Interview

Vanessa Kirby on Pieces of a Woman: ‘I’m not a silent person – I wanted to shout back and hit things’

The new Netflix drama is an astonishing exploration of grief in the wake of tragedy. Alexandra Pollard talks to its stars Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn, director Kornel Mundruczo, and screenwriter Kata Weber  

Thursday 07 January 2021 06:32
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<p>Though they are worlds apart, the characters share a stubbornness: Elizabeth (Burstyn, right) is confrontational, Martha (Kirby) avoidant, but both are coiled springs destined to collide</p>

Though they are worlds apart, the characters share a stubbornness: Elizabeth (Burstyn, right) is confrontational, Martha (Kirby) avoidant, but both are coiled springs destined to collide

There are things that are so hard to talk about, you know?” says screenwriter Kata Weber. “And there are tragedies that are no one’s fault.” Pieces of a Woman, a pulverising new film written by Weber and directed by her partner Kornel Mundruczo, was based on their own experience of grief. “There are things which are not under our control, and losing a child goes absolutely against the circle of life.”

We meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) on the cusp of new motherhood. She and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a gruff, affectionate construction worker, have meticulously prepared for their home birth – they have the exercise ball; the trusted midwife; the breathing exercises. But things don’t go to plan. Their midwife can’t make it, and her replacement, Eve (Molly Parker), tries to play down the implications of the baby’s dangerously low heart rate. At the end of an astonishing, one-shot, 23-minute scene, after a glimmer of hope, the screen cuts to black.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the rest of the film grapples with the aftermath of neonatal death. Martha, Sean, and Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) respond in such disparate ways, they might as well be speaking different languages. Elizabeth, a dogged holocaust survivor, wants justice, insisting on pursuing charges of criminal negligence against the midwife. Sean wants his wife to join him in his outward displays of despair, and when she doesn’t, falls into the arms of addiction. Martha is quiet, insular, passive. She sits on the subways and wanders down supermarket aisles, her grief inscrutable but always there.

“Funnily enough, I’m really not a silent person,” says Kirby, sitting alongside her co-star Burstyn over Zoom, “and I’ve had to learn that silence is really important.” The 32-year-old prepared for the role diligently, even getting permission to watch a stranger’s six-hour labour (she’s never given birth herself) to help make her performance authentic – but she found it hard to wrap her head around Martha’s reticence. “I wanted to shout back a lot and I wanted to hit things and express,” she says. “When I wanted to scream at people, Martha chose not to. She chose to do it inside herself, to internalise that scream. It was hard to do scenes with people where my instinct would be to lean into the scene, but I knew that my job was to sit on my hands and just not do that. That was so scary, because I thought, ‘Oh my God, if the audience don’t see this, then I’ve just failed so badly.’”

Even Burstyn didn’t see it at first. “I remember the first scene I did with you,” she tells Kirby, “I was a little surprised how unavailable you were. You were so distant, and I thought, ‘What is she doing? I don’t see the grief! What is going on with her?’ And then after a while, I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s what she’s doing. She’s not feeling it in a way that I recognise. Hello Ellen, that’s what the story’s about.’”

Kirby’s eyes widen. “Oh my God that’s crazy, I’ve never heard you talk about that. We can’t access each other, and that’s the problem. They don’t have the tools to be able to articulate their real truth and feel like the other one will hold space for it.”

Though they are worlds apart, the characters share a stubbornness: Elizabeth is confrontational, Martha avoidant, but both are coiled springs destined to collide. Both give phenomenal performances, as controlled as they are boundless; Kirby, who broke out a few years ago as a young Princess Margaret in The Crown, is tipped for an Oscar.

Martha, continues Kirby, is never allowed to come to terms with the loss in her own way. “No one sat down and said, ‘How are you? You just talk and I won’t try and change it or manipulate it; I won’t try and make it what I need it to be to feel good’, either to go to trial or to scream on the floor like Sean wants her to do. Obviously, she didn’t feel safe enough to be able to begin to articulate it. So slowly but surely, she just goes inward and there’s no way of reaching her.” There’s a pause. “That must have been incredibly frustrating, Ellen. I didn’t even think about that.”  

Playing Martha, ‘I’ve had to learn that silence is really important, says Kirby’

“It wasn’t frustrating, it was curious to me at first,” says Burstyn, who’s been Oscar-nominated five times herself, and won for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974, more than a decade before Kirby was born. “Because knowing who you are as a person, I didn’t expect you to be so remote when we got on the set. It took me a little while to begin to understand your character. And then I was so impressed. Because my way of dealing with a problem is, ‘Fix it, make it better’.”

For a long time after losing their child during pregnancy, Mundruczo and Weber didn’t properly confront their own trauma. Then Mundruczo, looking for ideas for a theatre piece, came across some fragments of dialogue in his partner’s notebook. It was titled “Pieces of a Woman”. “That was the most personal writing I ever read by Kata,” he said, “and I just recognised through that that we never talked about it. When I read it, that broke the silence.” The fragments became a play, set in Poland, which eventually became this film, set in Boston.

