‘Do you ever feel imprisoned by your lists?’ Jemima Kirke asks, as she scrolls through her own extensive array of agendas on her iPhone. ‘That you are being held captive by them? That if you don’t complete your lists, that’s a problem?’
I confess that I avoid entrapment simply by transferring the incomplete tasks to the next day’s list.
‘I have to remember that I am the creator of the list,’ 30-year-old Jemima nods, with a wry smile. ‘I don’t actually have to fix that curtain. It has been on the list for three weeks, but if I took it off, then it wouldn’t be something that I had to do.’ She looks triumphant at the solution, and digs happily into her lentil soup.
It is Friday lunchtime in Red Hook, an extremely cool neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and we are having lunch in an equally cool diner-cum-bar. British-born Jemima is a regular here, located as it is only a few minutes from her art studio.
Though she is best known for her role as the snarky, spiky Jessa Johansson in the HBO comedy Girls – a selfish rebel who it is hard to imagine ever making a list in her life – Jemima’s main focus and passion has always been painting.
She became an actress by accident. Her close friend since high school, Lena Dunham, the 29-year-old creator, director and co-star of Girls, persuaded Jemima to appear in her first, low-budget indie film Tiny Furniture (‘I was under the impression, when she told me about it, that it was one step away from a student film,’ says Jemima, who wasn’t paid for her turn as the narcissistic Charlotte).
When Dunham then asked her to be in her pilot for a television show, Jemima never imagined it would be running five years later, or would become the zeitgeist-defining success it has. ‘But Lena didn’t hire me because I’m such a good actress that I can pull off characters that are nothing like me,’ Jemima insists.
Dunham has, intentionally or not, based numerous storylines for Jessa on Jemima’s own scenarios.
‘Because she knows so much about every detail of my life, it seeps in subconsciously when she’s writing,’ says Jemima, with fondness rather than irritation. ‘She will say, “No, it has nothing to do with that…” I’m like, “But it’s exactly parallel to what’s going on.”’
There are, however, vast gulfs in both circumstances and personality: Jessa, intimidating and inscrutable, has been divorced, after a brief, disastrous marriage, while Jemima is a happily married mother-of-two, living in a Brooklyn brownstone with her husband, Michael Mosberg, 39, a former lawyer, and their children, Rafaella, five, and three-year-old Memphis. And Jemima – who arrives early, wholly unlike her chaotic alter ego – is warm, funny, open and utterly self-aware.
During the first few seasons of Girls, Jemima was reluctant to embrace her newfound identity as an actress; but in the past couple of years she has, she admits, begun to enjoy the show – and acting. ‘You don’t realise how nice your job is until it’s going,’ she says sadly – the sixth season of Girls, Dunham has confirmed, will be its last.
Similarly, Jemima is well-respected in the art world but eschews many of its trappings. ‘For years I kept calling my paintings my “stuff”,’ she says. ‘I didn’t like it when people said “my work”, because I thought there was something silly and pretentious about it, this notion of “the artist” as someone special and unique. You’re still like everyone else. You go to your office or studio, because you need to make money, and you make something to make that money.’
She won’t leave the studio with paint on her hands or clothes, which she sees as boastful, but doesn’t shy away from ink – her arms and hands are littered with tattoos, including a tiger on the inside of her left forearm and a sun covering her palm.
I tell her about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, in which she argues against the idea of the tortured artist, and in favour of creative living being accessible to everyone. This resonates with Jemima, who has been on antidepressants since she was 18 and strongly contests the idea that medication stymies creativity and that great art is only made through suffering.
‘I thought that in high school,’ she says. ‘It’s the reverse for me now. I need to be well to produce something that’s any good.’
While Jemima can rail against preciousness, she retains impeccable bohemian credentials. She is the daughter of Simon Kirke, the former drummer of the rock bands Bad Company and Free, and her mother, Lorraine, is an interior designer who also owned Geminola, a vintage boutique in New York. Several Dellals – model Alice, shoe designer Charlotte and art-gallery owner Alex – are cousins.
The Kirkes left Barnes, west London, for Manhattan when Jemima was 11, on what she says was simply her mother’s whim. ‘She’s very impulsive,’ she shrugs. Her older sister, Domino, was 13, her younger sister, Lola, six. Their brother, Gregory, 16, remained at boarding school in the UK. ‘The kids were a lot more “city” than I was used to – they were a bit advanced for me,’ she says of the New York school she landed in.
