Paul Flynn talks to the writer, producer, director and star of Girls, Lena Dunham about her rapid rise to fame and that naked Emmy performance.
After watching the first few episodes of the HBO TV series Girls, Lena Dunham was re-christened in my head: Victoria Woody Allen. Clearly, from the little stories she was telling in such a big way on her hit TV show, the 27-year-old screen prodigy had that neurotic Jewish New York wordiness going on at an acutely intellectual, self-regarding level. Yet she had the intuition and feeling to temper it with homespun, parochial, observational charm; the silly, funny stuff you laugh at about modern life, planting this timeless rites of passage tale in the present tense.
Since Girls first aired in the US on April 15 2012 it has became a bouncing board for wild generational analysis. It is the first piece of populist art that has made a proper attempt to harness and define post-internet folks’ new way of navigating adulthood. Girls is actually a misnomer. Lena writes modern boys sensationally well, too. In one episode her character Hannah Horvath spends the timeline contemplating her Facebook status. In another, Hannah’s kinda boyfriend Adam sends her a picture of his penis to her cellphone by accident and the script asks how that might play out in the neural biology of the already complicated technicalities of modern courtship (there is something knowingly techno Jane Austen about Girls). With the bold exception of the Jeremy Kyle Show, which quickly spotted and incorporated Facebook as a new disruptive in 21st-century homesteads, TV has largely seen the internet as a portal to pedal extant material and drive branding, not to be factored as a new morality code. Lena broke that. I started writing questions for Lena the day before the interview, stopping six pages and two hours later. I scripted something about living in a post-theist society where all major faith systems had messed up so badly that young people had stopped believing in a God outside themselves and started thinking one existed within and how the casual egomania of Girls related to that perhaps, maybe, somehow? I scrubbed it. There was a bunch of questions on her feature film Tiny Furniture, which she used as a bartering tool for how Girls would look to HBO, before deciding that was an old story. Our phone call finally happened London to LA after three separate cancellations. Lena had had quite the week of it. A Times interview embroiled her headlong into a quick lap around the unforgiving ruminative racecourse of social media and back onto the news pages, regarding the issue of whether people of colour are under or mis-represented in Girls, a race issue then blew up around it Stateside. Lena’s agent cancelled that day. Lena herself cancelled three days later when her book deal with Random House was announced. She had signed for $3.5million, sparking another deluge of strangers’ opinions. I said something about her being in the eye of several public storms and she laughed about it and it was a laugh that said, ‘You have no idea.’ She seemed really nice, but you’ll get that from Girls if you’ve either streamed or seen it legally. What surprised me was how famous and familiar she sounded. Then she cancelled the interview again and it started to feel like I was in an episode of Girls. In the pilot, Hannah skips a dinner party in her own apartment due to the constant, repetitive pressures of just being her and unable to comprehend how this might piss people off. The point of all this is that everything Lena now says or does, everything that happens on Girls and likely everything that happens in her personal life (her fame is US Weekly gossip fodder) is subject to huge global scrutiny. That’s what happens when you nail something. By the time she’d overslept the fourth interview date, I was convinced I’d lost my slot to ask Lena Dunham the questions I wanted to ask her.
“I think young girls will be my subject matter even after I’m a young girl. This industry is so unkind to women, especially to aging women and I’m not going to be a person who takes kindly to the rules that Hollywood imposes.”
Half an hour later the phone rang and she apologised so profusely, with wording sounding so eerily close to her character Hannah, that we went ahead and did it. She was eloquent and amazing, obviously. The finely tuned nuance that Lena has to protect now that Girls is such a fractious phenomenon, the kind of popular art on which everyone must have an opinion, is that her uniquely bare exposition thing isn’t diluted. She gives the impression of it being a complete, 360-degree exposition of herself and her life, though the double bluff of the narrative makes it feel like she’s looking back over an old blog. She is the first TV storyteller who noticeably understands that ‘privacy’ is now antiquated and oblique; that a generation has shot out of nowhere so incubated on social media, so camera-ready from their glut of personally archived visual imagery and the multiplicity of screens they are so used to, so well-schooled on the real-time storytelling of reality TV that having a part of yourself in your artist’s narrative is now a prerequisite. Post internet, the frames of fiction will never quite be the same again. The fourth wall has smashed right open. She’s walked right through it. So by the end of watching Girls I stopped thinking of her as Victoria Woody Allen. Lena Dunham is not in this magazine because she made a TV show. She is in it because she did something new.
Can you talk me through the first approach you got from HBO about Girls?
It started in April 2010. I don’t know whether you have this expression in the UK but I was doing generals, where you go from couch-to-couch sort of plying your wares. I can’t drive so I was completely panicked getting cabs from place-to-place and it turned out that that was ok because in LA being five to ten minutes late is considered on time. I would sit down and talk about what I was interested in doing. When I sat down with HBO it was clear that we were really talking about real ideas. So I told them the kind of thing that I wanted to see as a television show and they responded so beautifully.
How professionally were you pitching yourself at that point and at that age?
