DRESS: SOUTHPAW DESIGN; CROWN: RIGHTFUL OWNER; NECKLACE: VINTAGE
Jemima Kirke never set out to be an actress. But she became famous for two on-screen roles her pal Lena Dunham wrote just for her, in the film Tiny Furniture (2010) and on the hit HBO series Girls (2012 to present). It’s very easy for folks to conflate her character Jessa Johansson on Girls (now entering its fifth season) with the real-life Jemima. And admittedly, the similarities between Jessa and Jemima are striking. Jessa and her friend Hannah grew up together in New York, just like Jemima and Lena did. Jessa is a painter, and so is Jemima. Jessa went to rehab, and so did Jemima. Jessa says it like she feels it, and so does Jemima. But on Girls, Jessa is also a bored, entitled provocateur; a friend who can’t be relied on; and at times, a self-serving narcissist. In these respects, her character is a far cry from the woman I personally hold dear as one of my best friends. (More on that later.)
TINY FURNITURE, 2010
Jemima is British born—yes, that accent is legit—but moved to New York City as a teen along with her two sisters and brother. Her father Simon is a rock ‘n’ roll drummer for the band Bad Company, and her mother Lorraine is a respected clothing and interior designer. Needless to say, her upbringing was creative. She met Lena in high school and they ran with a fast crowd of artsy downtown kids. Then she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Jemima was all set to become a full-time visual artist. But then Tiny Furniture happened—and, soon afterward, Girls.
I first met Jemima in 2010. We were both in Tiny Furniture, and Lena had told us separately that we needed to be friends, mostly because we were both pregnant (me with my second child, Jemima with her first). On paper, we also looked like we should be friends. We share a mutual love for vintage clothing, long hair, painters Alice Neel and Otto Dix, ratty furniture, good books, stars and moons, and turn-of-the-century mourning jewelry. But, to be honest, the first few times we met, she terrified me. So we circled each other cautiously for a while, made nice at parties, but took it no further. Then, when we both got pregnant again, we made play dates for the kids, and our friendship began. Anyone with a newborn knows what a huge effort it is to schlep a baby and a toddler out the door and across town. But Jemima did just that, a bunch of times, over to my place—connecting with me over temper tantrums, breastfeeding, and diapers. I can think of no greater advice to a new mom than find your tribe. Get pregnant with people you love. Seek out like-minded women to share it all with. In this way, Jemima has become indispensable to me. She is the converse of all the qualities that are assumed about her because of Girls. She is engaged, vulnerable, and honest. Sure, she tells it like it is, but she can hear it like it is, too.
Jem turned 30 this year. She lives in Brooklyn, is married to a stand-up guy (lawyer Michael Mosberg), has two kids and two step kids, and has reconciled her love for painting with her surprising love for acting. We got together on a fall night during the chaos of back-to-school prep, lay on my bed, and three hours later, ended up with this conversation that bounces from friendship, to motherhood, to fame, to abortion.
DRESS: AWEAVEAWAKE; NECKLACE: VINTAGE
You had kids in your mid-20s, which is not young compared to the rest of the country—but young for the coasts. I remember thinking, She needs mom friends. I’ll hang out with her. Your confidence, your depth, and your intelligence surprised me.
I did need friends when you met me. I was the only one in my group of friends who was having a baby at the time, and that pushed away a bunch of my friends. I was really isolated. I wish that mothers and non-mothers could have more of a sense of unity. Mothers, especially, don’t give people who don’t have children enough credit. I think people can have a great respect and compassion for what it is to be a mother. Yet mothers think, “Oh, they won’t understand. I’m not going to call them. I don’t feel like hanging out with my non-parent friends because they’ve got better things to do.” And then you feel sorry for yourself.
Let’s talk about your innate self-confidence.
I think I can attribute it to growing up in a house that was always filled with all kinds of people of all ages. My parents’ friends were always around, always talking to me like an adult. I inherited that air of adulthood, where you just feel smart because people are talking to you like you’re a real person. It made me adaptable. I carried that over into my teens when I became a cocky, annoying, confident teenager who was too sexy and too smart for her own good.
