Before playing Josephine in Ridley Scott’s action epic Napoleon, Vanessa Kirby took a deep-dive into the character by reading and studying as much as she could.
“I was actually quite astonished that I knew so little,” she says. “So it was a pleasure: I locked myself away and just read every book I could, about her and about him [Napoleon, played by Academy Award® winner Joaquin Phoenix]. We also went to Paris, to the Napoleon Museum, to Malmaison. I even went to Josephine’s tomb. It was a deep immersion in that history and that period, and it was such a privilege to learn about her.”
A privilege, but not easy – playing the role was “painful and uncomfortable,” she says, because “it is the story of so many women. I had so much compassion for her, because she wasn’t allowed to have a voice even though she had an incredibly strong, potent energy.”
Kirby says that energy might have been what attracted Napoleon to Josephine, and also later doomed their relationship. “She was an outsider, just like he was,” says Kirby, noting that Josephine was brought up on Martinique, far from the aristocracy that she would later marry into. Kirby notes that because of her upbringing, “she doesn’t have a place in aristocratic society,” but at the same time, she very nearly followed her aristocratic husband to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. “Joaquin and I always felt like it was something where they just understood each other. She was not a person anyone wanted to marry – she was a widow with two children and six years older than he was. But she captivated him. There was something that they had in common – they identify, and they feel recognized, and they understand each other as outliers.”
Calling Josephine “a survivor,” Kirby says that she and director Scott dug deep into how she was able to get by. “Ridley and I had long conversations about the difference between sexuality and sensuality,” she says. “I think perhaps her natural sensuality came from her upbringing in the tropics – the warmth, the music, the culture, the environment. Her early years are more about the senses than the intellect. But when she marries Napoleon, she has to adapt, to change completely, in order to survive. She has to become a better wife, the wife he wants.”
“Vanessa can take all the information that she has accrued and convey it through even the tiniest of movements and expressions,” says Scott. “She and Joaquin had a very natural and intuitive sense of timing.”
Watch Kirby and Phoenix play historic figures in Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated action epic about the iconic French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, opening exclusively in cinemas November 29.