Weber’s writing offered a female perspective that Mundruczo hadn’t understood before. While his instinct had been to try and get things back to normal – back to the way they were “before the tragedy happened” – hers was the opposite. “You don’t want to go back,” he says, “you want to stay, you want to be the mother of the lost one, you want to love the lost one. You don’t want to betray her. And that was the perspective that never ever came into my mind.”

When Mundruczo first suggested that Weber expand her notes into a script, she was hesitant. “It was frightening,” she says. “And I felt, ‘It’s too small, it’s too personal, it’s not enough of a story.’” But then she realised how few films deal with miscarriage and neonatal death. “It’s very important for me that this story could somehow break the silence around a certain taboo.”

‘I feel like the connection that Vanessa and I developed was real and deep,’ says Burstyn

In a five-star review, one critic observed that “although Martha has retreated inside herself … her body betrays her”. When she’s walking through a shopping mall, her breasts start to leak milk. But Weber doesn’t seem to see that as a betrayal. “It’s all about motherhood, you know?” she says. “You’re also the mother of the lost one. You’re not just the mother of the babies that live but of the ones you lose. In this sense, your body is still in that mode, you’re still in the mood for being the greatest mother.” She talked to other women who had lost babies, and they felt the same: “What they experienced was not just a loss but the biggest love they could ever experience in their life, and they wanted to express the legacy of their child.”

Is that why Martha decides to donate her daughter’s body to medical science? “Yes exactly, to bring love to the world instead of revenge,” says Weber. Her family are disgusted by the decision. Initially, Mundruczo admits, he felt the same. “But later I understood the purpose,” he says, “of using her for a good reason, and this shows love for that person. It’s such a mistake to destroy the love during grief.”

Martha and Sean’s love, though, struggles to carry the weight of their grief. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, blind drunk and coming undone, Sean tries to coerce Martha into having sex with him. Later, he takes an exercise ball – the same one that was supposed to ease the birth of their daughter – and throws it at her face. In the light of recent abuse allegations made against LaBeouf by his ex-girlfriend FKA twigs, these scenes are hard to watch. I’ve been asked not to discuss the accusations, because the lawsuit is ongoing, but in response to a question from The Times, Kirby said: “I stand with all survivors of abuse and respect the courage of anyone who speaks their truth.”

Though they won’t talk about LaBeouf, Mundruczo and Weber are forthcoming when it comes to Sean, with whom they clearly empathise. “We really tried to cast a real misfit into the family,” says Mundruczo, “but when there’s a conflict, then the two cultures are so far from each other. His pain is really real for me, and his decision to go back to addiction is kind of understandable, even if it makes him very raw and very heavy.” “I like their love,” says Weber. “You see it in the birth scene, it’s so powerful, it’s a magnetic longing for someone who is different. But she has her own choices. So ultimately she makes her own choice leaving him.”

It's a common consequence of this kind of tragedy, she says. “Unfortunately, a lot of relationships break down after miscarriages and still-births. You try to do it together but grieving is so personal. They cannot break the silence about it. For the whole movie, you wish they could really talk about it, but they just can’t.” Still, she adds, “I think the film is more about love than about the destruction of the relationship.”

There is an optimism to the way Weber and Mundruczo talk about the film that surprises me. “We didn’t just want to say this is the biggest tragedy that could ever happen, which is true, but there are so many other levels where you could find light and grace with a bereavement process,” says Weber. “You can really triumph and become a stronger person. We really wanted the story to talk as much about life as about loss.”

Even that decision to cut to black, to not show the moment the baby dies, came from a desire to keep her spirit alive. “Like Martha, we didn’t want to admit the loss really,” says Weber. “This story is about the power of the ones who are not there materially, but are there spiritually.” Mundruczo agrees. “If I show that moment, then the baby’s dead, and I just don’t want that. I really wanted to keep her alive, even with the knowledge that she’s not with us for the rest of the movie. We saw her in this infinite moment of love when she’s on Vanessa.”

Martha and Sean’s love, struggles to carry the weight of their grief

As far as Kirby and Burstyn are concerned, even the most vicious scene in the film – a fierce confrontation in which Elizabeth tells Martha: “If you’d done it my way, you’d be holding your baby in your arms right now” – leads to something good. “It’s hard to talk about that scene,” says Burstyn, “because there was so much that exploded out of me that had been held back. I feel like the connection that Vanessa and I developed, which was real and deep, allowed for a level of reality to enter the room so that we were able to allow what needed to happen to come through.”

The scene’s dialogue evolved with each take; Burstyn ad-libbed the part where she pleads for her daughter to speak her truth. “It was a mother and daughter facing each other and actually saying what they think and feel for the first time probably in their lives,” says Kirby. “And these are two people who don’t really reveal their pain to people. So I think when that moment happened, neither of us expected it to be that explosive, but my God it was such a relief.”

As for that line – that cruel insinuation that Martha was to blame for her daughter’s death – Kirby believes it was a turning point for her character. “That’s the thing that lacerates Martha the most,” she says, “but also begins to allow her to speak her truth. I think she goes through a profoundly transformative journey. By the end, she finds her voice more than she ever has in her life. Her daughter might have lived for a minute, but she gave her that.”

‘Pieces of a Woman’ is on Netflix now

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