Photographs by Autumn De Wilde
Lena Dunham swivels in her leather mini-dress, drops her chin, then lifts her gaze to the lens. It’s the South by Southwest festival’s first-ever launch of a TV series, and buzz has been rising all week, helped along by a clever HBO campaign sending “GIRLS” bicycles around Austin, Texas. In front of the Paramount Theatre, there’s an actual red carpet—something not present when Dunham debuted her breakthrough movie, Tiny Furniture, back in 2010. “Well, this is new,” says Alex Karpovsky, an indie director who appears in Girls, gesturing toward the carpet. “You know, I think I’ll just see where the moment takes me.”
After the familiar HBO logo—hiss, buzz, dissolve—the three episodes begin. The audience awwws, they hoot; at times the laughter drowns out subtler jokes. Afterward, the show’s three collaborators line up onstage: executive producer Judd Apatow, in a pink polo shirt and sneakers; Jenni Konner, Dunham’s close friend and executive producer; and Dunham herself, the creator, star, writer, and director of Girls. Though she’s hovering on hooflike heels, Dunham has the body language of a very young woman. She holds the mike in one hand and gesticulates with the other, fanning her fingers as if she’s drying nail polish, petting her straightened hair, her toes turning inward.
Yet her answers are confident and thoughtful. At 25, Dunham is at SXSW for the third time. In 2009, she screened a feature she’d filmed while still at Oberlin College, Creative Nonfiction, in which she played Ella, a college student struggling to complete a screenplay. One year later, she returned with Tiny Furniture, as Aura, another version of herself, this time in a post-college funk; her mother, the visual artist Laurie Simmons, played her mother, and her sister Grace played her sister (her father, the artist Caroll Dunham, declined to participate, uncomfortable with the potential violation of his privacy). With its scenes of Dunham wandering pants-free around her parents’ Tribeca loft, Tiny Furniture was, as Paul Schrader says on the Criterion disc, “a good film that pretends to be an amateur film,” an affecting and peculiar self-portrait that made the case for Dunham’s composed mode of intimate self-exposure. It won Dunham the festival’s prize for best narrative feature—along with an unstable blend of worship, envy, and disdain, particularly from her peers, some of whom resented her “voice of a generation” press. Yet tonight, the audience is on her side. Toward the end, a man asks Dunham a reasonable question: Given her success, has it become harder to inhabit a girl like Hannah, who is incapable of doing a job interview without sabotaging it with a rape joke?
“How do I express this without getting too personal with you?” asks Dunham. “That lostness and that questioning—I wish I could say that it completely went away when you were getting to do the thing you wanted to do, but unfortunately, that’s not the truth.” Her work is going gangbusters, she admits—her personal life, those daily mortifications, that’s another matter. “I’m just fuckin’ it up all other kinds of ways.”
Never been as much of a sad cliche as in this emotional cold war with the hotel minibar. Seriously wish I was on pills.
Warning: feelings in tweets are less tragic than they appear
When a TV critic reports on a new show, it’s okay to say the series is promising, even the next big thing, but ideally, one shouldn’t go native. One should probably also talk in the third person. In this case, however, I’ll have to make an exception. Because from the moment I saw the pilot of Girls (which airs on April 15), I was a goner, a convert. In an office at HBO, my heart sped up. I laughed out loud; I “got” the characters—four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas. But the show also spoke to me in another way. As a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series felt to me like a gift. Girls was a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties. It was a sex comedy from the female POV, taking on subjects like STDs and abortion with a radical savoir-faire as well as a visual grubbiness that was a statement in itself. It embraced digital culture, and daily confession, as a default setting. Even before the Republican candidates adopted The Handmaid’s Tale as a platform, Dunham’s sly, brazen, graphic comedy, with its stress on female friendships, its pleasure in the sick punch line, its compassion for the necessity of making mistakes, felt like a retort to a culture that pathologizes feminine adventure. As my younger colleague Willa Paskin put it, the show felt, to her peers, FUBU: “for us by us.”
