[Editor’s note: The following interview contains some spoilers for Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” — and the factual events on which it is based.]

“Napoleon” star Vanessa Kirby cast in Ridley Scott’s sprawling, wild historical epic as the divine Joséphine Bonaparte, former wife of Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), former Empress of France, one-time Queen of Italy, survivor of the Reign of Terror, and that’s just the start is ready for the big questions.

But, first, jet lag. The Oscar nominee is currently in Australia filming Ron Howard’s “Eden” (she flew there after a series of “Napoleon”-centric festivities in Europe, a time change whooper she was still, quite relatably dealing with when she Zoomed with IndieWire very early on the morning before Thanksgiving). How about starting with something light? Like, when exactly did Kirby realize that Scott’s grand epic was also going to be, well, kind of funny? Pretty much from the start. 

“I know that the intention was [for it to be], because of the extremity of the world and the intensity of that life of his, how dangerous it was, and how much risk was involved in all of it,” Kirby said. “I think, naturally, we felt that the other extreme, of that there’s this kind of absurdity, it felt kind of human in a way to have something that was that extreme and difficult with a strange humor. … We all laughed a lot through it, because [of] the brutality of the whole world for everybody, the sort of nature of what we were exploring, and so we had to laugh in between scenes.”

And, this is also essential: Even in that laughter and absurdity, making sure it was “not glorifying in a way.” No, it’s not glorifying. Instead, the David Scarpa-penned feature, starring the incredibly game Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic emperor and war hero, kind of eviscerates the guy (no short jokes required!). As IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich wrote in his review of the film, Scott and Scarpa’s feature “utterly humiliates one of history’s most ambitious rulers” and one that “works best whenever it reads the French emperor for filth, which it does early and often.”

Kirby, no stranger to fact-based entertainment (she’s a BAFTA winner and Emmy nominee for her work in “The Crown”), revels in that paradox, of playing someone real but finding your own way into the truth of them. Jokes help.

“Any one interpretation of a real person and a life is just one lens, one angle, just like every book you could ever read about him has a different perspective alongside the facts,” she said of Napoleon. “I remember doing ‘The Crown,’ it was so similar in a way, because we were all so aware that these were imagined conversations around a series of facts and that we were just doing one interpretation, one vision of realizing this very strange set of lives.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 16:  Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby and Sir Ridley Scott attend the "Napoleon" UK Premiere at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on November 16, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, and Sir Ridley Scott attend the “Napoleon” UK Premiere at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on November 16, 2023 in London, EnglandSamir Hussein/WireImage

Digging into the historical research that was available to them was appealing to Kirby, who said she relished that part of the process when she was playing young Princess Margaret on “The Crown.” “I really loved it, because you don’t have to invent the history of a character when you’re [also] trying to make up the psychological kind of nature of a person, and trying to understand why that person chose to live this kind of life or make a set of decisions,” she said. “It was a little bit different, in that obviously there’s no footage, you couldn’t hear her voice, like I was really lucky to be able to do with Margaret on ‘The Crown,’ but it’s just mainly beginning with books, every book you could possibly read. I read like crazy, I read into the night, I read everything I could.”

She also visited “all the museums she could,” traipsed all over Paris, spent time in her chateau Malmaison, and even visited her grave. All of this allowed Kirby to dive deeply into Josephine (and Napoleon, of course) and to imagine “what it would’ve felt like and the nature of their dynamic and their letters and all those things, you try and collate it into an essence of who that person was and try to get inside that, to try and feel that.”

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.  Photo by: Aidan Monaghan
“Napoleon”Aidan Monaghan

Napoleon’s humiliations throughout the film are myriad — being annoyed the British won’t return his letters, desperately seeking the company of another emperor (any emperor!), trouncing off to Russia in the middle of winter for a fight he very much will not win, Waterloo — but the ones that seem to wound him the most are those from Josephine. By the time Napoleon meets Josephine, she’s endured plenty: a fraught childhood, thrown into jail during the Reign of Terror, the execution of her first husband, and very nearly being put to death herself before the fall of Robespierre. We first meet Josephine as she’s being freed from the Carmes prison. When Napoleon sets eyes on her at a party, he’s smitten.

But, as Kirby noted, the pair had a to put it mildly “strange” relationship that initially started with Josephine not being “particularly interested in him [at first], [and then she] married him for sort of strategic reasons, because there was a general she was having an affair with and getting a lot of money from, and he was no longer really wanting to sustain the relationship, so she kind of pivoted to this other general.”

While Josephine doesn’t necessarily love Napoleon from the start she spends many of his military tours having public affairs that inevitably get back to him she does comes to see herself in the man.

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.  Photo by: Aidan Monaghan
“Napoleon”Aidan Monaghan Photographer

“There was such an understanding from the beginning that we were exploring this very unusual relationship,” Kirby said. “If you read the history of it, it’s so fascinating. There were so many power shifts throughout the different phases of it, there was so much a desire to possess, and a magnetism, a kind of deep love that was inherently unstable because the nature of what they were both doing. Right from the beginning, we talked about this kind of recognition that they have of each other, that they were both total outsiders, came from tiny little islands, were not part of Parisian society, had big dreams of this kind of wild destiny that they both individually imagined.”

