When Lola Kirke was 10 years old, she discovered she was good at acting. Having signed up for drama classes at school, she was thrilled to have found something in which she could excel and resolved that she would start working as soon as possible – a glittering career as a child actor would be hers. But then she was taken aside by a friend of her parents who was “a very kind and seasoned actress. She said, with great urgency, ‘Don’t do this’. Like she knew something I didn’t. So I took her at her word and I waited.”
Now 28, Kirke has been acting for nine years. Her first taste of fame was as the villainous Greta in 2014’s Gone Girl, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling book, and as Tracy in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, though it was her lead role as a fledgling oboist in the Emmy-winning comedy drama Mozart in the Jungle that brought her to a wider audience.
Kirke also has a parallel career as a musician: last year she released her debut album, Heart Head West, a collection of lovelorn country ballads and folk songs, while this September brings an EP of elegantly bruised duets, Friends and Foes and Friends Again, featuring, among others, Wet’s Kelly Zutrau and Lilah Larson of Sons of an Illustrious Father.
“I think creativity doesn’t lend itself to one mode of expression,” reflects Kirke. “I act from the same vulnerable place that I sing and I write music. What I love and what I want from art is its ability to shine light in the darkest of places, and how it can make people feel less alone.”
We are sitting in her small dressing room at a music venue tucked under some railway arches in London where she is due to play later. Trains loudly rattle over our heads every few minutes. It’s been a stressful afternoon: the heat indoors has reached nuclear levels and the soundcheck has revealed technical problems yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, Kirke is friendly and excited at the prospect of playing a show to an audience that she can’t be sure is au fait with what she does.
“Part of the fun of it is that sometimes you play and people care, and other times they just don’t and talk over you,” she says. “I haven’t done any stage work as an actress and acting for camera is different to being on stage in front of an audience. It’s kind of nerve-wracking. But when the sound is right, and the band is on fire, it’s incredible.”
Kirke is the youngest of four intensely creative siblings: her eldest sister is Jemima Kirke, the visual artist-turned-actor best known for her role as Jessa in Lena Dunham’s Girls; her second sister, Domino, is a musician; and her brother, Greg, is a photographer. A career in the arts was, she says “predestined”.
She was galvanised into songwriting by “having my heart broken by a s***ty musician dude who I wanted to one-up”. Country music was “a natural fit, not least because it was easy for me as someone who wasn’t a prolific guitar player – all the songs typically have three chords,” she says. “But there’s also a simplicity to the subject matter that has always been intriguing to me. I love the storytelling and the way it talks about intense feelings like jealousy or birth control or murder. It’s edgy like that.”
Her father is Simon Kirke, drummer in Bad Company and Free – a fact that contributed to her impression as a child that being in a band was “something that men did”. “In the world of rock’n’roll, as I perceived it from a young age, women were relegated to the roles of wife or groupie.” Still, these days she is electrified by the scores of smart and brilliant women making music: “The change even from five years ago is huge. So much so that when I see a group of five straight white dudes in a band together, I’m, like, how are you still doing that? It’s 2019.”
She wonders if she was drawn to music through a subconscious desire to be more connected to her father. “My dad was the most absent in our house because he was on tour a lot of the time. I think there must have been a part of me that thought I could get his attention if I played more music.” Her father’s job also meant that she mixed with a lot of well-known musicians as a child. She won’t name names but she will say “there were a lot of weirdos passing through my living room”.
Did the weirdos put her off the lifestyle? “Not really, but it did give me a certain insight,” she replies. “I’ve seen a lot of people get a taste of success or fame and abandon any kind of groundedness. In a world consumed by capitalism, we imagine that once we attain this thing that we don’t already have, that we’ll be rendered perfect. A great gift of growing up in the world I grew up in was seeing how untrue that is, and how the people that we think of as being the most secure because they have the most things are actually the least secure. I like to think that’s always helped me stay a good person.”
Kirke was born in London and raised in New York – “my grandparents are buried at Golders Green, and I was born in the Portland Hospital [in Marylebone], so this is technically home”. The family initially lived in Barnes – Kirke’s main recollection of living here is the tree near her home that has become a shrine to singer Marc Bolan, who died after the Mini in which he was travelling as a passenger crashed into it in 1977. When she was five, they moved to New York (as the youngest in the family, she’s the only one with an American accent). She describes her childhood as intermittently painful, but declines to elaborate. “Everyone has pain,” she says. “Maybe there are some sensational aspects to the story of my life, but I don’t think that it’s actually any more sensational than anyone else’s. I’ll leave it for the memoirs.”
She studied at Bard, the private liberal arts college in upstate New York. During this time, she also worked a series of jobs, from selling vintage clothing in her mother’s store in the West Village to looking after children in day care. She recalls a summer spent helping out at a school in the Broadmoor district of New Orleans that had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. “As students, we were brought down to do what we could. Twenty girls for three months living in a church attic. It was amazing – everyone wore clogs and cooked communal quinoa for each other, and worked from seven until four every day teaching kids.”
Having two careers running parallel has made her more picky about the work she accepts. “I’ve seen TV and film projects that I haven’t pursued because I just didn’t think they were special enough to give my time to. Being more selective is ultimately a good thing.”
Her latest film, Untogether, is the directorial debut of the journalist and novelist Emma Forrest, and focuses on two sisters living in LA. Kirke is Tara, who has drifted apart from her older boyfriend Martin, a washed-up musician played by Ben Mendelsohn, and is attracted to a married rabbi, David (Billy Crystal). Tara’s sister, Andrea, whose one-night stand with Jamie Dornan turns into something more complex, is played by Kirke’s sister Jemima. The pair are close and, Kirke says, part of the film’s attraction lay in the opportunity to work with her.
More crucially, it was a part that she felt was unusual for her. “With the exception of my role in Gone Girl, I think I’ve spent a lot of time playing these subordinate characters, but this was different. There was a quietness and defiance to her character which really appealed to me. But, you know, it’s not unusual to me that a lot of Hollywood saw me as a kind of bumbling straight guy who, like, if you took the glasses off and let down the hair, could be pretty. But I think that when you get cast in those roles over and over again you begin to wonder if you’re being seen at all.”
Such limitations are, she says, part of a much broader problem for women actors starved of credible roles because of there are so few women directing or writing. “It’s still very hard for women to get films financed if that don’t have big films under their belts, and therein lies the most incredible catch 22. I just want to get to act. I want to be creative, but that creativity is stifled when the roles are so thin. What you hear a lot [on receiving scripts] is ‘She’s really not there on the page but when we get to set, we’ll change that.’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t have time to write your script for you.’”
We talk about how film roles for women have actually regressed – “remember Working Girl? What a great film,” Kirke exclaims. “And all those fantastic movies from the Thirties where women were charismatic and funny and smarter than the men?” – and how our rights have as well, and how the world is basically going to hell in a handcart. Then Kirke’s manager comes in and says our time is up. As I stand up to leave, Kirke says: “I think it’s as much in human nature to regress as it is to progress. When we see this happening, we need to be fierce and challenge it.”
Untogether is available on iTunes, Amazon and Sky. The single “Mama” (Downtown) is released on 27 August. Friends and Foes and Friends Again is released on 13 September