Then again, that’s a lot of significance to lay on a half-hour HBO comedy. Besides, I could see that there was another thing to notice about Girls: Lena Dunham’s body, which she had placed, quite deliberately, in the spotlight. Unlike many women on TV, Dunham is short and pear-shaped. She has a tattoo of Eloise on her back, plus ink done by her friend and co-star Jemima Kirke, whom she knew in high school at St. Ann’s. The filmmaker can look beautiful in the manner of twenties movie star Clara Bow: She has a small chin, a bow mouth, and very large brown eyes flecked with gold. But just as often, she lets herself look like hell. Dunham films herself nude, with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, chin doubled, or flat on her back with her feet in a gynecologist’s stirrups. These scenes shouldn’t shock, but they do, if only because in a culture soaked in Photoshop and Botox, few powerful women open themselves up so aggressively to the judgment of voyeurs.
There is no shortage of nudity on cable television, of course, where strip-downs are your prize for watching an “adult” series—porn with purchase, like a trip to the Champagne Room. But the sex on Girls isn’t a reward, it’s a revelation. This begins in the pilot, when the show introduces four characters: Dunham’s Hannah, whose professor parents have cut her off from the financial teat; her responsible friend Marnie (Allison Williams, Brian Williams’s daughter); and her irresponsible buddy Jessa (Kirke, the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke); plus Jessa’s innocent, Sex and the City–addled cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, David’s daughter). Soon enough, there’s a graphic hookup between Hannah and her monkeyish sex buddy, Adam (the amazing Adam Driver), an artsy Prospect Heights carpenter who ignores her texts until she’s standing outside his window. But it’s the second episode that really goes raw, and while I want to avoid spoilers, basically a moment of verbal role play flies right off the rails, leaving Hannah to wriggle her way through an epically bad lay, a scene that is filmed close-up, with covers off, and lacking any of the coy cutaway that usually transforms TV sex into a kind of sleek digital candy. The sequence made me laugh out loud, and cringe, and cover my eyes, but it was also remarkably poignant. It was a scene that presented sex as a rough draft, a failed negotiation, at once hilarious and real.
All of Girls is a little like that. It’s a show about life lived as a rough draft—something well intentioned, possibly promising, but definitely begging for cruel critiques. And yet, at least so far, the show has attracted glowing notices, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it a “brilliant gem.” By giving Dunham many months to edit her ten episodes, HBO’s timing has proved strategic: When production began, there were few female-led sitcoms, but by spring, network television was hosting a half-dozen new hits, several with “girl” in the title. Bawdy and flawed, these series helped Girls in several ways. They gave the show something to be better than, they acclimatized the audience to vagina jokes—and just as usefully, they made it possible for Girls to debut without the pressure of representing Everygirl.
Still, it’s not difficult to imagine criticisms of Girls, many of them the type that greet “girl culture” in general, from chick-lit novels to Tori Amos albums—that it’s navel-gazing, that it’s juvenile, that it’s TMI. In addition, there’s what Dunham calls “the rarefied white hipster thing.” Despite the denials at HBO and by the show’s creators (it was practically a mantra on set that Girls is not the new Sex and the City), Girls is a post–Sex and the City show, albeit one with an aesthetic that’s raw and bruised, not aspirational. Sex and the City first achieved notoriety when its characters debated the power dynamics of anal sex during a cab ride, during the “up-the-butt girl” episode. In Girls, that discussion is not abstract: It’s Hannah, naked, on her knees, chattering anxiously as Adam pulls on (she hopes) a condom, trying to get some reassurance that he’s not heading in the wrong direction. Still, like SATC, Dunham’s show takes as its subject women who are quite demographically specific—cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds—then mines their lives for the universal. While the two shows dramatize very different stages of life, Girls might as well swing an arm around its Manolo’d aunt, who (even before she wrecked her brand with that awful trip to Abu Dhabi) took her own share of abuse.
Girls will also surely be compared to Bridesmaids, that other female ensemble comedy produced by Judd Apatow. Dunham is the cable analogue to network’s boom in female creators, among them Whitney Cummings, Suburgatory’s Emily Kapnek, Up All Night’s Emily Spivey, New Girl’s Liz Meriwether, and the reigning sitcom queen bees Fey and Poehler. Her spoiled, self-destructive Hannah also fits nicely among the sorority of flawed anti-heroines on shows like HBO’s Enlightened and Showtime’s Homeland.
