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“I cannot believe this holiday.”
Lola Kirke exhales these words as we’re seated at a corner table at Café Cluny in the West Village. It’s Monday, and also President’s Day – an already somewhat silly holiday made downright laughable in light of the current administration.
Her candor surrounding this subject is hardly surprising. Since taking on roles in the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle and cult thriller Gone Girl, Kirke has positioned herself as a political and social activist.
“I personally couldn’t live with myself with having a voice and not using it,” she tells me when I ask about the impact that social media has had on celebrity. “Instagram and Twitter become these main platforms and they’ve figured out algorithms to make sure that we look at our phones in certain ways…and I think that can be good and bad. It’s part of what got our president elected. But it also could be a force for good.”
The expectations that accompany being a celebrity on social media go beyond the pressure to inspire activism; Kirke tells me that it can also be used as leverage in securing a role. “I have to use [social media] as a tool for music and promotion for the show because that becomes imperative. I mean, people cast movies now – and this is ridiculous and so unfortunate – they cast based on the free advertising that their actors can provide.”
While it’s highly unlikely that Meryl Streep is getting hassled by her management to promote her films on Instagram, up and comers like Kirke are facing a totally unprecedented kind of pressure. (It’s also worth noting that this pressure is present in almost all fields – I point out to Kirke that as a writer, I’m more likely to be given a story if I have more Twitter followers.)
Still, Kirke is far from a rookie in the entertainment world. She was born in London and raised in New York’s West Village, surrounded by creative voices (you may recognize her sister Jemima on HBO’s hit series Girls, or her father Simon Kirke, former drummer of Bad Company). She took her first acting lessons in a woman’s living room in Soho, and spent her adolescence performing in summer camp productions and tagging along to her father’s shows. A creative life was inevitable. “I think it would have been shocking to my parents if I had decided I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. I mean my parents named their kids Jemima, Domino, and Lola, so.”
In the newest season of Mozart in the Jungle, Kirke is stretching her creative muscles even further. Her character, an ambitious oboist named Hailey, could easily fall into the one-dimensional ingénue trap that we see so consistently on television and in movies. “It was really important to me to get away from these characters that I keep finding myself in, which is like the whip to somebody else’s impulse or the straight man to somebody’s grandiosity,” Kirke explains. “And I was surprised to find myself in those roles, because while I’m definitely drawn to grandiose people in real life, I also can be a very grandiose person [laughs]…This season I talked to the showrunner Will Graham and the other writers a lot about expanding my character away from that person. Beyond the progression of her stepping into her personal power, there’s also the career change for her, the focus shift into conducting.”
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While Kirke isn’t actually playing the oboe on the show (spoiler alert), she’s very much a musician in real life. With her first LP coming out this spring and a famous drummer for a father, she has a special appreciation for her fellow orchestra members in Mozart. “It’s a beautiful thing to get to sit in an orchestra while they play…I remember growing up, I spent a lot of time going to see [my father’s band] play, and I remember the feeling of the bass when I would walk into a concert hall. I would hear the sound and how it would fill the entire space and how it fills your body. And it’s something that I’ll just never forget, and sitting in an orchestra is a whole different kind of sonic sensation.”
Kirke’s album will incorporate this kind of sound, perhaps unknowingly influenced by four seasons of sitting amongst an orchestra on her show. “I think it’s just more cohesive,” she says when I ask her how the LP will differ from her self-titled EP. “It’s just bigger. It’s all the same musicians and we recorded the whole thing live to tape.” The new songs will also be heavily influenced by blues and country, Kirke’s first love when it comes to music.
Kirke also grew up enthralled with police dramas and thrillers (she recounts watching Cops with her nanny and rolls her eyes at her fleeting childhood aspiration of becoming a police officer). After Gone Girl, Kirke proved she has the performing chops that thrillers require, which audiences will get to see more of in Gemini, coming to theaters March 30th.
The film looks into the complex relationship between a Hollywood starlet (Zoe Kravitz) and her personal assistant (Kirke) after a brutal crime. “I think we like to get involved in the underbelly of what humans can do,” Kirke says of society’s collective obsession with all things murder.
But Gemini does more than make audiences gasp and flinch – it’s also challenging cinema and the limits it has created for itself. “[The film] has a truly diverse cast,” Kirke says. “That was something that was really important to me and Aaron [Katz], the writer and director. I think that we see a lot of diversity in cinema, but a lot of times there’s only one person of color in a given production or the people of color are never lead roles. And I think that this film changes that.”
When I ask her about the specific challenges that women face in Hollywood, Kirke tells me that she’s seen “how much being a woman does provide a problem in this industry.”
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“I mean, I think it does in all of the industries,” she continues. “There’s this Susan Howe quote that says something to the effect of: ‘Why would I seek to align myself with the very systems of power that have shut me down?’ I’m all for equal pay, but I think that there’s a way in which we need to expand our idea of what it means to be a powerful woman, rather than it just meaning being an executive at a film company. I would like to see the industry change more than it’s pretending to right now.”
But Kirke continues to push through the obstacles the industry throws her way. She recently made her producing debut with Active Adults, a film about a frustrated young couple (Kirke and actor Jonathan Rosen) that decide to try out retirement home living. Kirke and Rosen had actually dated in real life and broken up right before production began – an experience that she describes as “not that chill.” But still, she has fond memories of making the film. “I love Dominic Chianese, and Joanna Merlin, who’s the main actress in the film and so beautiful to work with,” she says. “I really love that story. It was a good time.”
Though Active Adults was filmed in the New York City area, many of Kirke’s creative pursuits have taken her to Los Angeles, where she now lives. When I ask her how this transition has changed her, she says probably the most profound thing I’ve ever heard, a sentiment that every New York or Los Angeles transplant will relate to: “I love New York the way I love myself and I love LA the way I love someone else.”
“I’ve come to understand it like that,” she continues. “New York is my heart and my home and where I grew up and everything but it’s very nice to not be here all the time. It’s a good balance.”
As someone who came to the United States as a child, Kirke has a unique perspective on the challenges facing the country right now. “I think that whether you’re from here or not, this country is so compelling. And that’s the issue with it now, in a lot of ways. But I think artistically, I was really excited by what this country was.”
“I always felt a little outside of [America], and I lived in New York which made me outside of country music as well, but I felt very at home in it. I think because country music is, as they say, three chords and the truth…And that’s what I want from the things that I consume and create. I want it to be truthful.”
Kirke is just one of countless voices to make their way to America and use that experience to contribute to its culture. As we pay the check and head back out into the bitter New York winter, I can’t help but think: without her, and all of them, what would we be?
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