This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 7, Spring 2016.
Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America (2015) was a curious hybrid: part old-fashioned screwball chamber piece, part crackling contemporary satire. Its heroine is university student Tracy, played by Lola Kirke; unsure and green at first, but urbane and sophisticated before long thanks to the tutelage of Manhattan multi-hyphenate Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig. Throw in a scene- stealing turn in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) and the lead in Amazon’s excellent Golden Globe-winning classical music series Mozart in the Jungle (in which Kirke plays obsessive oboist Hailey opposite Gael García Bernal’s maverick conductor Rodrigo) and Kirke is one of this year’s breakout stars. She sat down with Mistress America co-star Greta Gerwig and So It Goes to talk sour patch kids, 347 takes with Fincher and a newfound appreciation for classical music.
Greta Gerwig: Did you eat Sour Patch Kids today?
Lola Kirke: No. I’m on my way back from Paris and I only saw Haribo.
GG: When was the last time you ate sour patch kids?
LK: A few weeks ago. I hadn’t eaten lunch and I was at a Rite Aid and the bulk-sized bag of Water Melon Sours seemed a good alternative.
GG: What’s going on with your armpit hair right now?
LK: It’s warding off all the old creepy men on the airplane.
So It Goes: Now for the serious stuff. Lola – you were born in Britain, raised in New York and now live in LA. Even though you are - relatively speaking - just beginning your career, do you feel your transatlantic upbringing and trans-American life have helped you to cope with the busy schedules, constant travel and sense of dislocation that acting can bring?
LK: Yeah. I mean even when we settled in New York as a family we never really settled.We lived on 11th street, then 10th, then 9th, then back on 11th all in a span of five years. And we had the privilege of travelling a lot too. My itinerant upbringing has definitely enabled me to get really good at creating homes for myself wherever I am, which is so important in this business. I have even almost perfected my own version of Joan Didion’s enviable packing list in The White Album! Cedar incense, photo strip of me and my boyfriend, travel alarm clock, guitar, vibrator, baby blanket. I’m also impressively good at being in airports and on airplanes. I am so productive on them. Like right now.Because I am on an airplane.But I don’t think anything can really prepare you for living in a Quality Inn above a Cracker Barrel in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania for three weeks shooting a low-budget indie in the dead of winter. I think that kind of experience prepares you to be your own best friend, and I welcome that lesson.
SIG: Let’s talk Mozart in the Jungle. What were your first thoughts hearing about a series on classical music, commissioned by Amazon?
LK: Even though that was only a few years ago, the television-on-the-internet medium was really new then so I was very curious about it.And I was even more curious because Jason Schwartzman was involved and I love him.Then I was very curious about what an oboe was.
SIG: Was there a sense that the show’s creators were trying to make classical music more accessible and youthful?
LK: In a lot of ways, I think it’s more that they were trying to reveal how youthful and accessible it already is. I mean that’s definitely the crux of Blair Tindall’s memoir which the show is based upon. It’s youthful, in that there are so many young people who have dedicated their entire lives to learning how to play a single instrument.And those young people are a little strange yes, but they’re still young people.They wanna fuck and wanna do drugs and wanna be perfect and wanna be artists and don’t know who they are etc. It’s accessible to both artists and less creative people in that classical musicians are this strange mixture of artists and regular nine to fivers. Well, nine to fivers who then go and practice for at least five hours everyday after work.
But members of the orchestra are in a really unique position. Unlike lots of artists, they aren’t there to stand out from the crowd.They have done their job well if they blend well with the rest of their symphony, if they have done service to someone else’s vision; like employees at a big company, only ones that are deeply passionate about what that company sells.For classical musicians there’s a really different definition to being an artist and I think the show’s creators are fascinated by the differences and the similarities between normal people and, well, classical musicians.
SIG: Did you find a new appreciation for the music?
LK: Absolutely. I mean I’m still nowhere near as informed about it as I am about, say, classic rock. But I feel like my character and I have the same kind of love for different kinds of music. So when I’m working, I just superimpose my likes onto hers: if they need to shoot my face melting because of a cello solo, I just pretend I’m seeing The Band play that famous concert at the Academy of Music or something.
That being said, oftentimes the classical pieces need no substitute, especially when we actually get to hear the full orchestra playing them.There is something close to god or whatever about hearing and seeing a group of humans work together so seamlessly and so expertly to make something so orgasmic together. I think there is even something political about it. It’s a model that could be mimicked to make the world a better place; living proof that when lots of people cooperate together passionately, pure goodness can be created.
SIG: Your relationship with Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal) is the heartbeat of the series: the illicit coming together of conductor and orchestra member.How do you approach the development of a character’s feelings?
