This article originally ran in the February 8, 2013 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
In New York, they say you’re always looking for a job, an apartment, or a boyfriend. But right now, Lena Dunham has all three. She just won a Golden Globe for her HBO comedy Girls, which she stars on, writes, and executive-produces alongside Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow. She recently bought her first apartment, a modest one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights. (She was thrilled by a celebrity real estate headline that read: “Nicole Richie: $5 million. Lena Dunham: $450,000.”) And she’s getting serious with her boyfriend Jack Antonoff, who plays guitar for the pop group fun. Now all she needs is a dog. “Getting a dog is a real facet of being in your 20s,” says Dunham, as she walks into the BARC animal shelter in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looking even younger than her 26 years in a white anchor-print scarf and no makeup. “It’s the pre–‘Maybe I’ll have a child to give myself some purpose.'”
Strangely, a song by Dunham’s boyfriend’s band happens to be playing as we head into the shelter. She takes it as a sign. Walking past the cages as the animals bark their tiny, grizzled heads off, Dunham stops to kneel by a small, white floor-mop of a mutt. He has the heartbreaking, secondhand pet name of Repeat, and his gray-green eyes look almost human. “He has the best Muppet flop on the top of his head!” squeals Dunham. “And a total case of crazy tail.” She signals to the shelter guy to open the cage and let her take Repeat for a get-to-know-you walk around the block. “I am so responsible, I promise!” she tells him. Then she turns and whispers, “I know. That’s what the most irresponsible person would say.”
Now, this whole scene might raise a few eyebrows. If you’re going to adopt a dog, why bring a journalist along? Does Dunham think she’ll be taken more seriously if people see her as a full-grown, home-owning, kibble-dispensing adult? Or is this a move that says, I may have an award-winning TV show, but deep down, I’m a puppy lover — just like you? Dunham has a simple explanation, and it all ties back to Girls. Last year, she was having a slight breakdown, and a dog saved her. “Right before the first season of Girls came out, I had this moment of extreme anxiety,” she says, as she zips up her puffy black coat and leads Repeat outside. “I was like, ‘What’s going to change about my life? This is such a big job!'” Wanting some space to think, she went to her family’s place in Cornwall, Conn., a cozy brick house where her parents, artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, go to work in their studios. (Meryl Streep is their neighbor.) Then she put herself to bed — and stayed there, for days.
“My little sister Grace and her girlfriend came into the bedroom, and her girlfriend was like, ‘Are you having an existential crisis?'” Dunham recalls with a laugh. “They’re in college, so they throw around the term ‘existential crisis’ like they’re asking, ‘Do you have a cold?’ I was like, ‘I might be!'” The only thing that calmed her down was the family’s wire fox terrier, Dean, an animal so neurotic, Dunham calls him the Woody Allen of dogs. That’s why she’s here at BARC: to adopt a dog of her own, one who will ensure the “existential crisis” thing never happens again.
In New York, this is the way you grow up. You get your first job, your first boyfriend, your first apartment — and somewhere along the way, you have your first breakdown. And your second. And your 23rd. That’s the basic premise of Girls, which follows Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) through their awkward 20s — except for these women, the job is just a McJob, the guy isn’t so much a boyfriend as a “main hang,” and the apartment might be bankrolled by somebody’s parents. People watched Carrie Bradshaw and thought, “I want to be her!” People watch Hannah and think, “Oh my God. I used to be her.” Or worse: “Oh my God, I am her.”
What’s remarkable about Dunham is that she’s created this intense connection to her audience even though off screen she’s living the famous-person lifestyle that Hannah wants but is too lazy to work for. She got a $3.5 million book deal with Random House for her self-help-style memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. Annie Leibovitz recently photographed her in an outfit that Zac Posen designed for her high school graduation. (He used to be her babysitter.) Her friends include fellow showrunners Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) and Liz Meriwether (New Girl), and she exchanges direct messages with Taylor Swift. Before she got together with Antonoff, she went out on a date with a well-known older director whose name she won’t reveal. It ended with a chaste kiss on the side-mouth. “Two directors is a recipe for disaster,” she admits. “They’re both gonna direct themselves right out of that relationship.”
