Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn on Making ‘Pieces of a Woman’

Sitting down with the two acting contenders for the Oscars and their process of bringing it to life.

PIECES OF A WOMAN: (L to R) Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth, Director Kornél Mundruczó, and Vanessa Kirby as Martha.
Philippe Bosse / Netflix

There’s a singular vision that director Kornél Mundruczó had in constructing “Pieces of a Woman,” and he had the full trust of his actors, particularly Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn. The film had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival where Kirby won the Volpi Cup for best actress. Just ahead of its Venice bow, Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese joined the film as an executive producer.

The phrase “it’s difficult to watch” is often spoken in various cinephile circles when referring to dour, less-than-pleasant movie experiences. I can recall having those same conversations around films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Son of Saul.” Similar words have been uttered about Mundruczó’s portrait of loss and grief.

The role of Martha, a woman whose home birth ends in an unfathomable tragedy, demanded a lot of the 32-year-old Kirby. She’s received rave reviews for her performance, planting herself near the forefront of this year’s best actress race.

Burstyn has been a staple of the cinematic industry for more than five decades. She’s managed six Oscar nominations over her career, winning best actress for Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” from 1974. Her passion and vigor for her craft is as clear as any thespian working today. When discussing her character Elizabeth, and her daughter Martha, who is a third-generation Holocaust survivor, drawn from screenwriter Kata Wéber’s own family experience, she becomes visibly emotional.

“Pieces of a Woman” marks the English-language debut for Mundruczó, who gained a passionate following with his breakout film “White God.”

On Thursday evening, in collaboration with the American Film Institute, Netflix will be hosting a screening with industry professionals, critics, journalists and Academy members.

Variety sat down with both Kirby and Burstyn prior to the screening.

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PIECES OF A WOMAN: (L to R) Vanessa Kirby as Martha, Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth Netflix

You have had an incredible career, and are still working consistently. Do you have a method to choosing roles at this point in your profession?

Ellen Burstyn: Whenever I’m asked a question like that, I have the impression that people feel I get a million offers and I pick my favorite and that’s not quite true. I don’t have to turn down many films. If I like the director, writers and the actors, I’m prone to take it because in fact, there aren’t many roles written for a woman of my age. So when I get one, I’m usually very happy to get it.

In this case, I saw “White God,” Kornel’s film, and I adored that film. And I have seen Vanessa [Kirby] play Princess Margaret [on “The Crown”] and I don’t watch television very much. When I saw Vanessa, I went “who’s that?” I could see right away she was a special, really accomplished, talented actress. Unusually talented. I was very impressed with her. So when I have a filmmaker I like, a script I like, and an actress like Vanessa where I get to play her mother. It’s a win-win-win situation. That doesn’t happen very often. The roles that are written for a woman my age aren’t plentiful.

This role demands a lot of you, not just as an actress, but as a human. Can you talk about your experience filming?

Vanessa Kirby: Well, firstly, Ellen is one of my heroes. I was so excited that she agreed to do it. She’s always had this trailblazing fire in all of her performances. I so looked up to that, like Gena Rowlands, the same kind of dynamism. I’m so happy to have her in my life now and she’s someone I love very deeply.

How demanding it was on paper, and the idea of knowing that I would need to understand, and go into the psychology of that level of grief, while trying to honor all of the women that I spoke to, and that went through similar things, it felt like a responsibility. I’m always looking for something that scares me and that is seemingly insurmountable, and that alone was the birth because I haven’t given birth myself. I knew I owed to women to try to portray as true-to-life as possible. I was very lucky to watch someone do it for real, which helped me incomparably and I wouldn’t have known how to do it without her giving me the gift of allowing me to be there with her.

The 23-minute one-shot sequence of you giving birth is incredible. How many takes did you do and can you talk about that experience?

