Lena Dunham is sitting at a Larchmont Boulevard cafe in a pale yellow dress and a blazer, rummaging around her bag for a bottle of green juice. She’s drinking it to stave off illness caused by frequent plane travel — one of the hazards of being an in-demand wunderkind.
Her upcoming HBO series, “Girls,” was filmed in New York, where she sleeps in her parents’ basement while she waits for her new place to be ready. But Dunham just spent half a year in L.A. so she could edit and consult with the show’s producers, Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
Life here didn’t go entirely smoothly: She failed her driving test and found that renting a house in the hills didn’t jell with her Hollywood fantasy. “I was having real delusions of grandeur — like, I am Joan Didion!” But as winter nights grew longer, the isolation freaked her out: “I was hiding under the covers and imagining all these running escape routes down the hill.”
All that angst was worth it: Critics and fans are hailing 25-year-old Dunham as the uncomfortably true voice of millennial women. “Tiny Furniture,” her low-budget indie movie starring friends and family, levitated out of the South by Southwest film festival in 2010. Many reviewers were startled by its intimate glimpse of an articulate, self-flagellating twentysomething. The buzz has grown louder still with “Girls,” a 10-episode HBO series that she wrote and directed as well as playing the central character. Premiering April 15, it’s a sexually graphic, emotionally luminous half-hour dramedy about a quartet of female friends (Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Dunham) stumbling toward adulthood.
“Girls” follows on the heels of a cluster of female-fronted network comedies like “Whitney” and “Two Broke Girls,” but its vérité vulnerability makes those series — with their contrived punch lines and tweaking of taboos — seem as fake as “Friends.” Dunham’s writing fills a gap felt by young women (and some men too) who’ve come of age with the Internet’s confessional overshare culture and long to see the messiness of their lives depicted naturalistically onscreen, whether dealing with sexual embarrassment, drug experimentation, body image issues or career screw-ups.
“Girls” pivots around Hannah Horvath (Dunham), an unemployed aspiring writer who has a bad habit of sabotaging herself. (Note to job seekers: Don’t make rape jokes to a prospective boss.) Romantically entangled with an elusive, slightly creepy hipster guy (Adam Driver), Hannah is also drifting apart from her college best friend (Williams). The show’s opening episode deals Hannah a final blow: Her professor parents have decided to withdraw their safety net.
“I think I might be the voice of my generation,” she protests to them, trying to win back financial support. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”
Hannah is zonked on opium tea when she announces this, but she is at least half-serious. An odd combination of uncrushable self-confidence and wry self-deprecation, Hannah “feels like she deserves praise she’s not getting while thinking she doesn’t deserve anything,” Dunham says. “It’s the trademark of many Jewish comedians, but it is sort of a new thing to see in a girl that age.”
Dunham’s semi-autobiographical heroine is charmingly neurotic and needy in a Woody Allen / Richard Lewis sort of way. Instead of flopping on a shrink’s couch, though, she turns to Google to wallow in her anxieties (“Diseases that come from no condom for one second”) or broadcasts them on Twitter. And when she’s done with that, she’ll dance ecstatically around her bedroom with her best friend or prowl Brooklyn clubs searching for adventures to document in her memoir.
Inevitably, “Girls” has been compared to"Sex and the City,” another HBO show about four women that put female friendship and affairs front and center. But in Dunham’s world, awkwardness always trumps glamour. There are no gigantic shoe closets or suave heroes. As she joked during a news conference last January, "[My boyfriend] in the pilot is not Mr. Big. He literally does not have bedsheets!”
“Girls” defuses the comparison by dropping a reference to “SATC” in the pilot: One character sizes up another by saying, “You’re definitely like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair.” Dunham says she prefers to think of her series as the love child of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “My So-Called Life.” There were plenty of intimate female experiences that Dunham felt had never been presented properly on the small screen, however, like “that moment where you’re splayed on the gynecologist’s table and scared about what you’re going to find out.”
Then there’s abortion, treated on “Girls” as a personal minefield rather than a political or ethical one. In this year of Republican attacks on abortion rights, Dunham’s choice to present it from the POV of a scared, sometimes flip young woman seems both brazen and fresh. “A pregnancy scare brings up so much for the friends of the person having it,” she says, “because it makes you think about the future in a way you’re not ready for.”
Sexual realism is central to “Girls” as it was to “Tiny Furniture,” which included a cringe-inducing scene in which Dunham’s character has rough sex outdoors in a pipe. Although Dunham’s body is fleshier than the average Hollywood ingénue, she is comfortable being nude onscreen and portraying sex that’s far from the usual titillating HBO fare.
Like Hannah, Dunham doesn’t lack for chutzpah. The daughter of well-respected artists (her father is painter Carroll Dunham, her mother photographer Laurie Simmons), she says she initially wanted to be a writer — “to distance myself from my parents by thinking, ‘I’m words, they’re pictures.’” But while at Oberlin College, she posted a performance-art-style video on YouTube of herself in a bikini, bathing in her college fountain, and it went viral.
Around the same time, she made “Tight Shots,” a Web series about the sex lives of young filmmakers for Nerve.com, after pitching them cold. “When I was younger, I was into just emailing anyone I liked. I had no qualms about emailing a director I admired and asking, what boom mike do you use?”
By 2010, she had honed her ragged aesthetic enough to make the tiny-budgeted “Tiny Furniture,” which featured Dunham along with her mother, her sister Grace and her best friend from high school, Kirke.
“Lena is a girl who didn’t know how to make a movie and then just made a perfect movie in her house with her family,” “Girls” producer Konner says of “Tiny Furniture.”
“Girls” was Dunham’s first real experience working with actors she didn’t know, but she compares it to online dating. “Just because I met him on the Internet doesn’t mean we’re not really in love. That’s how I feel about actors I met on auditions.”
One likely criticism of the series is that it dwells on privileged white-girl problems; in fact, its core cast members are all famous people’s kids. (Williams’ dad is newsman Brian Williams, Mamet’s is playwright David Mamet, and Kirke’s is Simon Kirke, drummer in the classic rock band Bad Company.) Asked about the casting, Dunham says, “The only thing that would make it not a coincidence is that they came in with a preternatural willingness to play and an understanding of the creative process that probably comes from being raised around it.”
Apatow, who became an evangelist for Dunham after seeing “Tiny Furniture,” sees kinship between the female characters in “Girls” and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), the protagonist of his 1999 series “Freaks and Geeks.” But he says he kept a special eye out for the male characters in “Girls”: "[Lena] has so many different versions of strange boyfriends. I did say … we want to see their point of view as well. It’s the reverse conversation of what we usually have with movies based around guys, about making sure the female characters are fleshed out!”
Dunham says Apatow also helped her focus on sharpening the humor in “Girls,” so that it wasn’t just a long string of disappointments and humiliations.
“I never want it to feel like I’m punishing her,” Dunham says of her character. “I do think [Hannah] courts it, but we also live in a world that’s tough for a 24- or 25-year-old woman to navigate. There are things you’re going to face that are totally debasing. Friends always say, ‘That would only happen to you.’ But I just think I’m the only one talking about it.”