’s newborn child after an unbroken 24-minute scene depicting the birth in unflinching detail.
“I hadn’t thought of that link before, but that’s so right,” Kirby said. “Both of them taught me about resilience and an ability to find a kind of immeasurable strength.”
“Pieces of a Woman” also brought Kirby an Oscar nomination and inspired her and her sister to form a production company in 2021 with a singular focus.
“I was changed by that experience forever, because I couldn’t believe that we were allowed to put a birth on screen for a quarter of the screen time of the movie — and do it without editing it, without trying to make it palatable,” she said. “I was so moved by the fact that there was suddenly space for that experience to be on screen, and it was written by a woman who had a similar experience [screenwriter Kata Wéber].
“I realized there have been so many thousands of deaths on screen and there’s hardly ever been births. And I wonder if that’s because there haven’t been nearly as many female creatives being able to express their experience, even though we’ve all been born and we all die. It taught me that there’s so many female experiences that I would hope are just as relatable for men, that haven’t been on screen yet. And if I can play a small part in contributing to that, that’s our mission, really.”
This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.