Late in the Hulu limited series “Conversations with Friends,” a long-awaited confrontation finally takes place between Melissa, a successful writer, and Frances, the young college student who has had an affair with Melissa’s husband, Nick. But what starts with the expected fireworks between the two women ends with a surprising beat: Melissa showing empathy and even concern for Frances’ well-being before all but signing off on the affair.
For actress Jemima Kirke, who plays Melissa, the scene perfectly encapsulated her character. “I read this quote once by Cheryl Strayed where she said, ‘have the bravery to break your own heart,’” Kirke tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “And I think by Melissa allowing the affair – she does it all over the place. She breaks her heart by allowing the affair, she breaks her own heart when she decides to be kind to Frances, and when she decides to try to look at Frances as someone who can enhance a marriage rather than sabotage it. She does all these things to undermine her own emotions, you know? And that moment was one of those and it took a huge amount of strength to suddenly go into the maternal role.”
Based on the book by Sally Rooney, “Conversations with Friends” focuses on the thorny relationship between Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) and Nick (Joe Alwyn), and the emotional fallout that comes from their union. Kirke says she was drawn to Melissa because she presented as a well-rounded character – but also served as a “wrench” in the story. “Without me, it’s arguable there would even be a relationship, you know?” she says.
According to the actress, Melissa “was someone who was different things at different times, you know, and that’s not an easy thing to play all the time – to play such a realistic character. And it’s not often that I get offered those kinds of roles.” Kirke was also sparked by the challenge of creating on what she calls a “blank canvas.”
“When I say that, I mean, the context of the story is set in a somewhat beige setting…. Nothing happens, everyday things happen,” she says. “People go on holiday, they sleep together…. So the details and the attention to performance was so acute that I was excited to play it.”
Kirke says unlike in previous jobs, she did become friendly with her fellow costars, including Oliver, Alwyn, and Sasha Lane, who plays Frances’ friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi. “I get concerned that it will cloud how I’m trying to perceive them [as characters],” Kirke says of building off-screen relationships with her fellow actors. “But this really helped because it helped to complicate the relationship…. If I really like Alison, then I don’t have to ignore that with this particular story. Because it works. It’s an aspect of shooting this that made it a total pleasure and easier.”
Kirke also credits executive producer and director Lenny Abrahamson with creating an environment for the actors that almost felt like a stage production. It was an approach that allowed for improvised moments in character, like when Melissa takes a beat before asking Frances how she’s doing during their big phone call. Kirke did that on her own, and it’s a striking choice that feels totally authentic and completely unexpected.
“It was like diving under the water, you know, it was like a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, okay, I’m gonna do this,’’ she says of the scene.
Kirke has acted in several films and television shows over the last decade, but she’s still perhaps best known for playing Jessa on the HBO series “Girls.” The groundbreaking Lena Dunham show premiered 10 years ago this April, and Kirke says she’s learned a lot about herself in the decade since.
“I was learning through mistakes. I made choices I wouldn’t make today if I had to do the role again,” she says of that breakout role. “It’s like any [acting] job in the sense that you will make mistakes that you will pay for. It’s like a writer, you write a piece that now you hate, but it’s on the internet forever.”
“Conversations with Friends” is streaming now on Hulu.
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