She quickly caught up, though, and spent much of her teen years running wild, having what she has called ‘a bunch of profound and negative drug experiences’.
She met Dunham at the famously liberal independent high school St Ann’s, where pupils are encouraged to express themselves creatively and work is not graded. Between St Ann’s and their parents’ careers, she and her sisters were surely destined for lives of creativity, I comment; Domino is now a musician, and Lola is an actress, who recently starred in the film Mistress America.
‘The message was very much: be who you are, do what you are great at,’ Jemima says of both her school and her home environment. ‘That’s great in some ways. But the message also was: you’re not a maths person? So don’t do maths. You only need to pass it anyway.’
She won a place to study fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design. ‘But I went thinking that I could do whatever I wanted,’ she says. ‘And I got thrown out. Twice. I was an entitled little privileged brat.’
While at art school she also had an abortion, without anaesthetic, because she could not afford the extra money for the drugs. She went public with her story last spring, in a video for the Centre for Reproductive Rights’ Draw the Line Campaign, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding the procedure. The trolls have been made her a target since it first appeared online.
‘Oh, they have been calling me a baby killer,’ she groans. ‘But it doesn’t bother me what they say. The only tangible feedback I’ve had has been so positive. On the street, women pushing strollers say they loved it and thank you. And it is always women with kids. Always.’
As well as her own two children, Jemima is stepmother to her husband’s son and daughter, who are 11 and nine. She married Michael in 2009. He has had numerous professional incarnations. ‘He has done stocks and he used to be a personal injury lawyer. Mike could sell you a broken pen,’ she says with a laugh.
I ask, innocently enough, where they met. Kirke pauses for a second. ‘Rehab.’ For all her excoriating openness, this is not a topic she has publicly discussed until now.
‘The reason I never talked about it before is because I wasn’t sure what the f— I was,’ she says. ‘When you are in rehab, and after it, you think you are an addict. I didn’t feel that the label fitted, but I was scared that if I abandoned it, then I would go right back to where I was. That is the message sent to you when you are in these establishments.’
Jemima first went to rehab at 19, for, she says, ‘everything; partying’ (which translates as drugs and alcohol). ‘The final straw was a three-day bender, at the end of which I was feeling like I wanted to kill myself,’ she recalls.
She spent a second spell in rehab four years later, where she met Michael. And while she followed the rehab programme, and attended AA meetings afterwards, she is keen, today, to talk about her objections to the one-size-fits-all approach to alcohol and drug abuse.
‘I don’t believe that everyone who has an alcohol problem or a drug problem is an alcoholic or an addict. There is such a thing as a problem and not a “condition”, and I think that is what I had. People can drink and use drugs circumstantially, and people can change and outgrow behaviours.’
She is quick to add that she believes AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) do great work in helping millions of people get sober. ‘But this country is so quick to diagnose it as a disease,’ she says. ‘I understand the semantics – it’s a “disease of the mind” – but I don’t know that I can believe that it is a disease. If you are born with it, which they also say, why can’t you test for it in babies?’
Jemima also objects to the day-count measure of success in recovery: how many days/weeks/months/years someone has been sober. ‘I know what it is there for, and why it is helpful – so that people don’t have to feel like it is the rest of their lives, it’s just one day at a time,’ she says.
‘But if you then have a drink, you lose your 15 years and have to go back to the beginning again.’ She looks horrified. ‘That’s not life – that’s a board game. I just wish there was more room in AA for people to mess up. I found the AA formula to be quite constrictive, and, at times, even punishing.’
Michael is in the process of setting up a rehab centre of his own, a few streets away in Red Hook, and working out treatment programmes with his team of therapists.
Jemima, for her part, has opted out of the board game – for a little over two years, she has been drinking again, carefully, socially.
‘Mike was nervous at first. He said, “Look, I would never tell you what to do; you are an adult – just don’t f— it up.” He had every right to be scared, he knew my story. But I was a different person back then. I was in my early 20s, I didn’t have children.’
Jemima has packed so much in – marriage, motherhood, rehab, two creative careers – and is so grounded and astute, it almost seems impossible that she’s only 30 years old. The milestone birthday, she says, gave her a sense of achievement.
‘It’s like graduating school,’ she says with a smile, pulling on her duck-down coat as we step out on to the cobbled street. ‘It’s not like you feel very different, but you completed something, you got through it.’