Monday, November 27, 2006

Arts: Baptism by Fire: Justin Kirk

Justin Kirk On Acting & Bicoastal Living

The actor on campus.

Written & Photographed by Nadia Chaudhury

      Standing in front of The New School on a Monday afternoon, Emmy-nominated actor Justin Kirk looks just like a regular student—hair arranged messily, hands in his pockets, standing slightly hunched with a stylish rip in his jeans.
      Kirk is probably best known for playing AIDs-stricken Prior Walter, whose boyfriend abandons him, in the HBO miniseries Angels in America and his part as the sex-obsessed, pot-smoking brother-in-law Andy Botwin in Showtime’s TV series Weeds—who, among other things, teaches his youngest nephew how to masturbate into a banana peel. Currently, he is promoting his newest film, director Jeff Lipsky’s Flannel Pajamas, the story of the rise and fall of a relationship. In person, Kirk is similar to his acting persona—unabashedly delivering smart, sarcastically tinged laugh lines, all the while exuding charm.
      We begin the interview in the Gigantic Pictures’ downtown office. I tell him I’m majoring in poetry. “Nice, so this will be a very poetic interview,” he says. “Feel free to twist my words.”
      Justin Kirk grew up in Washington state and attended elementary school on an Indian reservation—“I was just a kid, so I don’t have great sociological insight,” he says. Then he moved to Minneapolis, where he enrolled in the Children’s Theater School. From the beginning, Kirk says, he felt like he wanted to be an actor. At the age of 18, he moved to Los Angeles and then ended up in New York, where he did theater. Currently splitting his time between Los Angeles and New York (he comes back at least once a year for work), Kirk says he “loves Los Angeles for all the reasons you’re not supposed to like it. I’m a kind of person that doesn’t need to be doing stuff, so I don’t mind being stuck in traffic and staring. I’m sort of a daydreamer.”
      “There’s something just really sweet to me about people from everywhere who have come to this place with their big dreams, and they’re going to roll the dice and it’s going to happen,” he says about LA. “And a lot of people find it depressing, but I think it’s kinda cute.” He laughs. “The difference is that in New York, life is thrust upon you. In Los Angeles, you have to search it out. I couldn’t leave my apartment [in New York] without running into some asshole that I knew, whereas in Los Angeles, you gotta have a destination, and you have to get in your car to go there.” But, he adds, “I find myself in New York a lot. You can’t get out. In the beginning, I was really burnt out [by the city], but each time I come, I realize I do miss it a lot.”
      In Flannel Pajamas, Kirk plays Stuart, a man whose profession is to entice unknowing tourists to Broadway shows by fabricating elaborate stories. He embarks on a relationship with Nicole, played by Julianne Nicholson, the eager-to-please girlfriend with a slightly neurotic family. Stuart is “a guy who seems to have a plan for his life and in the world of relationships, [when] he meets Nicole,” Kirk explains. “He thinks [she] is pretty perfect for him and fits all the things he wants, and starts hammering her into the hole of that plan that he has.” The character, he adds, is “confident and also insecure. It’s sort of what actors are. A mix of egotism and insecurity.”
      Kirk clears up one confusing aspect of the film: how Stuart and Nicole meet. It is, he says, not through their therapist (as most viewers are led to believe) but their dermatologist—a detail that greatly changes the audience’s perspective of the movie. “The question of why they were going to a dermatologist,” he jokes, “is equally important,” as to what hidden, psychological issues the characters might have.
      He recalls his most famous role, in Angels in America, as “such an ordeal.” The play (Angels in America) was the play of my generation of New York actors,” he explains. “Actually, the first play I did on Broadway was across the street from Part Two [Perestroika] of Angels in America, and our play was not a huge hit, and they had huge lines.”
      “It was a burden to say the least. The legacy the play already had when we started was immense, and then added to it was Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. There was no question that people would be watching it while we were making it, so that felt a little scary,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from it, I will never have the same sort of fears and torture that I had making it, cause it was sort of like baptism by fire, which was a good thing.”
      Kirk says he’s obsessed with with political television and blogs (especially during the months leading up to the elections) and with music. He sings a little bit of Wilco to me (“I know we don’t talk much”) and recommends The Replacements. As we leave the office and wait for the elevator, he asks me how I am getting back to school. The subway, I tell him.
      “I can give you a lift,” he says. After looking for his driver and car, we are off, and that’s how Kirk winds up having his photo taken in front of The New School.

Above photograph provided by Gigantic Pictures

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