Sundance 2015: Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling talk making it in Hollywood

Emily Nussbaum, left, Kristen Wiig, Jenji Kohan, Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling attend the "Power Of Stories: Serious Ladies" panel during the Sundance Film Festival.
(Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Before their girl crushes had uttered a word, the cheers started coming.

“I love your pants, Mindy!”

“I love your skirt, Kristen!”

These were the crowd’s thought leaders -- Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Kristen Wiig and Jenji Kohan -- four of Hollywood’s top female creators who gathered to discuss their careers at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday. And yet despite the rabid reception from a mostly young female audience inside Park City’s Egyptian Theatre, the panelists admitted that being grouped with other successful women doesn’t always seem like an honor.


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“It can feel like the ghetto,” admitted Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s the chick panel.’”

“Our work has an actual kinship, though,” added Dunham, who is behind HBO’s “Girls.” “A lot of times it can feel like when there’s two gay people in a small town so you set them up.”

But Saturday’s quintet actually seemed familiar with one another’s work. Because the event was moderated by New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, much of the discussion centered on the difference between TV and film -- and which is better for women.

Kohan, who previously created the Showtime comedy “Weeds” and has an extensive background in television, felt strongly that TV is the better medium. Which isn’t to say her experience hasn’t been a “mixed bag”: Coming up in writers rooms, she acknowledged, one man told her that “if God had meant for women to be in a writers room, he wouldn’t have made [breasts] so distracting.”

And yet “it seems like movies are way behind,” she continued. She theorized that part of that may have to do with the fact that television advertisements are heavily aimed at females, while many movie studios are still interested in attracting 18-to-35 year-old males to their films.

Dunham, whose first foray into Hollywood was her independent film “Tiny Furniture,” recalled early meetings in Los Angeles before “Girls” where she realized her voice did not align with film executives.

“I realized my stuff was not going to be made by big studios,” she said. “They were like, ‘We loved your movie. It was so fresh. We’ve never seen anything like it. Do you want to write the Strawberry Shortcake movie?’”


No matter where your content airs, though, you can’t control the audience’s reaction -- something that Dunham in particular seems to struggle with. Because the character she plays on “Girls” is also a privileged, intelligent twentysomething writer living in New York, the actress said many viewers assume the two are one and the same. Which isn’t a problem she thinks Larry David and Woody Allen have had to deal with.

“They don’t have a million people who think they know and understand them on a deep and abiding level,” said the 28-year-old. “Woody Allen is proof of that, because all he was doing was making out with 17-year-olds for years.”

That one drew some gasps.

Wiig, the “Saturday Night Live” veteran who also co-wrote the movie “Bridesmaids,” said she deals with perception issues to a lesser degree. People in diners ask her to speak in funny voices, or journalists seem disappointed when she isn’t cracking jokes.


“People think that’s who you are -- that I just run around New York with wigs on, like, punching [people] in the stomach,” she said.

When the audience had the chance to ask questions, most -- not surprisingly -- wanted advice on how to blaze their own paths in Hollywood. At first, the panelists offered the tried-and-true wisdom -- be yourself. Stay true to your voice. Don’t give up. Ever.

But the throughline for all of them seemed to be an innate sense of confidence. As Dunham put it: “I wasn’t raised being told my sex organs were going to be a limitation of any kind.”

“My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man,” said “The Mindy Project’s” Kaling. “So picture yourself as Armie Hammer on the outside.”


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