From The Girls to Talking With Friends, Jemima Kirk has explored the complex side of relationships and fashion.
“I’m a stylist’s nightmare,” says Jemima Kirk, pointing to the bright green jersey she wore during our Zoom call.
As carefree Jessa in the cult TV comedy GirlsKirk has become, like show creator Lena Dunham, the voice of a generation of cool but effortless girls from New York (and everywhere else).
Now the 37-year-old British actress has a new show: she plays a writer in a strained marriage. Conversations with friendsBritish series from the creative team of the 2020s Ordinary people, which is also based on the novel by Sally Rooney.
Here Kirke discusses her role, why she’s fed up with Instagram-fueled fashion trends and legacy Girls is the series that defined millennial feminism in the 2010s.
Conversations with Friends explores the conflict between head and heart. Where did your character, the ambitious writer Melissa, come from?
Jemima Kirk: “I think she comes from both. I think it represents what comes from the head, a very rational place and a place of unconditional love. And I think it’s true to some extent, but I don’t think it comes as naturally to her as she would like Frances (Alison Oliver) and Nick (Joe Alwyn) to think. She does it, perhaps somewhat strategically and also in a manipulative way, because she hurts and is probably just as jealous and emotional as Francis.”
What attracted you to the script based on the book of the same name by Sally Rooney?
JK: “The context of the story and the way it is told: the pace is very slow and the context is mundane – everything happens in everyday life. Even the case is somewhat typical – not the details, the details of something are never typical. It’s the details that make things stand out. I found that creating an entire scene based on making someone a cup of tea was a real challenge. Sitting in a cafe and asking someone if they would like to go on vacation. Scenes like this, whenever they happen, are a challenge – it can’t just be about making a cup of tea. They have to do something, a situation, unremarkable, wonderful, through acting and directing, of course. If it was as pointless as it seems, we wouldn’t have a stage.”
You played such strong female characters. What are you looking for in a role?
JK: When you say strong, do you mean tough or experienced?
They have a strong perspective and are confident, especially citing the character of Jessa, who you played in Girls, and, of course, Melissa in Conversations with Friends.
Yuk: I agree. It makes sense. They are very focused and have a point of view, they are by no means typical characters. They are quite dominant. I’m not looking for it in character necessarily. That’s what I’m most often offered, but it would be nice to play someone who is the opposite. I don’t think strong or powerful women are the most interesting characters – they can be, I appreciate that there are more stories with these types of characters, but I think it’s just as important to tell stories about opposite personalities. There is power in being reserved, more observant or insecure. I mean, these are also strong characters. Any story and any character that is written in a way that destroys the appearance or what that character represents is interesting to me. Anyone who breaks it down and says it’s not what it seems. Man is always more dynamic than his archetype.”
Joe Alwyn plays your on-screen husband Nick, a character described in the novel as “insanely handsome.” This is a very difficult marriage. How did you and Joe meet before filming?
JK: “Sometimes your first reaction to a person can be your best chemistry. We met beforehand to talk about relationships – there was a lot of drinking, talking to other actors, which was really fun. It really helped create chemistry with all of us. We went to visit each other … whenever I tell American publications about drinking, there is always laughter, as if it were some kind of taboo. But I’m talking to an Australian and no reaction, I like it. It’s always nice to get a little drunk with people you want to get to know better. It makes everyone a little more vulnerable.”
What challenges did you face playing a married couple?
JK: “The challenge that Joe and I had was to create a marriage. The marriage was (narrated) from Frances’s point of view – and she sees very little, and she also sees what she wants to see, which is a relationship that is fragile and maybe doesn’t even exist. It wouldn’t be very interesting to reenact the marriage that Frances saw, because that’s where the tension should come from. That’s the whole point of turning the book into moving pictures – then you can see things from a different perspective than the narrator.”
In a previous interview with American Vogue early in your career, you reflected on the idea of fame, saying, “I don’t need to be famous – I don’t need to do that side.” How do you feel about fame now?
JK: “Let’s be honest, my caliber is somewhere in the low to medium range – I’m fine with that. I think there is something deliberate about this for me. They sent me Marvel scripts and I’m not going to read them. At the time when they sent me to them, I could not imagine that I would be doing such productions. Everything has changed, I admit that now this is my job. I accept what comes with it. It’s not a huge price to pay to be able to do what I now love to do.”
As a mother – and a style icon in her own right – what do you think about the pressure on young women to conform to fast fashion and social media trends?
JK: “I think there has always been pressure on young women, from their teens to women in their 30s and older, to conform and to have our clothes or our appearance approved by men and women. What’s special and interesting about today’s fashion is that thanks to Instagram, everyone looks the same. Everyone, and I mean everyone in this age group, I noticed – my daughter is still a minor – and all the teenagers wear the same outfits. Now everyone wears gold chains. There is always something I notice that circulates on Instagram and now I see it everywhere. And I’m sure to some extent my (style). I’m sure I’m getting ideas and inspiration from this that I don’t even know I have. Instagram is the new stand for magazines.”
You are known for your eclectic personal style. How do you feel about fashion?
DC: “My approach? I have a lot of opinions about fashion – I’m a real stylist’s nightmare because I come with a “no” list.
What’s on this list?
JK: “I won’t draw flowers unless they are very specific. I won’t do anything that looks bohemian, I won’t do anything with steppe hem. I can’t take it. I hate anything that has a low waist, especially with a tie. I don’t like the tuck in the front of the pants. I don’t like peep-tuk, the list goes on. I try, especially if I’m going to be photographed, not to wear what is approved by Instagram. I wish things weren’t so formulaic. The other way I approach it is that in my daily life it changes. As you can see, now I really like to wear bright colors. And I have always collected T-shirts, I have a million T-shirts, old T-shirts. I don’t like rock t-shirts, I hate band t-shirts. I do not know why. It started in the early 2000s when people wore them with a nice suit or skirt. What are you doing? You ruined everything! I don’t like the casual look mixed with the more glamorous, I hate it. It’s just my preference.”
It’s been 10 years since the premiere of “Girls”. How do you think about it now?
JK: “I feel so far away. It was such a taboo show at the time, if it came out today it would be very different. Experience? I look at it with love. I feel like I was so inexperienced. I wasn’t in control of my career… I haven’t developed a real skill set yet. There are days when I think, f***, if this happened to Girls, if I made that mistake then, I would be upset, whereas now I don’t feel anxious when I make a mistake. I think… sometimes I even want to go back.”
Conversations with Friends streams exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
Originally published as Jemima Kirk on Talking to Friends, Girls, and the Stylist’s Nightmare