Sunday, August 12, 2007

Baptism by Fire: An Interview with Justin Kirk

Justin Kirk in front of The New School.

In honor of the Weeds season 3 premiere tomorrow (I've watched the first four episodes, and let me say that they are excellent), I am posting an interview I had with Justin Kirk (playing Andy Botwin, Nancy Botwin's pothead brother-in-law) back in November 2006 for Inprint. Although the main peg of the interview was his film Flannel Pajamas, I still managed to talk to him about Weeds.

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.”

Justin Kirk as Andy Botwin in Weeds.

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.

On Weeds:
"I feel really blessed to have that job. I worked with Mary Louise Parker in Angels in America, and so I heard about the show, she was doing this show called Weeds on Showtime. And then I didn’t come on until the fourth episode of the first season. They sent me some material and it was the scene where I’m pretending to be my nephew (Silos) and masturbating while I IM his deaf girlfriend. And I was like, this is going to be good.

"I just sort of connected to it right away. I went in and met them one night, pretty simple process. Most of the time, getting on a television show…I think maybe it’s different if it’s on Showtime, well It’s this horrible process where we have to go through network and studio both, Then you go into an office or a tiny little space with about 20 or 25 suits, guys that are executives who just got their jobs a few months ago or whatever, and they watch you do your thing, and then maybe the head of the network is there and when he laughs, they all laugh. I mean, it’s right out of a movie. It’s just at their whim, it’s just so ridiculous. This [Weeds audition] was a much simpler process. When I went in, I didn’t’ know if it was going to be for an episode or two episodes, and the next day they said, they signed me up for a regular, and I was very pleased about that. It was the perfect television show. All the reasons not to do television are nullified by our show. Our seasons are short, and most importantly the material’s just better than anything, you know, it’s different than most shows, the writing’s great, the people’s great. Long may we wave, I hope that."

On "Pittsburgh," Season 2 finale:
"I think she [the writer] wrote that so Showtime could never get anyone else to, so they could never fire her, cause no one else would know how to get out of it. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I have an idea about some of the stuff, though."

And here's to another amazing season.

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