November 17, 2018

‘Weeds’ star Justin Kirk: From rolling papers to ‘paper bullets’

Justin Kirk is perhaps best known for playing one of the naughtiest Jewish characters ever to have graced the small screen: On Showtime’s “Weeds,” he portrayed Andy Botwin — brother-in-law to Mary-Louise Parker’s pot-selling widow — who dodges military service by signing up for, of all things, rabbinical school.

“It comes up that my character had, years before, enlisted in the reserves, drunkenly, to impress a girl,” Kirk said recently at the Geffen Playhouse, over lunch between rehearsals of Rolin Jones’ racy “These Paper Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ” which opens Sept. 16.

“When my character gets called up to go to Iraq, I explore various ways to get out of it, and I find that one way is to become a clergyman. And so I go to rabbinical school, where I meet a very tough and sexy teacher played by the Israeli actress Meital Dohan.”

What ensues is one of the more memorable scenes involving a Jewish communal worker on TV: “I get particularly hot for Meital’s character but I’m too, sort of, soft for her taste,” Kirk, who has mischievous blue eyes and is still boyish at 46, said with a laugh. “She usually likes big, strapping Israeli military guys. But then she says to me, ‘You do have the qualities that I look for when I have sex with women.’ So when we finally get down to business, let’s say things proceed in a way where she is more dominating.” 

“The crazier something gets, the better I like it,” Kirk said of all his work.

He’ll have plenty of opportunities to show off his broad comedy chops as he plays another libidinous character in “These Paper Bullets!” The show resets Shakespeare’s “Much Ado” in 1960s London and reinvents the romp’s returning war heroes as a rock ’n’ roll band, not unlike The Beatles, that has just arrived home from “conquering” fans in the United States.

While the Bard’s characters dwell in the Italian city of Messina, “Bullets’ ” pop quartet immediately takes up residence at a fictional London hotel, also called the Messina, where they’re hemmed in by screaming fans as they attempt to cut a new album. Kirk plays Ben, a riff on “Much Ado’s” warrior character of Benedick, who faces off in hilariously prickly dialogue with his past and future love interest, Bea. 

“Ben is cynical about love, but in a different way than in the classic ‘Much Ado,’ ” Kirk said, picking off onions from his turkey sandwich so as not to offend his co-star during a kissing scene in an upcoming rehearsal. “[Benedick] is a bachelor because he’s just not [into marriage], whereas Ben is single because he’s a rock star and has lots of groupies every night.”

Kirk sings and plays guitar in the eight songs throughout the play, all written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong; for the actor, it was a way to return to the musical roots of his 20s, when he performed in bands in New York. 

Kirk also was drawn to the project because playwright Jones, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” as well as a former writer on “Weeds,” “is not only one of my dearest friends but also one of our finest writers,” he said. “And what makes this play so special is not only Rolin, but also Shakespeare and Billie Joe.”

Jones, for his part, said he is such a fan of Kirk that he wrote the character of Ben and, indeed, the entire play especially for him. “There’s a winningness Justin has that makes audiences root for him, whether he’s exuding the immaturity of the Botwin character or the cynicism of Ben,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “It makes everyone want to lean in and hang out with him.”

Kirk’s childhood was distinctly Bohemian. His mother, who hails from a Russian-Jewish family, was a chanteuse who met his Danish-English father while performing in a coffee house in Oregon in the early 1970s. The couple never married, and Kirk’s father went on to become a photographer in the pornography industry in Van Nuys. 

“I have a framed picture of my dad arm in arm with John Holmes — my father fully clothed and Holmes stark naked,” Kirk said.

His observations of the “Boogie Nights”-era “probably informed various things in my life; I mean everything does when you’re that age,” Kirk said. “As for what, you’d have to ask my shrink or past paramours.” 

Kirk first appeared onstage in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at an Oregon community college when he was 7; he went on to attend New York’s esteemed Circle in the Square drama school and held down a variety of odd jobs early in his career. The most unusual was his short stint working the midnight shift at a gay porn theater: “I thought it seemed very titillating and very dark,” he said of why he took the job. “Once an hour, I would walk through the theater sweeping up cigarette butts and, if there was anything untoward going on, I would shine a flashlight and say, ‘Take it into the back room, guys.’ ”

Eventually, Kirk made his Broadway debut playing a paralyzed young man in Frank D. Gilroy’s “Any Given Day”; he starred as a Jewish piano prodigy whose Austrian teacher might be a Nazi in Jon Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs” and portrayed the gay character of Prior Walter in HBO’s movie version of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” 

Kirk began his television career, in earnest, on the WB comedy drama “Jack and Jill” in 1999 and recently starred as a mysterious American businessman in the FX drama “Tyrant” — before strife in Gaza forced the production to relocate from Israel to Istanbul.

“We had air-raid sirens go off every day,” Kirk recalled of his time living in Tel Aviv.  “It was wild. But as horrific as all that was, I was glad to be able to witness it.”

Kirk said he was unable to perform in the original production of “These Paper Bullets!” at the Yale Repertory Theatre last year “because I was in Israel dodging rocket fire.” But he’s grateful for the opportunity to star in the Los Angeles production, which will move to New York’s Atlantic Theater Company later this year.

“Theater can be a grind; doing eight shows a week can be a crazy life,” Kirk said. “But I feel like I could do this play for a long time. It’s so pleasurable to do this piece of theater.