Vanessa Kirby remembers the call like it was yesterday. "It was just before Christmas," the actress recalls. "I was told, 'Ridley Scott wants to call you in 5 minutes.'" The director, a four-time Oscar nominee for Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and The Martian, rang Kirby with an offer that was as enticing as it was daunting. He wanted her to play the Empress Joséphine to Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon Bonaparte in his next film.

"I was honored to be asked," says Kirby.

Looking back on it now, the London-born actress (herself an Oscar nominee for 2020's Pieces of a Woman) admits that her decision to play Joséphine de Beauharnais was purely instinctual. "I knew instantly that she was interesting to me, but I didn't really know why," Kirby shares. "As Brits, we didn't study a lot of French history growing up."

As she began researching the role, Kirby found herself surprised not only by the twists and turns of Napoleon and Joséphine's relationship, but also by the numerous hardships that the empress endured. "When people talk about her, it's always 'Napoleon and Joséphine,'" she points out. "The more I learned about her, though, the more my mind was blown by all the different lives she lived in just one lifetime."

Scott's film chronicles the titular French ruler's rise and downfall on the battlefield and behind closed doors, in his relationship with Joséphine. But it was only after tracing the full arc of Joséphine's life that Kirby felt like she understood the once-Empress of France.

"Every account paints her in a different way, which led me to believe that she must have been the kind of person who could adapt well to different circumstances," Kirby tells A.frame. "It didn't matter whether that meant playing the sweet little wife to a husband who never let her out of their house, wearing see-through dresses and leading a fashion revolution, or being crowned as Empress in front of an entire nation."

A.frame: When you get offered a part like Joséphine and with such little time to prepare, what's the first thing you do?

Obviously, you feel waves of fear, because you're playing a real person and I was coming onto this project quite late. I didn't want to be the one who knew the least, so I realized, I have to do more work than ever. And I did, over the course of that holiday period. I ordered as many books as I possibly could and had them delivered to my door. Those are really the best resources, especially when you're researching the period Napoleon is set in. There's no archival footage or anything like that, so you begin with the books and you just get through them one by one and try to distill from all of them the essence of who you're playing. I couldn't believe how many different versions, accounts, and interpretations of her there were.


Joséphine is such an enigmatic figure. What was it about her that appealed to you?

It's interesting that you call her "enigmatic," because I wouldn't usually choose to interpret a character that way. Usually, you like to have very clear parameters of who a person is. It's really tricky to play enigmatic, because that means there's something unknowable about that person, and how do you embody that? That's a more difficult acting challenge than playing someone who's got a very obvious, demonstrative personality. The real-life character I played in The Crown [Princess Margaret] was easier in a way, because it was very outwardly clear who she was. Joséphine, however, was someone who came from a tiny Caribbean island that most people never left and was determined to go to France and marry a complete stranger at 16 years old on her own. She left her whole family behind, she became this aristocratic wife who was at home with two children and was barely allowed out of the house, and then suddenly she was thrown into prison and seemingly just a day away from being executed, after having already watched her husband be beheaded!

She was released and was suddenly at the epicenter of this new wave of liberation, hedonism, women's fashion, and sexuality, and she was having all of these different affairs with a lot of people. Eventually, she decided, "I should probably bet on this young general. I'm not that into him, but he writes me all these mad, obsessive kind of teenage love letters." She became the Empress alongside him and had to constantly grapple with the volatility and ever-shifting power dynamics that existed between them. All of those details led me to believe that she had the ability to survive and adapt when most people would have crumbled. I thought she was a resilient, powerful person who managed to navigate the intensity and extremity of her entire culture and world.

In Napoleon, Joséphine seems simultaneously strong and confident and also quietly resigned to the way that the world works. What was it like playing both of those sides of the character?

She's not somebody who has had anything particularly easy, which is why I think she was able to take on things that other people would have really struggled with. She ended up in this very harsh world, and there were so many moments where she had to be strong enough not to collapse either internally or externally. I really had to imagine a survivor's kind of mindset, and also the rage that I imagined someone would feel after spending months in a prison where you were told you had to sleep with a lot of men to try to get pregnant, because pregnant women wouldn't be beheaded. We actually shot a scene where you see Joséphine get her hair cut off in prison so it wouldn't get caught in the guillotine blade and then go and actively choose to sleep with the first of many men there to try to get pregnant. That's the experience she's coming out of when she meets Napoleon.

