Welcome to Always Great, a new Awards Insider column in which we speak with Hollywood’s greatest undersung actors in career-spanning conversations. In this entry, Justin Kirk reflects on everything from Angels in America to Weeds to his big appearance on this week’s Succession. (Spoilers ahead for Sunday’s episode.)
Late at the CNBC headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Justin Kirk was surrounded by pictures of himself. After wandering past fictional campaign posters plastered on the walls, he stood in a room nearly alone, only facing Succession’s sparse camera crew, while imagining hundreds of rabid cheering supporters. “It’s such a bizarre thing to be giving a presidential acceptance speech,” Kirk says. “The best thing about my life as an actor, at least so far, is that you never could have predicted the specifics of each gig. I never would’ve thought I would’ve played this.”
But Kirk fits the wily menace of Jeryd Mencken, the Succession universe’s mercurial maybe-president-elect as of Sunday night, like a well-worn glove. This is not to say Kirk has made a habit of playing bad guys (though he’s done a few). He’s the kind of charismatic, reactive actor who knows how to carve out distinctive characters. Just last month on HBO, he shined in a more melancholy key on Perry Mason, as the closeted D.A. Hamilton Burger, a canonical figure in that legal franchise given a snappy new spin by the reboot. Kirk, not one to fade into the background, stands out in both shows. “I was worried when I found out they were airing at the same time!” the actor says now. “I was like, ‘Oh God, now people are going to be like, ‘Oh, that fucking guy. I’ve seen him do his schtick.’”
Another way of looking at this spring of top-shelf showcases? A chance for Kirk to lean in, maybe, to the uniquely impressive career he’s built over decades, diversified between lead and supporting parts, comedies and dramas, stage and screen, popular and not. Nothing ever quite happened at once for him; the accumulation of credits has been unusually steady. After Kirk expresses that concern about overexposure, I suggest it’s one problem he’s never dealt with before. He laughs before nodding. “And honestly? That’s the key to longevity.”
Before ever setting foot on a film or TV set, Kirk had made it to Broadway—twice. He moved to New York out of high school and completed a two-year conservatory at Circle in the Square Theatre School. Shortly thereafter, he made his Broadway debut in Any Given Day in 1993; two years later, he returned to raves for his turn in Terence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! But he wasn’t precious about sticking to the stage; money was always tight, New York always a grind, and he wanted to try Hollywood. He’d fly out west for pilot season only to realize he was in a foreign land. On his first trip, he nabbed a guest part on the Roma Downey vehicle Touched by an Angel, but was fired after his first day. “They probably were right to fire me, but it was very traumatic,” he says.
He tried a few more times, though, and eventually landed a supporting gig on Jack & Jill, a pilot that the now-defunct WB picked up in 1999, and which brought Kirk to LA, where he still lives. The show lasted two seasons and evolved into a clunky Friends dramedy, paced to strained will-they-or-won’t-they beats; it’s best remembered for its delightful grab-bag of an ensemble. Kirk’s med-student Barto gets entangled with Jaime Pressly’s quirky dancer; the bro-side of the plot would find Simon Rex’s swinging bachelor lifting weights in front of Kirk and Ivan Sergei; and the series’s initial point of tension occurs between women played by Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson, the former falling for the latter’s boyfriend. “We were all so young,” Kirk says. “It is wild to run into Sarah now—we have a mutual friend, Elizabeth Reaser, so I see her sometimes and we talk about those crazy old days.”
Was Mike Nichols a huge fan of Jack & Jill? Kirk wonders this with a smirk, since it was strange that just as his poorly received network job got the ax, he learned that he was up for a key role in Nichols’s highly prestigious HBO adaptation of Angels in America. “That play was the play of my generation of New York actors,” Kirk says, as if still in disbelief. Sure enough, meeting Nichols and playwright Tony Kushner, he successfully auditioned for Prior Walter, who after being diagnosed with AIDS in ‘80s New York experiences the drama’s famed, prophetic angelic visions. It’s a beautiful part—brash and unashamed, terrified and lonely—with Kirk receiving an Emmy nod for his astonishing performance. “In many ways, I wish I could do it again, because every day I went home and was like, ‘Oh, you suck today,’” he says. “I was never good enough for the greats.” (In addition to Nichols and Kushner, he’s referring to his company of actors, which included Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and the Angel herself, Emma Thompson.)
Some of Kirk’s peers expected this to vault him to a new level of stardom; in reality, after Angels, he barely worked. “An actor said to me, ‘Oh, you must be getting every script!” Kirk says. Not quite, but he came out of the project with a greater sense of self. “I was never intimidated by coworkers or material ever again, because it wasn’t going to get any crazier than that,” he says. “It was hardcore. I was a changed actor.”