Awkward and ascending: Actor Lola Kirke talks to Pip Usher about auditions, America and her next act.
“I often play the subtle, intelligent, awkward babe,” says Lola Kirke, slouching in a chair at the home that she shares with her boyfriend in East LA. Run through her current roll call of film credits and you’ll realize she’s not far off. First, there was Lola’s breakout lead role in Mistress America as Tracy Fishco, a beret-wearing college freshman. Then there is AWOL, a lesbian love story set in a small Pennsylvania town. With her flat, husky voice and melancholy gaze, the 26-year-old actor seems tailor-made to portray the angst-ridden experiences of growing up, falling in love and trying to figure out one’s identity in a world that’s not always receptive. “I want to play all kinds of people,” says Lola. “But maybe that’s what I have to contribute to the world right now.”
Alongside her aptitude for awkwardness is a worldliness at odds with the naïveté of her on-screen characters. Lola’s family left southwest London when she was five years old and moved to New York City. Her father, Simon, was the drummer for rock band Bad Company while her mother, Lorraine, owned a much-adored vintage clothing boutique in Manhattan’s West Village. Eldest sister Domino is a musician and doula recently married to Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley, while middle child Jemima is a painter and actor most famous for playing wild child Jessa in Girls. Cousins in London include Charlotte Olympia, the fashion designer, and Alice Dellal, the model. The family’s bohemian credentials are supported by substantial wealth: Lola’s maternal grandfather was property tycoon Jack Dellal.
Growing up in a “dramatic and chaotic” household, Lola says much of the mayhem revolved around her older sisters as they battled through their teenage years. (Jemima has spoken candidly about her destructive relationship with drugs and alcohol.) “My ‘perfection’ or ‘goodness’ was a reaction to [my sisters’] trouble. I couldn’t have existed without it,” she shrugs. “But I’m grateful that I got to watch them go through the things that they went through. It helped me make choices with my life.”
Decades later, the implications of Lola’s status as the youngest sibling came up while working with a voice teacher to fix her lisp. “She said, ‘Did you have to be charming and disarming as a kid?’” Lola remembers, joking that the teacher must have been a psychic medium to get into her head like that. “She told me to say the word ‘sister.’ Under the guise of making me practice words with ‘s’ in them, she struck at the root of why my lisp existed in the first place.”
Although Lola had pursued acting since childhood—“I would go to one audition a year when I was younger and delusionally think that would lead to immediate success”—it wasn’t until she graduated from private liberal arts enclave Bard College that acting amped up into a full-time career. She had had a “psychic understanding” that she would work with American filmmaker Noah Baumbach when she first met him, at age 14, at an audition for his film Margot at the Wedding. While she wasn’t offered that part her chance to collaborate with Baumbach finally came a decade later in the shape of screwball comedy Mistress America.
“I auditioned eight times for that movie. It was such an intense, long, drawn-out process,” she says of the three-month-long tryout. When Noah and his co-creator, actor Greta Gerwig, eventually offered Lola the part of Tracy, her elation was mixed with sheer relief that the auditioning was over. “They had me come for a meeting at DreamWorks. The movie isn’t even made by DreamWorks—I think they were probably just trying to seem fancy. We sat at the end of a long table and Noah talked about it for a while until they said, ‘We want to make this movie with you,’” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe it, but I also felt like… fucking finally.”
Lola, who had only had bit parts in two movies before being cast in Mistress America, played the lead alongside Gerwig. Lola plays Tracy, an awkward college student struggling to fit into her new life in New York City, while Gerwig plays Brooke, her soon-to-be stepsister. The two have a short-lived friendship—Tracy is entranced by Brooke’s frenetic brand of mad-cap charm, her hustler’s instincts and the chameleonlike quality in which she relentlessly reinvents herself. But Tracy can also see the charisma that’s carried Brooke through life now transmuting into something tragic.