Jemima Kirke’s Growing Pains After ‘Girls’: On Marriage, Divorce, and Art in the Trump Era
The actress best known for her work on the HBO culture bomb describes how she learned to stop resenting ‘Girls,’ and her whirlwind performance in a new film, ‘Wild Honey Pie.’
AUSTIN, TEXAS — In Wild Honey Pie!, which premiered at the South By Southwest Festival this week, Jemima Kirke stars as one half of an eccentric married couple attempting to pull off a “Shakespeare by the Sea” festival.
Shifting between comedy and tragedy, writer and director Jamie Adams’ exploration of art and monogamy benefits tremendously from Kirke’s memorable performance. As Gillian, Kirke sets a series of fires, breathing endless oxygen into her worst ideas and impulses. She cheats on her husband, kisses a potential employer, curses out her mother-in-law and frets constantly over her less-than-profitable playwriting career. As Gillian stumbles into new lows, Kirke infuses her character with so much genuine feeling that no one—not her husband nor the audience—can hold any of it against her. It’s an ugly, frantic, funny, challenging role, one in which Kirke appears to have lost herself completely.
Her success in channeling a semi-manic, self-destructive creative is such that it’s a shock to meet the polished actress behind the performance. In a hotel lobby in Austin, the singular tattoos creeping up Kirke’s arms are one of the only remaining links between Jemima and Gillian. On paper, Jemima, Gillian and Jessa, the Girls character whom Kirke is best known for, all fall under the broad umbrella of beautiful bohemians. Kirke, who was a painter long before she fell into acting, seems surprised when I compare Gillian to Jessa, insisting, “I think she’s a lot more restless than Jessa and she wants a lot more, and she puts herself on the line, and she tries harder than Jessa tries. She’s not as fearful as Jessa is. She makes a big mess and then cleans it up, somehow. She works with it.”
Still, Kirke sees how someone could draw the connection, and isn’t afraid of being typecast as a restless artist. “I’m not necessarily looking for parts to break the mold,” she explains. “I’m looking for parts that I can do something with. I’m looking for parts that are interesting to me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be completely different to Jessa, but I don’t want to play a caricature of someone.”
She credits the HBO show, which ran for six seasons, with detonating a way to present women as caricatures, focusing on the complicated lives of irreducible women. For Kirke, one of the polarizing show’s most important legacies was “breaking archetypes and finding the in-betweens.”
Asked to elaborate on the pop culture “dent” that Girls left in its wake, Kirke continues, “I guess it made space in film for women to be better actors, in general. Because they could draw on things that were actually real, and things that they were going through. So now the scripts that I’m getting and the writing I’m reading is a lot of situations that are just much more interesting. They’re putting women in all kinds of situations now, and a small example of that that I think Lena did and Lena did so well is the nudity. She did nudity without it being sexual, and that is not something that we’ve seen a lot of onscreen, is nudity without sex. And that nudity can give us more information about the story other than sex—that someone can be nude in their house and it tells us something about them, or the scene.”
Pausing for a moment, she continues, “I don’t think it’s like ‘now women can be funny!’—we’re always fucking funny. We are always funny. I am not ever going to take credit for that.”
Kirke says she has witnessed the positive effects of Girls firsthand. “The writing of the way we speak is better now, and the way people are writing our flaws is much more varied.” She adds, exasperated, “I can’t tell you how many scripts I get that are just like one type of girl, and it’s the tough, cool, bad girl who’s just like sad on the inside. If I read that one more time…That is something I’m not interested in. And that’s people who saw Girls and misread it and just saw the archetypes.”
There’s a connection between Girls and the surge of unvarnished, often painful female narratives happening both on and off screen now, she says. “I’m excited that we kind of spurred that,” she says. “I mean it was happening before we did it, but I guess I’m just proud of Lena and excited for her. I don’t take any credit for it. I watch [Girls] now and I see the dent that it’s made and I’m just so impressed with her because I couldn’t see it while I was making it.”
The actress exudes genuine affection for the HBO phenomenon and for its creator, who also happens to be a lifelong friend. She’s happy to praise Girls endlessly, taking pains to best articulate her admiration for the show and for the vision she’s just now come to fully appreciate. Kirke is the furthest thing from an actor trying to escape the role she’s best known for—the kind who constantly shifts the conversation to their latest project and refuses to acknowledge that the past has any bearing on the present. This is quite an evolution for Kirke, who has spoken candidly in the past about her resentment towards Girls. The reluctant actress even attempted to quit the series a few days before season two started shooting.
Kirke recalls that difficult adjustment period, explaining, “I loved the work itself, it was the stuff around the work that I was like a deer in headlights. The interviews and the events and the PR of it all—learning how to talk in an interview, was like, I thought you just answered questions honestly! I didn’t know anything about PR. And also I learned that there’s going to be things that you don’t agree with that you don’t want to necessarily do but it’s your job. Like, if you don’t like the storyline of your character, it doesn’t matter. You have to do it. And you have to make space in that role and make it so you believe it and you buy it.”
She also insists that she had no idea during filming that Girls would explode the way that it did, laughing, “I was so stupid! I was in my own world.” She claims she didn’t even pick up on the controversies surrounding the show until much later. “I didn’t read about it or really look at much press because I was just so resentful of it in the beginning, I didn’t want to be there,” she recalls. “I’d signed up for something that I didn’t really understand the connotations of… But I’m realizing now, it caused a big stink! People loved it and hated it and wrote about it even when they hadn’t seen it.”
Acting full-time came with a fear that she would lose track of other parts of herself, she says: “I don’t want to ever just stay with acting because I decided that’s what I am and what I do. I want to do lots of things. If I sign up to do a movie or a TV show, then I have to consider that I might not have time to paint or I might not have time to do my own projects.” She has managed to keep up with her painting, however. Last year, she began showing a collection of portraits of brides and women in wedding dresses. The themes that the recently divorced Kirke explored in that show—the hope and pain of monogamy, women’s almost inexplicable allegiance to an outdated tradition—are at the forefront of Wild Honey Pie!
When asked about the film’s take on marriage and romance, Kirke posits, “I think the movie is about the value in staying. There is a value sometimes, sometimes there isn’t… They still love each other. And when I say love I don’t mean that in a general way—they still want to be together. I don’t necessarily believe people when they say ‘I love you but I don’t want to be with you.’ I don’t think it’s true.”
“I think that all relationships are work,” she continues. “All marriages and committed relationships are work, and they’re always going to be imperfect, and you’re never going to find someone who’s perfect for you. There’s no such thing as the one. You make a choice and you stay, and you choose to continue or not. But there’s gonna be days where it doesn’t work and, well, it is futile. It is! And so is marriage. It’s not a rational, normal, human thing that we’re doing, staying with one person every day, because we’re constantly changing.”
A vocal proponent of Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights in the past, Kirke says that she has a new “platform” in the Trump era: “I’m encouraging people to react right now. And react not just to the villains of the world right now like Trump, but react to the culture. That’s our job as artists.” She elaborates, “Art is a big issue to me right now, and I’m afraid that it’s going to suffer at the hands of this call-out culture that we’re in, and the scolding and the hyper-vigilance in social politics. I’m worried that people are too scared to make things now for fear of getting in trouble…I think there’s a benefit to challenging the sort of collective belief out there and doing something reactive against it.”