A Night Out With Jemima Kirke
Celebrating the City on Fire star’s birthday.
There’s a sunset-colored flower arrangement sitting on the stoop outside of Jemima Kirke’s apartment waiting to be brought inside. I pick it up and place it on a shoe rack near the door, where it’s promptly inspected by her two patchy-haired cats, both inquisitive, and surprisingly friendly. They must have had a busy day, I think, as I scan her living room, an eclectic space with both green and pink walls and Greco-Roman-adjacent wallpaper, that’s littered with even more bright bouquets. It’s to be expected: today is Kirke’s 38th birthday, and she’s a very popular girl.
Upstairs, I hand off my own birthday gift: a bouquet of pink peonies and a pack of Capri cigarettes. Kirke jokes that I know her brand, and thanks me for the “Polish nail salon cigarettes.” I’ve walked into the stressful part of the evening: Kirke doesn’t know what to wear to her birthday party. I help her zip in and out of options: shiny, spandex bodysuits with zippers that have her grimacing for being “total pieces of sh*t”; a long, floral chiffon slip; and finally, a mod dress, lime green and jeweled, and the clear winner.
Tonight is Kirke’s first birthday party in four years. Birthdays are depressing, always anticlimactic, like New Year’s Eve, but worse, she muses while optioning different earrings, crawling across her bed that’s covered with discarded potential outfits, to grab a different pair. Earlier in the day, when I text my group chat about my plans with the actress, we all collectively agree that Kirke is a Venusian figure. Her bed frame supported our theories: It’s a giant scallop shell.
Our interview was planned to support her new show, the Apple TV+ series City on Fire, and it’s only after her publicist locks in the date that I’m informed that in lieu of meeting up at a bar for some drinks, we’ll in fact be ringing in her birthday. Kirke has a tone of surprise when I say that I watched her newest project in full. (“The whole thing, huh?”) Does she watch the series she acts in? “Some people actually have rules about not watching their own stuff; I think it's a little bit self-centered because you're not the only one who made the f*cking show, but you won't watch it because you can't forget yourself.” Actors are some of the strangest people, I say. “No, I know. We can't even really go there,” she laughs, digging around for a different pair of earrings.
In City of Fire, Kirke plays a departure from her most famous role, the era-defining, resident unpredictable bohemian Jessa in GIRLS. She’s the cleaned-up corporate scion of a New York real estate billionaire, who finds out that her husband, in a tale as old as time, has been cheating on her with a free-spirited younger woman. “I'm always impressed when casting people hire me to play roles that are so opposite to the one that I'm known for,” she says. “Which makes me want to do an excellent job.” Kirke’s plot is only one among the many interwoven stories set in a New York reeling from the horrors of September 11 and Bloomberg’s mayoral reign, all converging on the shooting of a New York University sophomore — the same one having an affair with her husband. Oh, and it’s also created by soapy drama heavyweights Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage of The O.C. and Gossip Girl fame.
“They knew what they were getting into with me, I think,” she says of working with Schwartz and Savage. “Every time I came up to them with a question, there was a half-smile on their face, like, ‘Of course she objects.’” City on Fire is less niche, and potentially more far-reaching, than anything Kirke has previously done. It also was a completely different arena of acting, but Kirke was more than game to figure it out: “As artists, we can do anything we want. And so when someone says, ‘No, this is the space, you stay in this box, figure out how to make it roomy,’ it's fun.”
Kirke has an effortless glamour and wildness to her, one that often feels lost among contemporary starlets and their rigorously-sanitized PR machines. While detailing the show, she’s nursing a glass of orange wine and blasting a cigarette through an open window, somehow at the same time as a makeup artist perfects her bright, feathered red lipstick for the evening. At some point, Kirke’s longtime family friend Beatta arrives and starts washing dishes to help out. Later, Kirke’s neighbor, a man named Lars, arrives with a gift: his newly-extracted tooth, fashioned into a necklace on a hardware-store chain. She gingerly cradles it in her hand and beams. We haven’t even left for the party.
On the walk over to the main event, held at a local record store conveniently called Record Shop, Kirke is buzzing with anticipation. We’re running late, of course, which is the best way to arrive at your own birthday celebration. Lars tells me how Kirke recently taught him the meaning of the U.K. slang “chuffed,” which I already know from clocking hundreds of hours of Love Island episodes, and lists off several ways a person can feel this way. Kirke runs ahead, lifts her dress, and flashes the camera. She swoops back close to me, grinning. “I’m giving you pearls!”
Earlier that week, New York Magazine debuted their It Girl issue, which promptly became the talk of Twitter and many group chats around town. The issue deemed Kirke as one of the city’s current crop of It Girls, which was news to her. “I’ll take it,” she says. “It's not doing me any favors, it doesn't really do anything at all.” She thinks the term “It Girl” is dead, but before she can finish her thought, she’s distracted. We’ve finally arrived at the party.
Walking into the back of the record store, there’s a charcuterie board, some lightly-oiled bread, and clear plastic cups for guests to fill with either tequila, whiskey, or gin. I reconnect with Kirke after she does her birthday-girl rounds. She’s switched from orange wine to tequila, and notes that her drink would be very good if she hadn’t, for some reason, mixed it with whiskey. My BeReal notification goes off at the party, to my delight, and to Kirke’s utter confusion. “It’s a Snapchat?” she asks, and I can’t bear to ruin her night by explaining it to her.
It’s an intimate affair; the guest list a delightful mashup of neighborhood friends; Gen X artists who’ve known Kirke for decades; and a precocious incoming LaGuardia High School student who seems to moonlight as the neighborhood’s go-to babysitter. Inside, the DJ plays disco, while outside, Kirke takes a drag of a freshly-lit cigarette. Kirke lightly teases the babysitting teen, who seems to have recently watched GIRLS, but not close enough to immediately recognize Christopher Abbott, who is also here (and, in his defense, is distinctly less boyish than he was over a decade ago).
“I used to be kind of a little prick about it and be like, ‘You're putting me in a box, I'm not Jessa.’ But I'm f*cking grateful that I had that,” she says when I ask about the show’s legacy and its current renaissance. “The thing that blows my mind the most is that when when casting people are considering me for a comedy, they ask, ‘Is she funny?’ which is strange to me because I was on a f*cking comedy.”
To be clear, Kirke is funny. She’s far from the court-jester school of comedy; she’s the straight man, sharp and perceptive, bringing a cheeky levity to drama, and grounding her comedic moments in reality. She tells me about her love for Carole Lombard, one of the residents in what she calls “The Land of Great Dead Blondes” (Marilyn Monroe likely isn’t there because she’s overstudied, Kirke muses), who taught her “how to socialize and be charming, how to be tragic and cover it up.” Lombard, Kirke says, couldn’t make it work as a cookie-cutter movie blonde — but what she could do was be very fun at parties.
“She was really loud and she cussed a lot. She was married to Clark Gable, who was notoriously shy and sweated on the red carpet and didn't like interviews and she sort of talked for him,” she says. “And then when someone saw how funny she was, they put her in a comedy and she became a huge star. And her style of comedy is what I aspire to bring to a situation.”
The DJ shifts from his disco run to reggae, and even more of the party spills out onto the sidewalk. Kirke flits from group to group, chain-smoking and occasionally throwing it back for the camera. When she makes her way back to me, it’s a little past midnight and I tell her how pleased — or should I say chuffed? — I am that she gave me a true night out. “Otherwise, we might as well meet at a café, right?” she smirks and rolls her eyes. “And have a coffee.”
Photographs by Jade Greene
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert