Even if you don't know who Lena Dunham is, you've heard of Lena Dunham. In the last few weeks, she has appeared on the cover of New York magazine, she was the subject of an op-ed penned by famed New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, and her visage has been plastered on seemingly every New York City subway platform in posters for her new HBO series, "Girls" (premieres Sunday, April 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET). She's also, as "Girls" executive producer Jenni Konner told The Huffington Post without a hint of sarcasm, "really made of magic."
Konner isn't necessarily kidding. In person, Dunham is smart, funny, thoughtful and, yes, magical -- even on four hours of sleep. (HuffPost TV caught Dunham the afternoon after "Girls" had its star-studded New York premiere.) It's no wonder people like Judd Apatow are falling over themselves to work with her. "It's easy to play a support role when you're so clearly working with someone who has a very clear vision and is so talented," Apatow, an executive producer on "Girls," told HuffPost.
Previously known for her 2010 indie film "Tiny Furniture," 25-year-old Dunham wrote, directed, produced and stars in "Girls," which follows the adventures of four New York women in their early 20s. Dunham's character, Hannah Horvath, is an aspiring writer who has just been cut off from the financial teat of her parents. Her friends -- played by Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet (David's daughter) and Allison Williams (Brian's daughter) -- are in various states of financial and personal unrest. "Sex and the City" this is not.
During a wide-ranging interview in New York last week, Dunham spoke to HuffPost TV about the responsibility she feels as a female showrunner, her thoughts on "Two and a Half Men" co-creator Lee Aronsohn saying television has reached "labia saturation," her many tattoos and how she's preparing for the inevitable backlash.
As a filmmaker, what was the biggest thing you learned during "Tiny Furniture" that you were able to carry over to "Girls"?
The first feature I made ("Creative Nonfiction"), there was no thinking of shot listing, just thinking about getting the information across. So, "Tiny Furniture" was the first time I sort of thought about constructing a scene out of shots that made sense to me. It was the first time I was thinking like a filmmaker. I also learned a lot about the editing process on "Tiny Furniture." There was stuff in the script that ended up not making it into the movie. I realized, especially with a half-hour show, you need to keep [the script] slimmed down. That movie was an extraordinary set of circumstances. Just a lot of excited people coming together at a really specific moment. But I guess I'd gone, like, "Maybe I could have gotten a couple of more shades of emotion in that scene, or asked for a little improv." I learned to get the material that I would need later.
I'd never worked with a production designer, costume designer, grips or gaffers -- any of those essential roles -- until "Girls." What I just wanted to do was say to everyone, "Hey, I'm new at this. I'm gonna ask you a lot of questions. I'm going to rely on your expertise." I think in giving people that power and license, I learned a lot from them.
In the pilot, you have Hannah reference her tattoos and explain their origins. Why did you feel the need to include that scene, and are Hannah's reasons your reasons -- that it was a body control thing she did in high school after a weight gain?
That was something Judd suggested. He was like, "Why don't you point them out? This is a character who's a little socially awkward. She's not a super hipster girl, yet she's covered in tattoos. Which is what you are." I sort of tend to equate tattoos with prisoners, punks or people with a high level of self-confidence. I don't necessarily have a covered-in-tattoos personality. So, Judd sort of was like, "Just say something honest about why." So, I wrote that scene and it is pretty close. I don't think I would have phrased it that way to myself at the time. At the time, it was like, "My friend Marina has tattoos, and I'm gonna get one." I sometimes want to make a book of every tattoo I wanted to get before I actually got a tattoo, because there were so many awful ideas and concepts. But once I did it, it got totally addictive. I'd say I had a very active tattooing period from 17 to 21, and since then, I've gotten a few tiny things, but I haven't been tattooed in a while.
Would you get more tattoos?
I would. I'd like to get some more little doodads, but I think I'm done with the big giant ones. There's not really any more real estate where I'd want like a whole phatty tattoo. I've kinda covered the areas that are amusing to me, and then, I'd have to expand to the stomach and more back? No one wants to see a tattoo on a stomach.
Do you ever feel like you're revealing too much about yourself?
I definitely have moments where I'm like, "What made me think that this was something that I needed to express?" But then, I keep doing it. I guess if it stops feeling cathartic and starts feeling compulsion, I'll stop. Unless you can't stop. I've always loved confessional poetry and memoir writing. That's the genre of work I'm attracted to both as a maker and a consumer.
Are you worried people will automatically assume everything that happens to Hannah is just something that you experienced?
I'm so at the beginning of all this that right now the idea doesn't bother me. I guess I could get to the point where I'm 30 and like, "This character I've created is an albatross around my neck!" At the same time, I'm sort of interested in that confusing, blurry life-art divide. I like to watch work where I feel like it's closely connected to someone. That's appealing to me. And my character, despite some of her less intelligent moves, I've sort of come to love her. I feel like it would be harder if I was playing someone who I found more despicable. Even while she does things that I wouldn't do at this juncture, nothing she does is stuff that I'm ashamed to be associated with.
How do people react to your blurring of the life-art divide?
Something that does come up is, after I made "Tiny Furniture," I'd meet people -- especially guys -- who would tell me so much stuff about their sex life. Or people will read my Twitter, and they'll go, "You'll appreciate this." The fact that this is sort of what my work is doesn't mean I want to hear the full story of the time you lost a condom inside your girlfriend. That's crazy. It's interesting to see how other people react to an oversharer. I should be glad I'm giving people an outlet, but my outlet continues to be my therapist. There are certain things I wouldn't share outside of that space.