But no matter how many celebrities follow her on Twitter, she’ll always relate to Hannah. “Just because you have a TV show and a book deal doesn’t mean the Red Sea parts and your path becomes clear,” she says later that afternoon at Vanessa’s Dumpling House. “You still have to ask yourself, ‘What is important to me? Who do I want to spend my time with? Can I take care of a dog?’ Those big emotional questions.”
Some of those questions are slightly different now that Girls has entered its second season. And the biggest one is this: How can you be the voice of the post-Great Recession generation when so many broke twentysomethings think you have it all?
Narcissist. Nepotist. Racist. Spoiled Rich Girl. Dunham’s critics have a lot of not-so-nice ways to describe her. “You’ve accomplished so much in such a short time — how do you deal with everybody’s anger about that?” Jon Stewart asked her, only half-jokingly, on The Daily Show. The answer? Very carefully. “I come from a liberal-arts school and a background where if there’s a debate, people sit down and talk about it,” Dunham says. “But the sound-bite culture we live in doesn’t allow for that. I’m not going to have a diatribe on Twitter. That’s a real recipe for Amanda Bynes-hood. I could issue a two-sentence statement to my publicist, but unless I kill somebody with my f—ing lawn mower, that’s never gonna be who I am.”
So let’s just deal with the issues right here, shall we? Yes, the show’s stars all have famous parents: Zosia Mamet’s dad is David Mamet, Allison Williams’ dad is Brian Williams, Jemima Kirke’s dad is Simon Kirke of the band Bad Company, and Dunham’s parents have made names for themselves in the art world. (It might not surprise you to learn that Carroll Dunham’s paintings are often sexually explicit, and Simmons takes dollhouse photographs that comment on traditional roles for women. Simmons tells EW that last season’s Girls finale, where Hannah eats cake on the beach, felt like a nod to her work, which frequently references cake.) But since when did being related to a visual artist really help someone launch her career?
Dunham points out that she was raised by regular, working artists, grew up in a studio apartment, and wasn’t spoiled like Hannah. “This mythology sprung up that I had these rich parents, but it’s like, we all lived in one room!” she insists. “I worked at the dog shelter for $4.50 an hour. I worked at the video store. I babysat. I did go to private school in New York, and I did know a lot of rich kids. But I always had a job.”
Actually, for someone who has tapped the psyche of Overentitled and Underemployed America, Dunham seems to work pretty hard. She went to high school at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, where she wrote plays, including an abortion waiting-room drama that she ended up adapting for the second episode of Girls. Her playwriting teacher Nancy Fales Garrett remembers Dunham as a riveting performer. “Lena was one of two twin Tabithas in a play by another writer,” she relays in an email. “The joke was that the twins looked nothing alike. One of them was a raving beauty, and Lena — who is beautiful, if not conventionally so — was the other. I think she had to kiss a boy, and although she was shy about it in rehearsal, she really went for it in performance. She was always outrageously transparent, honest, brave, and funny.”
From an early age, Dunham learned that being funny might be more valuable than being beautiful. Growing up, she would watch comedy specials by Margaret Cho and Paula Poundstone, breaking down the structure of their jokes. At age 14, she took stand-up lessons in Times Square, where she was the only teenager in a group of middle-aged adults. Her opening line? “Hi, I’m Lena, and I’m an alcoholic — just kidding, my dad is.” Dunham explains, “I think my obsession with stand-up came out of feeling like, People are laughing at me when I don’t feel like I’m being that funny. It seemed like, for a funny-looking, non-ingenue girl with a little more to say, comedy was the right place to be.” Once, while acting in another student’s play, Dunham felt that she wasn’t getting the laughs she deserved, so she pulled up her shirt and stuffed cheese puffs into her belly button. “At the time, I was really chubby, so it was a really crazy image,” she says. “I got into a lot of trouble, because I was told that it showed a weird relationship to my own body.” She rolls her eyes. “But the fact that I’m now comfortable using my body as a comedy tool definitely stems from that.”
Another misperception that rankles Dunham: that she was an overnight success. In fact, she was already making short films during college at Oberlin, where she shot The Fountain (which finds her bathing naked in one) and Hooker on Campus (which is pretty much self-explanatory). Girls wasn’t even her first series. That would be the 2007 Web comedy Tight Shots, which followed six friends making a film about sexuality in the Deep South. By the time she got into television, she’d made two films, though the first, 2009’s Creative Nonfiction, never got picked up by a distributor. It wasn’t until her 2010 film Tiny Furniture — a semiautobiographical comedy that stars her mother and sister and Dunham herself, often half-clothed — won Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest that she earned a script deal with HBO. Many were moved by the film’s frank depiction of life after college. “The thing that’s so powerful about Lena is that she’s enormously relatable,” says Michael Lombardo, the network’s president of programming. “She’s not a size 0. She’s not the person who you know is going to find love because they’re just so beautiful. Lena’s just there, with all her wonderful imperfections.”
HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle passed the film along to Jenni Konner, who signed on as Dunham’s fellow showrunner. “She said, ‘It’s made by a 23-year-old, and she’s in her underwear the whole time.’ That sounded terrible to me,” Konner says now, laughing. “But I loved the honesty in her storytelling. She was playing this character who was selfish and narcissistic, but you felt for her.” Soon Judd Apatow, who was blown away by the fact that Dunham made Tiny Furniture for only $50,000, emailed her to ask if he could work with her.
With Apatow attached, and lots of early buzz about Dunham, some blogs were charting the backlash before the series even aired. Only about 872,000 people watched the first episode last April — about the same as the second-season premiere — but everyone had a strong opinion about it. James Franco took it upon himself to write an essay for the Huffington Post, criticizing Dunham for “creating another show about white people” while “[setting] that show in one of the most culturally mixed cities in the world.” On The View, Barbara Walters told Dunham that she found the brutally honest depiction of sex and nudity “shocking” and “depressing.” “Talk about rough sex!” she said, after watching the scene where Hannah and her not-quite boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) hook up clumsily on his couch. “He does it from behind. He’s not nice to you. He degrades you…. Is this the way it really is?”
Right before the cast taped that episode of The View, a massive debate about Girls‘ lack of racial diversity blew up online, and Dunham was hoping she’d be able to discuss the issue on the talk show. “My first feeling was Okay, let’s talk this out. Let me tell you where I’m coming from, you tell me where you’re coming from, and we’ll think about the state of race on TV. But there was no option for that. What they really want to talk about on The View is ‘You’re naked! And you’re Brian Williams’ daughter!’ I was inside Whoopi Goldberg’s dressing room, and I was talking to Jenni Konner, who’s my best friend, and I was crying. Not in some ‘It’s so hard to be a celebrity!’ way, but because I was frustrated. I felt like I had a big sock in my mouth.”
She ended up working out some of those feelings on screen. Although the first season of Girls had just started, Dunham was filming episodes for season 2, and she had already cast Donald Glover as Sandy, Hannah’s new boyfriend, who happens to be a black Republican. “When Donald came to set, the s— had just hit the fan,” she remembers. “And we were like, It would be interesting to tackle this by lending our own experiences as young people in this PC, ‘race-free’ climate. So we wrote the script, but then we just went off.” In episode 2, Sandy accuses Hannah of using him for hipster cachet: “I got a fixed-gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy!” Hannah defends herself with a lecture about how tough things are for minorities (“Two out of three people on death row are black!”), then pretends that she’s never noticed that he’s black. Looking back, she says, “I was like, Donald, please know that I’m in a f—ing space right now, and whatever I say, you cannot take with you. But we both lost our minds laughing. It was one of the most enlightening afternoons I’ve had in my life.”