Oh my God, yeah. It was only two years since I’d graduated. I was almost 24 and I didn’t really pitch myself, I had a very awe/ shocked attitude. People would give me a compliment about Tiny Furniture and I would be amazed that they had even watched it. I give HBO a lot of credit because most companies would really, really, really make sure that a project was a totally known commodity before they put money into it. The fact that I had made one tiny independent movie and they were putting it out into the world was completely unreal.
Why do you think they made that leap of faith?
Because of Tiny Furniture it was so clear what the TV show would look ke. I’m not saying it was a great piece of filmmaking but I had such a clear template of what I could do. It wasn’t like I was walking in saying, ‘Ok, it’s like Die Hard meets Heathers.’ HBO is a very intuitive company. I’d never worked for a corporation before, and my parents are artists so I didn’t know anybody who did, but I will say that how HBO work is very counter to the way networks and corporations work. They had a slot that they’d been trying to fill since Sex and The City, where women all stick together on a Sunday night and drink together and talk about their problems and watch this show. They wanted to fill that and they were willing to try outside the box manoeuvres. I think Girls ended up being something different but it might have been born of that instinct.
Will ‘you’ always be the central point of view of your work?
I wonder. I feel like yes, but now I’m leaning more towards no. I was in the middle of a nightmare then when I got a call from my publicist saying I’d slept in. I was acting in a play. I was directing the entire play and my agent was saying in the dream it’s going to be a huge learning experience and I said, ‘I cannot add another thing to my schedule, please don’t make me do this.’ I do think young girls will be my subject even after I’m a young girl. This industry is so unkind to women, especially to aging women and I’m not going to be a person who takes kindly to the rules that Hollywood places on women who are maturing. I don’t know if I necessarily want to be the person who’s fighting for the rights of everyone to shoot their wrinkles on screen. There might be a time when I say, you know, this is not going to be fun. With acting, I respect it so much and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Where would you put Girls on the reality spectrum?
I think that Girls is realistic but not close to reality. Reality shows fascinate me because they show female relationships in the most realistic way. I love the liberties that you get to take because storytelling is in the surreal moment, the heightening of certain sensations.
One of the most appealing things from a viewer’s point of view and I suspect from HBO’s too is that you’re the first major TV voice that has been incubated through reality TV. How old were you when The Osbournes started?
It’s so interesting you mention The Osbournes because I feel like that was such a turning point. I was obsessed with Real World when I was a little kid. I guess the first Real World came out when I was about five. Then I watched Singled Out. But The Osbournes was the first one that claimed to capture the ins and outs of someone’s daily life. Like, it claimed to be capturing life rather than some sort of simulated game that’s created by some producing mastermind. The Osbournes started when I was, like, twelve. I think that was huge for me. I watched every episode. I remember watching every episode of Ashlee Simpson’s reality show. It was called Ashlee Simpson: Pieces of Me. It was a show about making her first album and getting out from under her sister [Jessica]’s shadow and it was named after her first single, Pieces of Me.
She was supposed to be the punk sister. She was the cool punky one who didn’t take any shit. It was totally amazing. I was totally obsessed with it. She’d be like, ‘I’m worried about my album’ and then someone would say, ‘What are you worried about?’ and she’d be like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not really worried.’ Like, for the whole show.
Is the inversion of privacy that exploded with reality TV and social media key to Girls?
When I pitched Girls definitely I was thinking that this is the first generation of girls raised on reality TV, internet correspondence, all believing we had ADD and ADHD. There are some very specific generational markers which was why it was so interesting to me that the generation hasn’t been clearly named or barely banded together on any issue. These signifiers and basic changes in basic human communication are enormous, though. I think that’s 100% true. I’ll casually mention that [reality TV] is definitely what the characters watch. There’s the mention of that TV show Baggage, this reality TV game show offering...
Is that a real show?
It is! I wish I’d invented it. Baggage is a show created by Jerry Springer on the Game Show network and it is insane. Go onto YouTube and watch a clip. You know what I’m obsessed with? What’s that show? Not No Way But Essex? Maybe it is No Way But Essex?
You’re obsessed with TOWIE?!
Is that a big deal in the UK? It's fascinating. My sister showed me that clip where that guy who is clearly gay comes out of the closet and it's a big deal.
You’re actually thinking of Made in Chelsea.
Oh my god, I’m thinking of Made in Chelsea. Is that a big deal too, or is it less of a big deal?
It’s not quite so relatable, so it’s probably less of a big deal but they both matter in the arc of British TV.
When he says, ‘I have to tell you something. I’m bi,’ you’re like, ‘Shit!’ It is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I watched it like ten times. I liked moments of The Hills. I didn’t follow all the ins and outs of Lauren Conrad, Audrina Patridge and Heidi Montag but I was definitely fascinated by the way they talked about female friendship.
Where did it move that conversation?
It proved that female friendships are kind of obsessive. The way those girls hurt each other and the way they cry... They have way more power over each other than the guys on the show did. The guys were almost like jokes to be picked up and dropped whereas the female relationships were passionate and obsessive and bordering on the psychotic. There was something very realistic about that.
