Lola Kirke in Conversation with Griffin Newman
Griffin Newman and Lola Kirke met in 2002. They attended the same school—St. Ann’s in Brooklyn—and summer camp, Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp, where Kirke says, “everyone was a fuckwad, and they all grew up and became really successful.” When they met, as preteens, Newman says Kirke was “the most confident person [he’d] ever known,” while he describes himself as a “rancid ball of self-loathing and discomfort.” Fifteen years later, they are both starring in separate half-hour Amazon shows, both of which aired new seasons earlier this year.
Lola Kirke was born in England, the daughter of Simon Kirke (drummer for Bad Company) and sister of Jemima Kirke (actress, painter), and moved to the States at age five. She currently plays the protagonist of Mozart in the Jungle, a floundering oboist learning to navigate New York’s classical-music culture. In Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America (2015), she developed a similar, almost parallel role as a young writer discovering the dangers of adapting life into art.
Kirke is also becoming an increasingly public musician, mostly in the singer-songwriter-guitarist mode. Her songs are classic-feeling, with nice, round melodies touched by nostalgic country-and-western and filled with the spirit of ’90s alternative.
Griffin Newman has been acting in independent films and on TV (Vinyl; Search Party) for a decade or so, mostly as a character actor. (According to IMDb, his full name is Griffin Claude Beresford Dauphin Hunter Newman.) Recently, he landed the role of Arthur on The Tick, based on the ’80s comic series, which is now on its third adaptation for the small screen. The current version strikes that precarious balance between self-aware satire and earnest love of the genre’s tropes. The show is full of hammy jokes and swollen muscles, but at its center is Newman, a frail bird of an antihero, a comedic straight man who undercuts his masculinity and decisiveness with a flat, sustained deadpan.
Newman also cohosts Blank Check, a talky, bit-filled comedy podcast, with David Simms, the film critic at the The Atlantic. Its mission is to unpack the oeuvre of directors who achieve great success and then receive a metaphorical “blank check” from Hollywood, which can either clear or bounce. Subjects have included Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg, and M. Night Shyamalan, whose blank-check movies would be, respectively, Point Break, Jaws, and The Sixth Sense.
In early 2018, Kirke and Newman sat down for a casual conversation, in which they discussed their development in the industry, Gandhi, Scorsese, and ABBA.
I. MAX FISHER TYPES
LOLA KIRKE: What was the three-and-a-half-hour play you wrote about a meta-version of our relationship called?
GRIFFIN NEWMAN: That one was called Class of 2009. No one remembers it, because the title was really shitty. But that’s what it was called. Everyone calls it “The Lola Play.”
LK: Can I allude to the audience that at present doesn’t exist but will?
LK: OK, so just to fill you in on this play: Griffin wrote a three-and-a-half-hour-long play about me and Griffin and our other friend, and it was like the movie Rushmore, except everyone was giving a standing ovation and the last song in the play was “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” by Wilco. It was the most serious play.
GN: It was very serious. We should clarify. We met at summer camp, and then we went to high school together. And we went to a weird, very Rushmore-y high school, a place that wasn’t an arts school per se, but that had a real focus on the arts and that was constantly threatening to kick us out because we were a bunch of weird Max Fisher types. We were like, “You don’t understand how important this is!”
We were all these kind of crazy, super-ambitious kids who viewed whatever thing we were working on at that moment as the most important work that anyone’s ever done. And probably [we were] insufferable to everyone outside of our bubble.
LK: I mean, I guess so. I was thinking about this recently, because the other day I spent four hours getting dressed. I changed my clothes, like, twelve times.
GN: Was this for an audition or was this just a day?
LK: No, it was in the house.
GN: OK, cool.
LK: So it started at 7 a.m., and then around noon-thirty I had to go somewhere, and I ended up looking like Lemmy from Motörhead. And that didn’t match the way I felt on the inside at all. But I realized that the way I dress typically is about creating some kind of character for myself.
LK: And oftentimes the way that I dress is harkening back to a time that has passed. I never dress like “Girl in 2018.” It’s always like, “Oh, I want to be a ’50s housewife.”
GN: Oh, not in your past, but, like, moments in history.
LK: Yeah, moments in history. Great decades of fashion. I was thinking about how if you are constantly dressing like you live in a time that has passed already, then you’re dressing in a costume, and if you’re dressing in a costume, then you’re dressing yourself to participate in a fantasy rather than in reality. And if your life is a fantasy, then I don’t know. It’s either better or worse, but I wonder—I guess why I bring this up is because when we were in high school, or at any different time in your life, I feel like sometimes we have to play these character versions of ourselves.