So, even in the scene where she opens her legs for Napoleon, I never wanted her sexuality to ever be misconstrued as a kind of easy, surface-level transaction. I always wanted her to have dignity through to the very end. Dignity was one word that really stayed with me, because after everything I learned about her, I saw her as someone who managed to be dignified even while living in an incredibly undignified society. That said, I didn't want her to be seen as virtuous, either. She was incredibly sensual and she even had this really intense affair with a 23-year-old who ran an arms-dealing business with her. She wasn't pure, by any stretch of the imagination, but she had experience with deep pain and death and some very tough things. I think that gave her an understanding of the world and its brutality, and I thought Napoleon must have liked that about her. He was fixated on her, because she had this strange command over him, and I think that must have been because he couldn't quite get ahold of her the same way he could his soldiers and enemies on the battlefield.

It's interesting that you mention scenes that were cut. Have you seen the 4½ hour version of the film that Ridley has teased?

No, but I know the movie could probably be 8 hours, and I still wouldn't be able to guess what he would and wouldn't include in that version. I think it's cool, because the history was so vast. You could do a 20-part television series on Joséphine alone, because there were so many phases of her life and crazy facts about her that I found so shocking to learn. It would make a great series. Someone should definitely do that one day.

Are there any scenes you shot that didn't make it into the theatrical cut that you would like to see included in a future version of the film?

We shot so much that it's sometimes hard to remember everything we did. Claire Simpson, the film's editor, reminded me the other day that we did 9-minute takes of the scene in the middle of the night, when Joaquin and I are sat on the sofa together. I asked her, "What did we do in those 9 minutes?" She said, "Everything. You kissed. You shouted in his face. All sorts of things happened!" There's such a strange power dynamic between them. That was documented in history — their command over each other and their dysfunctional codependence. They couldn't live without each other. They felt very fused together, but they still tried to find ways of expressing themselves outside the parameters of their relationship.

Off the top of my head, I guess I'd like to see the scene where her hair gets cut off included in some version, just because that'll explain her haircut at the start of the film a bit better! [Laughs]


You've worked with both veteran filmmakers like Ridley Scott and newer directors like Mona Fastvold and Adam Leon. What do you find particularly rewarding about working with a legend at the helm, versus what you find rewarding about collaborating with someone who has only made one or two films before?

I often get asked about genre and how I feel about moving between genres and indie movies and bigger-scale productions, but it's weird, because I've never really viewed my films in that way. I always say that's because I started in theater, and every single playwright dictates a completely different reality in their own way. It's not the same thing doing a Shakespeare play and an Arthur Miller play. It's almost like you enter a different dimension with each of them. Sometimes, it can take the whole shoot before you feel like you've fully grasped the tone of the piece, because everything has such a different energy to it. It's a different alchemy of people each time. It's the vision of the director, and it's not just their process and the way they work, but also the space they create. On The Crown, for example, we all came from the theater. We were like a little theater group of unknown British actors working with Stephen Daldry and Peter Morgan, who are theater legends. It really felt like a theater group coming together to do this show. It felt like live theaters.

That's a completely different thing to being able to do many, many takes on a Mission: Impossible movie. I love the challenge of that. You always have to adjust and adapt to what’s being asked of you. On one of Ridley's movies, you might have just one or two takes to do an entire scene, because he's always got eight cameras going. You have to learn the rhythm and the pace of that and try to adjust quite quickly to what that's like. And then that’s different to working on a film like The World to Come, which was shot in a Romanian valley in these little houses that were built specifically for the movie. I find it to be such a privilege to get to enter all these different worlds and try to get used to them.

As you look ahead to 2024, is there anything you have lined up that you're looking forward to working on?

I've been building this production company, Aluna Entertainment, for about 18 months, and we've all been told many times now that it takes about three years to get up and running and get things into production. We're not far off from that now with quite a few projects, and it's been great building the company. It's been one of the most amazing journeys of my career so far, because you get to find and put together stories and teams to realize those stories. It's been great to brainstorm and go, "Oh, we haven't seen the female experience from this perspective yet," just because there haven't been nearly as many female creatives who have gotten the chance to tell their stories. I find it so fulfilling. There's so much that's yet to be done, and Barbie's brilliant success this year is really paving the way now for female creatives to take up more space. I'm really excited about what's going to come from all of this and the runway that we all have ahead of us right now. I really want to play a part in it, and that's been the thing lately that wakes me up at five in the morning and gets me up and going.

By Alex Welch


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