Jemima Kirke is as surprised as anyone that she's graduated to playing a stern headmistress on Sex Education, after starting her career as enfant terrible Jessa on Girls. She spent months in Wales shooting the Netflix series' third season (which drops September 17), stepping into the role of glam disciplinarian Hope Haddon.
Kirke's character has been sent to crack down on Moordale Secondary and reintroduce family values to an institution that has a graffiti "wall of penises" and whose unofficial school song is Peaches' "Fuck the Pain Away." On set, the 36-year-old actor found herself one of the more elderly members of the cast, surrounded by 20-something actors playing horny, lovesick high schoolers.
"It's strange to be a senior member of anything when you're only in your 30s," actor and painter Kirke admits with a husky little laugh. She's speaking by phone from Belfast, where she's shooting Conversations With Friends, the forthcoming Hulu series based on the Sally Rooney novel in which she plays a married photographer sucked into a messy love quadrangle. A mom of two, Kirke is missing her kids back home in New York, but she's also enjoying hanging out on weekends with a cast that includes Joe Alwyn and Sasha Lane. Filming, she says in her transatlantic American-British accent, "is kind of like summer camp in that you're just sort of thrown into a space with people you don't know but with similar interests, and hopefully you click."
The child of a rock star drummer and an interior decorator, Kirke grew up in London and New York bohemia. Largely left to her own devices, she became something of a wild child, running around New York with high school pal Paz de la Huerta. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she'd planned to be an artist-until another high school friend, Lena Dunham, coaxed her into playing a privileged, charismatic libertine in the independent film Tiny Furniture and then into a similar role as Jessa on the HBO series Girls. Viewers still seem to confuse Kirke with reckless, carefree Jessa, even though her own life drastically diverged from Jessa's: She gave birth to her first child just weeks before she shot the Girls pilot.
With more adult back-to-back roles in Sex Education and Conversations With Friends, Kirke is definitively leaving Girl-hood behind. She spoke to Vanity Fair about regrets, the cult of Sally Rooney, and her own complicated sexual education.
Vanity Fair: Your Sex Education character is such a stern authority figure. What appealed to you about her?
Jemima Kirke: Hope has qualities that I share-ones that I haven't portrayed onscreen, really, but that people see in my personal life. The neurosis, the need to control and keep things in order and be clear and concise. They're not things that agents and casting directors usually pin me for. I guess it's because I played a character once [Jessa on Girls] who one would call a free spirit. And I guess that's how I was viewed in the media. It's strange, in a way, because I don't relate to it.
Did you think about your own school years while you were shooting Sex Education?
Yeah. Watching the TV show and reading the scripts, it just made me realize that this TV show is really important for teenagers and for their own sense of sexual liberation and their understanding of sexuality-because I definitely didn't have a great guide in those issues, and I had a sort of rocky sexual history that wasn't shame-free or anything.You grew up in a bohemian family, but you still ended up with sexual shame?
I did. With a bohemian family can sometimes come a lack of concern for these issues, and sometimes, these issues aren't always addressed, because there's not someone sitting there worrying about the emotional well-being of the kid, you know? I never had a sex talk. I feel like my introduction to my period was like the movie Carrie almost, when she's in the shower, and she starts bleeding and she's screaming that she's gonna die. That's sort of how mine was-I had no idea what was happening and even that was sort of addressed in this nonchalant way, without any discussion.
I actually don't totally resent the way it was dealt with. My mother never really expressed any opinion on sex or who I was doing it with or what age we were, so I didn't have any bad associations with it necessarily. I started with a kind of clean slate.... If the discussion of virginity ever came up, there was no sense that my mother was interested in it.