Dunham’s not so worried about offending people anymore. A gay man sleeping with a straight girl? That happened this season. Asking a junkie for drugs? That too. Nudity? There’s a lot of it. “I close my eyes at certain scenes,” admits Simmons about watching her daughter on Girls. “But nobody who’s making interesting work is making it for their parents.” Dunham has a lot more to say about women’s relationships to their bodies. “My point with getting naked is never proven,” says the actress. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I did it first season, and now you guys get that there’s women of a certain size on TV, so I’m done!'” Her fans are clearly responding to seeing different shapes and sizes on TV. “A guy came up to me while we were shooting and said, ‘My sister loves your tits,'” Dunham relays. “I was like, ‘Thank you so much!'”
This is exactly why Dunham can place out of your tax bracket, take Instagram pics with Alec Baldwin, and still seem totally relatable: When she shares her most awkward moments, it feels like an act of generosity. People may criticize her generation for being self-obsessed without being self-aware, but Dunham’s not just reveling in her experiences. She’s hyperanalyzing them and passing along what she’s learned. That speech Hannah gives to Adam in season 1 — “I don’t even want a boyfriend…. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, and thinks I’m the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me” — was taken directly from a breakup letter she wrote in real life. She keeps spreadsheets that document the funny things that happen to her, for use in future episodes. There’s a message here for her viewers, and it’s this: Attention, twentysomethings of Brooklyn and beyond! Don’t make the same mistakes I did.
If Girls is about bad choices, Dunham’s career is all about learning from them. Before Girls started, she says, “I think my perception was: I’m gonna be a writer and a teacher who occasionally makes movies that go to film festivals. I didn’t have an ‘I’m gonna take over the world’ mentality.” But now she knows she needs to plan in advance. “I have it all plotted until age 45, and then it just drops off into blackness,” she says. Right now, she has a six-year contract with HBO, and Girls has just been renewed for a third season. “I want enough time for the girls’ stories to come to a place where you think they are safely on the road to adulthood,” she says. After that, she wants to go back to making features and keep writing books. She eventually wants a husband and kids, and maybe a rabbit hutch in the backyard, but she’ll wait to get married until her gay sister has the same right. And she doesn’t really see a problem with doing all of those things at the same time.
“It’s funny, because I took Jenni Konner’s daughter with me to see the Katy Perry movie,” she says. “And afterward, she was like, ‘Katy Perry’s life is really hard. She doesn’t have time for everything she needs to do.’ And I was like, ‘That’s true.’ And she was like, ‘What are you gonna do when you have kids? You work too much. You might have to wait until Girls is over. You should keep your work hours from nine to six. You can have a husband who has more time to spend with your children.’ She’s 8, and she’s very wise.” As it turns out, this plan isn’t too far off from what Dunham imagines for herself: “I think because of my mom, I really have a You Can Have It All feeling.”
The next time I talk with Dunham, she will have won two Golden Globes. “I weirdly hugged Adele after I won the best-actress award,” she will confess. “I was just like, This is my chance to hug Adele. It was an aggressive speed-bomb on her.” She will have thanked the night’s hosts, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, for getting her “through middle school,” a comment that some will view as a backhanded nod to their age. “It came from the most earnest place,” Dunham explains. “But I’d forgotten that we’re in Hollywood, where the rules are that you should not acknowledge that anybody has been around longer than you by more than three years.” She will have hosted a lavish Girls premiere party at Capitale in New York. The entryway will be made up to look like the Brooklyn Bridge. Malcolm Gladwell will laugh very hard while watching the cocaine episode. Bobby Flay will be there, and a few Real Housewives. What she said before is still true. The Red Sea hasn’t parted. She’s asking herself the same questions. But at least one of them has been answered: She adopted that dog. She has changed his name to Lamby, and he’s doing great. “I brought him to therapy with me,” she gushes. “I brought him to The Daily Show and he peed into another dog’s crate. I mean, he’s delightful.” So, that last box on the to-do list of her 20s? She can check it off.