Jemima Kirke’s work in Girls made her a star, but her performance in Conversations with Friends has finally allowed the actress to showcase her range. As Kirke says, Melissa is somewhat of a contradiction—she’s a successful writer with a magnetism that pulls captivated audiences into her orbit. She can be warm and inviting or cutting and cold. And as the friction in her marriage increases, Melissa basks in the newfound attention she receives from a new friend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane).
What does Melissa have to gain from a close relationship with Bobbi? And to what degree does she hide behind her mysteriousness in lieu of forming genuine connections? It’s clear that Kirke has wrestled with these questions and that she has reveled in a role that has given her a rich playground to explore.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Kirke is refreshingly candid—digging into Conversations with an intelligent and rich perspective, only adding to an already high degree of appreciation for a fascinating performance.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start by asking you about your character and your thoughts on her, and this kind of weird [laughs] quartet that she finds herself in; and if there was any part of that that you could relate to—particularly, this idea of being young, and finding somebody that you’re drawn to, and this allure of someone who’s older?
Jemima Kirke: Okay, so the thing I love about Melissa is…well I mean, it’s not Melissa, so much as the character as a creation. I think that I haven’t played someone who is so dynamic before, you know? Someone who is different things at different times. Who is a contradiction at times, without it being a plot line, you know? [Laughs]. And she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. She’s funny, she’s not very funny. You know, she’s in bad moods sometimes. She can be compassionate; maternal, she can be an asshole. To embody the ability to be all those things, just by sitting there, was the challenge that I was really excited about, because it wasn’t an opportunity to necessarily play all those things; I just know that for myself that that’s what she is.
And also, the narrative is quite uneventful, and not in a neutral way – it’s just, the things that happen are quite every day. Even an affair is an everyday occurrence. What makes it remarkable will have to come from the connections, and the friction, and the tension, and the moment, and the way someone says, “Come in. How are you?” You know? It’s like wearing…I mean, this is a terrible, terrible example, so I’m not going to give it; but you know, [it’s like] wearing a really unforgiving dress without Spanx. [Laughs]. Not that I give a shit, but you know – it’s that kind of thing where you’re just like, everything is going to show, you know? Everything. And that means that everything – and this is where we go away from the dress analogy – but it’s where everything, every moment has to matter.
AD: And how did you find the preparing for your performance; and also when you’re on set and in these moments, having to portray so many emotions, and especially those subtleties like you’re talking about? How did you approach that?
JK: Yeah, I found because I got quite close to the other actors – I already had my idea of who Melissa was and what her relationship was to these people – but it got richer because of my relationship with these people. I mean, I got closer to them, so I had more stuff to work off of: my relationship with them. Instead of having to, sort of, seek inspiration elsewhere, I could find it right there, in that conversation that I’m having with one of the characters or an interaction. It’s a good thing that I developed a fondness for Joe [Alwyn], because you know, there has to be some love and affection there that you have to feel. And it’s a good thing that I developed a fondness for Frances – because [Melissa] does have a fondness for her and she is intimidated by her, I think in her own very private way. And I could say that I’m intimidated by Alison [Oliver]’s ability as an actor. So that [fondness] is something that, in that very moment, I can access; and [also] that intimidation or that awe. Both Frances and Melissa are doing a lot of comparing to each other. It might not be something that I’m doing every day with Alison, but it’s something I can understand doing with Alison, if I was in that mindset. It wasn’t a stretch.
AD: That’s interesting, because I think there are some aspects of the show that you could argue are a little bit of a stretch. The fact that college students are with this older couple—
JK: Yeah! I’ve heard that being called a stretch, and the point is that it’s a stretch. That’s the point, that’s the story. That’s one of the only big plot points we have. We have the affair. We have the romance with Bobbi. We have the tension with Melissa. We have the fact that these two couples, who are seemingly totally disparate, are spending time together. Like, it’s not normal that they’re doing this. I think it’s exploitative, to an extent, on the part of Melissa mainly. And I think it’s a way for Melissa to feel like she’s interesting to someone, where maybe she’s lost that attention she used to get from Nick; and a way for her to feel wanted again, by Bobbi, and maybe even a way of research – maybe she’s writing essays? I mean, I think some writers can be very exploitative in that way. We use our relationships to write something, to craft something; we’re not always one-hundred percent present. We’re analyzing.
AD: What I like about it is that we are using these sort of abnormal circumstances to explore very normal things, like jealousy and comparison and attraction and all these things. How do you feel about that? And do you think that she finds any of the answers that she’s looking for? Do you think she gets any results?
JK: Do you think she gets any sort of resolve?
AD: Yeah. Where do you think she ends up, as opposed to where she starts?