LK: I think if you spent any part of your adolescence watching Y Tu MamáTambién over and over again, simulating romantic feelings for Gael becomes a very easy thing.We also get along really well and he makes me feel very comfortable so I am lucky in that way. I’ve definitely had to be romantic on screen with people I don’t feel as comfortable with and that’s when I’m like,“I’m a prostitute! I’m dry humping this person because I am being paid to!” So there’s that too.
SIG: Going back to your role in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America.The film portrays the development of a connection between two women of different ages, experiences and knowledge.To a certain extent it placed the charactersTracy and Brooke in mentor/protégé roles. Albeit, the surety displayed by Brooke is eroded and Tracy almost picks up the fragments and builds herself up with them as Brooke flounders.As the youngest of three successful and artistic sisters, do you feel that you have learnt much from your siblings?
LK: I think part of what I enjoyed so much about making Mistress America was how much I related to it and how much it put into action and words feelings I never knew how to explain.There is something very powerful about letting yourself be ‘protégéed’, you learn a lot, and you get to correct your own path where those you admired went wrong. Generally the people I admire have gone terribly wrong and that is what is so brilliant about them.Tracy gave me an opportunity to flesh that unique position out, the way we play at being other people and the loneliness that ensues from living in someone else’s life, and the eventual need to build your own. I have honestly spent so much time trying to become other people. I think I am just beginning to see that weakness in my personal life as a strength that I can and must give to my work. It’s literally my job definition.
SIG: Noah Baumbach is becoming somewhat notorious for his extreme methods, attention to detail, and famously his multiple takes per scene. Was working with Noah and Greta something of a baptism of fire?
LK: Yes. The two of them were sort of like having an abusive first boyfriend. I loved them both so much and I would do anything for them, but I didn’t realise that the stuff they asked of me literally no one else in the world would ever ask me to do because it is crazy – except David Fincher. They really prepared me for him. He was like “Take 347!” and I would say, “Right away sir.” All the other actors looked like they wanted to die.
"[working with Noah and Greta was] sort of like having an abusive first boyfriend"
SIG: The characters in Mistress America share a great sense of fun. Do you think you have to enjoy your time on set to get the best out of yourself as an actor?
LK: Totally! This work, as gruelling as it can be, is fun! Sometimes it’s fun in like a “I’m going on a vision quest in the desert without water for five days” way. But it’s fun to get to do what you love. It’s fun to suffer for it. Sometimes it’s actually just fun because you love the people around you and you get to say and do fun shit.
SIG: There is the oft-repeated maxim about good artists copying and great ones stealing.Your character Tracy in Mistress America is accused of sneakily using someone else’s life as the inspiration for a successful story.Where do you stand on artists overtly exploiting real life events close to them for artistic gain? Have you read Karl Ove Knausgård for example, who has drawn lavish praise as well as criticism for the unflinching account of his family life in My Struggle?
LK: I haven’t read the Knausgård because I only read contemporary female writers. Regardless, I have no problem with people evolving their personal experiences into something creative. I remember when Greta and I were shooting a scene, she yelled at me about this issue in the film and in between takes I was like,“Obviously you agree with Tracy, right?” and she was like “No,” and I was so surprised. Maybe I got that memory wrong or maybe Greta was just staying in character or something. But that’s how I remember it. Ultimately, I don’t think people should have to censor their creative instincts. Maybe that creates a dangerous territory.But I think the opposite reality is far more dangerous. Except that it might result in dope hidden manuscripts found under floorboards years after Trump’s assassination.
SIG: We came across a rather lovely country-style ditty onYouTube of you singing to a rapturous crowd, which suggests that Grace Slick Mk. II might well be another potential calling!
LK: Thanks for the Grace Slick comparison! I love acting because I love telling stories. But there are so many other ways to tell stories and I don’t want to limit myself to doing it in just that one way. I like singing and playing guitar and songwriting and writing in other mediums. And I also really like directing and I want to do more of it.Though I’m always suspicious of actors declaring any other ambitions. But that’s probably some form of self-loathing and I should work on that anyway.
Words: Greta Gerwig, James Wright and Lewis Carpenter
Photographer: Toby Knott
Creative Director: James Wright
Producer: Lewis Carpenter
Stylist: Liz McClean @ Brydges Mackinney
Stylist’s Assistant: Olivia Khoury
Hair: Mara Roszak @ Starworks Group
Make-up: Kate Lee @ Starworks Group
Special Thanks:David de Rothschild, Karina Deyko, The Lost Explorer
Header image: all clothing by Chanel