Interview: Jemima Kirke from Tiny Furniture

November 29, 2010

This month, IFC released Tiny Furniture a dark dramedy that won the narrative feature prize at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival. It's about a girl who returns to her artist mother and treadmill-poet sister's Tribeca loft after graduating from Oberlin. Populated by a squad of appalling men and artfully frumpy outfits, the film was written and directed by its lead actress Lena Dunham, who has since been commissioned to co-executive produce, direct, write, and star in a HBO comedy series about a girl living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. West Village veteran Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and Fashion/Interiors designer Lorraine, went to high school with Dunham and worked with her on both projects. She performs effortlessly as Charlotte, a twenty something who is both elegantly wise and desperately entitled, always looking for someone to sleep over. She spoke to us about her relationship with Dunham and the specific complexity of transforming from a young New York agitator under pressure to be the most to a practical Brooklyn-based sage by age 25. Tiny Furniture is showing now at IFC Center and BAM in New York and screening around the country in December.

How’s it going?
I’m actually just trying to get my daughter to calm down a little. I had a kid eight weeks ago! I just went outside to smoke a cigarette- I sort of watch her from the window and leave music on, but I came back in and it was on shuffle and this metal was playing, like hard metal and she was totally listening and I don’t know if she was into it, but it definitely wasn’t calming her down. But it’s fine, if she starts crying I’ll just put her on my boob.

Holy shit! Good early exposure.
I’m hoping she’ll internalize it somehow. I don’t care what she becomes. I mean of course I do, but if she wants to be a rock star that’s fine.

How long have you been a New Yorker?
I lived in New York City for almost 15 years. I was born in London and I moved here in 1995 when I was ten. My parents moved because my mother had a plan to move all around the world, but she ended up staying in the first place she went, Greenwich Village. That's where I lived my whole childhood. I’ve always loved it because it was a great place to run around and get into trouble. In high school my best friend in the world was Paz de la Huerta, who is an actress now.

She's nuts, man.
Yeah! She was sort of my- you know how everyone has that friend when they’re a kid that’s just their downfall? Paz was mine. We were obsessed with this movie Streetwise. When you get older you realize what a fucking loser you were when you were a kid. But we loved it because we thought we could be those kids, even though we didn’t want to be homeless and loved a roof over our heads. But we wanted to look like those kids and act like them and totally tried to be something that we weren’t and to fight the privilege that we came from and turned it into fashion. We never went to any school parties or anything like that, just straight to the bars, or running around St. Marks and hanging out in tattoo parlors. We hung outside delis and tried to get people to buy us beer and went and sat in Tompkins Square Park with a tape player, playing mixtapes and seeing what kind of people we could attract.

What was on the tapes?
In high school I loved The Vibrators and The Dead Boys, and like the typical Led Zeppelin. At school people would come in with bags of tapes that they’d made and we’d trade them.

How did you meet Lena, who wrote, directed and cast you in Tiny Furniture and the upcoming HBO show?
Lena I met in high school. She says we met in middle school at a dance where they got all the different private schools together, in the bathroom and I was wearing some really cool outfit like a tube top or something, and she was like “cool tube top”. I don’t remember that, but we became close at St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, which is fucking boring. There’s nothing in Brooklyn Heights, it’s just a beautiful neighborhood. Actually that’s where I live now. It hasn’t changed or anything, its just that I’ve changed and this is where I want to be now.

How was Lena different than Paz and the kids you hung out with downtown?
Lena is quite a special one because she never really belonged to any kind of crowd. At school you had weirdos and goth kids and punk kids and the too cool for school and never went to school kids, and Lena could hang out with all of them. Everyone loved her. She was kind of clueless but rocked it. Lena had so many friends and yet she didn’t really hang out with anyone, she was sort of a loner who would much rather be at home writing. She came in with the strangest outfits and you could tell she was just trying on identities and being a total geek but people found it endearing.

What crowd of New York kids is Tiny Furniture about? Who is it for?
There’s a very specific perspective in the movie. All the characters are based on people that Lena and I know and we basically just shit talked about different aspects and stories to figure out what characters would wear or how they would behave. We belong to a demographic that I can’t describe without fucking up, but basically kids who are trying to figure out what they want to do but they’ve got to be artists of some kind. I had pressure from my family to be the most- it could be the most brilliant or the person who was latest to the party, but I felt I had to make an impression and stand out. But it can be difficult to be compelling and passionate if you feel like shit. I think Lena probably had similar feelings. But what’s impressive about her is that she didn’t let that pressure push her away, stayed with her writing and let it be a gradual process. I’m surprised that so may people like the movie because it’s so specific, but they do and I guess it’s because any girl in their mid twenties who’s just gotten out of college can relate to that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing who you are outside of school. Anyone can relate to not knowing what they’re going to do or who they are. I’ve come to find that who you are doesn’t have much to do with what you do, who you hang out with, or what you tell people you’re about, either. I think any title you give yourself is a kind of sacrifice and a compromise, and that’s what people are relating to. I was drawn to Streetwise as a kid because their identities were so simple: they were homeless and they were prostitutes and incredible. I tried to incorporate their personalities into my life, but I was much more complicated than any of those things and very far from those movies. Lena’s movie is great because it’s complicated.

How does it feel to enact experiences you had when you were younger?
It’s therapeutic and great. To look at the kind of person I tried to be when I was younger and how I thought of myself, and to make fun of myself and have that be art and be funny is great. I happen to love performing and I have a good understanding of what Lena is going for. Acting, you’re a part of a team and you have to be on time and it’s not all about you. Ultimately, I want to paint and would love to become a successful painter, but I’m not having an internal conflict about it anymore.

Interview: Jemima Kirke from Tiny Furniture