“There is something so primal about being a woman. Women create life,” Vanessa Kirby says, speaking on a recent evening from her home in London. She zooms out, as if taking in the astronaut view: “It’s like, the earth is called Mother Earth.” Kirby certainly can relate on a cinematic level. In the 2020 film Pieces of a Woman, she plays a first-time mother whose home birth takes a calamitous turn. This portrayal of delivery is not the sanitized shorthand of ice chips and Lamaze. “I think we shot six takes, and some of them were 45 minutes,” says Kirby, a veteran stage actor who brought that immersive background to set. “I had the absolute privilege of watching someone give birth for that movie—my God, I was in awe.” For her, that first-hand look illustrated just how porous the line is between humans and animals, particularly at the physiological extremes. “I had no idea how I was going to do it. I just knew that I couldn’t get it wrong for women,” she adds. The resulting performance, shatteringly raw, earned her an Oscar nomination.
Feral energy is front of mind for Kirby, a Cartier ambassador who is now the face of its La Panthère collection of jewelry and fragrances. A fascination with big cats runs throughout design history, but the French house found a particular muse in the spotted rainforest dweller. In an invitation to a 1914 jewelry exhibition, illustrated by George Barbier at Louis Cartier’s bidding, an elegant black panther sits at the feet of a woman dressed in an au courant neoclassical tunic. Around that time, the charismatic Jeanne Toussaint—known by her nickname, La Panthère, and her fascination with rare fauna—began working with the house, charting a path to her pioneering 1933 appointment as artistic director of high jewelry. Panther spots appeared on a few early pieces, but it was Toussaint who breathed life into daring three-dimensional designs—notably a pair of late 1940s panther brooches for the Duchess of Windsor. Fragrance in a fittingly enigmatic vein arrived in 1986; nearly 30 years later, perfumer Mathilde Laurent created the first of several new iterations of La Panthère, a heady chypre floral in a faceted flacon.
“For me, the thing about the panther and its iconography is the fact that Jeanne Toussaint created it as a woman so many years ago,” Kirby says. “I so love that it embodies a femininity that isn’t girly or frilly. It has a wild energy.” It befits an actor whose work has taken her from The Crown’s defiant Princess Margaret to a reprised role as the White Widow in this summer’s Mission: Impossible installment. Here, Kirby talks about the jungle as the ultimate theater set, her next royal engagement, and the importance of messy female protagonists.
Vanity Fair: An early La Panthère jewel—a gold and enamel panther brooch from 1948—was created for the Duchess of Windsor. Do you see a connection between the panther essence and the more spirited members of the royal circle?
Vanessa Kirby: I feel like I always draw comparisons to Princess Margaret, because she was such an inspiration to me. It was such a gift playing someone as vivid and as wild and as technicolor as her. There’s something about the panther that is so primal and so part of the natural world. It has a fierceness to it. I love what it represents and how that makes you feel. I have a panther ring and I look at it sometimes when I’m feeling, I don’t know, nervous about something or doubting myself. Sometimes I think, Where would I find my strength? Where would I find my uncompromising self? And it helps me to feel that.
Your mother at one point worked at a design magazine. What shaped your sense of environmental aesthetics early on?
You know what, probably set design, honestly. I just felt so inspired as a kid when theater really started to work its magic on me. It took a while, because when you’re really little, you’re dragged to certain things and you don’t quite get it. And then suddenly one production clicks with you and you are transported. And it’s really difficult, in a live space, to make you feel like you are somewhere else—so when it happens, it’s absolutely magic.
The design of theater, that’s the place where I was most interested in how to use space and how to make it real. The authenticity of a place or a story. This is why it felt so amazing to shoot the [Cartier] campaign in a jungle. We were shooting in July in Mauritius, in this huge area of rainforest, getting up at 3:00 a.m. and traveling two hours to the deepest part of the jungle. There were so many insects and mosquitoes and everything else. It was so alive and it felt so primal. We were right in the thick of it. And it felt really essential, actually, to the campaign that we were not in a studio.
I think of fragrance, too, in terms of that same immediacy.
I think scent’s so important, isn’t it? It’s almost the most primal thing. It’s closer to your skin than clothes are, and becomes your skin in a way.
Details of Princess Margaret’s leisurely morning ritual have circled the internet, offering a window into her life. What does your own morning rhythm look like?
Hers was so iconic, wasn’t it, really? She definitely had some panther energy because she was so fiercely independent and never did things according to anyone else’s [dictates]—or tried not to, at least. She taught me loads about trying to be brave and saying what’s true for you, no matter what limitations are presented.
My morning routine—I’ve tried to slow down a lot recently, in life generally. I’ve been really lucky to live with my sister [Juliet Kirby] for quite a while. I usually wake her up way earlier than she wants to be woken up. She tells me not to every day, but I still do it [laughs]. We have a company together called Aluna Entertainment [with Lauren Dark and Martin Ledwith]. It’s about representing women onscreen and telling stories that you haven’t seen before, and we’re just building out our state of projects. We’ve got 14 now. So usually we get up, we have a cup of tea, and we just go through our crazy to-do list. It really has taught me that creativity can be completely self-generated, and that you don’t have to rely on waiting for other people to be creative. A lot of the projects that we have are just really trying to push boundaries in different spaces, whether it’s a thriller that’s about postpartum depression and what that experience is like, or about a mother leaving a family. You think about Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, and you see her at the beginning of the movie, at the end of the movie, and you get a sense of why she might have left her family, but you don’t know what journey she’s been on. So what if we were to follow Meryl and get to explore that—what are the complications and the complexities and the pain around that? Embodying the messiness is so essential, I think, now.