Jemima and Lola Kirke Are Really Tired of People Commenting on How They Look
The sisters and Untogether co-stars are sick of the constant commentary on women’s bodies.
Lola Kirke has just emerged from 10 days’ vocal rest. “I have a hemorrhage on my vocal cords,” she told me recently. “From screaming at me,” explained her sister, Jemima Kirke. It was a late spring morning, and the two sibling actors sat side by side in a vacant hotel room in downtown Manhattan; later that evening, their new film Untogether, writer-director Emma Forrest’s narrative feature debut, was slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“From screaming at Jemima in a scene, but maybe it’s possible that 27 years of rage were coming out,” Lola went on. “Twenty-six, at the time,” her sister corrected.
“This was the best part about it though,” Jemima continued, before Lola cut her off. “The scene got cut.” Jemima corrected her again: “That’s the second-best part,” she said. (They have the distinctly sibling tendency of annotating each other’s stories in real time.) “The first-best part is that you wanted another take, but they kept wanting to move on, right?” Due to the time and budget constraints of making an independent film, there weren’t the resources to do the scene again. “She’s like, ‘Well, maybe if you showed up on time, we would have time for another take,’” Jemima recalled. “I was like, ‘Give the bitch another take.’” And they did—and that’s when Lola burst the blood vessel, after the first take and before the scene was cut entirely. (“You’re Adele!” Jemima remarked.)
“Which goes to show that anger only ever hurts you,” Lola said, affecting the sing-song tone of an after-school special. “So good! So good.”
A little while back, Jemima was having dinner with Forrest—they had met on the set of Girls, in which Forrest’s then-husband Ben Mendelsohn played the father to Jemima’s character Jessa Johansson—when the conversation turned to Lola. “That’s when her eyes lit up,” Jemima said. “She was like, ‘I’m not going to tell you now, because I’m going to think about this, but I think I have a really good idea.’” Shortly after, Forrest sent Jemima the script for Untogether; then, Lola received a copy as well.
It’s their first co-headlining project since they appeared in “British Biscuits,” a 2010 episode of Lena Dunham‘s web series Delusional Downtown Divas, playing Lettuce and Poppy-Fiona Sidebottom, “the most evil British twins since Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin,” as Dunham’s Oona describes them. Two years later, that series would, at least in part, give way to Girls.
In Untogether, Lola and Jemima again play sisters, these ones named Tara and Andrea. Tara, a 24-year-old massage therapist, is dating a middle-aged former rock star (Mendelsohn) while flirting with both a newly ignited Judaism and with a socially and politically active rabbi (Billy Crystal); Andrea, a recently sober writer who has struggled to publish anything since her debut novel several years prior, embarks on an affair with a doctor, Nick (Jamie Dornan), who just put out a best-selling memoir—a fraudulent account of a wartime romance.
“I was really excited by the prospect of it, because I think it’s rare that you see people play sisters who actually are sisters,” Lola said, teasing. (“I hope that you can, when you type this out, use the intonation of my voice,” she requested of me, “just so I don’t sound like the most innocuous person of all time.”) Conveniently, Lola and Jemima had already mastered the sibling dynamic that can give way to blood-vessel-bursting shouting matches, for Tara and Andrea’s relationship is contentious at best: “One-night stands are acts of bravery,” Andrea remarks in one scene, shortly after returning from a night with Nick. “Or defeat,” Tara responds, not without a hint of cruelty.
Untogether aside, Lola could be forgiven for having strained her voice a bit: Among her credits this year, in addition to the Tribeca premiere, are a new album (she, like her eldest sister Domino, is also a musician); the fourth (and final—the show was canceled earlier this month) season of Mozart in the Jungle; the Susan Sarandon-starring drama Vulture Club, slated for premiere later this year; and Gemini, the Los Angeles neo-noir in which Lola stars as the assistant to a mercurial, and vanished, actress played by Zoë Kravitz.