GN: It’s weird because we’re both on TV shows; we’re both doing work we’re proud of. I’m sure we’re both insane people who are never going to feel totally satisfied about what we’re doing. But if we step back, from a distance it’s like, “I’m doing the thing I dreamed I was gonna get to do.” And since I’ve gotten to that position, where there’s a certain amount of career anxiety that’s been removed, I will find other places to place it. But the anxiety I’ve felt removed is, “OK, I’m not gonna completely wipe out.”
LK: I don’t know. Now the anxiety is just that I’ll be a has-been.
GN: I’ve weirdly come to peace with that idea, and I don’t say that as if I’m resigned to it.
LK: One of the privileges of growing up super-privileged—
GN: Which we both did.
LK: Which we both did. But I guess [you] just [have] the idea that your art is important, like at all—that it matters.
GN: Right. And that you have the time to figure stuff out.
LK: I was thinking today—I was listening to Democracy Now! and it was talking about this immigrants-rights activist who has been deported. So now the concern of this family is just the basic necessity of having their father come home and be in the country. That major achievement of getting him back into this country is definitely an achievement for civil rights, but it also just makes it so this person can be at square one again. It just puts into perspective the frustration of wanting to make better artwork, when it’s like I’m constantly fighting for something that’s necessary, but also superfluous.
GN: Here’s a thing I keep thinking about. In the last couple years there’s a been a lot of public journalistic litigation about whether Saturday Night Live is diverse or not. I’m someone who’s doing sketch comedy in New York City; I’m not SNL adjacent, but I’ve seen people rise through the ranks, run past me, wave goodbye, go on to SNL to write or act. I see the pools of talent they’re looking at, at least within my city. And the problem is that it’s harder for them to even find the people, because the way the system is set up right now is [that] in order to get on their radar, you have to be at one of the big, cool theaters, and those theaters don’t pay people to perform. In order to get to the point where they’re putting you on those stages, you have to take the classes, and the classes cost a lot of money and are scheduled at specific times. So they’re most conducive to people who have the luxury and the freedom and the balance to just do that on a lark and ride it out, and maybe for four years throw money down a pit—[money] that they’re seeing no return on—to try to get stage time, in the hopes that four years after that you end up on a show or a writing staff or whatever it is. So a lot of people are discouraged from even trying.
GN: And we had the ultimate privilege of being given the space to try.
II. SLOPPY ’70s GUYS
LK: I know the filmmakers you loved when we were twelve—and you were way too precocious—were John Cassavetes and Robert Altman.
GN: I liked all those weird, sloppy ’70s guys.
LK: Exactly. I like weird, sloppy ’70s guys too.
GN: It was trusting the actors and going on weird jags. They had a vision; it wasn’t just do whatever. I had this small part on Vinyl, the HBO show. I had to have a mustache for a year. Talk about you in your Motörhead outfit feeling like you look different from how you felt? For job security, I was forced to have a face that looked totally different from how I felt at all times.
LK: How did you reconcile that?
GN: It was odd, because I’d be on the subway, and I’d see some guy with thick glasses and ridiculous sideburns and a mustache, and I’d think: That asshole, he’s trying too hard for attention. And then I’d be like, I have the exact same face as him right now. I looked very confident, because you have to believe in yourself to rock that look. It was a long David Crosby mustache. My facial hair comes in red despite my having brown hair, so I had this reddish-blond mustache and then really gross, thin sideburns. My hair was really long and it was in the middle of summer in New York. It affected every interaction I had.
The thing I was going to say about Vinyl was: Scorsese did the pilot and I had a very small part as just a guy in the office. There was one scene where I talked, and in a lot of it I was just sort of a featured extra. He’s one of those guys who wants to keep the same actors in the background of frames so it feels like a fully built universe rather than just: here are twenty different faces. If you’re at the office, I want you sitting at your desk in every single scene, because maybe I’m going to change my mind and move the camera this way.
LK: I appreciate that.
GN: I think it’s really cool. When you know you’re part of a bigger vision like that with intentionality, you don’t feel like they’re ever wasting your time. It was this incredibly educational thing because I just got to spend three weeks on a Scorsese set where I didn’t have that much heavy-lifting to do myself. I wasn’t worried about remembering my lines, because I had three of them.
LK: What were they?
GN: The first one I was really proud of. I improvised in a rehearsal and he put it in the script.
LK: What was it?
GN: We were listening to ABBA. I was an A&R person at a fictional record label in the ’70s.
LK: What’s the record label called?
