With an acclaimed film already under her belt, the 26-year-old writer/actor/director has now seen her buzzy HBO series, "Girls," garner five Emmy nods in its first season. But she's finding that success brings with it new challenges, such as fielding backhanded compliments, taking direction gracefully and coming to grips with a continuing inability to safely drive a car.
Author David Carr
A FEW YEARS AGO, I was covering the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, a 10-day organized riot of music, film and technology. As is often the case, I got swept up in other matters and realized late in the game that I hadn’t seen a single movie. When I asked Janet Pierson, producer of the festival’s film portion, what I should see, she said, “I’ll send the one you have to see right over.” Soon after, two young women arrived with a DVD. Thinking they were gofers, I asked them what they had done on the movie.
“I’m the executive producer,” said one.
“I wrote, directed and acted in it,” said the other.
“I don’t believe you,” I said with a smile. “What are you guys, like, 12?”
The film, Tiny Furniture, would go on to become an indie smash and make the writer/director/star I met that night, Lena Dunham, a Hollywood name. She’s parlayed that success into “Girls,” her buzzy HBO series about four young women coming of age in New York, which the 26-year-old writes, stars in and occasionally directs. Both Dunham and Hannah, the character she plays on “Girls,” can appear ditzy—but ditzy like a fox. In the first episode, Hannah, a writer, declares that she may be “the voice of my generation,” before dialing that down to “a voice of my generation,” and finally settling on “a voice of a generation,” sliding from youthful hubris to the lowest of low expectations in three easy steps.
Dunham and I stayed in touch throughout her rise, so our interview felt less like a press opportunity than a chance to catch up with a particularly precocious young friend. I’ve known a few famous people, but I have never watched someone I know become famous, so I’m on guard for any indication of a change in who she is. I thought I had found it when she whipped out a gleaming white American Express card, an exotic version that surely must be issued only to famous people, to pay for our groaning trays at Hill Country Chicken in Manhattan. But when I asked, she just shrugged. “It’s a student card,” she explained. “It has an $800 limit.”
Hemispheres: You said you were working today. Were you an actor, a director, a writer or all three?
Dunham: Today I was a producer. We were scouting locations and I was giving lots of opinions, sending emails and, um, I meditated for 20 minutes in the van. Then I got annoyed at somebody for tapping a pencil on the back of my seat while I meditated.
Dunham: Then I got annoyed at myself for getting annoyed. I never said I was annoyed out loud, so this is the first time anyone’s heard about it.
Hemispheres: You should put the “no pencil tapping” rider in your next contract. You were scouting locations? Your show is set within about six square blocks—how complicated can it be?
Dunham: Today we went to the Waldorf-Astoria, which was exciting. They seemed squirrelly about letting me use their bathroom, though, and not completely comfortable with us entering the fold. But tomorrow at 5:30 a.m., I go back to acting.
Hemispheres: Is making Season 2 more fun than making Season 1?
Dunham: Yes, because there’s a feeling like you’ve been to camp once already. You made all your camp friends, you know what the cool activities are and where to sit in the cafeteria. But there’s also the fear that we somehow won’t replicate what we did in Season 1 in terms of quality. Or I always have this fear that if I’m having more fun, it means I’m not doing a good job, that somehow anxiety is the motor of the entire thing.
Hemispheres: Anxiety certainly powers the characters on your show.
Dunham: Every time I find myself having a really great time on set, I wonder if it means the show is going to end up being like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and then I go back to the anxiety cycle. It all works out.
Hemispheres: The Emmy nominations for best comedy and best writing should calm you down a bit. You were nominated for acting as well.
Dunham: That was the shock of my life. My dad was like, “You got nominated for an award for acting?”
Hemispheres: And “Girls” is up against some amazing shows in the comedy category.
Dunham: The show is up against, like, everything that is delightful on television. “Modern Family,” “Veep,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “30 Rock,” “The Big Bang Theory.” I believe “The Big Bang Theory” is the thing that keeps planes aloft. I haven’t been on an airplane in the past three years that wasn’t showing the same episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s replaced fuel.
Hemispheres: Even though you write the “Girls” scripts, do you ever turn to the director of a particular episode and say, “My character wouldn’t say this,” the way an actor might? Just to be a nuisance?
Dunham: Sometimes. Or I’ll do that awful thing where a director gives me a note and I say, “OK,” and then just do what I want anyway. When actors do it to me, I want to kill them.