At the beginning of April, Anthony Lane reviewed Gemini alongside Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane in The New Yorker. “The role is hardly flattering,” he wrote of Lola’s character. “Most of the time, she wears big jeans and a baggy gray top, while sporting the haircut from hell—brown bangs cut straight across, as if by a six-year-old with blunt scissors. Talk about unsane.” This eventually transforms into a compliment, albeit a backhanded one: “Kirke, however, who made such an impact, in Mistress America (2015), requires no disguise; she is sphinxlike enough as it is.” (“That’s always been a thing in Hollywood, I think. Like if a girl can look bad, they associate it with really good acting,” Jemima remarked. “Like, ‘Thumbs-up to that!’ It’s pandering.”)
By coincidence, Lola picked up a copy of The New Yorker at an airport newsstand the week the review ran in print. “I was on the plane, and I was done, and it magically flipped to the last page,” she recalled. Initially, after coming to the last paragraph of the review, “I just was like, personally offended,” she told me, “like, ‘I guess I should just feel ashamed now of the way I looked in that movie,’ and I spent an hour and I journaled about it and shit, and then I was like, ‘No, actually, this is really f—ed up.’” So she decided to post about it on Instagram, a sort of antidote to the selective, glossy perfection of the feed—and then, three days later, in a fit of early morning anger and at the suggestion of her friend Rachel Libeskind, she wrote a letter to the editor that ran in the magazine last week. (“I’m a New Yorker-published author,” she said, laughing. Lane has yet to respond to the feedback.)
“As much as I would like to hold everybody to a standard of morals and ethics, it’s impossible,” Lola said. “But I think that publications like The New Yorker and any of these magazines that are positioned as being liberal or forward-thinking have an obligation to print much more intelligent and thoughtful commentaries about the way women look, because we’re in such a heated moment surrounding women’s bodies and people’s bodies in general.” She continued, “People who think themselves smart and worldly are going to read that and think, ‘Oh, it’s totally okay to talk about women that way.’”
The positive response to her Instagram post and subsequent letter is all the more jarring in the context of the hateful comments she receives on other images; Lola recently went blonde, and below one of her first photos of the new look ran a stream of comments like “hope the blonde is temp…” and “blonde is so common.” Lola and Jemima both read the comments on their posts, positive or negative. How do they not internalize it, then? I asked.
“I think you do,” Lola said. “I don’t know that you don’t,” Jemima added at the same time. Girls, in which Jemima starred for six seasons, was especially remarked on for its depiction of nude bodies in various, non-sexual contexts, which, because of the nature of the internet and social media, opened up its cast to unsolicited criticism. (Since wrapping Girls last year, Jemima has been spending most of her time in her art studio—she’s an accomplished portrait painter in addition to actor—and will appear in the new Carey Fukunaga-directed Netflix series Maniac, which stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill; All These Small Moments, which also premiered at Tribeca; and Wild Honey Pie, which premiered at SXSW last month.)
“I hear that constantly,” Jemima said. The day before we spoke, she had hosted a stoop sale—where she sold, among other things, unopened Girls DVDs—and an old woman stopped by to peruse her selection. “She was like, ‘I saw that show once and there was a girl who was naked and shouldn’t have been,’” Jemima said, putting on an old-crone voice. “Then I was like, ‘Why shouldn’t she have been?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, she didn’t look much better than me.’” Jemima sighed. “I was like, ‘I hate you, you can’t buy anything.’” (“She asked how much everything was,” she added. “She didn’t buy anything.”)
In film and television, like in Girls, “nudity is part of a story,” Jemima said. Yet audiences “want something specific in return for nudity,” she added. “It’s like a service. They want something in return for watching you that’s pleasurable to them.” This logic often extends to any visual representation of women on screen—as in the case of Lola’s Gemini character. But it’s also precisely the response a series like Girls attempted to subvert, and as projects with women writers, directors, producers, and crew members—like Untogether—have increased in visibility, according to Lola, it has wrought a transformation in how women are portrayed on screen. At Tribeca this year, for example, women filmmakers directed 46 percent of the feature film program, up from 33 percent in last year’s selection. And while their male characters aren’t peripheral or one-dimensional, both Gemini and Untogether offer especially nuanced accounts of the relationships between two women—practically siblings in one, and actually siblings in the other.
“I don’t want to tell a story that doesn’t need to be told,” Lola said. “Especially in this moment right now,” she added, “why say anything that doesn’t need to be said?”