In the star-making role of Jessa on the HBO series Girls, Jemima Kirke was a force of nature: effortlessly charming and notoriously unreliable, a generator of chaos for chaos’s sake. Jessa embodied a certain brand of cool, but she left a trail of broken friendships and toxic relationships in her wake, the collateral damage of her self-destructive tendencies. In her most recent roles, Kirke continues to complicate this “cool girl” image — first as a strictly sex-negative headmistress in the third season of Sex Education and now with Hulu’s newest Sally Rooney adaptation, Conversations With Friends. Kirke plays Melissa, an accomplished writer who she represents the type of artist Frances (Alison Oliver) might one day hope to be — even as Frances begins an affair with Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). If there’s a Jessa-like character in the series, it’s not Melissa; in fact, Melissa probably would’ve been one of Jessa’s victims. But Kirke dodges the scorned wife archetype by imbuing Melissa with depth in just a few key scenes, giving a master class in complex supporting performances. On a call with Vulture, Kirke dove deep into the mind of Melissa, including her motivation in permitting Nick’s relationship with Frances.
What, in your eyes, makes it difficult for Melissa to be married to Nick? She calls him “pathologically passive.”
I think that phrase is the opposite of what she is. To be with someone who is passive, as someone who is not, can be great because it can create that nice tension in a relationship, that friction that is good in social settings. You have someone who can speak for you when you don’t feel like it. You have someone who knows how to start a conversation when you don’t. But in the intimate aspects, when you’re alone and arguing, to have a passive person is extremely frustrating.
Melissa has had this affair, and she’s in the doghouse. She has to find her place within the relationship right now because it’s shifted. In a way, she’s waiting. She’s waiting for him to be okay and waiting for him to accept her again. That means maybe taking a step back from her louder, bolder personality to give someone else space, which she’s not used to.
Comparing that to Nick’s relationship with Frances, it seems like it can be even harder for two people who are both very passive to be in a relationship. Nick and Frances’s problems may be different from Melissa and Nick’s, but having two passive people poses its own issues.
I think that’s what’s so frustrating about watching Frances and Nick together. They’re never saying the thing that needs to be said. As a viewer, you want to scream it for them. The thing they’re arguing about is something they’ve come to the edge of, but neither has the guts to say it. That’s when a more aggressive person is useful, to pull that out of a passive person. Neither of them have that capacity.
To me, one of the defining aspects of Melissa is her self-awareness. She knows it would be hypocritical to treat an affair as unforgivable because she had one herself. You can see her debating how much she’s allowed to feel and express.
And how angry she’s allowed to be. It’s such a tricky area, not just because she cheated and the hypocrisy of that. No instance of cheating is the same as the last because every infidelity has its details, and the details always matter. It’s not “Well, you cheated, and so I cheated, and so we’re even now!” No. It doesn’t work that way.
The details that sting the most in Nick’s relationship with Frances is that he fell in love. And falling in love is a whole other betrayal. It’s also something he can’t help, which is the biggest heartbreak of it. It’s something he didn’t do to her. It’s very easy to be angry at someone for something they did to you. It’s much harder to be angry at someone for a feeling.
Do you think Melissa’s actions in the last few episodes — especially during the brief period when they’re a kind of polyamorous trio — are meant to deliberately sabotage Frances and Nick?
I think a lot of her actions during that brief time were deliberate. Her goal was to show that Frances had bitten off more than she could chew. She wasn’t going to make this easy for Frances. She was going to throw her into the deep end of what it entails to be in any relationship. The person you are choosing is going to be flawed and is going to be somewhat mismatched for you. Are you prepared to be in a relationship that is not always sexual and not always romantic like Melissa is? She’s trying to show her, I’m stronger than you. I am at boss level of being in a relationship and you are not, and I want to run you through a crash course on that.
It’s impossible that she’s this selfless. There has to be something that serves her in choosing the high road, in permitting the relationship. The thing that makes her look better than Frances is to be the non-jealous one, to be the more stoic, stable wife.
In the first episode, Bobbi comments that it’s hard to imagine Nick and Melissa on their own “holding a conversation that lasts longer than two minutes.” But the last few episodes clarify that Melissa does know Nick really well and does understand what will bring him happiness, even if her choices are self-serving in some ways.
The final phone conversation with Frances is an interesting scene. Melissa finally got to let out her rage, but her rage was apparently about how Frances had mistreated Nick. It felt very maternal, in a way, and less romantic to me, like being angry at someone for mistreating your child. Built into that rage is not simply a care and concern for Nick’s feelings but a rage for herself.
Do you think what primarily drives Melissa’s friendship with Bobbi is flattery?
When Bobbi essentially says, “You’re beautiful, I want to fuck you,” I think it’s something Melissa hasn’t heard or felt in a long time, being in a relationship with Nick. It’s a big part of why she is friends with these girls. That’s going to be the question on most people’s minds when they watch it: Why are they hanging out with these girls? It doesn’t make sense, not just because of the age difference but the difference in views. The couples are from different worlds, so why is Melissa forcibly bringing them in?
It’s a way to spice up her relationship a bit, not in the sense of having them sleep with each other but in the sense of building tension in the relationship. Having people around to entertain them, this silly, adorable, 20-something couple with these fresh perspectives. There’s a ton of exploitation going on.
In episode four, when everybody’s in Croatia on holiday, Melissa says, “It’s good for us to have company. I love it when the house is full.” It seems like they bring in other friends for distraction.
I’ve seen that in so many relationships that are falling apart, where toward the end, the house gets very full. There’s a dinner party every night. It’s a way to avoid being alone with each other. Melissa likes the house being full because it muffles the silence, which is probably so loud for her right now, being that she’s basically auditioning for her husband. It’s difficult to be around him because he’s so quiet, and he doesn’t say the thing she wants him to say, which is either “I love you” or “I hate you.” Having that distraction is really important for her right now.
The whole series is shown from Frances’s point of view. By the nature of the story, your character has the least screen time of the four. But I find the character is one of the richest. Do you think Melissa’s relative absence can be limiting, or does that offer something unexpected for the character, seeing her from Frances’s point of view?
Having less screen time is always great because it’s less work. [Laughs.] But it’s not a “get out of jail free” card. You have to pack so much into every action because every action is so normal and everyday and mundane.
Seeing things from Frances’s perspective, the only place that’s limiting is in the book, because as the reader, we can’t see what she sees. We can’t see what Melissa looks like, we can’t see what her actions are, we can’t see the very object Frances is interpreting. That’s where turning something into film is so enriching. There’s a lot at stake in doing that because you can really ruin something. Or it’s a chance to make it so much better because you’re actually revealing a picture of what the person is seeing. I would say it was expansive to be able to be her rather than just read about her.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.