Hemispheres: By the way, I notice that we’ve made it through a whole dinner without anyone bothering you.
Dunham: And in a very brightly lit chicken restaurant in Manhattan. Go figure. I did walk by some girls on the street earlier who said, “Oh my God, the camera must add 20 pounds, because she is so much less gross in person.” A complicated mix of pride and shame coursed through my body when I heard that.
Hemispheres: You grew up here. Is New York a changed place for you?
Dunham: It depends on the day. There are days when I walk around and nothing happens. And there are days when 25 people stop me on one block. Everyone is always nice; nobody ever says anything but “Excuse me, I never do this but I love your show.” There’s something about the show that makes people feel like they have some kind of intimate friendship with me, and I like that.
Hemispheres: Do you think that they’re talking to Lena Dunham, the person who wrote a character called Hannah, or that they’re talking to Hannah?
Dunham: I think they’re talking to Hannah. I don’t think anyone is thinking about me as a person who does those jobs; I think they’re thinking about me as somebody who doesn’t have subway fare and is wandering around confused. Which is not always wrong.
Hemispheres: You live in L.A. about a third of the year now. How do you and Los Angeles get along?
Dunham: I really love things about L.A., but my consistent inability to get comfortable driving has created some problems.
Hemispheres: You were practicing last time I was out there.
Dunham: I failed my driver’s test, so I’m sad about that. I didn’t get back on the horse because the experience was so traumatic.
Hemispheres: Are you a bad driver?
Dunham: I’m not going to say I’m a great driver. I’m not going to kill you, but then also I might. I’m not too fast. I’m overly cautious, which is its own problem. It’s this creeping, pathetic kind of driving. I drive too close to the side of the road. Plus I’m so worried about killing someone.
Hemispheres: The driver you just described is a menace to all the rest of us.
Dunham: Do you think there are certain people who are simply not meant to drive?
Hemispheres: No, I think there are certain people who say that so that they don’t have to.
Dunham: But I think that, just as not everyone is supposed to be a parent, not everyone is supposed to drive.
Hemispheres: Perhaps. So Hannah is living with anxiety, she’s perpetually unsatisfied and lacking in direction, she has problems in romantic affairs—all of which you’ve had experience with in your life, but it’s not who you are now.
Dunham: Until really recently I would say, “Well, I’m having success in my professional life, but I still live with my parents and I’m still having problems in romantic affairs.” But I don’t live with my parents anymore, things have been a little bit better in the romance department, and I have a job. However, I can say now that the “solving” of those three areas does not remove all your anxiety.
Hemispheres: What’s the dirty secret about show business that no one knows?
Dunham: I feel that a lot of food—between movie sets, business meetings and events where skinny people refuse to eat—is getting wasted in Hollywood. I eat everything. My problem is that anything that’s free, I’m going to keep it or I’m going to eat it.
Hemispheres: What part of making “Girls” has surprised you most?
Dunham: What’s been consistently surprising and consistently gratifying is the response that people have to something that feels so personal. Growing up, I spent a lot of time feeling like a total weirdo, and people very much connect with it.
Hemispheres: You have to root for the show to go on and on, but your character can’t be young and confused forever.
Dunham: I really like the idea that she’ll have a baby. I really want to have a baby on camera. A few things I want to do on camera are have a baby and die. I don’t want to die on this show. But I would like to have a baby.
Hemispheres: As a fan of Season 1, I don’t think that girl could take care of a ficus plant.
Dunham: She can’t, but if the show goes on for six years, can you imagine a world in which she could potentially have a baby?
Hemispheres: Not really, but you’re the one who’s in charge of her destiny. The tagline for the show says you and your amigas are “living the dream, one mistake at a time.” Should we expect to see the bad choices mounting in Season 2?
Dunham: I think that in Season 2, they’re continuing to make demented choices, just in, like, a slightly more informed way. It’s smarter girls making dumber choices, which is almost more horrifying to watch.
DAVID CARR, who covers culture and media for the New York Times, is the father of a 20-something daughter. Thus, some scenes in “Girls” give him agita.
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Age when made first film: 22
Age when made breakout film: 23
Budget for Tiny Furniture: $45,000
Ticket sales for Tiny Furniture: $400,000
Average viewership for “Girls”: 3.8 million
Percentage male viewership: 56
Percentage female viewership: 44