How Lena Dunham made waves with soul-baring Girls

The new series delivers more laughs, talking points - and bare flesh...

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How Lena Dunham made waves with soul-baring Girls
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Girls arrived on our screens just two years ago — crashing into our lives in a whirlwind of bad sex, unwashed hair and self-doubt, whilst igniting debates from petty online spats to academic discourse on feminism and body image. And now new shows are defined by it — HBO’s Looking was labelled “the gay Girls”; Channel 4 comedy Raised by Wolves became “the British Girls”; and Workaholics on Comedy Central was dubbed “The male Girls.”

Meanwhile, Lena Dunham, the show’s creator and star, has signed a £3 million book deal — Not That Kind of Girl is out later this year — and appeared on the cover of February’s American Vogue. That created its own controversy when website Jezebel offered (and paid) $10,000 to show unretouched pictures from the shoot.

Why all this fuss about a 27-year-old? How did someone so young get to write, direct and star in such a ground-breaking show? Who is the girl behind Girls? We asked her best friend and co-star Jemima Kirke — who first met Dunham at New York’s bohemian private school, Saint Ann’s.

“I thought she was a wack job, but in a good way,” laughs Kirke. “In high school everyone is the same. Or they strive to be like everyone else. She definitely didn’t. She didn’t care what everyone was wearing or saying to be cool. She never went by those standards. And she was friends with everyone. Everyone loved her because she was so unapologetically herself.” 

While at Saint Ann’s, Dunham took stand-up lessons — appearing at clubs with her photographer mother as chaperone. Then, when she was at university, she started making short films that she posted online. Eventually, in 2010, she made an indie feature film, Tiny Furniture, about a graduate who returns home to live with her parents. 

Girls producer Jenni Konner takes up the story: “Liz Meriwether — who created the US sitcom New Girl — asked me if I’d seen Tiny Furniture. She said, ‘It’s made by this 23-year-old girl for $15,000, and she’s in her underwear the whole time, running around.’ I was like ‘Eww no, I’m not watching that.’ But I watched it and became really obsessed. I thought everyone had to see it, I thought it was so mind-blowing. I phoned Lena, we had four million things in common and we were on the phone forever.”

Konner is now so dedicated to her friend that she blew up in a press conference after a reporter mentioned Dunham’s nudity. “I’m in such a rage spiral,” she bristled. “This idea that you would talk to a woman like that and accuse a woman of showing her body too much — it just makes me sick.”

Dunham, meanwhile, remained poised and polite throughout. That’s something she’s always had, says Alex Karpovsky, who plays Ray in the show, and who also worked on Tiny Furniture.

“One of the things that I’m baffled by is how little Lena’s changed,” muses Karpovsky. “The way she talks to the actors and the crew, I haven’t noticed any difference at all, whereas I would have totally become an ass. I feel like she’s just so invested and involved that if she wasn’t herself, things would break down — but morale is high. It’s a real testament to her grace and maturity, and probably her upbringing and her parents.”

When we first met, before Girls launched, Dunham was raw and friendly, bounding into interviews like a puppy. If she liked a journalist, she would swap email addresses and phone numbers and chat away happily for hours. As the show’s impact has grown, she’s taken on a publicist, cut her hair and tidied up her wardrobe. You can follow her progress on screen through her Girls character, Hannah — just with a slight delay: “I think of Hannah as a version of me who has no sense of when to shut up and exists two or three years behind where I’m at,” explains Dunham. “Its really cathartic.”

Despite taking more care with her contact details these days, Dunham’s still not trying to hide how she feels. Here’s her take on the nudity issue: “Sometimes I feel comfortable, sometime I feel gross,” she explains. “Here’s the thing that’s interesting: Hannah is not that out there with her body. She’s naked just as much as anybody is naked. It’s a standard amount of nakedness, but you usually cut away from someone changing or having sex, and we stay there. I’m just trying to play a girl with an ambivalent relationship to her body.”

In the first episode of the first season of Girls Hannah tried to persuade her parents not to cut off her allowance. She lurched into their hotel room and said she didn’t want to freak them out, but she thought she might be the voice of her generation… or at least a voice of a generation. At the time it seemed like a joke about privileged arts graduates and their sense of entitlement. Now it seems that it might be true.

“I realise that will be with me for the rest of my life,” she sighs. “I assumed because the character was on drugs when she said it people would understand, but apparently not. It’s no longer possible to be the voice of a generation. It’s a very complex, divergent time. But if I can enlighten anyone on any part of what it’s like to be part of the first generation to grow up with instant messaging and graduating in a recession, then I’m happy.” 

Girls in on Sky Atlantic Mondays at 10pm