Jemima Kirke is a New Yorker’s New Yorker: raised, if not born, in the city, she comes from a West Village-based family filled with interesting characters, a more creative version of Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums. Her mother Lorraine is a clothing designer, decorator, and proprietor of Geminola, a vintage clothing shop, in the West Village. Her father, Simon, is a drummer (Free, Bad Company); her sister Domino is a Brooklyn doula and singer/songwriter.
And she, of course, is one of the stars of HBO’s Girls, the much-discussed TV show written by Lena Dunham and produced by Judd Apatow, probably the most “New York” of shows to ever hit the small screen (Sex and The City was, at best, a fantasy New York. And they never left Manhattan). But you already know all that: you probably also know that she’s an old (high school) friend of Dunham’s, and that Dunham’s breakout film Tiny Furniture was Kirke’s first acting gig.
It’s a particularly New York success story: not the discovered-at-Schwab’s-Drugstore fantasy of Hollywood that you might assume from Kirke’s Veronica Lake-meets-Brigitte Bardot mien, but a less simplistic tale of two young women who, having both gone to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, left the city, came back after college, and got down to the business of being creative.
Even if, in Jemima’s case, the medium wasn’t quite the one she had planned on, but one her friend pushed on her. Ambushed by success, in many early interviews post-Tiny Furniture, she insisted she wasn’t an actress, but a painter, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. “Perhaps [my] reluctance toward acting has been a bit overstated. I never meant for this protest to define me and what I do. I felt compelled to say it in some interviews because I had a hard time accepting that this TV show had become my career.”
But what a career. Dunham has written a great vehicle for her old schoolmate (and costars Zosia Mamet and Allison Williams), and Jemima knows it: “I am so happy and honored that Lena sees me as a tool to help realize her writing. And I have never had so much fun as I do when I’m acting out her scenes.”
Almost everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea that Jemima is her character, Jessa, or that Jessa is Jemima, but given Kirke’s drive and ambition, not to mention talent, it’s hard to believe there isn’t a fair amount of invention. Still, like Jessa, she has had some crappy jobs—plenty of crappy jobs—and maybe a whisper of a Jessa-ish attitude: “I had a lot of jobs for about five minutes… basically until I stopped showing up. My favorite was the fish-and-chips shop. The only one I got fired from. Maybe I fucked up a few delivery orders but I don’t think I was that bad at it. I’m still a bit resentful about that one, actually.”
And, like the Girls girls (well, most of them) she does live in Brooklyn, having fairly recently moved from Brooklyn Heights to Carroll Gardens. But that wasn’t part of the master plan either.
Asked if she’d wanted to become a Brooklynite when she was younger, Kirke laughs at the idea: “I swore it off after high school. As soon as I graduated I was like, ‘I’m outta here! Never coming back again!’ Guess I was somewhat short-sighted. A few years ago I started to realize all the possibilities that come with having a Brooklyn home.”
And a sweetly conventional, Brooklyn lifestyle. Jemima is married to Michael Mosberg, an attorney—they have two kids, Rafaella, 2, and Memphis, 4 months. And unlike a lot of New Yorkers, she’s very happy where she is, and can’t name another part of Brooklyn, or the city, she’d rather live in: “I’m perfectly content where I am. I’m not going anywhere any time soon.”
That sense of contentment, and taking things in stride, pervades everything she talks about. Discussing the travails of being a working mother, she sounds almost spookily down-to-earth: “God, it’s tough. Nothing I can say will make it easier. Don’t try to be the best. As far as parenting goes, sometimes ‘good enough’ is all you can do.”
Much of her non-acting life revolves around her kids, and her neighborhood; a favorite local hang is the charmingly kid-centric Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain on Henry Street. Other family destinations are the library, The Painted Pot, and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, which “is good whether you’re with ten people or no people. We’re always finding new things to do. And a lot of what we like to do revolves around eating. There are so many delicious restaurants in my neighborhood.”
The other key part of Kirke’s non-TV life is her painting, a practice that remains unchanged, if less frequently enjoyed, from what it was before Girls. She’s a fairly traditional studio painter of portraits, explaining, “I paint people. I use oil on canvas. Mostly they sit before me and we hang out and I just listen and I look at them. I try my best to capture them just sitting there in that room on that day in that moment. Sometimes I even get a likeness. Everyone who comes in brings me something different. That’s why I never have to plan what I’m going to paint ahead of time.”
And the recent move, and recent baby, haven’t made anything easier, though between filming and baby-having, she did still manage to participate in a group show at Half Gallery last fall. “My studio is in my home. I’m still moving stuff in and setting up. My work space is so important to me. So that’s a whole project in and of itself.” Though she denies having any greater ambitions for her acting career, Jemima says of her painting, “I just want to get better and better.”
Luckily, she seems to have her life/work balance pretty well in hand. While confessing that “after I’ve finished on set I come home and I feel guilty for having missed out on time with my children,” she adds, “I don’t see that as a bad thing though. It just means I don’t feel I can contribute as much through acting.” And being in the painting studio “is lonely, for sure. But when I’ve been working in there I come home at night and I feel full. My mind feels exercised. I am a better mother and a better wife.” It’s a remarkable balance of public and private, ambition and introspection, for a woman who’s still a few years shy of 30.
And her deepest ambition, now that she’s a hometown superstar? It’s one only her role on Girls can help her achieve, the ambition of countless New York children and more than a few adults: “I really just wanna get my picture on the wall of a restaurant next to a greasy picture of Dom DeLuise or Michael Bolton or someone. I figure if I go to a place regularly enough that could happen.” We’re amazed it hasn’t happened yet. •