‘Mozart in the Jungle’ Star Lola Kirke Talks Feminism, Art, and Identity


“The other day, one of the writers on this show asked me what I had noticed about getting older as a woman,” says Mozart in the Jungle actress Lola Kirke. “Not that I’m ‘old,’ but I am aging, as we all are, every single day.” (Kirke is 25.) “My first answer was that I can’t drink as much as I used to. And she was like, ‘The answer that I get a lot from women is that they don’t feel noticed anymore.’ ”

Kirke is on the set of her Amazon series, waiting for the day’s shooting to begin. Her trailer is mostly devoid of personal items, except for scripts and a few books — and Kirke’s guitar, which leans against a wall, ready for those days where her call time won’t come until evening. Music is important to Kirke, though in a different way from the character she plays, an aspiring classical performer. Her real-life father is Simon Kirke, the former drummer for the rock bands Free and Bad Company; in college, Lola sang and played in an all-girl country group, and later this month she’s self-releasing an alt-country solo EP.

Mozart in the Jungle follows Kirke’s character, Hailey Rutledge, a talented young oboist from North Carolina pursuing music in New York City. (It’s based on a memoir by Blair Tindall, a former oboist for the New York Philharmonic.) Hailey dreams of playing for the (fictional) New York Symphony Orchestra, a well-respected but creatively and financially ailing cultural institution. Instead, she secures a job as an assistant to a high-strung Mexican conductor, played by Gael García Bernal, who pronounces her name “jai alai,” requires endless cups of maté, and occasionally converses with Mozart himself. In the show’s 2014 premiere, García Bernal’s character has just been hired to revive the orchestra’s fortunes; over the first two seasons, struggles with the musicians union and the orchestra’s dwindling donor base jeopardize that revival.

At this year’s Golden Globes, Mozart in the Jungle scored an upset win for best comedy series, and García Bernal took home the statue for best TV comedy actor. Onstage among her co-stars, wearing a draped chiffon Monique Lhuillier gown in a vivid goldenrod, Kirke was beaming. And if you looked closely, you could just make out that she was barefoot: She’d ditched her high heels after the red carpet because they hurt.

“I remember, as a kid growing up in the shadow of really stylish, beautiful women, really just trying to adopt exactly what they wore and thinking that if I did, I’d be magically endowed with their characteristics,” Kirke says. These influences included her nearest sister in age, Girls actress Jemima Kirke; her mother, Lorraine Kirke, who ran the West Village vintage boutique Geminola; and her cousin, model and Karl Lagerfeld muse Alice Dellal. “Other women, their clothes just excited me. Everyone I modeled myself after was pretty unique. And then I shattered that uniqueness by copying them.”

At Bard College, Kirke studied film — but, she says, “in a very Bard way,” within a curriculum heavy on conceptual artists such as Alex Bag and Chris Burden. “It wasn’t like USC or UCLA or Wesleyan, where you go to learn how to be part of Hollywood or independent cinema or whatever,” Kirke says. “I really don’t know how to use a camera.” After she graduated, her acting talent captivated directors from David Fincher (spot Kirke in a small but key role in Gone Girl) to Noah Baumbach (Mistress America).

“What I fell in love with about acting,” Kirke says, “is I loved thinking about other people so much.” She rummages through a canvas tote, spilling onto her trailer’s desk a dream journal, a sketchbook, Alex Ross’s classical-music history Listen to This, and the final novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. After two full seasons, Kirke feels comfortable playing Hailey, but as an actress she’s always using research and story to ground a character so that it’s more than just pretend. Acting, she says, is “figuring out how I don’t have to lie so much.”

Kirke is frank about the extraordinariness of her own circumstances — her parents moved in the kind of social set where David Bowie once turned up to a family holiday party, and she attended Saint Ann’s, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in New York. “I was able to be on this path because I had certain chances,” she says. “I had the privilege of an amazing arts education. I wonder what more talent we’d be seeing in the world if that was allowed for more people.”

As Kirke walks around the set of Mozart in the Jungle, which is filming in Bushwick, she greets many of the crew members by name. She stops to show a burly, heavily inked grip her new tattoo. García Bernal, who is directing this episode, hovers nearby, frowning into a monitor. The show is entering its third season (premiering December 9), and Kirke is clearly in her element.

