Jemima Kirke on Letting Go of Balance

by sabpro

Plus, she discusses playing Hope Haddon in the Netflix series Sex Education.

Ever since her roles in Tiny Furniture and Girls introduced her to wider audiences in the aughts, painter and actor Jemima Kirke has had strong “your best friend’s cool older sister” energy. Whatever the topic, she gives the impression that she’s been there, done that—found it all rather boring—but she’s more than happy to share her learnings. That was the case when I spoke with her recently about her latest roles as new headmistress Hope Haddon on the third season of Sex Education and as Melissa in the upcoming Hulu series Conversations with Friends.

Kirke was stationed in her parked car in Brooklyn Heights when we talked, waiting for one of her son’s extracurricular classes to end. During the conversation, she addressed topics like skincare (she keeps it simple), self-care (she journals, both for mental clarity and to provide her kids with heirlooms), and work-life balance (it doesn’t exist) with equal ease and authority. Kirke is disarmingly direct yet equally comforting and is an open book whether she’s sharing experiences negative or positive. The upshot? She’s survived all of life’s twists and turns, and so can you. 

When you first became known to the public, you described yourself as a painter and an actor by happenstance. How has your relationship with that changed over time?

I often get asked this, and I don’t have a great answer yet. But I think as I got older, it’s two things: I stopped worrying so much about defining myself, and I felt less of a need to declare myself as a painter versus an actor. As people get older, the blueprint for your life starts to fall away, and you go with the flow a bit more.

Life is a lot about things not working out and figuring out a new route. My blueprint was that I was a painter, and that’s what I would continue to be. But as acting became more prominent in my life, and I applied myself more with each job, it started to catch up to painting in terms of love and priority. 

Do you feel you need to balance painting and acting in a certain way, or do you go where your work takes you?

Balance is another thing I’ve dropped. It’s something you read about a lot in the media, and people talk about it as this thing to achieve, but I don’t think there’s such thing as balance. You never really achieve balance; you’re just chasing balance, which creates anxiety that you’re imbalanced.

Jemima Kirke / Design by Cristina Cianci
KATIE MCCURDY / DESIGN BY TIANA CRISPINO

I get asked a lot, “How do you balance motherhood with work?” And I’m like, I don’t. I could never do that. Sometimes I won’t have seen my kids in a month, and sometimes I won’t have worked for a year, so there is no balance. I’m always lacking on one side or the other. Right now, I haven’t painted in almost a year because of Sex Education and Conversations with Friends being back-to-back. When you’re working for days, you want to apply as little energy as possible to anything on your off days. You feel so drained and flat; even reading a book is a hard thing to do.

How did you make peace with the idea of letting go of balance?

I don’t think I ever consciously made peace with it. There are so many lessons I’m trying to learn in my life that I can’t seem ever to get. Then, some little lessons happen subconsciously, and now and again, I go, Oh yeah, I figured that out. I think I got that now. I think letting go of balance was one of those things I didn’t have to try very hard to do. My neurosis is in other areas. [Laughs]

How do you care for yourself, whether you’re focusing on being a mother or filming something?

Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve kept a journal that I write in every single day. Since I was a kid, I’ve always kept a journal but wrote in it much more sporadically than I do now. I’m building up quite a collection of journals. My hope is one day, my kids will read them when they’re adults and get some clarity on whatever it is that they’re upset at me for. Hopefully, it’s when I’m dead or on my deathbed because they won’t want to be around me after reading some of that stuff. 

Another way I try to take care of myself is by going to sleep early if I can tear myself away from my phone. The phone is attractive because it’s a tool for organizing your life and connecting with people, but it’s making things endless because of how accessible we are on it. I’m accessible to anyone’s question, and everyone is accessible to my question, so we have no excuse for not completing something right away, which makes me anxious sometimes. 

Watching movies is something else I do to take care of myself because it’s almost like reading a book. I think it can be just as valuable to sit down and take in a story and a unique point of view. Again, because of phones, watching a movie is quite tricky because it requires you to be still and unproductive. So, I’ll push myself to do that too.

What are some kinds of movies you enjoy watching?