Are there echoes of that in the break-up conversation Hannah and [best friend] Marnie have?
Oh, for sure. It’s going to be a break-up that totally haunts them both. That break-up is going to be a bigger deal to them than anything else.
It’s a heartbreaking scene.
Thank you. I wrote it with a co-writer, Bruce Eric Kaplan. Basically I told him the details of fights that I’ve had with my best friend and then we’d spit it all out onto the page, just totally went for it. We did a day of rehearsals and then a full day of shooting. It was the most set-ups we’d done in one day. By the end of the day both Alison [who plays Marnie] and I were ragged. We were screaming at each other and crying all day long and we were left as though we’d had an actual break-up.
Tell me about the creation of Adam as a character.
Adam was initially based on a composite of people I’d dated but with one guy at the heart of it. In many ways he was the easiest character to write. So instinctual and his choices are so clear. He reminds me of David Thewlis in Naked, just this angry, beautiful, complicated-looking person.
Is the race issue and Girls a subject you’re now finding tedious to talk about?
Not at all. Of course, as an executive producer I have to take all criticisms seriously and I want to. The thought of excluding anyone from the world of the show is upsetting to me. The attacks became very personal and it was interesting that the show started to take on the weight of the [racial] imbalance that exists on American TV as a whole. Which is undoubtedly true. There are not enough black show runners, presenters of television shows, comedy or drama and I wanted the conversation to go wider and become more about television and less about this particular half-hour show. I didn’t want to be defensive. I wanted to be open to criticism because the fact is I do want the show to feel real. We only had ten episodes to do that first season... More characters of colour, Caucasian characters and older characters have to come in to answer that question a little bit. The times when it became tough for me were when it became attacks about where I was raised or accusations were made without an understanding of how these things work.
Is the moment Jessa and Marnie go back for the foiled threesome in Girls your Bret Easton Ellis nod?
Exactly. I referred to him as a Bret Easton Ellis character like 55 times. Like, this is where someone from American Psycho or Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City enters our show and he’s one of those capitalist nightmares who’ve come to New York to dominate, financially and sexually.
How important is hipsterism to Girls?
You know, we were just talking about this. I’m totally putting a Taylor Swift song in an indie bookstore on the show. In our editing suite they were like, ‘Don’t we want a more indie song for this location?’ But I’m equal opportunities. I love pop music. I don’t want to deny that.
Hipster is an equal opportunities subset. Show me one that doesn’t love Britney Spears.
It’s so true. Show me a hipster that doesn’t love Beyoncé! Now, of course, it’s all about Solange with that fierce new video.
I’m kind of obsessed with that school [Saint Ann’s, Brooklyn] you went to.
Oh my god, it was amazing. I can’t say enough about it. It was sort of like Hogwarts. When I read Harry Potter I was like, ‘That is just like our school’, this strange, magical, engaged place. The headmaster, who is no longer living, was the most amazing man. He was one of the most wildly eccentric characters you will ever encounter and he encouraged the same thing amongst students.
Do you think being schooled in Brooklyn gave you an advantage slant on New York way ahead of it becoming the majority destination in the city?
I lived in Brooklyn with my parents during high school. My mom was so upset about it she tried to get her 212 area code transferred to Brooklyn.
Now people are so braggy about living in Brooklyn. That was the moment Sex and the City died, wasn’t it?
When Miranda moves to Brooklyn, they all see it as an admission of defeat when of course it should’ve been Carrie moving to Brooklyn, starting to dress like Stevie Nicks and declaring it the most fabulous place on earth. Totally.
How many seasons have you pencilled in for Girls?
In my brain, this is the best job in the world and I would be doing it forever if they’d let me. But I think five or six seasons would be a wonderful amount of time in which to explore and do what I really want to do. That would be a blessing, with a strange reunion every year. That’s sort of my dream and I really feel thrilled by the idea of it taking up that much time, to the characters being right on the precipice of turning 30.
Was there any sense of disappointment at not winning your Emmys?
No, I was so excited to be there and so amazed to see them.
Was that the first time you’d been to an award ceremony of that scale?
Oh, big time. I was so confused and amazed by it. I’ve done red carpets before, but this one was like 120 degrees with Ryan Seacrest and Mario Lopez. I felt like I was at a new level of the game.
Ryan Seacrest is the moment for Americans, isn’t he?
You come correct. Wow, it’s Ryan Seacrest.
Not only is he American Idol, he’s also The Kardashians.
Have you ever voted for anyone on Idol?
No, I haven’t. I’ve never voted for anything apart from for the President. Actually, the only time I’ve voted is when I’ve seen my dress on a ‘hot’ or ‘not’ list and I always voted for the ‘not hot’. I vote ‘not hot’ because I feel too selfish about wanting to see the results but the only way you can see the results is by voting. So I vote ‘not hot’ to see.
You’re self-sabotaging to fuel your own ego?
Exactly. Like, what am I doing?