The two were so possessed of this notion of glorious destiny, that Napoleon even gifted Josephine a necklace that read “destin” on it (the French word, of course, for “destiny”). “Obviously, it then manifested in naming themselves emperor and empress and him crowning her in front of everybody, which was kind of radical,” Kirby said. “Those personality types are really specific and unusual and most people would not want to aim for that, and so why did they both and why did they do it together and what was this decades-long fusion between them both?”

By the end of their marriage, the power dynamic has totally switched. “She made this decision, and it was so interesting reading about it, to utterly commit to him,” the actress said. “I didn’t expect this kind of love and dependency to grow within the extremity of the world. I think, at the end she sort of lived out her last years in her house that she made and she designed it was incredibly feminine, it had all these mad, exotic animals that she shipped over from all these different places and, in the end, she just wanted to live a simple life with him.”

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.  Photo by: Aidan Monaghan
“Napoleon”Aidan Monaghan Photographer

In one of the film’s most riveting sequences, Napoleon and Josephine make the decision to divorce, because while Josephine was previously able to bear children to her first husband, she’s unable to conceive with Napoleon. She can’t give him an heir, the one thing the emperor so desperately needs. The pair publicly part signing the divorce papers in front of the entire court, Napoleon even slapping her when she gets too emotional and Napoleon goes on to marry the young Austrian duchess Marie Louise. Kirby can still feel the pain and humiliation that overcame the headstrong and proud Josephine during this time.

“I can’t imagine how painful it was for her as a woman to have the weight of this empire on your body to provide this heir and that be the reason they divorced, because her body won’t do that,” she said. “As a woman, I just, oh my goodness, the acute pain she would have and the desire for something, to feel like you haven’t fulfilled this duty of this empire and then live very simply on your own without him. … I felt for her, I felt for women, I felt so much in that moment about the pressure in this extremely difficult time to be the survivor that she was and the woman that she was.”

Still, as Kirby pointed out, Josephine remained dedicated to Napoleon, and he continued to visit her throughout his marriage to Marie Louise. In the film, he eventually brings baby Napoleon II to visit Josephine at Malmaison. The scene, and the various emotions we see play out through Kirby’s body and on her face, are heartbreaking.

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.

“It felt awful. In the scene, it felt so painful, because that baby was everything that it represented,” Kirby said. “He was the embodiment of everything that she felt like she should have been able to do, both personally as a mother and a woman, … this relationship with her femininity and her womb and the immense pressure over years.”

While fans of the film are currently able to enjoy over two-and-a-half-hours of “Napoleon” in theaters now, Scott has long teased a director’s cut that will stream on Apple at a later date. Kirby is looking forward to that, even if she’s not yet sure of the particulars of her performance that will appear in it.

“After we saw [the theatrical cut], the editor, Claire Simpson, reminded me that in one of the scenes when it’s late at night and they’re on the sofa and they have this sort of power dynamic going on, trying to kind of possess or own the other, she reminded me that we’d done several nine-minute takes of that,” Kirby said. “And I said to her, ‘I can’t remember what happened in that,’ and she went, ‘Everything. So many different things.’ That happened a lot in scenes. So, in terms of the edit that Ridley has chosen to pass through, I think there were so many different versions that it could have been because it was so unconventional and so mercurial a relationship, and she had such a kind of mercurial, unusual, quiet power, that it was always hard to know to definitively play one thing.”

Has Scott provided any hints as to what we might all see in that director’s cut? Kirby laughed, then said, “He hasn’t, and I don’t think it is done yet. I think he’s working on it right now. He doesn’t stop! He’s prepping the next, he’s storyboarding the next movie as he’s filming the current one. He was doing a lot of ‘Gladiator 2’ stuff while we’re on ‘Napoleon.’ You just think, oh my goodness, the energy, it’s unbelievably inspiring.”

Hayley Atwell, Pom Klementieff, Vanessa Kirby and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.
Hayley Atwell, Pom Klementieff, Vanessa Kirby and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of “Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One”Christian Black

She’s not kidding about that energetic inspiration: Not only is she hot on the awards trail with “Napoleon,” plus filming the Howard film, she’s also got another “Mission: Impossible” to come, and is itching to get back to the theater, where she first earned acclaim (“There is one thing I’m really interested in, I’m just waiting to see when it would be possible”).

In 2021, Kirby and Lauren Dark co-founded their own production company, Aluna Entertainment, which she says has a lot cooking right now in various states, “about 15 things on the slate and lots of different teams and it’s been the most fulfilling 18 months of my life, to now have the permission to create and find stories,” Kirby said. “Our mission has always been: there’s so many female experiences that haven’t been on-screen before just because there hasn’t been nearly as many female creatives, and so with the runway opening up now for that to happen, you can go, ‘What’s the equivalent of a female “Taxi Driver”?’ I feel like the radical thing is for it to be a messy, contradictory sort of anti-heroines that aren’t saviors or worthy just because they happen to be women.”

Basically, no more of this “strong female character” thing we’ve been slowly but thankfully moving away from in recent years. Sounds like Josephine. “You never say a ‘strong male character.’ It’s just bizarre, it’s so bizarre,” Kirby said. “I’m so not interested in the hero, I’m much more interested in the anti-hero, because I feel like that’s how we feel.”

A Sony and AppleTV release, “Napoleon” is now in theaters.

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