GN: ACR. American Century Records. I’m sitting there with my mustache smoking my marshmallow and rose-petals cigarettes—and the line was “The music’s garbage, but I’d fuck the blond.”
LK: That’s so you.
GN: I don’t remember the other two. I say something stupid and then Bobby Cannavale, who is my boss, yells at me, and then I get all meek and go, “Oh no, I didn’t mean it that way.” My thing was, I felt like I was too young. I felt self-conscious about feeling like I was too young and especially looked too young to be believable as a guy of that status in the office.
LK: But people in the ’70s were actual adults. People in 2018 live with their parents when they’re thirty.
GN: I think I overthought it greatly, but what I decided was, I’m going to make this dude the most jaded twenty-five-year-old in the world. He just fucking hates it all, seemingly, but is staying in this career even though he never has anything positive to say about anything.
Anyway, long tangent here, but I was just trying to learn about what [Scorsese] was doing on set, and the thing that was so telling to me—because he is one of the few guys from that wave of the messy ’70s guys who still gets to make movies, and his movies are a lot bigger now; they have more at stake—he still kind of injects that stuff into it because he’s Scorsese and they let him. Yeah, he’s got an amazing cinematic sense. He knows where to place the camera. He’s got really good story instincts. That stuff’s good. He hires really good people. Every department head you met, it was like, You’re the most intelligent and kind person I’ve ever met in this industry. But the thing that was so telling was he would come in, and the way he would direct us, especially in group scenes, he would go, like, “You need to feel more tired because the whole idea is you were at the concert the night before, so whatever you want to do. If you want to add another line, or you want to do something physically—I don’t want to give you that much. Whatever you want to do.” It made you feel so empowered. He gave you this sense of I’m Scorsese, I have a hundred million dollars. We can work on this scene as long as we need to, doesn’t matter how many takes we do. I’ll let you know when I get the thing I’m really happy with. I trust you, so just try stuff. When you try stuff, your decisions actually become stronger, when the restrictions are released. You make really hard decisions because you know someone’s giving you the freedom and you want to do right by them. So you would get these weird moments, the things that his movies are famous for, that I think Cassavetes had, too, and Altman had, too—I think people overstate how much improv is in those guys’ films, but it’s more just little moments or takes on scenes or rewordings of things or whatever it is.
LK: I think it’s also just getting to spend time with scenes.
GN: Living with stuff.
LK: That’s the thing that I notice now is: we don’t rehearse, because there’s no time to rehearse. So it’s never really anyone’s fault. It’s just capitalism’s fault.
III. “NOW LANGUAGE HAS THIS VERY STRANGE AND ALMOST NONEXISTENT SPACE IN FILM.”
LK: I think the industry that we looked up to and wanted to be a part of is nonexistent now. Independent films are twenty-five-million-dollar films with Tom Cruise starring in them.
GN: It’s an independent movie but it’s going through the same level of studio notes even if the studio is some self-made billionaire. It’s still being vetted and mucked with in the same kind of way. Or the opposite is [that] the movie costs sixty thousand dollars.
LK: And no one ever sees it.
GN: No one ever sees it. There’s a one-in-a-million chance you end up being Tangerine, but very often in those cases they’re looking for total unknown actors because they have to save money or the thing just never goes anywhere. These productions are so squeezed that it feels like the odds are against them in terms of it ending up well. There are good sixty-thousand-dollar movies that can be made if you design a script to cost sixty-thousand-dollars. There are a lot of people writing scripts right now that ten years ago would have been made for a million and a half, and now they’re like, “The only way we can make this is if you get Tom Cruise and that’ll cost twenty-five, or if you can make it for forty thousand dollars.” Then you’re on the set and the camera isn’t working. The boom pole is duct-taped to the wall, and it’s like, “We might not even be getting this.”
LK: I also feel bad for younger, less experienced directors who have had the dream of directing films for a long time, and now they get to direct their film with a big star in the lead, but they cease to have any control over what their film is, because they’re overpowered and they have no time. I get asked a lot on those kinds of sets, like, “What would you say?” I don’t know what I would say, because you wrote the character. My job as an actor, especially because I started acting in theater, was to use the language to inform who I was and to enliven the language. Now language has this very strange and almost nonexistent space in film.
