Even when she was a young girl, Lola Kirke knew she wanted to be a movie star—not just an actress, praised by connoisseurs for her performances in little-seen roles, but a full-fledged celebrity, the kind who is met at every turn by swarms of paparazzi and hordes of selfie-seeking fans. “When you’re a little kid, I think that you maybe believe that all problems will be solved by being loved by everybody,” she laughs. “I remember, in my very lonely moments, playing by myself that I was on the red carpet talking to Joan Rivers, which is so pathetic. Of course, now as I’ve gotten older, the kind of career that I envisioned for myself as a nine-year-old is the last thing on Earth that I would ever want. I am definitely more intrigued by the creative side than by the glitz and glamour of it all, which can really be a little bit exhausting.”
Still, if things keep going the way they have, Kirke might have no choice but to submit to the grueling glitz and glamour, even as she maintains a steady stream of projects that fulfill her more artistic inclinations. Born in London, the 24-year-old actress was raised in New York by her drummer father and her mother, who runs a vintage boutique in the West Village, an upbringing that she credits with helping to give her the freedom to pursue her dreams of stardom. “There was no pressure to ever do anything that might actually help you pay for things,” she laughs. “There was never any pressure to do anything practical. Not that there isn’t an element of practicality and necessity to the presence of art in life, but we were always encouraged to be creative.”
As a child, Kirke was placed in a succession of after-school acting programs by her mother—“I was a very dramatic kid,” she recalls—and says that since then, she has never considered anything else as a career. “It’s just always what I wanted to do. It’s so boring,” she laughs. “I have never had any conception of myself outside of being an actor, I suppose. I mean I obviously think of myself as being other things, like a human being, but that was all I ever really wanted to do.”
Kirke later moved upstate to study at Bard College, where she was discovered by a talent agent while playing guitar and singing in a country band, a side hobby she continues today. “I love playing music and I feel very fulfilled by it,” she explains. “I try and learn a different song every day. There’s a Nancy Sinatra/ Frank Sinatra duet that I’ve been desperate to figure out, but the harmony is really difficult.”
After graduating in 2012, Kirke landed the lead role in Mistress America, the Noah Baumbach film out Friday about the tempestuous friendship between a young Barnard freshman and an older future stepsister, played by Greta Gerwig. In one of her first major roles, Kirke carries much of the film’s load as Tracy, who is fascinated and hypnotized by Gerwig’s Brooke, a whirling dervish of ideas, emotions, and unfulfilled promise. “I identify a lot with that character, because I think of how desperate she is to be influenced by somebody, how much she wants to be guided, and how impressionable she is,” Kirke explains of Tracy. “I think that that movie is really a lot about coming into power and admiring people and then learning to admire yourself via those people that you admire.”
For Kirke, fresh out of college and relatively new to, well, everything, Gerwig herself also played a sort of inspirational role, a neat mirroring of art and life. “She’s so talented, and being such a novice to moviemaking and getting taken under her wing was really wonderful,” Kirke says. But Gerwig was just the latest in a long line of lifelong role models, all of whom have helped shape Kirke into the young woman she is today. “I grew up around some of the most interesting women and men that I’ve ever met,” she says. “I was constantly trying to figure out who I was through them and borrowing things from them and trying them on and seeing how ill fitting they were: certain mannerisms and dress styles and habits.”
Kirke also points to her older sister Jemima, a star of HBO’s Girls and an artist who painted the portrait of Lola here, as another lasting influence, although she laughingly emphasizes that she doesn’t ask her for life lessons. “I don’t turn to her for advice, no, but perhaps for commiseration,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll send her a picture if I’m in a really nice trailer, because her trailer on Girls really sucks. That only happened once.”
Last fall, Kirke gained attention for a small role in the Oscar-nominated Gone Girl, a film she says her mother pushed her to seek out. “My mother was obsessed with Gone Girl and had always urged me to ask my agent if I could audition for it when they inevitably made the movie of it,” she says, “but she envisioned me playing Emily Ratajkowski’s part,” the vixenish young college student who is Ben Affleck’s mistress. Instead, Kirke ended up playing a brash grifter who teams up with her boyfriend, played by Boyd Holbrook, to steal from Rosamund Pike’s character. “My mom clearly imagined me as a very different type of person than Hollywood does, which is great,” she laughs.
In December, Amazon released the first season of Mozart in the Jungle, the highly acclaimed television adaptation of Blair Tindall’s memoir about her life as an oboist in New York, also starring Gael García Bernal, Malcolm McDowell, and Bernadette Peters. Kirke plays the lead role of Hailey, a young oboist who is passionate but disillusioned by her calling, and ends up as the assistant to the musical director of the fictional New York Symphony, rather than playing in the pit.
As someone who grew up around rock, country, and folk, Kirke says she feels lucky to have discovered classical music, even so late in life. “I love listening to classical music, and I can’t imagine having grown up trying to create classical music, because it is so huge,” she says. “It’s oceanic and beautiful, and it’s very close to God I suppose. I don’t believe in God necessarily, but I see why people become obsessed with [classical music].”
Still, as with Tracy, Kirke says that she sees a lot of herself in Hailey, specifically the single-minded drive and dedication to an individual pursuit. “I relate to Hailey a lot, because we both had this conception of ourselves doing one thing for our entire lives professionally, a creative thing,” she explains. “I think that can be really problematic in term of how you identify with yourself. You identify with yourself as a person who makes a certain kind of thing, and then if you don’t have that, who are you?”
And for a native New Yorker, both Mistress America and Mozart in the Jungle, about young women finding themselves and their way in a new place, offered Kirke the opportunity to see a new side of the city she still makes her home. “I’m so envious of a lot of people who get to move to New York, because I think that that’s such a rite of passage for a young person, moving to a city and finding your way, and so I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to play two characters who are doing that in their own way,” she says. “There’s something funny about playing people who are in very different places in their lives than you are. I feel very comfortable in New York—so comfortable that I never leave my house when I’m in New York—so I think mostly it’s just nice that I get to play people who are excited by the city.”
In what seems like the standard progression for young actors and actresses today, Kirke, with her indie roots firmly established, recently joined the cast of Mena, a Doug Liman spy thriller set for release in 2017 also starring Tom Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson. “It’s funny to describe it that way because the character that I play in that film has absolutely nothing to do with a thrilling spy element,” she laughs. “She’s like a Southern housewife in 1982.”
Even as she has come into her own as an actress, Kirke says that she is only just becoming used to the trappings of a major Hollywood production, something her inner nine-year-old surely would revel in even as the adult tries to come to terms with her new place in the industry. “I definitely felt more comfortable on that set than I did on Gone Girl,” she says about her time shooting Mena, “because I’ve worked a little bit more at this point than I had then. I’m only comparing them because they’re the big movies I’ve done. I probably felt more comfortable because I feel a little bit more worthy of being somewhere.”
Mistress America is out Friday from Fox Searchlight Pictures.