Lena Dunham, the writer, director and star of “Girls,” HBO’s much-talked-about new series, strode onto the stage at the Writers Guild Theater for a Women in Film Q-and-A recently, wearing a tight gray dress, emerald green flats and the buoyant attitude of a Hollywood “It” girl, albeit a somewhat unlikely one. The audience had cheered after viewing several episodes of “Girls,” her bleak comedy about post-collegiate angst in New York, and the exuberant Dunham delivered one-liners with the panache of a Borscht Belt comedian while radiating the same mix of brassy confidence and self-flagellation her character exudes on the show.
Just 25, with a surprisingly successful ultra-low-budget film, “Tiny Furniture,” using her family and friends as cast members, under her belt, Dunham said her first day on the set of “Girls” “was like riding the tower of terror.” Her makeup artist told her the only person she worked with who’d squirmed more than Dunham was “Steve Martin, and only because he was playing the ukulele.” As for all those scenes in which Dunham deliberately shows off her zaftig shape — during bad sex on fraying sofas, or with legs splayed in the gynecologist’s stirrups — she said, “I’ve been so prepared for people saying, ‘We don’t want to see your body.’ ”
Dunham allows herself to be naked both physically and psychologically in “Girls,” which revolves around her character, Hannah, an aspiring writer who proclaims she “may be the voice of my generation — or at least a voice of a generation,” and who at the opening of the first episode is cut off financially by her parents. Hannah’s quartet of gal pals includes her responsible best friend, Marnie (played by Allison Williams, daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams); the bohemian Jessa (Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke); and the naive Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David Mamet), who gushes, in one of the show’s winking references to “Sex and the City,” that she is a “Carrie” with a splash of “Samantha” — never mind that she is still a virgin.
Eschewing the glamorous Manhattan of “Sex and the City,” with its Manolos and signature cocktails, “Girls” offers instead a gritty world of nebulous ambitions, unpaid internships, claustrophobic walk-ups and embarrassing sex, all complicated by the social media culture.
On the one hand, New York magazine called “Girls” “the ballsiest show on TV,” while others hailed it as the most authentic of the recent spate of chick-centric shows (think “2 Broke Girls” and “New Girl”), offering a naturalistic glimpse of messy semi-adulthood in the throes of an economic recession. But a virulent lashback in the blogosphere erupted after the series’ April 15 premiere, charging that the show narrowly depicts only the children of privilege: Dunham is “an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems,” as one blogger put it; the series is “a huge f——-g disappointment,” opined another. Noted was that even the actors are the children of famous people; Dunham’s mother is the acclaimed photographer Laurie Simmons, her father the painter Carroll Dunham.
Dunham herself has referred to her series as “The Entitled Lena Dunham Project,” but in a telephone conversation from New York, she insisted, “I definitely have never claimed to be the voice of the current women. … [But] I think the personal can be really political, and the best way to tackle a lot of these issues is just to tell a really specific story about really specific girls and hope that resonates.” And, she added, “I’m ready to engage with whoever finds the work challenging or gross or sexy or whatever reaction erupts.”
In one cringe-worthy scene, Hannah’s lover plays with the rolls of fat around her belly, telling her, “Your stomach is funny,” as she retorts, “I don’t want my body to be funny.” Dunham is making a point: “He’s both complimenting her while telling her she doesn’t look the way that she’s supposed to,” she said. “It’s a really weird moment. … So I want to call attention to the fact that these girls may have body issues, but those don’t control them. It can be an ever-present part of every woman’s life, and she can be this weird mix of confident and anxious, beautiful and self-conscious. And so those ambiguities were things I really wanted to discuss.”
On the phone, Dunham sounded more like a chatty girlfriend than a wunderkind show runner. For her press day at HBO’s New York office, she had donned a pair of shoes that usually remain in her closet: “some very high heels that are unwalkable, which I only did because I was lucky enough to have a car [today],” she explained. “Otherwise, I’d be in my sneaker flats, feeling slightly mismatched, like every other girl I know.”
Dunham deliberately uses the word “girls,” as she does in the show’s title; saying she’s all grown up “would definitely be a stretch,” she said.
“There’s stuff that Hannah has done in her ignorance or good-hearted way that I would never, ever undertake in my life,” Dunham added. For example, after Hannah’s parents abruptly cut her off, she pockets the tip for the housekeeper they’ve left in their hotel room. “I’d like to think I’m one year older [than Hannah] and slightly wiser. But there is a lot of me in her, and in everything I do. I’m not, like, an actress with tremendous range, so there has to be some personal element driving each performance moment and each writing moment.”
Dunham has written plenty of humiliating sex scenes for herself to perform on “Girls,” such as the one in which Hannah nervously chatters away, until her lover suggests, “Let’s play the quiet game.”
“I say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot,” Dunham said of Hannah. “The [characters] all do, partially because they’re doing lots of things that they should be apologizing for, but also they’re kind of saying ‘I’m sorry’ for being me, for existing. There’s that sort of feeling a lot of young women get where they just feel so sorry for everything they’ve done even though they’ve done nothing. … [They’re facing] some of the same issues my mom faced as a young woman in New York in the 1970s. Both more and less has changed than we think.”
Even though Dunham now has her own apartment, she still prefers to crash at her parents’ Tribeca loft, where she grew up attending St. Ann’s school in Brooklyn and aspiring to become a writer. In the seventh grade, she attempted to channel Wendy Wasserstein with her own play, “The Goldman Girls,” which riffed on Simmons’ Jewish family.
Dunham said that Hannah shares her Jewish sensibility. “I went to Hebrew school for, like, two weeks, and then didn’t get the part I wanted in the play and quit,” she said. “But I’ve always had a great love of all the holidays that we celebrate together as a family: Passover, Chanukah. I’ve spent a good amount of time in temple, and I definitely feel very culturally Jewish, although that’s the biggest cliché for a Jewish woman to say.”
Most everything Dunham has written is somewhat autobiographical: Her early YouTube videos starred herself as an Oberlin College student — in one case, taking a bath in her bikini in the campus fountain, only to be admonished by a security guard; “Tiny Furniture” (2010) captured her post-graduation ennui upon returning to her parents’ loft, with her real mother playing her mother and her sister playing her sister. “Girls” — which is executive produced by Judd Apatow — picks up two years later, drawing on Dunham’s days of working menial jobs while struggling to become a filmmaker.
At least one other character on “Girls” is Jewish in her mind — the immature Shoshanna. “I think her bat mitzvah was like the best day of her entire life and she’s still pretty focused on the glory of that time,” Dunham said with a laugh.
“I took an amazing trip to Israel two years ago,” she added. “It was the most connected I’ve felt to that part of myself. I learned a lot both spiritually and personally, so it’s something that I would like to write about, although I’m not sure this show will be the outlet.”
“Girls” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.