JK: That’s a great question…I don’t know. I honestly don’t know where she ends up because the story ends. And it’s not one of those stories that gives us closure or gives us a bow on it. It just ends. It truly does. And I think that one line, that last line, is really important, where she says, ‘Come get me.’, because it shows that, I think, throughout the whole TV show, Frances and Nick have been grappling with what’s wrong and what’s right. And are they good people? Are they bad people? Should we be doing this? Should we not? And I think by the end of it, they’ve learned that lesson. That doesn’t mean they feel their lesson, right? And you don’t have to feel it, to learn it, I think. Sometimes learned lessons are things that you just have to be aware of, conscious of, and not do, you know? And so much of everyday life is hard. Like things that just…we just do things all fucking day that we don’t want to be doing. Right? And I think when she says, ‘Come and get me.’, it’s very romantic and it does have a sort of firework at the end, where it’s just saying, ‘Did I reject that I’m going to do something I don’t feel like doing? I’m going to do something I want to do.’. It’s a choice. Whereas before, it felt like she wasn’t necessarily making choices. She was doing things that she absolutely couldn’t resist. And I think she’s choosing and she’s going, ‘I know this is wrong, and I want it.’
AD: And I was talking about this – because I spoke to Alison earlier about Sally Rooney in general, and engaging with her work. And in particular, in Conversations with Friends, I think I spent a lot of time internalizing a lot of it, and thinking about my role in my own relationships and things like that. And I wonder if it was like that for you? If there were any lessons that you came away with? Maybe something you want the audience to come away with?
JK: Yeah. I think the lesson I came away with was that, when you’re in a relationship, you’re not in a relationship with someone who is just in love with you. You’re in a relationship with a whole person who, 80% of their life has nothing to do with you. They’re in a life, you know? And maybe their outside life too? And I think it’s very tempting to want to be their everything. Want to be their best friend. Want to be their drinking buddy. Want to be their TV buddy. Want to be their therapist. Want to be their mother. And then when that happens, we resent it. But like, we want their world to revolve around us. And in some [sense], we want us to be held on a pedestal, but the truth is we’re not always going to be. Because people are ever evolving and changing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve stopped loving you. It just means that things are going to change. The way they felt when they met you, is not necessarily going to be how they feel right now, but it might go back to that. I always knew that. But, the thing I learned is that, you need to give someone space to have a moment that has nothing to do with you. It’s really hard, I think sometimes as a spouse.
AD: That’s really good. I feel like there’s so many nuggets of this interview that I’m going to go back and listen to, for myself. But there’s something that you mentioned earlier that I want to go back to, which is that, you know, the four of you spent so much time together, and Lenny Abrahamson’s style as a director is just also to get very close – and his cinematographers, as well. And I’m just wondering, to be in that environment for a prolonged period of time, what was that like? In what ways did it aid your performance? And also, did it ever become, sort of, claustrophobic or difficult in any way?
JK: It’s only difficult because Lenny and the other actors pushed me to work harder than I’ve ever worked. And that doesn’t mean putting in hours – it was putting in hours, but it was [also] just, ‘Do it again. Do it better. Try it different. Just more. Let’s just keep going.’ It felt more like going to class every day, than it did like going to work. It felt like going to a class because we were free to make mistakes, and [have] that be okay, because we all got close; and also because if you’re making a mistake, it was acknowledged because you were trying. And because everyone was doing it. There was no embarrassment, right? And when you’re not embarrassed, you’re free to make something really good, because you can wade through the bullshit openly.
But also what helped have that mindset, that sort of like active mindset, where you’re truly in the mind of your craft, essentially, was all Lenny. It was all very encouraged and created by Lenny, he created that energy. Because sometimes on sets it can feel like you’re a bit of a nerd or a dork, if you want to talk about acting; or [that] if you get too “actor-y”, somehow rumors are going to get started about you that you’re “method-y”, or whatever. This was like, ‘No. We have to do this because we have to make this, we have to be nerds about this, because everything is on the shoulders of the actors to bring this to life.’ You know, we would do rehearsals on our days off. And sometimes I’d catch Lenny not looking at the monitor, he would look at the actors, which is…never seen that before. Because I would see him going like [looks back and forth] – like that [laughs], like watching us because he wanted to see in real time what was happening. Because the monitor’s so small, so I imagine he couldn’t get the little details that are going on in the face, or whatever. It was just because he made it feel so important, it made us feel really responsible.
AD: And as I let you go, is there anything that I haven’t asked you about, that you wanted to mention?
JK: No, not really. Not really. I think we got pretty thorough.
AD: Okay, well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And enjoy the rest of your day and the rest of your press tour.
JK: I know. There needs to be like a name for it, like a funny name for press junkets, that really describes what it is. ‘Junket’ is a pretty shitty word. Anyway. [Laughs].
AD: It feels weird, doesn’t it? [Laughs]. Thank you, Jemima! I appreciate your time!
JK: Good to talk, Shadan!
Conversations with Friends is streaming now on Hulu. Check out all of our “Conversations” with the cast here.