Flash Forward: Lola Kirke, Mistress America‘s Sweetheart

“I dream of having that ’70s voice. I just think it’s sexy,” Lola Kirke sighed, toward the end of our discussion on her blossoming career.

“In the ’70s, all actresses spoke in this Southern California intonation. In the ’40s and ’50s, all actresses were trained to speak a certain way, but then in the ’70s, everyone sounded like they were a little high.” She affected a pitchy, breathy timbre.

Kirke herself didn’t sound even a little high. Considering she had been working until 2 a.m. in New York the night before, then had flown to Los Angeles to promote her new film, Mistress America, she was surprisingly focused, her voice free of any sleep-deprivation gravel. Of the roles in her short but enviable filmography, Kirke’s actual voice sounds closest to Hailey, her urban oboe prodigy from the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. She describes her own voice as “deep” and “protected,” but there’s a bold warmth to it, accentuated by a faint, endearing lisp.

Voice seems to be an important part of Kirke’s acting process. The lasting impression of her small but striking role as Greta, Rosamond Pike’s perfidious friend-turned-assailant in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, owes a lot to Kirke’s spot-on southern drawl. She watched Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy’s Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, about the West Memphis Three, to prepare herself for that role. “[Those films] take place in Arkansas, so the accent was different—Greta’s was more Oklahoma. But I wanted to know what it was like to come from a world like that.”   

Despite Gone Girl‘s release in October 2014, acting on the Fincher thriller was not Kirke’s first time working with a big-name director. (It wasn’t even her first Greta. That would be Greta Gerwig, co-writer and co-star of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, which was shot in 2012 but released fall of 2015.) Kirke reveled in the mixed-up order with which the public has been introduced to her. “It was really fun for me to have Gone Girl come out before anything, for that to be the version of myself that was out in the world. I liked having Greta be the entrance point.” Yet Mistress America marks the actress’ true “star-is-born” moment.

Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and Tracy (Lola Kirke) take Manhattan in Mistress America

The film follows Kirke’s Tracy, a lonely Barnard freshman who harbors strong literary ambitions. Tracy’s life is transformed when she meets Brooke (Gerwig), her step-sister-to-be, a just-30, big-city firecracker with a somewhat faulty fuse.

“Though I’ve always been told I’m very outgoing and confident, it feels very natural for me to assume shier roles,” said Kirke of her character. She herself grew up in New York, the younger sister of actress Jemima Kirke of Girls fame. “I always start with myself. I had an acting teacher say to me once, ‘A person you create in three weeks is not going to be as interesting as the person you’ve been creating your entire life.’”

Gerwig, on the other hand, plays Brooke as a subversion of a manic pixie dream girl. She swoops into Tracy’s dull life, sweeping her away on a hipster fantasy tour of cool Manhattan nightlife, starting in Time Square and ending in Brooke’s trendy, illegally zoned apartment. But while Brooke’s mania is initially charming, Gerwig’s brilliant efforts, both on and off the screen, expose its long-term consequences with unflinching honesty. Brooke has a darker internal life than she lets on, with a streak of desperation exposed just frequently enough to be credible and affecting.

In one of Gerwig’s favorite scenes, Brooke is confronted by a former high school classmate who accuses Brooke of having bullied her. Brooke deftly withholds a definitive resolution by refusing to apologize, and, indeed, turning the tables onto the other woman.

“Brooke lives in this very stark world, populated by the winners and losers of capitalism,” said the actress. “Something is turning for her; things are starting to go badly. She’s looking for a third path.”

It’s this search which unites Brooke and Tracy, and which saves both characters from falling into easy caricatures of millennial malaise. Most people aren’t ‘either-or,’ they’re ‘both-and,’” said Gerwig. “They’re both magnanimous and petty, they’re both kind and cruel. I think too often we want our characters to exist in too-narrow parameters. I try to make movies where all of that can exist at once.

Lola Kirke as "Tracy" and Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Kirke and Gerwig, who co-wrote Mistress America with director Noah Baumbach

When Tracy writes a story based on her first night on the town with Brooke, painting a loving but honest portrait of her friend’s faltering charms, the film uses the occasion to comment on the inherently exploitative nature of inspiration. When asked if she feels that Tracy was wrong in writing so critically about Brooke, Kirke unequivocally responded, “No, I don’t. She was inspired by Brooke. If anyone in the movie believes in Brooke, it’s Tracy. She doesn’t sabotage Brooke, she observes her, and what she observes is largely true.”

Kirke, the ingénue, also found it easy to relate to the mix of intimidation and inspiration Tracy finds in Brooke. “I think that Noah and Greta formed Brooke in my real-life experience: this formidable, yet really encouraging, presence in my life. I really wanted Noah to think I was cool. Noah is very smart about people—he’s such an astute observer of people—so I didn’t want to wind up as someone he didn’t like. I spent the first month not breathing because I was just so nervous.”

In the end, she bonded with the director over music, she said, when the Mistress America cast and crew rode to work together every day in a minivan (which made the shoot feel, she said, like “the greatest student film ever made”). “He showed me the Gene Clark record No Other for the first time, and ‘Right Down the Line’ by Jerry Rafferty.”

All in all, a very different experience to working with David Fincher. Kirke laughed, “I don’t think David Fincher knows who I am! I mean, Noah wasn’t my BFF, but David Fincher really kept a distance. He was never anything but kind and encouraging to me, but we didn’t, like, hug.”

Baumbach has a reputation for that sort of forceful presence. He shoots with a skeleton crew, allowing him quick and complete control over his set, and is notoriously word-specific when it comes to line-readings. He also forgoes rehearsal in favor of compiling an astounding number of takes. “I think 30 [takes] was the minimum for anything, including a pickup of my hand on a pasta,” Kirke reported. “So the rehearsal is kind of built into the shooting process. I’ve heard Noah say that they usually use one of the last takes, so it was all in service of something. It wasn’t like we got it on take two and then just did 102 more.”

Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo coutesy as Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Mistress America is Kirke’s first leading role in a feature

For one scene in particular, Baumbach put Kirke to the test. Wallowing in rejection early in the film, Tracy goes to a diner and takes comfort the warm, cheesy embrace of mozzarella sticks. “Noah didn’t tell me that I could use a spit bucket. After the 50th mozzarella stick, he finally said, ‘Give her a spit bucket.’ And that’s how I learned to eat in movies.”   

Kirke’s star continues to rise. Mozart in the Jungle was renewed for a second season in February, and her recent addition to Doug Liman’s Tom Cruise-starring Mena (slated for release early in 2017) makes her career, film-for-film, one of the most explosive of any young actress in Hollywood today. But as bright as her future looks, she has an admirable respect for the past. She speaks with audible reverence of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, and counts everything from Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon to Werner Herzog’s Stroszek among her favorite films.

“I love performances,” she said of her criteria. “I love seeing people be compassionate enough to give themselves to somebody else. In a film I just want to see something done well.”

By those standards, Kirke has every reason to believe she will one day book that iconic ’70s-actress role of her dreams. MM

Mistress America opens in theaters August 14, 2015, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. All photographs courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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