But really, the show Girls most closely resembles doesn’t involve a girl at all. It’s FX’s Louie, the acclaimed DIY cable comedy now filming its third season, created by the middle-aged comedian Louis CK. The top stand-up in the country, Louie CK has become a bit of a secular saint to his followers, a model of the auteurist showrunner—the man who didn’t compromise his vision. Like Dunham, he writes, edits, directs, and stars as a character based on him. Of course, Louie is a recently divorced middle-aged comic with two kids; Hannah is a twentysomething memoirist hooking up in Brooklyn. Yet the two share many qualities: They’re Mr. Magoos of the dating world, stumbling into mortification, then exploiting it as material. Each exposes an imperfect body for slapstick and self-assertion. These characters are sensitive solipsists, artists struggling through a period of confused limbo, prone to fits of self-pity—although the fictional personae are far less driven, hardworking, and ambitious than their creators.
Dunham is interested enough in the parallels that she dressed as Louis CK for Halloween, in a bald cap and facial hair. She posted a picture to Louis himself on Twitter, apologizing for the poor resemblance. But that experiment clearly left her with mixed feelings. She tweeted, “Me dressing like a man for Halloween does not have a Melanie Laurent in Beginners-ish quality. No Jules & Jim vibe. I look like Pat. Ugh.” Then the next day: “Chances are if you dressed as a sexy cat this Halloween it feels different to live in our minds.”
The lone on-duty cab between 4 and 5pm is the great New York hope
(that last tweet could definitely be a line from a Carrie Bradshaw voice-over)
Dunham and I meet for the first time at the Salmagundi Art Club in the West Village, where Girls is filming a literary reading. Seated with Jenni Konner, Dunham and I talked about our shared obsession with confessional poetry, memoirs, and behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt: “It’s a part of me; it’s almost like I’m a gossip,” she tells me. Much of the dialogue in Tiny Furniture came verbatim from her life, including those push-pull dynamics with un-boyfriends, the ones who make remarks like, “She was extremely forthcoming with the blowies.” Those same guys were often maddeningly flattered by their portrayals. “It’s like, ‘I’m not trying to shame you, but this isn’t, like, a celebration of your aura.’”
It’s warm out, a bright breezy day, and Dunham wears a flowing orange blouse. At a tent on the sidewalk outside, her writers have been hanging in the shade, trading news of weddings, divorces, friends’ pilots picked up for the fall. Hip girls ogle the filming—I hear two bystanders say, “A new HBO show, so cool!”—and Dunham clutches a fake memoir an intern has created as a prop. While her character Hannah aspires to write essays about her life, Dunham tells me that Girls is her least overtly autobiographical production. It’s more collaborative, with a far greater focus on the ensemble, male as well as female. Dunham praises Apatow’s “add stakes” notes, which she says emphasized the characters’ emotional lives. “He gives the note you don’t expect—not ‘What’s the funniest hand-job scene in the world?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand what this has to do with love.’ ”
That said, says Konner, Dunham still uses herself as a source: “Something happens to Lena the night before, she literally comes in the next day and pitches it.” A TV writer and producer who worked with Apatow on Undeclared, Konner was already a Dunham devotee when she heard that HBO was looking for a producer for Girls. Konner had loved Tiny Furniture so much she was carrying copies of the DVD around Hollywood like a pusher, and she’d talked it up to Apatow, who saw in Dunham a kindred spirit, a funny weirdo who used humiliation as a muse. Together, the two producers have tried to protect Dunham “like a special orchid,” says Konner. Apatow tells me that his first impression of Dunham was “How could this be real? She’s so nice and smart and funny. You know, I’m used to a lot of very dark, competitive comedians. It never happens that you meet someone who is great and not a complete semi-violent basket case.” Apatow seems especially dumbfounded at the pleasure Dunham takes in the writing process itself. “Maybe because that’s what her parents do, she thinks that this is what life is: You make things.”
As grips sweep glasses away, Dunham and Konner talk about the job of a television showrunner, that strange modern profession that requires a sensitive-writer type to adopt the skills of a CEO. Much of the best modern television has been created by middle-aged male showrunners famous for their macho bluster—David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, Kurt Sutter—as well as those with prickly personae, like Dan Harmon and Matt Weiner. In contrast, Konner describes the way the two run their set as “inherently female.”
“There’s a maternal sense,” agrees Dunham. “A concern for people’s feelings.”
“And sometimes it kills us!” says Konner. “Sometimes I’m like, Fuck. Why are we caring about every single person’s feelings?”
