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Jemima Kirke on the Girls Backlash, Surprise Weddings, and Damien Hirst

Girls’ first season ended with a surprise wedding for an extra-surprising bride: Jessa, the haughty free spirit and resident troublemaker. Jessa had been mostly MIA since getting hitched (those giant portraits of Chris O’Dowd don’t paint themselves), but the latest episode brought her back into the fold with a dramatic, if not particularly shocking, breakup from her husband of two months. Vulture spoke with Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa, about the split, the reaction to season one, and whether she likes acting any more than she did this time last year.

There was obviously a lot of critical attention paid to season one. Do you pay attention to it?
I do read everything. I read all the comments; I never intentionally shut it off or avoid reading it. I like to read it all. Some of it’s annoying and wrong and misinformed and even hurtful sometimes — the backlash.

Which parts do you think were flat-out wrong?
I mean, things that are direct strikes at me or at Lena. I think my first experience with reading something that wasn’t positive, I was really offended. And really hurt. And now there’s so much of it, I’m just not anymore. I’m just like, Oh, that was a witty one, ha-ha-ha.

Lena puts a lot of her life into the story of Hannah, and she’s also known you for a long time. Is your life in the character of Jessa?
Not so much. Maybe aspects of who I used to act like. The way I used to behave, some of my behaviors are similar.

Do you ever read something that Lena has written for you and recognize it?
Yes.

How do you respond to that?
Sometimes it’s a little ... [Groans.] I cringe. Because I’m like, I really don’t want to have to put that on camera. Can we please not hear how that sounds out loud? Can we please not see how that looks? Would you really want someone [gestures to the tape recorder] taping everything you say? [Laughs.]

No!
Exactly. It’s really uncomfortable. It’s as if you just had a conversation on the phone with your boyfriend and someone says, “Okay. And now let’s go onstage and perform it.” It’s horrible! I just said some of the lamest stuff, and it was stupid and I was manipulative.

And you’ve expressed some reluctance about being an actor, because you’re a painter. So why do you it?
It was a huge decision, and I don’t think I realized that at the time. I think the opportunity came at a time when I was looking for something in my life that was a lot more concrete. When you have something that you’re that passionate about and that means so much to you, it’s very scary to say that’s what you do. So I think that when Lena offered me that opportunity — You don’t have to paint. You could be an actor. — I was like, [relieved voice] “Oh really? Great! Okay. That’s cool.” And then, as I’m doing this, I’m also painting at the same time, and I’m realizing I feel much more whole when I’m painting. But I have this side job of the acting, and so I had to rationalize why I was doing it. I had to really sit up at night and think. And there was no big answer. That’s what I decided: There was no answer. You made your choice. And now you’re doing it. And I enjoy it.

You do?
Yeah! Yeah. I do enjoy it. I was pretending — not pretending before, but I was resisting it before and trying not to enjoy it. Or at least enjoying it and not giving that any importance. But it is important that I do enjoy it. And it is important that I can at least pull it off somewhat.

There’s a specific moment in season two where you’re painting ...
[Groans.] That I hated.

So that is not your painting?
No. Actually, I was a little pissed at that moment, when I saw that painting as a prop. I was like, Lena. Come on. It’s just a little close to home. And only because I have been vocal about the fact that I make artwork, so I don’t want this to be seen as mine. Not that there was anything wrong with it; it just wasn’t me.

But you soldiered through.
Because it’s my job. And that’s how I have to look at it sometimes.

Going back to season one and Jessa’s surprise wedding — how sincere was her decision to get married?
Oh, not at all. Sincere ... no. At least not with herself. I think she believes what she is doing is sincere. I don’t think she’s trying to fool anyone. I don’t think she’s telling a lie. But I don’t think she’s being honest with herself. Clearly this is not what she wants. Clearly she’s not in love with this guy. It’s a huge lie, mainly to herself.

Were you surprised to see it in the script?
I was, because I didn’t quite see how the pieces would match up. But I ended up being wrong, because I do think now that it works really well. It drove the point in that Jessa does not have it together. Even when she does something like miss her own abortion, she seems so confident in that decision. It seems so intentional. You see it and you’re like, She’s gonna be fine. This one seemed like a genuine mistake, this wedding. And I think that rounded her character off a little more, pointed out that her behavior will bring her down.

But in some ways, it was just another example of Jessa doing whatever she wants.
Sometimes doing whatever she wants is cute, and sometimes it doesn’t impress anyone and it hurts her. She’s such a smart girl, and she has so many different areas of interest, and this guy ... he’s stupid and boring. He’s stupid and boring. So she really doesn’t do herself any favors by marrying him.

The scene with the parents — do you think she’s realized by then? Or is that another impulsive decision?
No, I don’t think she realized. I think she started to have real questions ... no, I don’t even know if she’s questioning at that point. I think she’s very much a person who follows her emotions. So one thing led to another, and the next thing she knows, she’s breaking up with him. I don’t think she’s that calculated.

Since you're an artist, what do you think of Booth Jonathan’s art?
It’s not fake art. It’s Rob Pruitt. I haven’t seen all the episodes, and I don’t know if his stuff is on the second season.

There’s a line where Marnie calls him a “derivative Damien Hirst.”
Was she criticizing him? I think Damien Hirst is hilarious. And I think he’s a true artist. He’s not hilarious first; I think he is a real artist, and I also think he’s got an amazing sense of humor. You can say that.

Photo: Getty Images