GN: We’re going through another cycle where these things take ten years to permeate through all the levels. I truly think it’s the [Judd] Apatow explosion of ten or eleven years ago, where it’s like, “Oh, it’s funny because they improvise.” It’s filtered down to everything where improv is seen as an immediate cool quality. Good improv is good but also well-written dialogue is good, like intentionality. I see a lot of movies that feel like they’re just cut-together versions of gag reels. Even if that riff the two characters go on is funny, it doesn’t amount to anything. It’s like a house of cards. I like being directed. I know some actors are like, “Hire me because you trust that I know what I’m doing.” There are things I think I know how to do well, but even working in TV it can sometimes be frustrating. But one of the exciting things is: new week, new director. This person comes in with a really strong take and you have a really good working relationship with them and they get different stuff out of you than someone else would.
LK: I also really like to be directed, and I think that’s part of why I became an actor. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I like being told what to do. I see how being directed is now becoming kind of obsolete when you’re on a film set or TV set. Particularly TV, because I think there’s a strange art to directing TV and I don’t know really what it is. I see that I’m less likely to be directed as an actor than I thought, because I’m working with a lot of people who are new to it and they’re focused on the shot and not on my performance. They have this idea that they hired you as an actor because you’re just going to do whatever it is you instinctively do. That’s not how I work.
GN: They go, “I saw you in that thing; you were really good in that; you must immediately have the right instinct every time, every take.”
LK: I’m pretty terrible most of the time. I’m beginning to take that kind of initiative for myself and do a different kind of work, and make choices, which I really resent doing anytime. It’s like getting dressed for the day. I sometimes wonder, Do I know what I, Lola, want, or do I know what someone would like me to be? I’m better at fulfilling someone else’s presumed desire or a fantasy of who I am than my own instincts about who I am.
GN: Especially if someone is able to very clearly communicate to you exactly what they want.
LK: That’s kind of pathetic, though. I’m going to get better at taking initiative and saying what I want, eventually. And then die. I don’t know.
IV. A RELIGIOUS WAY OF THINKING ABOUT ART
LK: My psychic voice teacher is a soccer mom in the Valley. Today I was like, “Can I ask you a psychic question?” and she said, “Sure.” So I asked her, “What the fuck is going on?” And she said, “You just need to stop leaning into your frustration.” I think that these less-pleasant feelings, like frustration and anger, can serve us in a great way because they can be motivators, but I always wonder at what point they overstay their welcome as motivators and turn into excess weight.
GN: I don’t know if this is part of that or weirdly running counter to that, because I’ve always come from that headspace, but despite all my talk about feeling constrained by the industry and the realities, the part I have on The Tick is my dream role, my dream project.
LK: I know. You’re a superhero.
GN: I’m a superhero, which in and of itself is like, How the fuck did I pull that off?
LK: I have no idea.
GN: No idea. But also in terms of what the character represents, it’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of playing, in terms of the balance of the comedy and drama, and then also getting to do this physical stuff. And being a very unconventional sort of leading man or colead on a show like this, getting my own tiny way of being able to broaden the idea of masculinity. Not to put too much weight and importance on my shoulders, but it’s a thing I really try to do with the show, because I think he’s a very unconventional male in terms of the archetypes that we’re used to.
LK: And you don’t hear that talked about at all. I feel like we hear a lot about broadening the idea of women on the page and onscreen.
GN: Right. I feel pretty strongly, as someone who was overly influenced by movies and TV growing up and feeling the need, as we were saying earlier, to think, Oh I’m going to be that type of character from this kind of movie. I think if you have better male role models—and “better” isn’t some empirical standard of morality; “better” is a wider variety—letting boys know, growing up, that there are a ton of different ways that you can be a man. That there isn’t an accepted standard. Han Solo fucking rules but growing up, if you feel like you aren’t Han Solo, it’s like, Am I Yoda? What am I? Where do I fit into this? I take all of that really seriously.
LK: I feel like the crux of this conversation (beyond two neurotic kids from lower Manhattan talking about how they got to live their dreams)—
GN: Hating being successful, yeah.
LK: No, it’s not that. I think it’s how the dream is quite illusory, actually, and how much do we want to participate in the dream, and how the dream is like a drug. You get it, you get a little high, and then you need to go back and get more. I wonder how we counter that sensation of dissatisfaction or frustration, and I wonder—if it’s not going to come from an apathetic place, then it’s a spiritual place. You just trust that the people who are going to gravitate toward you as an actor, who are going to see you, who are going to experience you, are going to do that because they were supposed to. I think part of why I loved movies so much growing up was because Julie Christie made me feel better about myself. When I would watch her, I was like, That’s who I really am and no one knows it, but now I see her and then I get to see myself.
GN: That is why representation matters in film and TV, by every definition. The greatest gift you can have is being able to go look up at a screen and see some reflection of yourself and feel less alone.
LK: And I think feel love.
GN: Yeah. And understanding.
