Jemima Kirke came to her acting career with some reluctance. She had grown up in proximity to fame: her father de ella was the drummer for the rock bands Bad Company and Free, and her mother’s celeb-magnet boutique supplied outfits for Carrie in “Sex and the City.” But unlike her sisters de ella, Domino and Lola, who became a singer and an actress, respectively, Kirke had little interest in the spotlight—she wanted to paint. She had just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design when Lena Dunham, a childhood friend of hers, asked her to appear in “Tiny Furniture.” Kirke agreed, despite misgivings, and was hailed for her naturalistic performance of her. Buoyed by the film’s reception, Dunham developed a series for HBO about four young, privileged female friends living in Brooklyn, which she titled “Girls”; again, she wrote a part specifically for Kirke and begged her to take it. Kirke had planned to return to painting—she had a solo show at a gallery in Manhattan the year before the series premiered—but with the overnight success of “Girls,” her life emerged in a different direction.
Kirke’s character, Jessa, was a loosely wrapped bohemian who tossed off lines like “You know what the weirdest part about having a job is? You have to be there every day, even on the days you don’t feel like it.” Impulsive, self-indulgent, and direct to the point of cruelty, Jessa embodied qualities that Dunham had observed in Kirke herself and among their wealthy Brooklynite peers. (Among other things, she shares the London-born, New York-raised Kirke’s international air and indeterminate accent, which heightens her cool-girl mystique.) From the outset, the character elicited strong reactions. Some viewers applauded her magnetism and her dry humor; others found her personality grating and her lack of boundaries unforgivable. Kirke’s own ambivalence never disappeared, either: days before production began on Season 2 of “Girls,” she had to be talked out of jumping ship. But after the show’s six-season run concluded, in 2017, she continued to seek out roles in films such as “The Little Hours” and “Sylvie’s Love,” which probed the knotty relationship between sex and power. Last year, she returned to TV as the unyielding headmistress Hope Haddon in Netflix’s “Sex Education.”
Her latest project is “Conversations with Friends,” an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s début novel, which premiered last week, on Hulu. The story, set in and around Dublin, hinges on the shifting dynamics between four acquaintances: Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their thirties, and the college-aged friends (and former lovers) Frances and Bobbi. Kirke, who might once have played a Frances—the precocious twentysomething embarking on an affair with an older man like Nick—now finds herself on the opposite side of the equation, as Melissa.
I met Kirke on a recent Sunday morning at a bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, not far from her home. She is a loose conversationalist, given to frank observations, full-throated laughter, and rambling philosophical asides. Speaking about her early roles in “Girls” and “Tiny Furniture,” she said, bluntly, “I wasn’t really cast for a skill set as much as a je ne sais quoi, or an energy. It’s not something I ever worked on. It’s not something I was necessarily aware of until they made me aware of it.” She went on, “It was a weird spot to be in, in the beginning, because I felt, like, Am I an actor, or am I a personality?”
Between cups of coffee and the occasional cigarette, Kirke spoke about channeling authentic emotions onscreen, the state of the sex scene, and the pleasure of an ambiguous ending.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Your part in “Girls” was written with you in mind. How did it feel to be playing to someone else’s perception of you?
I think I got confused. The more I learned about what people were responding to in my performance, the less I understood about how to do it. In “Girls,” I had to do it for every episode and every scene in season after season—and of course I’m going to change as a person, so the person they’re wanting me to “naturally” be might not be appropriate for the character.
Jessa was partly based off of who I was in college and partly based off of people we knew, or mutual friends, or people in the media that we could make fun of. . . . There was a certain amount of creativity that went into the role on my part, but I was being encouraged to be “natural.” People would say, “You have this special thing,” and “Don’t squash that by trying too hard.”
I feel like that feedback would give me a lot of anxiety about how to proceed.
Absolutely. How can you be totally natural without knowing what you’re doing? Everything around acting—you know, the preparation and press and hair and makeup—that stuff starts to shape your life. I had to decide if I enjoyed the acting enough to want to engage in all of that. I think I didn’t really have a choice in that moment. I was, like, Well, I’m contractually obliged to do it. So let’s make the most of it—and fuck this “natural” bullshit. I don’t understand what that means. I’m going to figure out how to make this nourishing and fulfilling for me.
How did you take that call to “be natural” and formalize it into an acting process?
It wasn’t about formalizing—it was just about finding a way to create something when it wasn’t convenient, or when I wasn’t feeling inspired to do it. It’s a skill set just like any other, and that’s what I had to learn.
In the beginning, I would just play to my first reading of the scene, and I wouldn’t really do any studying. And I’m someone who loves to study! I love to pull things apart, and I love literature. When I learned that I could use that skill on scripts, that’s when things got really fun for me.
For the most part, what I’m trying to do is to make something real happen onscreen. So if you have two characters who hate each other, that hate is really happening. Or if two characters are falling in love, it’s really happening for those few minutes. That’s why we get invested, when we’re watching those scenes. I think audiences should be given more credit for knowing when something is bullshit.
If, as you’re saying, you want to create real emotion, how do you create healthy distance for yourself in those moments? How do you put it away when the scene is over?
We’re taking something that’s real and zooming in on it and making it bigger for that scene. allison [Oliver]—who plays Frances, the younger woman sleeping with my husband—was perfectly cast, because of some real aspects of our relationship. She’s new to this world, and in comparison to her de ella, I’ve been in it for a much longer time. So there’s a power dynamic. When I’m working, I’ll think about that and milk it in a scene.
I’ll ask myself, What is it about Alison that I’m jealous of? In reality, it might not be something I’m jealous of enough to think about in my daily life, and maybe it doesn’t bother me on the day-to-day, but it’s in my subconsciousness. And if we’re functioning as our “highest selves,” it’s not something that dictates how we behave or feel, but, in that moment, and in that scene, it’s my job to let it dictate how I act.
So you’d use that self-interrogation to inform your acting.
I also interrogate the things I wouldn’t tell anyone or talk about or reveal to them—and I don’t have to. I just have to reveal them to myself. And then I get to respond to that for a few hours.
I like the idea of taking a small reaction and expanding it into the driving force behind a scene. I appreciated the show’s depiction of the worldliness inherent in most relationships.
Mundanity is a really key word in this story, because it is very slow. When I first read the book, one of the things I loved about it was the fact that the content of the scenes was so unremarkable. If we just give what’s on the page, there would be nothing to watch. Everything would have to come from the performance. Even when they’re having sex—in a way, that’s also a mundane thing.
That’s a significant challenge.
It was exciting. It felt like I was being given a big job as an actor.
In your two most recent TV roles—Melissa and Hope Haddon on “Sex Education”—you don’t have any sex at all.