Lola Kirke, John Cho, and Aaron Katz on Punching Zoë Kravitz and the Pitfalls of Fame

Following a private screening of Gemini on Monday in New York, Vulture’s Rachel Handler interviewed director Aaron Katz and stars John Cho and Lola Kirke before an audience of Vulture Insiders. Want to attend events like these? Apply here to become a Vulture Insider. Photo: Vulture

In Gemini, written and directed by Aaron Katz, Lola Kirke and Zoë Kravitz play what a fellow character describes as “freaky, fucked-up best friends.” Kirke is Jill, the unfailingly patient and reliable personal assistant to Kravitz’s flaky Heather, a famous actress who’s recently pissed off a number of her Hollywood peers. Their strange — and strangely functional — dynamic unfolds in the movie’s first few scenes: Heather begs Jill to quit a movie last-minute on her behalf, then convinces her to join a spontaneous bout of drunken K-town karaoke; a hungover Jill drags herself out of bed at 5 a.m. to tell a group of producers that Heather is refusing to do reshoots; Heather persuades Jill to let her borrow her gun and sleep in her bed in case one of her many vocal enemies comes after her.

When a crime is, in fact, committed, Jill is expected to pick up the pieces and solve it on her own, confronting Heather’s adversaries while being trailed by a suspiciously motivated detective (John Cho). What results is an equal parts moody and funny riff on the Los Angeles neo-noir, stuffed with pop-culture references and meta nods to the classic genre while still managing to keep suspense high. On Monday, Katz, Kirke, and Cho joined Vulture Insiders for a special screening of Gemini and a post-show Q&A. Below is an edited, condensed version of that conversation (including some spoilers).

Gemini is clearly inspired by a lot of classic L.A. neo-noirs. Which movies specifically were you thinking about when you made the film?

Aaron Katz: A lot of Los Angeles–set thrillers from the ’80s and ’90s on VHS tape. Films like Curtis Hanson’s Bad Influence, American Gigolo, Poison Ivy, Slither — I really wanted to play with that genre, and really celebrate it, because I think, at the time, those movies were thought of as sort of B-movies, and not really art. That came together with my desire to explore the relationship between these two people, and to give equal weight to both of those threads.

Lola, can you tell me about your audition?

Lola Kirke: Well, I didn’t have to audition, which is such a rare pleasure. My manager told me, “This guy Aaron wrote a movie for you.” I was like, “What?” [Laughs.] So I had to meet him, and I did, and I was totally pleased and thrilled because Aaron is incredible and he’d written this movie that I thought — in the tradition of noir being something that explores the shadow of something that’s already there — that this movie was exploring the shadow self of Los Angeles and the people that work there.

Why’d you write it for her specifically?

Aaron: Lola’s not making that up. I had had an idea to write a film in this world, and I wanted to write a film about a relationship between a personal assistant and the person they work for. But I didn’t really know what it would be until I saw Mistress America, and I just loved Lola’s performance in that. Lola is just such an open and truthful actor, and I think [she] takes whatever the circumstances are at face value. Whether it’s this world [inspired by] 1930s comedies, or a noir version of Hollywood — without knowing Lola, I thought that she would be amazing in this movie.

John, as the detective, you have relatively few scenes in this movie, but you make a very big impression. I’m curious, as an actor, how you approach a role where you have fewer scenes, and how you make sure that your character resonates.

John Cho: Now I’m feeling self-conscious.

Aaron: John, you’re barely in this movie [laughs].

John: It’s not something I think about much, but I really responded to the character and the film as soon as I read it. I think I particularly responded to how it was hard to pin him down. I found that interesting about him. I didn’t know whether he was telling the truth when he dropped little wisps of information — whether he had, indeed, suffered a trauma that he could relate to Jill’s character; whether he was, indeed, showing up [to the scene] as a fanboy. It could be true, it could not be true.

It was all very interesting to play, and I didn’t really worry about screen time. I was the MILF guy in American Pie!

Really good point. At the end, are we supposed to believe that Lola and Zoë’s characters still have something still to hide?

Aaron: There are multiple ways to read the end of the movie. I think that you can read it, like John was alluding to, as [his character] is a guy who’s drawn to the fame, kind of in spite of himself. Or you can read it as a guy who really needs to be there, to see it in person — the line that John has, right before the interview, where he says, “I don’t want to watch it on TV, because they cut so much out, and I need to see the whole thing,” is a very important observation. Even though Heather might obfuscate the truth or say something that doesn’t reflect events as John’s character sees them, she’s got to do it in front of him. She’s got to do it with a real person watching, and the look between Lola and John’s character, to me, is this look between two people who have their own versions of the truth and have this sort of strange connection. We don’t necessarily, as an audience, get to know what that is. That’s something that’s internal with them.