LK: It’s amazing to have that connection. It’s amazing to be an agent of that connection for other people. Maybe we just have to elevate it. Maybe if we had a religious way of thinking about art there wouldn’t be such an influx of crappy art.
V. “I TWEET ‘FUCK YOU’ AT DONALD TRUMP EVERY SINGLE DAY.”
GN: I’ve spent a lot of time this year working on trying to—not to figure out who I really am, but just figure out how to be a better, more functioning person in the world. Not soul-searching, but just being like, What is the outward person I want to be?
LK: I feel like with this past election something that became very clear to me was—not to bastardize a Mahatma Gandhi quote, but it was like, if I want that to be different then I can go do it. I’m not going to say the quote because it’s so overused. We all know what it is. But I started actually showing up for the democratic process and that was pretty cool.
GN: You’re a person who has always had very strong beliefs, a very strong moral code and sense of right and wrong, and you’ve never had any shyness about stating your opinions on stuff.
LK: Yeah, but I mostly did that to get attention. Now I do it because we actually might be going to nuclear war.
GN: From the outside it looked like a smooth transition. It felt seamless even if the intent was shifting behind the scenes.
LK: I’m so glad.
GN: At the moment that you started working on a bigger platform, having a soapbox that has been growing—having a position where people are listening to you, you have not censored yourself at all. You’ve also spoken openly about the responsibility you feel for people in any sort of position to communicate their thoughts, and have held people accountable for not doing the same. You don’t have to agree with my opinions, but in a time that’s this loaded and this tense, if you have an audience, you have a responsibility to at least share with them what you think is right. And they can take it or not.
LK: I think the internet is a danger zone. I don’t know if it’s just that the world has more people in it, but we see more stuff, more opinions, more movies, more music, more everything. I think we have to be smart about how we take up space in this world, and especially when we want to take up space in a more meaningful way, how we do it. I don’t know how many more selfies I can see—or take. I have so many fucking selfies in my selfie folder.
GN: What I think I see other people falling into is “I need to weigh in on every issue.” You should speak out in the moments when you feel strongly, when you have some experience or real stake, or just a real care for it.
LK: I have no idea how this world is going to get better, and a lot of the time I put in volunteering shows me only that the world is an awful place. No matter how many bowls of soup I serve right now, homelessness is not going to stop.
GN: The other thing is, everyone’s unhappy now. On both sides people are angry and feel disenfranchised and feel bleak, regardless of what your status is. That’s the one common thread that you wish would be able to unify in some kind of way.
LK: But if people were happy no one would buy anything anymore.
GN: Right. So I’m much more active on Twitter—
LK: I noticed that. You’re really good on Twitter.
GN: Thank you. You’re much better on Instagram. I feel like you have the Instagram account I would like to have. I still can’t figure out how to make Instagram compelling.
LK: I had a couple good tweets last month.
GN: I’ll tweet political stuff, but more often I’ll try to retweet people who I think are more intelligent than me. I don’t feel the need to make it in my words. If someone sums up what I’m feeling, or has the stats to back it up, I’ll just signal-boost that. But I tweet “fuck you” at Donald Trump every single day.
LK: You do?
GN: I do it every single day. I’ve missed maybe a couple over the last 365. I’ve maybe done 347. But by and large I’ve done it pretty much every day.
LK: Good for you. Now that’s activism.
GN: It’s shifted. Before The Tick premiered, the people who followed me were people who knew me from very obscure things. They’d probably just seen me perform in comedy basements, or they listen to my podcast. Whatever it is, they had to work to become aware of who I was, so they know what they’re buying into. Then people see you on a TV show and they follow you, and then I get these responses that were like “Well, I was a big fan of your work, but you didn’t have to bring politics into this. Why don’t you stick to acting?”
LK: It’s wild. My first brush with any of that kind of stuff happened after I posted this video of me where I looked naked but I wasn’t, and I was dancing to “You’re So Vain.” It was one of my early Instagrams.
GN: It’ll be part of the Criterion Kirke: The Early Years box set.
LK: The video got me thirty thousand followers in less than an hour and it was viewed three million times. There were thousands of comments on it and—I also had hairy armpits in the video—and the majority of comments were like “Fuck you, you ugly c*nt, I hope you choke on a big d*ck” and I had worn a Fuck Paul Ryan pin later that day—I was going to the Golden Globes—and so all of these people started attacking me about my body hair and my political beliefs. A year went by and I reposted the video just for old times’ sake, and in the year that has gone by, it got way less attention and every comment was like “You’re so beautiful.” So to me it was like, things have changed for the better.