Kirby: The actual filming of it was just exhilarating. It was the best film experience of my life. We did four takes the first day and two the second day. I think Kornel used the fourth one. It was like doing a play. Shia is also a real theater animal, so is Ellen, and we all understood what it would require. It was exciting setting up, preparing and then launching into it freefall. And then at the end, to slowly missing word? Out of it – taking a long time to come out of it – and then reset everything. We would blast music around the house and dance around the house just to clear what had happened. By the end of it, your psyche does know any different and you feel like you actually went through this.

Your character is deeply flawed but with a lot of love for her daughter. Did you draw on anything from your own life as screenwriter Kata Weber did?

Burstyn: I always draw from personal experiences. It’s just part of what we do. I don’t know how to not do that. She’s a funny type of character [Elizabeth]. The story Kata wrote about how she was born, with the Holocaust aspect of the film, is from Kata’s family. The idea of being held upside down by your feet and the doctor saying that if she picks up her head, she’ll survive. That’s such a…deeply moving concept how one comes into the world. With the will to live, despite the frail condition of the body. It’s so moving to me. It explains so much about her character and her drive forward. That wonderful introduction of the character that Kata wrote. It’s kind of a pathetic version of whatever it is, make it better, go for it, do it. Don’t be satisfied with blandness. I think she’s a very strong character despite her limitations. She’s not in tune with her daughter but sometimes mothers aren’t.

Talk about Kornel’s vision of the film and how it compares to other directors you have worked with in the past.

Kirby: I knew that the film would be special. I always feel like his movies have a lot of soul and I love movies that have lots of soul. I knew that this was a personal story for Kornel and Kata. He had such a clear vision, and it’s so relaxing when someone has it. He had such a burning vision of Martha and needing that story to be told. It’s not about the loss of a baby, it’s more of a character study of someone that this happens to. How someone reacts to trauma and how individual grief is and he allowed me to really shape that. I felt a lot of respect and trust because of that. It was really profound collaboration.

Burstyn: I just feel his sense of sensitivity and is such a dear human being. Kind and a visionary. I felt like he allowed me to give what I had to give. I never felt interfered with. Sometimes directors come up with an idea and they say “maybe she does xyz” and you say “what?” I deeply fond of him.

If nominated, Ellen Burstyn you will set a record as the oldest acting nominee ever at 88 years and 98 days old on nomination day. How does that feel?

Burstyn: That’s a wonderful thing. I actually have a strong desire to be the oldest person ever nominated. That’s an encouraging thing for me to say to the women of the world, keep on trucking, as long as you can. Don’t give up, don’t retire, don’t sit back and say “well I guess it’s over,” it’s not over, until you declare it’s over. I pray that I get to be that example.

Ann Roth, the costume designer for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” also a Netflix feature, who if she’s nominated, she will be oldest nominee, of any category, at 90.

Burstyn. I’m jealous.

How do you feel about the reviews you are receiving and the possibility of being in the awards conversation?

Kirby: The film felt so much bigger than any of us. This is a subject about neonatal death. The women I spoke that had stillbirths and multiple miscarriages and it’s still a subject that’s really hard to talk about. The fact that you’re saying this conversation is happening around this [film], that means so much to me. If that means that a few more people watch it or more conversations start happening, and that was everyone’s intention with it. The best moments of my working life was doing that birth. It’s hard to articulate. I’m unbelievably grateful and touched that it’s for this film. It’s my first lead role too and I knew I that was ready. I waited a long time. I watched other people do it and I absorbed everything and felt really ready.

Burstyn:: Honey, you’re a glowing example of what a fine actress is. You studied well and you came up the right way on the stage, which as far as I’m concerned, everybody who ever wants to be an actress should learn what is on the stage. You’re an absolute glory as an actress, and as a person I might add.

I wish you were my mother.

Burstyn: I can’t tell you how many people say that to me. After “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” I became some type of archetypal mother that people never had and wish they did.

“Pieces of a Woman” will stream on Netflix on Jan. 7.