“So what if he’s allergic to wheat?” says Dunham, laughing. “Jenni and I will write these e-mails that are like, ‘Fuck him. He’s annoyed. I’m really worried about him, and I hope he’s not mad at us.’ ”
Dunham and Konner hired “oversharers” as writing staff, then handed them a syllabus, which ranged from books like Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything and Mary McCarthy’s The Group to movies including Party Girl, Me Without You, My Summer of Love, Clueless, and Walking and Talking. Their relationship with HBO has been idyllic, they say, a particular blessing for Konner after her work on network sitcoms, a process she described to me, quoting a former colleague, as “piss pie”—you bake your sitcom, then network notes come in begging you to add just a little pee, not enough to taste it, then more, until finally that’s your main ingredient.
Nonetheless, Dunham is clearly aware of the pitfalls of this high-profile debut, which needs to reach an audience beyond supportive mentors. Dunham’s campy web series Delusional Downtown Divas was aimed at art-world insiders. Tiny Furniture was about Dunham’s life and her family. While Hannah is another version of Dunham, she’s a Midwesterner, the daughter of academics, an only child who is not exceptionally close to her parents—a mild stretch, but perhaps a way of speaking to viewers beyond Tribeca. Dunham’s fascinated by filmmakers who cover privileged enclaves but also manage to reach a mass audience. “I love Whit Stillman,” Dunham tells me. “I love his work so much, but it’s—it’s rarefied in a way I don’t want to be. It’s so specific.” Woody Allen made that leap, she pointed out: The country saw themselves in him. “I love Noah Baumbach. I love Nicole Holofcener. I love James L. Brooks. I’m crazy about Mike Leigh: Career Girls!”
There’s also another set of viewers Dunham is aware of: men, both HBO’s Sopranos-and-Entourage demographic and Apatow fans. Many months later, when we’re at SXSW, I’ll watch as one of these guys approaches Dunham, who is signing DVDs, to offer her some notes: The show’s explicit sexuality “cheapened” her character, he says, making her less attractive to him. He assumes that must be the Apatow influence (it’s not). It reminds Dunham of a surreal interaction at that Halloween party, the one she went to as Louis CK. A “successful comedy writer” asked if she wanted directing notes on the Girls pilot. Dunham said okay, expecting some tips on better lighting. “First of all, Allison Williams is a ten, yet in this pilot, she looks like a five,” the writer announced. “Also, I don’t want to see girls going to the fuckin’ bathroom together. I wanna see girls making out!” (Panicking, a friend of Dunham’s tried to create a distraction by shouting out, “Hey, look, that guy is dressed like a midget!”—only to realize she was pointing at an actual little person.)
Dunham seems fully capable of holding her own against this pat-on-the-head misogyny. Her characters reflect that contradiction: For all their people-pleasing girlishness, they have spiny ambitions, dreams at once mocked and validated by the show. As Girls begins, Hannah is a few chapters into a book of personal essays, which she delivers to her parents with the words “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” Dunham’s characters are clearly entitled—that sneering label pasted on her peers. They can be alienating in a way that’s more akin to Larry David than, say, Seinfeld: In the pilot episode, her rejection of her visiting parents (“I have work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy—trying to become who I am”) verges on the repellent. But Girls also suggests that entitlement can be a superpower: It’s the strength to believe, even when no one is listening, that you do have something to say. Hannah’s desire to write a memoir may seem ridiculous, given that nothing much has happened to her; yet the very show she’s in suggests that this crazy scheme just might work.
Tiny Furniture is best known for a sex scene between Aura and a co-worker she barely knows, as well as the beautifully framed shot that follows it, in which Aura crouches naked in her shower, murmuring the words “Boss me around a little.” But the true climax comes afterward, when Aura goes to her mother and tells her about the experience. She’s had a breakthrough, she says, but it’s not about her sex life. “No, I don’t want to be a makeup artist, and I don’t want to be a massage therapist. And I don’t want to be a day hostess,” she tells her mother. “I want to be as successful as you are.”
“Oh, you will be more successful than I am,” says her mother. “Really, believe me.”
If you knew how much time I spend trying to look at my ass the way other people might see it, you’d be SHOCKED I have ever achieved anything
Rihanna and Chris Brown’s new duets make me want to go hide under Gloria Steinem’s bed for 72 hours
It’s a sunny day in Long Island City and the extras are primping. Dunham looks elegant in a silk dress with splashy orange flowers and a skinny green belt, a thick gold ring on her middle finger. During today’s all-day shoot, she’ll direct a party scene, a complex sequence that includes numerous two-shots and dancing scenes. “Hello,” she says, then gives me a hug and dances away to get her face powdered.
