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Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn On The Trauma Of Child Loss In 'Pieces Of A Woman'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Martha and Sean are a young couple getting ready to welcome their first baby into the world. But when a substitute midwife shows up for their home delivery, the birth turns into an unspeakable tragedy. Here's a clip from the film, just 10 seconds long. But feel free to cover your ears if you're sensitive to the subject matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PIECES OF A WOMAN")

MOLLY PARKER: (As Eva) I need to take her. She's blue.

VANESSA KIRBY: (As Martha) What? What do you mean?

PARKER: (As Eva) Come on, baby. Come on, baby.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Pieces Of A Woman" is the new Netflix film following the loss of a child, including a legal battle and a broken mother-daughter relationship fumbling as they try to process their grief. Vanessa Kirby plays Martha. Ellen Burstyn plays her mother, Elizabeth, and they both join us now. Welcome to the program.

ELLEN BURSTYN: Thank you.

KIRBY: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vanessa, I'm going to start with you. The home birth scene - it's about 20-minutes long. It's all filmed in one shot. It shows your character enduring contraction after contraction before you're even fully aware that something is about to go wrong. It is excruciating to watch. Tell me how you prepared for that.

KIRBY: Yeah. I - it was a bit of a scary one just because I've never given birth before myself. And, you know, I thought if I got a second of this wrong, then the audience would be pulled out of the film, and it will feel like a movie version of a birth. And so I started watching as many documentaries as I could. And again, it felt so edited. It gave me no proper idea of how to do a 30-minute unbroken scene of labor with all its physicality and beauty and horror and, you know, all of it in its entirety. And then I started writing to obstetricians. And one of them allowed me to come and shadow her on a labor ward in North London. And I spent many days with them. And one miracle afternoon, a woman came on the ward, and she agreed to let me be there in the room with her while she gave birth to her baby. And it was just not only totally transformative for me as a person, but there's no way I could have acted it had I not had that gift from her, really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then, of course, this tragedy happens in the film. The baby dies. The medical reasons are unclear. Ellen, how does your character step in to try to rectify the situation that ultimately cannot be fixed? Explain who your character is and why that mother-daughter relationship is so key.

BURSTYN: Well, I'm playing Martha's mother. And, you know, I feel like I know what it's like for a person to suffer tragedy and what grief is like. She's not crying. She's not talking about it. She doesn't grieve the way I would expect her to. So that creates a barrier between us that we have to work through. And we actually do. By the end of the film, we have gone through an incredible experience together and are experiencing a new level of something - love, perhaps - in our relationship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Connection, maybe.

BURSTYN: Connection's a good word, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The thing that struck me watching this is I think we're seeing more stories now that are about women and about these essential experiences that haven't been given full sort of cinematic treatment before. And I'm wondering, you know, when you read the script, what resonated for you?

BURSTYN: I think that's a really important statement you just said in a way and something I'm really passionate about, actually. And from sort of page three, when I started to read the birth, and then, you know, page 30, it was still going on, I knew that it was something special because it suddenly struck me. And I was ashamed to admit I hadn't even really realized that birth is so infrequently depicted on screen. And then you sort of ask why? And this is written by a woman who has her own experience of losing a baby. And both the birth and her loss of a child comes very much from her own experience and that very female experience. And I'm so now really acutely attuned to the many, many colors of female experience that we haven't seen represented on screen. And it feels exciting and really important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ellen, the story was inspired by the real-life arrest of a Hungarian doctor and midwife who advocated for home births, which are frowned upon there. The writer, Kata Weber, and her husband, the director, Kornel Mundruczo, also lost a child. How did these things come into play in the film and in the directing, do you think?

BURSTYN: I think it inspired the film. Kata had made some notes in a notebook. And Kornel read it and encouraged her to, you know, write further. And that became a play that they did in Poland. And then Kornel really wanted to make a film with it. So I think it's a transformation of a real experience into a lovely piece of art.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: During the interview, I asked about co-star Shia LaBeouf. In the film, his character becomes angry and abusive towards his wife. I found it difficult to watch because of the recent allegations of abuse against LaBeouf in his real-life relationships. Ellen Burstyn stepped in to answer.

BURSTYN: Oh, you know, if anybody's seen his film "Honey Boy," where he plays his father, and another young actor plays him as a child, you can see his damage. And he's working on himself. It's his journey. I don't want to comment on it, but as far as supporting the women who come out and tell their story now, absolutely, 100%. But, you know, Shia's a singular case. He's a brilliant actor, and he's a damaged person. And he's doing his best to become his whole self.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of telling stories, we have seen in recent months more and more public figures like Chrissy Teigen, Meghan Markle speak up about the toll that losing a child takes - again, stories we have not heard before. Do you see this film as part of that conversation?

BURSTYN: I had two friends, couples, two different couples who lost their babies. And both of the marriages broke up afterwards because it's just too unbearable to look at your partner. And you're feeling your own grief, but then you're feeling theirs, too. And Kata and Kornel didn't break up. And my personal opinion is the fact of writing it and being able to talk about it and transform it into a work of art was a savior for them. It's helpful to talk about it. It's helpful to share it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vanessa.

KIRBY: I hope we can move towards a society where holding space for other people's pain and having empathy and the right to be able to share and feel connected to people that have also been through any kind of loss rather than brush it under the carpet or keep it behind closed doors - and so I really hope that we can - whoever is out there that has maybe been through it might feel even a tiny bit alone knowing their experience could be represented in one shade or another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn. Their new film is "Pieces Of A Woman." It's on Netflix now. Thank you both very much.

BURSTYN: Thank you.

KIRBY: Thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.