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Lola Kirke steps out of sister Jemima's shadow in Noah Baumbach's 'Mistress America'

Lola Kirke steps out of sister Jemima's shadow in Noah Baumbach's 'Mistress America'
Actress Lola Kirke is seen at The London West Hollywood. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Lola Kirke wanted to meet for lunch at In-N-Out, but there wasn't enough time for that. So a gofer went to retrieve the actress an animal-style cheeseburger and fries, tossed aside the greasy paper bag and laid the fast food out on a fancy plate.

"Oh, my God, this rules," said Kirke, wide-eyed upon entering the hotel pool cabana where her food awaited. She sat and placed a napkin across the skirt of her dress, accidentally revealing her underwear.

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She quickly covered herself and then tore into the burger, pink sauce dripping onto her lap. "I'm just going to kind of let this happen. And I just wiped all of my concealer off. Whatever!"

This is Lola Kirke, 24. She has a lot of energy. She is wearing 5-inch red platform heels, even though she is already 5 feet 8. She is the younger sister of Jemima Kirke, who plays the free-spirited Jessa on HBO's "Girls." She is often referred to as Jemima's sibling by the press, particularly because her only film role so far — as a trailer park grifter in last year's "Gone Girl" — was small but tasty.

"It's true. We are sisters. I don't lose too much sleep over it," she says. "I mean, of course it would be nice to not have to be qualified as a person. But if that's why people go and see something I like that I made, then that's fine."

Anyway, she'll likely begin shedding that qualifier after this weekend, when "Mistress America" hits theaters. Kirke headlines the film alongside Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote it with director Noah Baumbach. She plays Tracy, a college freshman struggling to find her place on a New York City campus when she befriends her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig).

Brooke has a dozen years on Tracy but is struggling in her own way; even though she's outwardly confident and gregarious, she's working part-time as a spin instructor while trying to find her true passion. But Tracy finds even Brooke's flaws romantic and her swirling life compelling subject matter for an aspiring writer.

Everyone involved with the film said they found it odd that Kirke ended up playing Tracy when, off-screen, she seemed like so much more of a Brooke. She grew up fast in a brownstone in the West Village: Her father was the drummer for the British rock group Bad Company, while Mom ran a boutique that sold clothes Stevie Nicks might be into. Both of her older sisters, Jemima and Domino, had cool names and mermaid hair. Lola wanted to hang out with them — just like Tracy does Brooke — but they weren't exactly welcoming

"I wanted to be liked by them," she says. "They were both really intimidating. I remember when Jemima finally acknowledged me as being cool. It was so amazing. I went to visit her at college, and she just had a sense of pride in me that I had never seen, because she was particularly mean to me when we were little."

Meanwhile, she found herself at home acting. She felt powerful onstage and decided that she wanted to be an actress. But while working on a project directed by Julianne Moore's husband, the Oscar winner came on set and gave Kirke a valuable piece of advice: "Don't do this. Wait until you graduate college."

She heeded Moore's advice and focused on school. Well, kind of. She admits, now, to taking some classes like African dance and yoga that she could "easily cut to get baked during."

"I was a really big pothead," she recalls. "I got into a lot of fights with my parents about that. There was a lot of me being like, 'I never smoke pot!' I just denied it, and I would get high, like, nine times a day. It became really stressful. I wanted to be present and started to question whether I could be present anymore. Then again, I really like my mind, and I think it probably expanded as much as it contracted while doing explorative things with it."

She paused, removing a slimy piece of iceberg lettuce from her burger.

"Yeah, I'm taking the lettuce out of my burger. I don't want any of that healthy ... ."

Heading from high school in Brooklyn Heights to Bard College in the rural Hudson Valley, meanwhile, proved to be a shock to Kirke's system.

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"I had my life going on in the city. I was incredibly precocious. I'd go out all the time," she says. "And suddenly, I ended up in a place where the only things that were available were Wal-Mart and pizza. I felt like I was going backward."

But after the freshman jitters subsided, she slowly started to settle into a slower-paced life. She became a film and electronic arts major, studying with "Wendy and Lucy" filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. She started an all-girl country band that played at a local bar every Monday night. She spent a couple weeks every summer wearing clogs and working with chickens and horses at a 200-year-old farmhouse. She made weird art, like a short film "of me brushing my teeth really poorly in a sports bra with the toothpaste dripping all over my rolls. I was really interested in representing women in an alternative way."

Just as Kirke was about to graduate in 2012 — about to make good on Moore's advice — Jemima landed "Girls." Jemima had always worked as a painter, and didn't consider acting until her childhood friend Lena Dunham — the creator of "Girls" — begged her to play Jessa. So she was worried that taking the part might upset Lola, and talked to her about it.

"I was like, 'Is this cool with you? Is this weird for you that I never intended on becoming an actor and suddenly, this falls in my lap?' " Jemima says, calling while on the bus in New York. "I understood it might be kind of hard for her to watch things fall into my lap. But then everything has worked out for her, and thank God, because I would have felt really weird if it hadn't. So we didn't end up killing each other."

Indeed, Lola Kirke had no trouble finding parts of her own. Two months after finishing Bard, she was cast in "Mistress America," which was shot in 2013. Then came "Gone Girl," the Amazon series "Mozart in the Jungle" and "Mena," a Doug Liman film she just wrapped that stars Tom Cruise.

"Maybe it's because I'm not 100 pounds that I'm getting to play a more varied range of characters," she surmises. "I'm comfortable with my body. I like it. It's the only one I have."

Indeed, on the press tour for "Mistress America," says Gerwig, Kirke had no qualms about indulging.

"She got a Philly cheesesteak in Philly, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, Tex-Mex in Texas — it was excellent," Gerwig says. "She's really grounded in her own shoes, which usually happen to be giant platform '70s shoes. In a beautiful way, she doesn't ever shrink down for other people. She's like, 'I'm tall. I'm hot. And I'm proud of that.' "

Goofy, candid, comfortable in her own skin — perhaps she's Jennifer Lawrence 2.0?

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"Maybe," Gerwig says. "J.Law with armpit hair."

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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