Over the next few hours, it seems like Dunham is everywhere at once. Sometimes she’s in front of the camera as Hannah. Between takes, she gives notes to the actor playing against her. Other times, she’s having glitter stroked on her eyelids or answering e-mails. In between, Dunham retreats to the nest of cameras, where she slumps next to Konner, as the two whisper and consult. Dunham shoves her headphones on, stares into the monitors, and gives her okay to her director of photography, Jody Lee Lipes. She watches Zosia Mamet play a moment of humiliation, then claws at her own chest in empathy.
During a break, I glance at Dunham’s Twitter feed. Somehow, she’s managed to post a photo of herself embracing Allison Williams. The caption reads, “We’re not best friends but we play them on TV. #girls #yesbestfriends.” Williams is beaming. Dunham has a sweet smile, but her eyes are weary.
Hours into filming, Jemima Kirke delivers a monologue. With each take, Dunham throws out fresh phrases, which Kirke picks up like a pro.
“You dropped ‘Everyone settle down,’ but I liked it,” Lena shouts over to her. “So I didn’t remind you.”
The scene tilts with each take. Kirke’s initial reads are satirical, frothy. But gradually, under Dunham’s direction, they become more somber. Then, a little later, Dunham doesn’t respond to a production question—something involving a reaction shot—and a crew member throws her a dirty look. Dunham’s brows pull together; she looks downcast and very tired. She and Konner turn to stare at each other.
“You were just somewhere else for two seconds!” Konner says to Dunham in a low, urgent whisper, giving reassurance. “Because you’re directing everyone around you! You’re doing a million things.”
But other than that flash of tension, the mood is warm, and slightly punchy, with the cast excited as they approach the upcoming wrap party at Radegast in Williamsburg. During a break, Allison Williams banters with Chris O’Dowd from Bridesmaids, who plays a role in the series, the two one-upping each other with punch lines.
“Do you have any tattoos?” asks Williams.
“Just your face,” O’Dowd says. “On my back.”
Dunham wanders over and the group begins discussing ridiculous music videos, including one by the pale, redheaded British pop star Nicola Roberts.
“You know what Nicola Roberts just did?” says O’Dowd. “Brought out a specialized makeup for very pale girls. Embalming lip balm.”
Dunham gazes at him soberly, her head tilted. “That’s a really good joke. That’s a perfect and very thoughtful joke,” she says. She turns to me. “He’s been practicing his Nicola Roberts bit.”
Someone pulls out an iPad, and the five of us huddle around it to watch the video for the song that plays during the dance scene. It’s an uncensored version of “Yankin,” by the rapper Lady. Big-bootied women in thongs gyrate, then gather at a glass table covered in bags of candy. The singer grips leashes that lead to two nearly naked studs on their knees. Everybody hoots—it’s insane.
“Oh, money! There’s that money I ordered,” says O’Dowd, as stacks of dollars appear on the screen.
“On a paper plate,” notes Dunham.
“Wait,” says Williams, looking startled. “Did she just say, ‘I’m so good I want to eat myself’?”
Every time someone texts “you in LA?” I think a funny answer would be “why, you wanna fuck?”
I just unfollowed Nietzsche
When her scene ends, I trail Jemima Kirke back to her trailer. Around the set, I’ve heard chatter about Kirke (i.e., “Oh, she’s really something”), but she surprises me with how deeply she’s thought about the role she plays, Jessa, a narcissistic glamour girl who’s back in New York after traveling the world. Like Charlotte, the character she played in Tiny Furniture, Kirke tells me, Jessa “has her own agenda, lives by her own rules—some people might even say a free spirit, but I hate that term.” Most free spirits aren’t free at all, she adds: “They’re quite the opposite.”
Kirke and Dunham met in a manner that sounds almost like a parody of what those who criticize Dunham’s privileged background might imagine: They were featured, at 11, in an article in Vogue, about children interested in fashion. Dunham says she studied the photos of Kirke intensely, then “fan-stalked” her during middle school at St. Ann’s. In Tiny Furniture, Kirke was pure charisma, all red lipstick and grand misstatements. Yet she had to be talked into Girls by Dunham, who visited Kirke, who is married to a property developer, immediately after she had given birth to her daughter Rafaella. “Literally six weeks after I had the baby I did the pilot,” Kirke tells me in her mocking British drawl, cutting dry side-eyes at me. “My vagina still hurt.”
