“No one’s messy anymore!”
Jemima Kirke has low-key been our favourite Girls girl for a while now. As the show heads into its last season, we called the actress, artist and all-round legend up to talk about her accidental fame and the pitfalls of social media.
“I loooove Kanye West’s Twitter; I think it’s genius. I’m not angry at him at all,” says Jemima Kirke with a laugh. “The internet is so full of shit anyway. Everyone’s full of shit. So he’s at least making something that’s attractive and compelling to read.” Kirke is talking on the phone from LA where she’s filming Emma Forrest’s debut feature, Untogether, in which she plays a former teen prodigy and recovering heroin addict alongside Jamie Dornan, Ben Mendelsohn and her sister, Lola.
The fact that Kirke is an accidental actress is Hollywood parable by now. The 31-year-old suddenly found herself on the small screen after her childhood friend Lena Dunham cast her in the seminal TV show Girls, unapologetically mining Kirke’s own life and persona for her character, Jessa, the untethered nonconformist with glamorous undertones and an in-flux relationship with rehab. Kirke has spoken openly about feeling exploited by Dunham at first, shunning the idea that she was an actress and identifying instead as an artist. But acting slowly seeped into her psyche and as Girls draws to a close (the sixth and final season airs in January), her IMDb profile is swelling — also due for release next year is The Little Hours, an ensemble comedy featuring Alison Brie, John C. Reilly and Dave Franco.
“Lena has an amazing internet presence,” she says. “It’s fascinating. There are things that she writes that I don’t agree with [and] obviously things that Kanye West writes that I wouldn’t agree with! But it’s not about agreeing; I just appreciate it.” Kirke isn’t fully immersed in social media but she does have a penchant for making quick and candid videos. “It’s so nice to have that tool right in your hands… Everyone’s an artist now, which I really don’t mind. I’m not saying everyone’s a good artist but, you know…” British-born Kirke, who moved to New York when she was eleven, studied fine arts at Rhode Island School of Design and paints mostly figurative work. “I’m interested in people,” she says. “Sitting in a room with them and painting things that are specific to them … It’s funny, when you put someone in a chair and they’re drinking a cup of coffee, that’s just a person in a chair drinking coffee. But as soon as you take that and put it on canvas you suddenly make it mean something.”
As for acting: “I guess I’m getting more comfortable with it,” she says. “I didn’t have any confidence over it in the beginning because, why would I? I had never done it before, and now I’m starting to be more interested in it but it’s still very scary for me because it’s such challenging work.” She finds working on films more of an exploratory exercise that informs her other art. “While I’m into it right now I don’t know how long that’s going to last,” she admits. “But it’s making me think about painting in a different way and it’s making me think about writing…” Kirke has no qualms cancelling acting jobs in order to focus on painting. “I said no to so much for many years. I’m glad I did because it gave me time to be in the studio. But right now my paintings… There’s something about them that’s a bit safe, a bit timid, and I think I’m learning that through acting — that there’s only so far I’m willing to go until I’m uncomfortable and then I won’t go further.”
Playing it safe, staying in one’s comfort zone — these are paradigms the mother of two children appears to rally against on a daily basis. Back on the topic of social media, Kirke laments it for “taking the messiness away” from life. “No one’s messy anymore!” she cries. “I went to see this exhibit — I won’t say where because I didn’t like it — but it was a group show and I was noticing that there was so much art that was so… resolved and sort of pleased with itself and clever. There was no searching and no discovery and no messiness and no humanity in it. It bored the shit out of me. And I think the internet does that, too. Nobody wants to be flawed. No one wants to put out a tweet that’s not perfectly thought-out and that they don’t stand by 100 per cent. Everything’s a bit clean for me at the moment.”
She worries about her kids growing up in the internet age, and the inherent self-absorption and body issues that come with that. “It’s really affecting our teenagers with this sense of advertising yourself. I mean it’s one thing to use yourself and make things and do it in a smart, thought-out way… but then we see so many fucking selfies!” She laughs. “Social media has allowed us to curate ourselves, so it puts forth our favourite version of who we would like to be, and that’s all a lie. That’s what I’m concerned about for my kids; I don’t want them to be narcissistic little prats.”
While she can see the effects it has on her children, Kirke feels less exposed in comparison to someone like Dunham, whom she admires for her vulnerability both on the internet and in the industry. “She works with so many more people than I do and she meets a lot of assholes,” Kirke says. “The thing about being sort of a muse or talent in this world that can be so ugly — especially as a young woman like Lena — is that you have this light… Lena has this big light that she has brought into this world and it’s quite pure because she hasn’t been in it very long. There are a lot of people who are drawn to it — a lot of dark people, I think — who want a piece of it or want to crush it or want to be part of it because she is the new hot thing or whatever. So she has to be careful. She will meet people who are dangerous.”
Making Girls with Dunham, Kirke says, was a “humbling experience” because she had to learn to work in a group, within others’ guide rails — a far cry from her painting studio in Brooklyn where “sometimes it’s like I can go in there and make whatever the fuck I want, and that can be a problem because not all my ideas are great.” Right now, though, she’s packing up that part of her life and embracing transience with characteristic openness — an echo of the Jessa she inspired. “It’s like moving house,” she says. “A house you want to move from… But you know that moment where you leave the house and it’s all empty and the sound is different now because there’s nothing in it? And it’s like, OK — it’s done; this is weird… But I don’t really have a choice, and I’m kind of looking forward to the next house.”