Jemima Kirke is a girl’s girl. And that’s not just a pun on the television show that made her kind of famous. She truly loves women and gets along with them almost as well as she paints them.
Over the course of a very Brooklyn breakfast at Court Street Grocers, Jemima spoke winningly of her day job (“the show” as she calls it), her night job (painting, mostly female nudes), and her forever job (motherhood). Because fans will wonder how close Jemima is to Jessa, I will give you this: she has a leather-bound Smythson planner with long to-do lists written out in perfect script. Yes, she is gorgeous, spontaneous, direct, eats, smokes, and drinks, but make no mistake: Jemima has a handle on her life in the way that Lena Dunham’s wandering twenty-somethings do not. As the sweltering New York summer day took off outside, two girls talked raising strong women and taking it all off inside.
For a New Yorker, you’re young to have a house and two kids.
I am. I like it though. There are moments when I would like to stay up until four, and not come home until the sun’s coming up. Sometimes on Sundays I’d like to just lie on the couch and watch a movie during the day, like I know my friends are able to do when they want to. I can’t choose that really.
What is the difference between raising a boy and raising a girl?
We don’t know yet because they’re so young. Ask me again when my son is 15, when he’s a teenager and we’re talking about respect, because I know he’ll get obnoxious. I think girls are a lot more vulnerable. Girls can attract predators.
How do you raise a strong woman today?
What I want to instil in my daughter is really strong self-esteem, so that she doesn’t succumb to bullying in school or someone on the street wanting her to do something. I’m trying to figure out what I wish someone had said to me during that time. I consciously try to teach my daughter that you are able to do things by yourself, and you’re an independent, strong girl. But I don’t know how to do that, so if anyone’s looking for advice don’t ask me.
Girls recently started shooting season four. You’ve talked in interviews about how you fell into acting by accident. How are you feeling about the show?
I resisted it in the beginning because I felt I had to. I felt if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as a painter then I had to not just show that I’m serious, but to say it – drill it into people’s heads. And I think that was a very immature rebellion. I realised you can just fucking paint and do your acting. Be an adult, go to work like everyone else, and use that money to subsidise what you love. I’m very lucky because I haven’t had to have an office job, but it also comes with some stuff I don’t like. I don’t like being recognised. I like you, but I don’t like interviews. I used to think it was the TV show that kept me from things and it’s not, it’s my kids. I’m really only a supporting character and I don’t work that much.And I’ve learned, I’ve picked up tricks. In the beginning I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I have tools now. I know what I’m looking for. There’s a moment when you’re doing a scene with someone where it actually starts to feel good, and it starts to make sense.
How long have you been painting?
I had to paint in preschool, so I never stopped.
Do you remember the first painting you did that you felt good about?
Yeah, I actually have them. It was a couple: a little pink vase, and a deep green vase with a dark blue background. They’re super flat oil paintings. I was only eight but I thought to myself how it was cool that the dark colours worked together so well. It was also the first time I’d made something look three-dimensional.
When did you know you wanted to be a painter?
I didn’t really ever know. My mother wanted me to be a painter so she sort of pushed that but I don’t know if it would have been what I came to on my own. I’ve been rereading my school reports recently because my mother gave them to me, and they always said that was my strength: my visual side. Not a bad thing to be pushed towards. And now this is where I am and I don’t know what else I would do. I’m too scared to try anything else.
What else did your school reports say?
The teachers really liked me but they all said the same thing, which was that she could be really good at this subject if she showed up, she’s impressive when she comes to class. They all said that her confidence was low. She’s capable of doing this stuff but she doesn’t think she is. I never knew it showed up in school but I knew that as a kid I never thought I was capable. So that’s why I push that on my kids, that you’re awesome and you can do things by yourself.
Have you done therapy?
Yeah, since I was like five. Therapy’s awesome. I love it. I mean, some days, I have nothing to talk about, and then those are usually the days where ten minutes towards the end you get into something really good. Are you in therapy?
No, but I’m curious about it.
It’s good, anyone can get it. It’s not just for people who have problems. I mean, everyone has problems. No therapist is going to give you advice or tell you what to do, they’re just going to guide the conversation in such a way where you come to the solutions yourself.
Do you still almost exclusively paint women?
Yeah, I think because I’m most comfortable around girls, inherently. I actually have mostly male friends, but I love women.
How do you get women to take their clothes off?
I just ask them. They’ll usually say yes because you’re a girl. One girl said no, and I was like, “You’re lame.” She knows who she is, and you know who she is too and I’m not saying. She knows I was annoyed. I think people make the mistake of thinking that they are being represented in the painting. Yes, it’s your likeness, but I’m just using you to make the painting.
You narrated a great film for the Tate Modern about women artists. Which women artists do you admire?
There are a few, but there’s no one that I’m going to emulate because they all had their fuck-ups. There’s a side of me where I would love to say, “I’m not going to be home tonight, I’m at the studio.” Would I rather have an awesome body of work this year or come home and put the kids to bed every night? I honestly don’t know. I’m inclined to take care of my kids because it’s a biological need for me. I truly believe that there is no way to balance being an artist and a mother. One will be at the expense of the other. Absolutely, if I didn’t have kids I would be a better painter. I would be prolific. As for women artists whose careers I’m influenced by, the obvious one would be Alice Neel. She was an extremely tenacious and diligent painter, but that wasn’t at the expense of being a good mother. Elizabeth Murray is a painter who had kids. She was a great mom. Then there’s Louise Bourgeois, who had a few children, and I think it was early in life like me. She painted when she could, with non-toxic materials at the kitchen table. She really committed again in later life. So there’s hope for me in that way.