When you were really young, you started painting and thought that would be your profession in life. What did you love about painting?
Well, it has to do with my mother. When I was eight or nine, she made the boiler room in our house into a studio for me and paid the art teacher at my school to teach me oil painting. I found something I was really good at and it was a source of pride for me. Everyone was like, “Oh my God, that’s so good!” When you’re a little kid and someone tells you you’re really good at something, suddenly, that’s what you are. As far as painting people goes, I love the end product, but I don’t love the process because it’s so intimate, and intimacy is not my favorite thing. I can do it. But what I would like to do is fake it.
Do you think wanting to “fake it” is something Lena wrote into your character on Girls?
Yeah, she did. [Jessa] seems so authentic and so free and so loud and so opinionated. But you don’t know how much of that is just smoke and mirrors. A distraction, while she’s really thinking, Don’t look at me. I’ve done that, and that’s maybe what Lena was writing. Painting people is hard for me. Intimacy is hard for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t do it. It’s just hard.
But whether you like it or not, you are someone who is very good at real, authentic, deep talk.
I’ve worked on that. I was raised to tell jokes and to be funny—to perform and make it worthwhile for people to be sitting in front of you. The image of yourself in other people’s eyes is rewarding when you’re younger. But when you get older, you’re like, That’s not who I am.
"In my teens, I became a cocky, annoying, confident teenager who was too sexy and too smart for her own good."
There’s also something really sexy about getting older.
Oh yeah. Walking around my house in my underwear, I’m not thinking about my body or myself. When I was younger, I walked around thinking about how everything looked, not just my body, but how everything I said seemed. When you don’t think about those things anymore, it’s such a relief. I’m a cool person now, suddenly. Now I actually am like a real person. And that feels sexy because its not calculated anymore.
I recently sent you an article about the importance of being naked in front of your kids, specifically your boys. The author wants her sons to see what a woman’s body looks like outside of porn.
Porn scares the shit out of me, for boys and girls. I just don’t want any kids to get any “shoulds” of how sex is supposed to look. For the girls, I don’t want them to think that they need to be making these awful noises or saying these awful things so that boys will like them. And I don’t want boys to think girls are supposed to say those things.
So how did the acting thing fall in your lap?
Lena and I went to high school together and she asked me to be in Tiny Furniture. Her friends were in it because she couldn’t afford to pay. So I did that and then the Girls pilot. I didn’t think I was going to do more than that.
Were you expecting the swell of interest in Girls?
Not at all. I didn’t fully get it when I was shooting it. I didn’t get the show itself, actually. I was like, “What are we doing here again?” I still don’t take responsibility for the show or the writing. I don’t think of it as my show. I’m a spoke in the wheel of this machine. So when I first saw the reaction to the show, I was blown away by how angry people were at Lena. This real misdirected anger at one girl. She can’t be everything to everybody.
DRESS: SOUTHPAW DESIGN
Do you like acting?
Yeah, I do. The moment I said my first line in Tiny Furniture—I still remember it, it was, “We have to tart you up a bit,” and I was pushing [Lena’s] clothes to the side, looking for something for her to wear. And when the take was done, everyone was laughing and I felt like a kid again. I was like, Yes! Approval.
Yes, I felt good at it. But then I was worried that the more jobs I took, the more I would be moving away from painting. Or that people would be like, “You know that girl from Girls? She paints.” But I had to check myself on that real quick, because that was irrelevant to if I was gonna paint or not. I used to think Girls stalled my painting career, but then I realized it was the kids. I wanted it badly to be Girls, because that’s something I could’ve changed, something I could’ve gotten rid of. Oh, I blamed it on Girls for years that I couldn’t paint. And then I was like, “Wait, you just want it to be Girls because that’s an easy fix.”