“What I love about Lola is that so much of who she is as a person is in Hailey, this woman who she plays,” says Kirke’s co-star Saffron Burrows, who plays a cellist who serves as Hailey’s mentor. “She’s layered her performance to make this very complicated onscreen character, but, profoundly, she’s using all of who she is to create that woman.” Kirke, says Burrows, is “incapable of banality”: “We either say nothing at all except hello, or we have some huge conversation about feminism, books, being women in this industry, love, kids, family, and everything she’s going through now.”

Feminism is close to Kirke’s heart. “I think that re-evaluating the way that we represent women in movies and TV is a huge part of being a feminist now,” she says. In addition to speaking out on issues like paid maternity leave and reproductive freedom, Kirke says she sees feminism as a matter of “being active in your identity as a woman.” Woman is not an identity that’s always easy to perform in Hollywood, where not even one out of every ten films last year was directed by a woman, and where women are severely under-represented at the executive level. Forget passing the Bechdel test: One USC study found that, for American movies released in 2014, only 28 percent of speaking parts were female.

Recently, while working with the director Doug Liman and co-star Tom Cruise on the upcoming thriller American Made, Kirke found her identity and her job colliding in an unexpected way. Unlike most actresses — but like many 25-year-old women in New York City — Kirke doesn’t habitually remove her armpit hair. “When they cast me in the role, the part was this kind of hippie housewife,” says Kirke. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fine, she probably wouldn’t shave her armpits, either.’ But then they rewrote the part. And they had my character in a sleeveless dress, unloading groceries. So when I got to the set I said to the director, ‘Hey, I don’t shave my armpits. Do you think that the character would? If you do, I totally understand, but I can also think of reasons why she wouldn’t.’ He was like, ‘Let me see your armpits.’ ”

Kirke recalls, “It was a room with thirty crew members, all men for the most part, and I went like this.” She mimes holding her arms aloft for inspection. “He looked at each armpit, carefully considering them. Finally he was like, ‘Yeah, I think she would shave her armpits.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s totally cool. But I do think it would be really interesting to be the first male, mainstream director in American cinema to feature a woman with armpit hair in your film and not address it.’ And he thought about it and he said, ‘OK. Keep it.’ ”

Many actresses lament that the number of well-written roles available to them drops off precipitously as they enter their forties, or even earlier. Despite taking place in the male-dominated world of classical music — the top five U.S. orchestras were over 95 percent male (and about as white) until the 1970s, when women and people of color successfully fought for blind auditions — Mozart in the Jungle boasts an abundance of well-drawn female characters, including Burrows’s cellist, the tightly wound opera manager played by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, and the frosty first oboist played by Debra Monk.

There is both solidarity and competition among the women in the show’s rarefied world. Sometimes Hailey comes off as naïve about the battles she hasn’t had to fight, and sometimes, to the women who have, that naïveté reads as ungratefulness. “Right now,” says Kirke, “we’re at this very interesting moment in feminism where we’ve come so far — we wouldn’t be anywhere without the first- and second-wave feminists.” But, she adds, “there’s this backward tide” in the strain of popular conservatism pressing on the culture and miring progressive allies in battles over tactics and priorities. “It’s a complicated time to be a feminist. And I’m just grateful to be on a show that’s interested in exploring that.”

A production assistant knocks on Kirke’s trailer door to tell her they’re almost ready for her on set. She ducks into the tiny bathroom to change into her costume — a simple black outfit Hailey would wear to perform — and emerges, dabbing geranium oil on her wrists. “It’s what I think she’d wear,” Kirke explains. “I have a friend who wears it, and she reminds me of Hailey a little.”

Mozart in the Jungle is a rare thing: a comedy centered on a young woman’s struggle to define herself as an artist in a world that appears to care less and less about the arts. “That’s something that me and my character on this show have in common,” says Kirke. “Spending your entire life, or most of your life, identifying in a certain way. Growing with that identification, wondering if that still fits, and wondering who you are without that.”

[This is part of the inaugural Village Voice fashion issue during New York Fashion Week — from this in-depth profile with Lola Kirke and the best vintage finds in NYC to this season’s hottest goods and more.
Check out the rest of the fashion issue here.]