Kirke describes Jessa as a more complex character than Charlotte: “She’s less broad. And that was difficult! Because this is my first time acting, really.” All of the characters in Girls are based on real people, well blended with the performer who plays them, and Kirke describes herself as having been much like Jessa only a few years back; she says this with a mix of disdain and sympathy. “I think a lot of girls at that age start to use their … they get their personality confused with who they are.”
All of the Girls actresses have a deep knowledge of fame: Like Dunham, they are the children of well-known artists. But Kirke, a painter who graduated from RISD, is the most ambivalent about the spotlight, with the privilege, perhaps, of someone who already feels like a movie star. “My friend was saying, ‘I’m so glad I’m not an actress,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, me too!’ ” Kirke says, laughing. She wonders if you can pick up acting and then step away—which might seem flighty, until you think about her family, which includes her rock-star father; her mother, a muse and designer; her singer sister, Domino; and her actress sister, Lola. “Obviously, it’s more lucrative than painting right now. And I can see how people could do one movie and then do a million. It’s easy to just fall asleep on the train, so to speak, and I’d rather get off at some point.”
“If you don’t speak English, then don’t get a job that requires speaking English, OK?”—the shameful part of myself I hate most
I’d delete that last tweet but I need you to know me
The last day that Girls is filming, Lena and I meet at Provini in Park Slope. She’s been dating a guy who lives nearby, although it’s just two weeks in: “I’m not great at dating, but I need to do it to relax. Also, it feeds this thing that we’re doing.” By February, she’ll tell me, “It’s a hard time to be dating somebody. I think it takes a specific kind of dude who’s in his twenties to be comfortable with what’s going on right now.
“What is that? Spinach and ricotta? Salad? You okay?” she asks me. “I’m very happy with what I’m eating.” Dunham is radically sleep-deprived, after repeated 3 a.m. calls and writing all night. “I’ve lost my ability to make small normal life decisions, and there are a few words that I can’t remember. Like, I’m totally articulate except I can’t—yesterday I couldn’t remember the word, what was the word? Oblivious. ‘Like, you know, when you don’t know what’s going on? Confused?’ ”
Lena begins dinner by peppering me with questions, beyond mere politeness. We trade Oberlin College memories—I’m also a graduate—then gossip about hookups on her crew. “I’m like this sex-obsessed old spinster: I hope you kids are having fun!” Dunham had rented an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for a while (“I picked an apartment that was exactly like what I thought a girl my age would have”), but her schedule meant she did no laundry for three months, and so she’s moved back to her family’s loft. “I’ve only recently realized that I have a radically different relationship with my parents than a lot of people,” she says, telling me she related strongly to memoirist Emma Forrest’s description of her mother as “the love of my life.”
We talk about Hannah, about Dunham’s own mixture of affection and disdain for her own character. “I mean, she’s mine and she’s me and I love her. She’s—trying. She thinks she’s doing the best she can, and she’s not, and she’ll figure that out soon.” Dunham herself has shape-shifted with the years. At St. Ann’s, she was a vegan into animal rights. “I thought I was really a radical, political person, which of course I am not. So when I went to Oberlin, I was like, I want to wear a cute dress and go to the movies.” She was a creative-writing major who spent most of her time bingeing on movies; the only one she confesses she hasn’t seen is The Godfather. “I watched the whole Criterion Collection. I’d spent the entire week watching every Fassbinder movie in my bed. I got mono, and I would just rent movies. It was the kind of time you just don’t get to spend with yourself when you’re out in the world.”
She’s been listening to Lady Gaga, thinking about the idea of attention—what it means to want it, what it feels like to get it, and how fame has changed for her generation. I ask Lena why she’s naked so much in Girls, and she laughs. “I have no idea. I’m really trying to understand. Because at a certain point, it wasn’t like, I’m doing it out of necessity. I’m naked all the time.” Her friend Jenny Slate told her she only wants people she has sex with to see her naked; Lena jokes that she wants everyone except people she has sex with to see her naked. She ticks off a few reasons: “To feel some kind of ownership of your own body, the way getting tattoos does.” Another part feels like, “Not ‘Fuck you,’ but a way of saying, with these bodies, you know: Don’t silence them. I say I’m not a political person, but it’s a political statement in a way. I know it’s going to gross some people out. There’s people who don’t want to see bodies like mine or bodies like their own bodies.”