Being a working mother is difficult in ways men don’t experience. Men feel entitled to go out and succeed. Whereas for women, the intense guilt of being passionate about something other than your kids is debilitating.
It’s not just that. It’s the embarrassment. I got embarrassed when I had kids. I felt like when I did it, and then I was complaining that I didn’t have time to paint, people thought I’d fucked up. Like, I should’ve chosen one or the other. Women are not allowed to have both. It feels like a personal failure. And then because of that embarrassment, there’s the need to prove you can do both really well, and then you’re burning the candle at both ends and you’re not doing either job very well. You’re not being a good mom, and you’re not doing well at work.
I think one of the bigger challenges of the feminist movement is pushing for workplace policies that support families. We need equal parenting and a more reasonable work culture.
And also not telling women how they should behave or act or feel toward their kids or their work. If you’re a woman spending more time doing whatever you do—paint, be in the office, whatever—than parenting, that shouldn’t be scowled upon. People always ask me, “How do you balance it all?” And like, I don’t. Are you kidding me? I just do a bunch of stuff. Sometimes I’m doing more of one thing, and then I run over here and pay attention to that other thing.
It’s a fucking annoying question that only women are asked.
I think if you’re a feminist these days, it has come to mean that you have a career and kids and that you balance those things perfectly. And as we know, that’s not real feminism. Real feminism isn’t, like, sitting in a boardroom Leaning In or whatever. That’s not the reality for most women.
You consider yourself a feminist, right?
Of course I’m a feminist. I think everyone in their right mind should be a feminist. It’s just about equality.
On the topic of feminism, you recently did a video for the Center For Reproductive Rights where you talked about the abortion you had in college. Why did you decide to do that?
When they asked me to make that video, I wasn’t at all hesitant. I was just like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” I’ve always been that way with my abortion. And with a lot of things, I’ve wanted to diffuse them by making them casual, saying them casually. I’m trying to normalize an experience that’s been demonized—to take away the stigma. I wasn’t trying to do a good deed, necessarily. I was really just trying to make [abortion] unemotional and normal, which is how I feel about it. I don’t regret it, and I wanted to convey that as best I could. I did not want to be a mom. Was I irresponsible? None of your fuckin’ business. Plus, aren’t a large percentage of abortions performed on people who are already mothers? That makes so much sense to me. We love our children. We also fully understand the time, commitment, and money it takes to raise one. When people say, “Think if you had aborted your kid,” I’m like, “If I’d aborted it, I would have had another one who’s just as great.”
Do people confuse you with your character on Girls?
Yeah. People are like, “Oh my God, I love you!” And it’s so nice, but they don’t love me, obviously, they like my character. I miss meeting someone anonymously and having intimacy grow naturally rather than them thinking they know something about me. I’ve met young girls and fame excites them so much and that makes me sad. They’re like, “What’s it like? Have you met so and so? What famous people have you met?” These girls, between the ages of 10 and 18, really put so much value on this stuff.
That world of fame sadly can make people crazy.
A lot of actresses get called crazy bitches on set because they say what they think. I remember I got an acting lesson from a friend in her 50s who’s a really good actor. I was having trouble with this scene, and she was like, “If you need to take 20 minutes, take 20 minutes.” I felt like I could never do that. But she said if it were a man, they’d give him 20 minutes. Take your time!
But isn’t Girls the most feminist set?
It’s such a cool set. But I don’t like to demand. I just want to be good and do what the director tells me and do it well.
And not take up too much room or space or energy?
That’s probably true. Now I feel like we got this interview. I don’t want to take up too much space.
Oh my God, we’ve taken up so much space! How long have we been talking?
Three hours! [laughs]
The Best Of Jessa - GIRLS
Interview by Sarah Sophie Flicker
Photographed by Annabel Mehran; Styled by Benjamin Sturgill; Hair by Sherry Heart; Makeup by Dani Levi; Props by Taylor Patterson at Fox Fodder Farm; Stylist Assistant: Candy Jaycee Williams
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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