The final episode of Netflix’s The Crown includes a chilling nod to Princess Diana’s death. Four cars filled with paparazzi chase Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and her betrothed, Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), down a twisty English road. As his driver swerves, a photographer leans out the window, trying desperately to get a clear shot of the princess. Margaret peers from the backseat window, half posing and half alarmed. As the camera’s flashbulb pops, an oncoming car appears over the hill and the paparazzi veer to avoid a collision. “Woo!” the photographer yells excitedly. Margaret settles back into her seat, no longer posing and looking full-on alarmed.
“[Show creator] Peter Morgan really wanted the prefiguring of Diana — because that’s what Margaret actually was like,” Vanessa Kirby told BuzzFeed News earlier this month, talking fast and tucking a piece of bright blonde hair behind one ear. “Throughout the whole series, she’s the one you see on the front page of the newspaper the most. She was this fashion icon, this leader of women’s inspiration, and she loved the public.”
That was the early 1950s. Fast forward to earlier this month, and Kirby’s star is on its own self-styled rise. She announced that she had signed with talent powerhouse WME the day before The Crown premiered, priming her to become the show’s breakout star. At the start of the interview at BuzzFeed HQ in Los Angeles, Kirby — wearing a perfectly pressed above-the-knee navy blue dress and killer black strappy heels — went right in for a kiss on both cheeks. “Hello, darling. Aren’t you gorgeous?”
But just because the 28-year-old Brit was disarmingly charming didn’t mean she was feeling entirely comfortable. After a couple test pictures with the photographer, she scrapped the navy dress. “I don’t want it to be too stuffy. That’s so not me.” Kirby whipped off the killer heels, pulled on some tattered black jeans, and did the shoot barefoot. “This is more me,” she said, gamely hopping up on a stool and bemoaning the state of her exposed feet. She tended toward a serious gaze in front of the camera — by The Crown’s standards, she was much more Elizabeth than Margaret in that moment. “Someone make her laugh,” the photographer said, and the pout broke into genuine laughter before anyone could even try. “It doesn’t take much!” she tittered, and she was all Margaret again.
The younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), Margaret is the historic drama series’ most tragic figure. She’s denied the man she loves and the limelight she craves, and she struggles with her own sense of self in light of her sister’s position. “Next to you,” she tells Elizabeth on the show, “I’ll always be evil.”
That toxic mentality was all too easy for Kirby to slip into herself. “Even on set sometimes I was like, ‘Claire, you’re so amazing and wonderful and I’m the shit one!’” she laughed. “It never was about playing the evil sister versus the saintly one, although that’s what Margaret thinks in her head and that’s certainly what I began to think all the time.”
In the spotlight, Margaret’s a gorgeous, perfectly manicured peacock — dancing, singing, smoking her cigarette with long, languid hand movements. But the moment she’s alone, that confidence crumbles in on itself; her posture folds, her hands fumble to clutch her lighter, she becomes — as she proclaims to her sister in the final episode — “unhinged.”
Kirby inhabits that frenetic, attention-seeking energy with deft control. She wanted to avoid making Margaret into a caricature, a Bad Royal or Partying Princess — archetypes we’ve become increasingly fascinated by as a culture. “There was a risk of making her sort of arch,” she said. “I never want to make any characters one-dimensional, especially as women can often be portrayed as the dark one or the evil one.”
It’s easy to imagine how much happier Margaret might have been in the day and age of relatable celebrities and social media. Throughout the series, she pushes to make the Royal Family more relatable and human — something that rings true to our modern, social media–fueled definition of “celebrity.” Margaret tells an aghast Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), “What people want is someone to inhabit [the Crown], not be frightened of it — make it flesh and blood, bring it to life.”
Kirby just can’t get into social media. “I’m really apathetic towards it,” she said. “Celebrities nowadays have Instagram and everything’s available and accessible and digestible for people that want it. People demand it.” Kirby’s own Instagram account currently features only 31 posts, and her Twitter was set up only after people started creating fake accounts under her name. “I feel uncomfortable about it; I’d always much rather be private,” she said. “I think I’d probably be more on the side of Elizabeth in that sense, even though I’m 100% Team Margaret.”
For now, Kirby’s used to relative anonymity in Hollywood, having had only small roles in bigger films thus far — About Time, Me Before You, Jupiter Ascending. But via her take as Margaret, she’s now thrust into the public eye more firmly than ever before, whether she realizes it yet or not. “I didn’t think about it like that, actually, weirdly,” she laughed. “When [The Crown] came out, my head nearly exploded because I just couldn’t comprehend that anybody other than my mum would see it.”
Prior to The Crown, the majority of Kirby’s acting experience came from the theater world, which is likely why she described working with the tight-knit cast and the dramatic script as what felt like being in a theater troupe. She’s also had a penchant for playing other overshadowed sisters, on London’s stages: In 2012 she completed a turn as Masha in Three Sisters, and just this past summer she played Stella opposite Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. “Family relationships are just so fascinating — how they shape you as a person, how you can wound each other, how you’re imprinted in a way by your family and the conditions under which you grow up.”
That lack of accessibility and extreme insulation perhaps explains the draw to England’s royal family (and other celebrities who live low-key): We feel compelled to fill in the blanks to our satisfaction. “You don’t really know about their private lives, and yet they became these amazing, mysterious global icons,” Kirby said. “If their lives were all out there, you wouldn’t really want to see another biopic of someone you know everything about anyway — like if the Queen was posting [to social media] what she has for tea. But there’s something unbelievably fascinating about seeing what she and Philip talk about before they go to bed.”
That common interest in personal privacy might be what gives Kirby — or any actor — career longevity. That being said, Kirby would still love to get a look at Margaret’s Instagram. “It would be a lot more fun than mine, I’ll tell you that.”