Lola Kirke, the musician and actress from New York City, is running around her Manhattan apartment, gathering her phone, her keys, and making sure she hasn't forgotten anything, because she won't be back home for the rest of the day. The 29-year-old has packed her schedule for the next 12 hours to the walls: lunch; then a visit to the smoking hypnotist, who’s responsible for her quitting cigarettes a few days prior and whom she swears by; then, a massage with “a guy who rings bells over my body,” she explains, and finally, dinner at one of her favorite restaurants, Frankie’s 457.
For her, this is a rare day off. A break before the release of her latest music video, for the song Win It, off of her latest EP Friends and Foes and Friends Again, and then a visit to Park City, Utah—where her latest film, “Lost Girls,” premieres at Sundance tonight.
The decor of her apartment, at least, suggests a sort of calm. It isn’t renovated, dorm-like, or minimally decorated like popular interior design Instagram accounts suggest a celebrity’s house should be—it’s got original wooden floors, patterned wallpaper, and all the markings of a lived-in place that’s her own. Her shelves are stacked with records and books—on the record player, which sits front and center in the living room, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road spins and spins for infinity, having reached the end of the album. A guitar and a mandolin line the opposite wall, which has a large amp propped up against it, labeled in hot pink tape “Lola.” There are palo santo sticks everywhere.
She's also made a home in the neighborhood. She greets a friend she knows who’s working at the door at a nearby restaurant, then remarks on how beautiful the pancakes look. Although Kirke has a famous family (her sister is Jemima Kirke, her other sister, Domino, is married to Penn Badgley, her father is the drummer Simon Kirke, etc. etc.), and a lengthy résumé of her own, (a starring role on the Amazon hit Mozart in the Jungle, a part in Gone Girl,) she isn’t snobbish or condescending. She speaks to people lovingly, and levels with them. She visibly enjoys making them laugh. Kirke is eloquent and well-read, pedigreed in her speech, but she talks quickly, furiously, as though her ideas and the metaphors she uses to encapsulate them are ones she’s mulled deeply for months, and she can’t get them out fast enough. Sometimes, however, she is measured in the way she talks, the words she chooses. She demonstrates this when talking about the current state of artistry, which she has said in the past depresses her: all the ego of social media, the lack of general interest aspiring artists seem to have in becoming technically strong or learned in their particular forms.
“I am a little saddened,” Kirke says slowly, “about how the byproduct of films is becoming more important than the product itself. It’s great to have the opportunity to go to Sundance and to be in films that get to go. I’m really grateful for that. I just am scared about the trajectory of cinema and acting and everything as a whole.
“We’re beginning to listen with our eyes instead of our ears or our hearts, and I think we’re valuing the wrong shit. My anxiety never made me question continuing down this path entirely. But I feel lonely in the industry. I don’t think that’s because I’m so great or anything like that, I just don’t know that my values are shared. There’s this quote that says, ‘Talent without technique is just ego.’ There’s such a lack of expertise and technique now—you don’t need those things to succeed. So all we’re seeing is ego everywhere.”
She thinks about this a lot, she says, ripping off a piece of pita and dunking it into the dish of labneh, then pressing the bread into her mouth. It grazes a strand of her hair on the way, and leaves a dot of white yogurt. But to combat these feelings on the industry, she plunges herself into the work, hoping that her pursuit of technical excellence will inspire others in some way.
When cast in a new role, Kirke says she wholly dives into the character—and for “Lost Girls,” the film based on a true story of murdered sex workers whose bodies were uncovered in Long Island, N.Y., she read the book of the same name by journalist Robert Kolker, then consulted her friends who were more familiar with sex work. Director Liz Garbus gave her space to expand on the real-life woman she played—a family member of one of the women murdered.
“I wanted to have a more nuanced, exciting portrayal of a sex worker who could really be anyone,” she explains. “I just felt like we had an opportunity to change the perspective a little bit on who does this kind of work and why. For me, the pathology of somebody who does that is that they want bigger things for themselves. And they want their life to be more vast and wide-reaching and colorful.”
“Lost Girls” premiered at Sundance initially, but will go to Netflix on March 13. It’s interesting, Kirke notes, that spaces historically reserved for independent film are being tapped by mainstream platforms and production companies. Even Taylor Swift—arguably one of the biggest stars in the world—had a documentary produced by Netflix—the world's most powerful subscription streaming service—that premiered at Sundance.
“‘Independent’ used to mean something completely different than it does now, and when we have these giants of media moving into independent spheres, we’re deleting the space for other people to create work that used to exist,” Kirke says. “But independent cinema wasn’t always just the good cinema. There are amazing studio movies. There are amazing works of art that are created by these bigger companies. I don’t think that it’s mutually exclusive. And I have to look at my part in it. Why does everyone think they can be an actor? Am I approaching it too casually to alert people to the fact that this is a really important art form that we need?”
These questions on the arts and humanity kept her up at night. So while she was on set filming “Lost Girls,” she’d write songs in her hotel room to help ease her loneliness and, she hoped, eventually result in a tune that might soothe someone else’s troubles down the line. A couple months later, she went to Fort Worth to record “Friends and Foes and Friends Again,” which debuted in September and recently was released as a vinyl record.
But the EP came into being much earlier, before the trip to Fort Worth, when she was invited to participate in an artist’s retreat at the Almanack Arts Colony in Nantucket, Mass. She and eight other songwriters including Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses and Kelly Zutrau spent two weeks in a house with a barn full of musical equipment. They’d stand around a microphone together and made demos that became a collection of five songs. Win It is one of them.
The concept for the Win It video, which shows Kirke teaching dance moves in the style of ‘80s instructional aerobics tapes, was born from an idea between the musician and the director, Celia Rowlson Hall.
“I improvised something about a girl named Millie shooting the video,” Kirke explains—the name “Millie Rowlson Hall” flashes on the screen as the supposed "director" while the Win It credits roll. “We made up that Millie was my character’s little sister, who I forced to film me doing weird shit. That probably doesn’t carry, but I liked making the character that I was playing be me with no filter. Celia also made me rehearse for, like 10 days. It was so fun. I basically line-danced every day. I’m glad she did that, because it gave me free rein to improvise and think of other things that could further and deepen this idea.”
The fun and lightheartedness of the Win It video captures the overall mood of Friends and Foes and Friends Again. Compared to her debut album, Heart Head West, it's a lot more humorous.
“There was a little bit of a lighter approach, because it wasn’t my first offering,” she says. “Something I really appreciate about the country form, is the willingness to say something so obvious, yet you would never think to say it that way. I wanted to make an homage to old country, but singing about updated things.”
Kirke interrupts herself to remark on how “fucking delightful” her food is, how much she loves the songs playing over the speakers in the restaurant. Her passion for life and people is palpable. Her values, her taste, all project the persona of an old soul. She is both youthful, brimming with energy—and simultaneously sapped of all of it; waiting for the end of days, when the Internet blows up and the egos have died. For now, she will quell the thoughts about the future and society and all the scary things running in circles around her mind by attending sessions with the masseuse, the smoking hypnotist, and visiting with friends at dinner. She hurries out of the restaurant like a cartoon road runner, giving hugs and saying "I have to go!" Bounding out the front door and onto the sidewalk, Lola Kirke walks into the sunshine, and begins her day off.