Born in India to a British stockbroker and his Irish wife, Vivien Leigh first appeared on stage in convent-school amateur theatricals. Completing her education in England, France, Italy, and Germany, she studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; not a particularly impressive pupil, Leigh continued her training with private tutors. In 1932, she briefly interrupted her pursuit of a theatrical career to marry London barrister Herbert Leigh Holman.
Leigh made her professional stage bow three years later in The Sash, which never made it to London's West End; still, her bewitching performance caught the eye of producer Sydney Carroll, who cast Leigh in her first London play, The Mask of Virtue. She alternated between stage and film work, usually in flighty, kittenish roles, until being introduced to Shakespeare at The Old Vic. It was there that she met Laurence Oliver, appearing with him on-stage as Ophelia in Hamlet and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later together onscreen in 1937's Fire Over England. It was this picture which brought Leigh to the attention of American producer David O. Selznick, who brought his well-publicized search for the "perfect" Scarlett O'Hara to a sudden conclusion when he cast Leigh as the resourceful Southern belle in 1939's Gone With the Wind. The role won Leigh her first Oscar, after which she kept her screen appearances to a minimum, preferring to devote her time to Olivier, who would become her second husband in 1940.