I want to talk a little bit about the “freaky fucked-up best friends” genre. There’s a long-standing cinematic tradition of women having secretive, twisted friendships. Lola, did you draw on any of your own friendships to create this dynamic with Zoë?

Lola: I don’t think they have a fucked-up relationship, they’re just very fucked-up [individually]. I think that’s what’s kind of nice about their relationship, because it’s not messed up — until it’s revealed to be such. That was something that Aaron and I had talked about a lot when we were considering how to make this movie: It would be too cheap to make Heather this unlikable movie star. The privilege of being famous has made her sacrifice her privilege of being free, in a lot of ways. Her life is very small, and she’s very lonely, but she’s still a person who needs to have friends. I think that Jill sees that and likes her. I think that she’s a very likable person, in a lot of ways.

We were talking a lot about the movie today, and there was something that John said, which was that fame is the real villain in the film. I think that fame is the thing that drives the superfan to stalk her, and drives Heather to do something that, normally, there would be much graver consequences for. I don’t think it’s a toxic thing in their friendship — I think it’s the circumstances and the context of their lives.

To that point, I’m curious, as two famous people, what rang true to you?

John: The adoration rang true [laughs]. I’m struggling to think about little things. There are so many little things that rang true, but the relationship between, obviously, the personal assistant and the actor, those are extremely well-observed.

Aaron: You were saying how true it was when Heather looks up her own Instagram account and searches her tagged photos.

Lola: Oh, yeah. I think that there’s this perception that famous people have everything and that we should [view] them that way, but famous people will still check their tagged pictures on Instagram to make sure they look good. I don’t do that, because I’m not that famous, but more famous people do.

John, do you check yours?

John: Never!

Have you guys ever had any sort of unsettling interactions with a fan?

Lola: I had what I felt was an unsettling experience, but then it turned out not to be. I had an email address that was really obviously mine for a long time, and someone was like, “You’re going to have to change that soon.” I was like, “No, I’m not.” And then one day, I got this email that was like, “I’m such a big fan of yours, I love everything you do,” and I was like, “Yes. I have to make a cryptic, weird new email because I’m just too famous.” So I did, and then months later, I was looking back over the email, and I saw that I had written to this person first. [Laughs.] I’d written, like, “Keep in touch, so great to meet you today,” and this person was just being nice. So I didn’t get to experience anything truly weird. Except my own ego.


John: Well, I think what rings true is the [idea of] spatial violation. How [the fan] comes over and sits in the booth. It’s a small thing, and it seems like a simple thing, but it’s actually kind of hard to keep your balance, as it were, in those situations. There are rules that we live by and they’re unspoken, and everyone observes these rules, except from when you’re known. And then people will touch you or come really close, or grab you from behind. That’s a small thing, but it can be unsettling.

Aaron, traditionally, the noir genre doesn’t really center on women or people of color, save for a few exceptions. Was that something you were trying, purposefully, to upend?

Aaron: I think it was subconscious, and I’ve really been thinking about this lately, because we’ve been programming a series of screenings to promote Gemini. We’ve shown The Long Goodbye, we’ve shown Dead Again, some other things. And especially in the detective genre, there are just so few movies with women in the lead. I didn’t set out to say, “I’m going to upend that, I’m going to try something else” — I really was just responding to thinking about Lola in this role. But I also think that, on a subconscious level, I wanted to see something different. And I wanted the genre to feel like it reflected something about today and the fabric of Los Angeles.

Why’d you decide to include the punching scene?

Aaron: Oh, the punching scene! It felt really important to have this physical manifestation of anger. It felt like there needed to be this release. We were talking a little bit about whether Zoë is a villain or not in the movie, and I really don’t think she is. That line she has right before the punch, when she says, “You’re like my only fucking friend” — it might be manipulative, but I don’t think she’s lying there. Lola, I think you can speak to this, too, but it felt to me like that moment needed to happen to reconcile the friendship.

Lola: It’s a funny thing, because I think typically people don’t volunteer to be punched. It’s a way of asserting power. But it once again speaks to this strange dynamic — not toxic, just strange. [Heather] is giving [Jill] the permission to take power in that moment. I think that’s really interesting.

Last question: When Heather says, “I had my first orgasm thinking about Jonathan Taylor Thomas” — did that come directly from the script?

Lola: That was 100 percent Zoë Kravitz [laughs]. A true story.

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Lola Kirke and John Cho on the Pitfalls of Fame