She shrugs. “It’s a very specific body,” she adds. “Even great reviews will be like: chubby, portly, overweight … Sometimes I’m like, Ugh, how did I make myself the guinea pig for this? But on the other hand, hating my body has not been my cross to bear in this life. Which I feel very lucky about.”
I tell her that I’m intrigued by the scene in Tiny Furniture in which Charlotte tells Aura that because their mothers are so successful, they must be assholes. That dialogue came straight from a conversation with another childhood friend, says Dunham. “I was fascinated by the idea that you really need to be an asshole to get things done, to not mind hurting people’s feelings.” Maybe everyone who is successful has had to make a “for them” decision, she suggests. “Of course, most people you meet who aren’t successful have probably done that too.”
Dunham’s tells me that her “least favorite thing” on set was the phrase “It’s your show.” If she hears that after giving notes, “I know I’ve lost you. I’m not a dictator: The way I got into this is that being a writer can be lonely.” While Apatow is very clear that the show is Dunham’s vision, she tells me he’s read each script, helped with casting, and watched dailies. (Later, when she edited an episode they co-wrote, he told her, “ ‘You need to cut two seconds between every scene of dialogue,’ and he was right.”) “He’s much more involved than you’d imagine a man in his position would be. But what I’m really grateful for is that while he’s always given me his opinions, he’s never strong-armed me.”
She reaches into her purse. “I’m gonna take some Zantac. It’s for heartburn. During this show, I realized I have the digestive system of an old Jewish man.”
A few months later, Lena and I meet again, this time in Tribeca. She’s been in L.A., in the editing room. (Also working on learning to drive. And preparing to buy an apartment in New York. And sticking a Q-tip in her ear, requiring medical treatment.) She seems relaxed, but she tells me her emotions are close to the surface: She just burst out crying on a plane while talking to a physical therapist from Dubai about how relaxing his life was. Girls’ SXSW debut is weeks away and Dunham’s been talking with Apatow about failure. “It was the first time I actually let myself think, What if this doesn’t work?” she says.
After eating omelettes, we walk to a Duane Reade, where Dunham needs to pick up a prescription. We each select nail stickers, and she searches fruitlessly for an egg-shaped lip balm the girls were passing around on the set. Dunham’s just returned from a weekend in Connecticut with her parents, but now she needs to go back to their Tribeca apartment, where she’s been staying again this week.
Just before we say good-bye, she swipes a People magazine from the rack and carries it to the counter. The cover displays Elizabeth Smart in a wedding veil, with the headline “Happy at Last! The kidnap survivor shares all the details of her big day in Hawaii.” “Why is it that I need to know every detail about this?” Dunham says cheerfully, as she walks out the door and into the sunlight. “I don’t know. But I do.”
From top, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and Lena Dunham. Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by David Gardner (Dunham) and Gio Campora (remaining). Makeup by Jenn Steichen (Dunham) and Donald Simrock (remaining). On Dunham, sunglasses by Mercura; shirt and skirt by Louis Vuitton. On Williams, dress by Elkin; necklace by Prada. On Mamet, dress by Elkin. On Kirke, dress by Elkin.
Lena Dunham Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by David Gardner. Makeup by Jenn Steichen. Sunglasses by Mercura; shirt and skirt by Louis Vuitton.
Zosia Mamet Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by Gio Campora. Makeup by Donald Simrock. Dress by Elkin.
Jemima Kirke Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by Gio Campora. Makeup by Donald Simrock. Dress by Anna Sui.
Allison Williams Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by Gio Campora. Makeup by Donald Simrock. Dress by Elkin; necklace by Prada.
From left, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, and Jemima Kirke. Photo: Autumn De Wilde. On Dunham, shirt by American Apparel; skirt by Miu Miu; shoes by Prada. On Williams, dress by Lela Rose. On Mamet, dress by Valentino; collar by Eleven Objects; shoes by Karen Walker; socks by Falke. On Kirke, dress by Viktor and Rolf; shoes by Anna Sui.
Photo: Autumn De Wilde. Styling by Shirley Kurata. Hair by David Gardner (Dunham) and Gio Campora (remaining). Makeup by Jenn Steichen (Dunham) and Donald Simrock (remaining). On Dunham, sunglasses by Mercura; shirt and skirt by Louis Vuitton. On Williams, dress by Elkin; necklace by Prada. On Mamet, dress by Elkin. On Kirke, dress by Elkin.