Female friendships are often portrayed onscreen as combative and competitive. Do you think that will get projected onto how you four interact off-screen?
People have always been asking us: "Do you guys get along?" That's the first question. I feel like they want that story of behind the scenes. Like, I pulled out Allison's weave and then she dunked my head in the toilet. The thing is: We all get along. None of us really drink. I'm home every night working. Jemima has a baby. Allison has the most poise of anyone. Zosia likes to make music with her sister and be funny and weird. We have a really sweet, connected cast. When you work with anybody all day, I'm sure … I was gonna say we must all get annoyed with each other, but I actually haven't gotten annoyed with them. I'm sure they get annoyed with me sometimes, because I'm trying to be everybody's friend and the director boss-lady. But I wouldn't have been able to hire girls who I thought were assholic, back-stabbing actresses. I feel so lucky that we do the press days together and we're literally looking at pictures of puppies and listening to each others' iPods and deciding what we're gonna eat for lunch.
What did you think of Lee Aronsohn's comments that television has reached "labia saturation"?
I was talking to Judd about that, and Judd was like, "I feel bad for him because he's just the guy who makes a million jokes." It's such an assholic thing to say. It's so dickish ... I think Sarah Silverman had a quote where she was like, "Sometimes with an old guy with misogyny you're just like, 'You cute old guy. You misogynist.'" I almost feel like that man is holding on desperately to a world that no longer exists ... I felt especially bad for him because it's not even a funny joke. If you had a good quip, I'd be like, "Well, you're a dick, but at least you're a good comedy writer." But with that, I was like, "Come on, dude. 'Labia saturation point'?" It's also so dumb. There's three shows on TV about women, so I guess we really reached our limit. It's not like three-quarters of the world is comprised of women, you idiot.
I almost wanted to do a tweet, but I didn't do it: "Since we've reached our labia saturation point on television, I've decided not to release 'Girls.'" Like, "HBO's behind me on this decision and we're so sorry for anybody we're disappointing, but we really can't over-vagina the TV." Lee has spoken.
Do you feel a responsibility as one of the few female showrunners working on TV?
Judd is a dude, but my co-showrunner Jenni Konner: lady. Our other executive producer, who does physical production stuff, Ilene Landras, who produced "The Sopranos": girl. Our unit production manager: girl. Our production designer: girl. Our costume designer: girl. Women, I should say. I'm really proud of the fact that a lot of department heads are women. That's really meaningful to me. Whenever I get a tweet or something from a girl in college who's like, "This makes me think I could actually work in TV" -- that's all you could want.
I came of age in the major "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" time of our country, and I really take all that seriously. It does feel like a responsibility. Sometimes, when I'm writing I will go, "Even if this period joke might have some truth to it, I'm not really going to throw it into this scene." That's one point where I don't really want to satisfy expectations. I don't really want everyone getting their periods in sync. I don't want anyone stress eating chocolate. If you're gonna stress eat, it's going to be cheese, or a cupcake in the shower. I take it seriously the idea of not proving any of Lee's theorems right.
Frank Bruni's op-ed in the New York Times stipulated that "Girls" is going to be a conversation starter. How do you handle that pressure?
It's funny to have an op-ed written about the show. It's obviously an honor to have somebody as smart as Frank Bruni think it's starting any kind of national conversation. At the same time, it's really hard. I'm not ready to take the responsibility of completely unpacking my own sex life, much less the sex life of every woman my age. I have to kind of balance the fact that I do have opinions about all this stuff with really being careful to say that I am not the translator for all these girls. I'm sure a lot of girls will watch the show and be like, "I don't know what kind of sex you're having, but this is not my experience." Hopefully, it will entertain them anyway.
OK, well: Do you consider yourself the voice of a generation?
It's funny. The joke in the pilot, I kept being like, "She's on drugs when she says it, so hopefully nobody thinks it's really my thinking." But it's in the trailer so everyone thinks it's my credo. I think the concept of a voice of generation is becoming less and less applicable. The world's getting more and more full. Our generation is not just white girls. It's guys. Women of color. Gay people. The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it's resonant for people, then that's about as much as I could hope for.
Are you concerned that people might just think "Girls" is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go "Hashtag white people problems, guys." I think that's really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who's like, "I'd love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color." You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I'll address that.
The media coverage of "Girls" has been pretty universal in its praise, but you know how the media loves tearing people down. Are you ready for the coming Lena Dunham backlash?
I'm so prepared for it. I was raised by artist parents. It's a different version, but you kinda see how peoples' careers go up and down, and they're in and out of fashion. You see that and you know that it's all cyclical. So even as I'm having a great experience of people being interested in what I do, I'm already prepared for the inverse thing: "She's lost her mojo."
I also get the whole narrative of like, "25 years old, has their own show, has a movie on Criterion Collection." It's irksome for some people. It would irk me if it wasn't me experiencing it. I try not to be covetous or envious of other peoples' success, especially with women in film. What's good for one of us is good for all of us. As my dad always says, "A rising tide lifts all boats." I'm prepared for [the backlash], but that's one of the reasons you don't keep a Google alert on yourself. It's that mix of staying true to yourself and not reading everything, while not staying so isolated that you don't grow creatively based on peoples' critiques of what you do. I want to hear the audience and respond to them, but I also want to protect what's sacred about the thing that I do.
"Girls" premieres Sunday, April 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.
Check out photos from the New York premiere of "Girls."