By Eliza Berman
August 13, 2015

Lola Kirke is quoting Van Morrison. She’s not singing him—though, as an actress who was discovered by an agent while singing with her band, she probably could if she wanted to. In her warm, faintly-lisping voice she begins the second verse to “Wild Night”: “All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other.”

It’s a lyric, she explains, about the way in which women perform for one another. It’s also a fitting way to describe her new movie, Mistress America (Aug. 14), in which she co-stars with Greta Gerwig as two future step-sisters navigating their way through life in New York City.

But the lyric could just as easily describe Kirke herself. “I’ve always, as much as I like to think of myself as a leader, been an avid follower of women that I admire, and particularly women that may go into more dangerous places than I would,” she said on a recent summer afternoon in a suite at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. Kirke was, in a literal sense, born a follower of other women: At 24, she is the youngest of four siblings, including next-oldest sister Jemima, an artist and actress who stars in Girls, and oldest sister Domino, a singer.

“We were all kind of subjugated to these roles in my house,” she explains. “Jemima was the painter, Domino was the singer, my brother Greg was the photographer and I was the actress.” It was a household built on a foundation of creativity: Father Simon Kirke was the drummer for Bad Company and Free and mother Lorraine Kirke’s vintage West Village boutique clothed many a Sex and the City character. “There was definitely no encouragement for me to excel in any kind of practical field,” she says.

Kirke’s acting career has taken off in the past two years, with a small but memorable role in Gone Girl, David Fincher’s Gillian Flynn adaptation, and a starring role in Amazon’s sex, drugs and classical music series Mozart in the Jungle. But it began, if not for pay or an audience, with monologues in the shower as a little kid. “I’m one of the rare 8-year-olds that wanted to be an actress that just got to,” she says. “It’s like when someone has a baby and someone goes, ‘Look, they’re playing the drum, they’re gonna be a drummer.’ And it’s like, no, they’re not—they’re a two-year-old playing the drum.” Like that, but the prophesy panned out.

Kirke signed onto Mistress America without having read the script. Working with Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the 2013 movie Frances Ha before developing Mistress America, felt like a safe enough bet. In the role of Tracy, Kirke plays a lonely college freshman with literary aspirations and the rather comical pretension, as Kirke describes it, of a young woman who wants “to be treated like an aging 60-year-old male professor.”

But unlike Frances Ha, in which Gerwig played a twenty-something figuring out how to be an adult, Mistress America is very much about Tracy making her way in relation to another young woman, Brooke (Gerwig), the 30-year-old daughter of her mother’s future husband. In Tracy’s eyes, Brooke is a picture of dogged confidence and easy popularity—the qualities, she thinks, that allow a person to make in in New York. It was this focus on the mutual admiration of two women that excited Kirke about the role.

“The part of Tracy was really interesting because it allowed me to explore the way that I relate to other women,” she says. Which gets us back to that Van Morrison song. “Women perform for each other and seek out the admiration of other women,” she explains. “Of course, we seek out the admiration of all kinds of people, but there’s something really unique to that relationship. And I think that is the essence of Tracy and Brooke’s relationship.” Except that Tracy falls in love with the idea of Brooke, or the Brooke that Brooke is pretending to be—and, well, lots of illusions come crashing down after that.

One of them is the dream of trying to make it in New York. Kirke, who grew up in New York City after moving from England at the age of 5, doesn’t know what it is to be in Tracy’s shoes, arriving in the city with big aspirations as a young adult. “I’ve always been envious of people who get to come to New York,” she says, citing that old-as-Sinatra fantasy of coming to New York to advance one’s position in life. What Brooke and Tracy are looking to do, she says, is “why people come to New York—they want to be something they weren’t before. That’s the classic New York story and either you do it or you don’t.”

But Kirke, who will star next year in Mena, a thriller opposite Tom Cruise, isn’t trying to be something she wasn’t before. She’s trying to be the thing she’s always been. “The transition from fantasy to reality has been very swift,” she says, conscientious to express her gratitude for where she sits now—in a fancy hotel, answering questions about her childhood, signing movie posters between interviews. “It has left little time for me to understand how it all happened.”

Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com.

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