I realized recently I’m not a film buff; I’m an old Hollywood buff. I love American movies from the early ’30s to the late ’60s. I keep the Turner Classic Movies channel on all day. It’s a great way to learn about new movies and actors. In between the movies, they do these mini-documentaries on different actors or directors to show footage from the MGM lot in the ’50s. I love that channel. 

Jemima Kirke / Design by Cristina Cianci
KATIE MCCURDY / DESIGN BY TIANA CRISPINO

TCM has the best-themed marathons.

Yeah, they do cult cinema on the weekends late at night, which I think is their newest genre, and Silent Sundays are fun. My kids have rules around screens, but I keep TCM on all day, so they can watch TCM if they want to sit down and be near a screen. They don’t always choose it because they’re like, “Fuck this, we’re not watching Ingmar Bergman films at 2 pm on a Saturday,” and then they go play, you know? But when they do watch it, my heart sings. I don’t mind movies and TV shows because my kids might want to be filmmakers when they’re older. It’s important they watch movies and get that kind of content; I just want to have a little more control over the content they watch now.

It’s funny you say that because I think one of the best things about watching TCM instead of picking something off the Criterion Channel is that there’s an element of surprise to it. You turn it on and see what’s next. 

Totally, and that’s why I love TV and the radio. Sometimes it can be exhausting to flip through Netflix; there are so many choices. With the radio, I just put it on and flick around—something is freeing about not having to choose something. And you’re right; you get introduced to music and movies that are new to you.

I’d love to talk about Sex Education. What appealed to you about playing Hope? I saw one article that described her as Dolores Umbridge and a Glossier girl put together.

[Laughs] That’s good. On paper, what appealed to me was the description of her versus her look, which would be me. Creating a character from those two somewhat opposing forces was exciting. When you see me from afar, you don’t think “school principal.” A school principal who has these kinds of morals, bleached blonde hair, no kids, and is in her early 30s—that’s an interesting character. 

While working on it, the most interesting thing was that I made many choices based on how I felt about my kids. I used my relationship with my kids a lot when acting in that role. I took the feelings I have for my children and used Hope’s words on top of it, which is all we’re ever doing when we’re acting. It’s just cultivating an emotion we believe that character has and putting the lines on top. I react very differently than Hope to my feelings and thoughts around my kids, but it still comes from the same place. With her, I can understand this neurosis of needing the kids to behave a certain way, wanting to control their every move, and wanting them to have the same values. That surprised me about playing her. 

Hope has a very distinctive style. Did you enjoy inhabiting her look? Is it similar to or different from what you gravitate towards normally?

It’s very different from what I wear, for sure. It wasn’t fun wearing those clothes, mainly because I had so much tattoo coverage on, and it was exhausting to have the clothes rubbing the makeup off. But when I talked to the wardrobe designer, we thought that Danish and Japanese designers would be her thing. It’s this sort of sexy, scary look, but I was pleased with how it came out.

KATIE MCCURDY / DESIGN BY TIANA CRISPINO

She has that bright red lip too.

Yeah, that was the makeup artist’s choice. At first, I didn’t understand it, but I think it did round her out more. It made her more of a person because I think it would be too much of a caricature without that. I think the lipstick was a good way to throw it all off balance and make her more intriguing.

I feel like the red lipstick is almost part of Hope’s armor. Do you have anything like that for yourself?

I never wear makeup unless I’m going out, but I like a cat-eye and a brownish nude lip color. Everything else I let the makeup artist figure out. I have so much fucking makeup because I get sent it all the time, and it’s just gone to waste because I don’t know how to use it. I love Milk Makeup, but I’m generally not great with makeup.

What about skincare—what’s your routine?

I spray my face with a toner right away, so I’m awake. Then, I’ll use the Dr. Hauschka Cleansing Cream ($29). After washing it off, I use the Weleda Care Cream, the heavy moisturizing one. I get terrible eczema around my mouth, hands, and wrists, but when it’s on my mouth, I am constantly putting Weleda stuff on it, which I think helps. 

Do you have other beauty rituals that don’t involve makeup?

For hair, I use what’s in the shower. Sometimes, I’ll only use conditioner because I like to keep the grease in my hair a little bit. I hate it being brushed and blown out for the most part. I’ll put any oil I have around on the ends of my hair. I also use a lot of coconut oil for my skin. I eat so bad, so I need to have a Smooth Move Tea now and again. That’s my go-to beauty product.

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