Lena Dunham’s Change of Pace

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On a recent sun-dappled afternoon, I met the thirty-eight-year-old writer, director, and actress Lena Dunham at a brasserie called Soutine, in London, not far from her home in North London. “This place is like my out-of-house office,” Dunham said, as she settled into a brown leather banquette at a corner table. The restaurant was nearly empty, save for a few customers lingering over tea, but you could sense that it was the kind of place that did a bustling brunch service. “I think I like it here because of its inherent Tribeca-ness,” Dunham said. “I was, like, O.K., this place makes sense to me.” Dunham grew up in Tribeca, as the daughter of two artists, the painter Carroll Dunham and the photographer and filmmaker Laurie Simmons. She has a tattoo of the Odeon’s neon sign. (“On my butt, or I would show it to you,” she said.) She is, in many ways, the consummate city kid, not least because she created one of the great New York TV shows of all time, the HBO comedy series “Girls.” But, since 2021, Dunham has been spending most of her time in London with her husband, the British Peruvian musician Luis Felber, enjoying a relatively low-key expat existence.

She didn’t flee New York, exactly; it was work that first brought her to the U.K. But being in London ultimately offered Dunham the freedom of a place where “you don’t feel that you are being in any way hemmed in by other people’s perceptions,” she said. As many of us recall all too well, “Girls” was, during its six-season run, in the twenty-tens, an inescapable subject of millennial discourse. Dunham, who wrote the pilot when she was just twenty-four, became a controversial and constantly discussed celebrity, equally heralded as the voice of her generation (or, as her onscreen character Hannah put it, “a voice of a generation”) and maligned for her bravado, her candor, and her blind spots. Even after the show finished, debates about Lena Dunham—her body, her politics, her love life and friendships, the fate of her household pets—were inescapable. At the same time, Dunham was also grappling with an addiction to prescription drugs and with several illnesses, including endometriosis, which led her to have a hysterectomy at just thirty-one, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or EDS, a connective-tissue disorder. London provided an opportunity to reset—and then get back to work.

A variety of new projects is out or en route. Dunham co-stars in the new film “Treasure,” opposite Stephen Fry, playing the willful daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and she is currently acting in a major motion picture she cannot yet discuss, although she would say that it involves the English countryside. She is almost done writing a new memoir, which she has been quietly working on for years. She is producing several new shows and films under her production banner, Good Thing Going. And—“Girls” fans rejoice—she is at work on a new semi-autobiographical comedy series, “Too Much,” which will début on Netflix, in 2025. Co-created by Dunham and her husband, the show stars Megan Stalter as a thirtysomething American woman who moves to London and (surprise!) falls in love with a British musician, played by Will Sharpe. Though the story closely references Dunham’s own life, she told me that she was reluctant to cast herself in another leading role, in part because, as she put it, “physically, I was just not up for having my body dissected again.”

The morning we were set to meet, Dunham told me that she had experienced an EDS flareup the day before. We had planned to walk around St. John’s Wood and, at her suggestion, “look at beautiful Georgian buildings,” but she didn’t feel up for a lot of strolling. So we sat at Soutine for several hours, eating avocado salad and potato rösti. Dunham ordered an oat-milk latte, a fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a bottle of sparkling water, all at once. (She has been “happily sober” since 2018.) She wore a frilly pink satin dress covered in tiny bows and a pair of gray cotton ballet flats—“granny house slippers, but make it chic,” she said of them. She had long, candy-colored nails, which she drummed softly on the table as she spoke about her recovering workaholism, her love of British rom-coms, her adult friendships, and the novel pleasures of a low-drama life style. We spoke on two other occasions by phone. Another topic under discussion: the recent resurgence of “Girls” thanks to a new Gen Z audience, who view the show as a nostalgic glimpse into New York’s recent past. Dunham is amused by the revival but doesn’t engage much with it; for one thing, she doesn’t read social-media comments anymore. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to London to begin with?

Back in 2018, my life was in a very transitional place. I came here to research a potential theatre project around this playwright who I love called Andrea Dunbar and understand her work more, and to see if there was some adaptation to be done. While I was there, I decided, Let me just see if I can form creative connections with people in the city. I was trying to make [a film adaptation of] “Catherine, Called Birdy,” a project I’d been working on for a year. I had not yet found an American producer who thought, Oh, yes, a medieval period piece about getting your period. What a great idea.

On that trip, I met Tim Bevan, who’s become my producer at Working Title, and who is making my new show with me. “Birdy” was interrupted by COVID. Filming for that actually commenced in 2021, and I thought, I’ll be here for the duration of the film, I’ll edit, and then I’ll skitter off to my life. And, about three weeks before we started, I met Luis. It became clear to me that he’s a person who set up a really beautiful creative life for himself. I was, like, I cannot drag him back to New York with me. I have to be here and engage in this life that he’s made.

How did you two meet?

We met on a blind date! Our friend Honor Titus, who’s an amazing painter, suggested it. I was sitting there in quarantine purgatory, going, “I’m never going to meet a single person.” And he just said, “My friend is a blast.” And I believe he actually said, “You’re not going to marry him or anything, but you two should hang out.” Cut to: I owe him my life.

Did Luis have any context for your work when you two met?

He had looked at my Instagram and was, like, “Why would a writer have so many followers? That’s strange.” And then, he said, he watched one video of me in a Christopher Kane bathing suit that said “Sex” on it, dancing around a swimming pool—which is something I would never put on Instagram now—and thought, like, She seems fun. He’s seen three episodes of “Girls,” and that’s it. By the time he would ever have watched more, we were living together, and he was, like, “Well, now you’re just here, so I’m not going to.” But we then collaborated on the last two movies that I made, and we created this show together. So he’s very much a part of my work life now, having not had any context for it before, which is a perfect scenario for me.

Was there ever a sense of just not wanting to come back because of the American media? It’s not like the British press is historically any better. . . .

I’m fully aware that the British press has tortured many women to death, and that’s not an overstatement. That being said, it’s not where I started. It’s not where they first saw me. So of course there was a freedom to it. I think that transposing myself into this new place, where you don’t feel that you are being in any way hemmed in by other people’s perceptions—it also allows your inner life to open back up in a new way. For better or worse, I’ve never been obsessed with other people’s perceptions of me, but I have always been obsessed with being able to do my thing. Like, I’m incredibly worried in this conversation that you find me polite, timely, and inoffensive. I’m incredibly worried that my friends feel supported or understood. But I don’t think I could have gotten through my twenties and continued to make work if perception was my primary concern.

Both of your parents are artists, and art-making was the lingua franca of your household. Did you feel that putting so much of yourself out there early on was an artistic act?

Well, first of all, great use of lingua franca. [Laughs.] I was just talking about this with my friend Pamela Adlon, who makes fairly diaristic female work also. Now, I try not to spend my time ascribing the challenges of my career to gender or sexuality. But we were talking about the fact that there was always a sense that women who wrote in a way that was in any way personal were somehow vomiting out, whether it was Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf or Octavia Butler. They were performing an exorcism, and men who did it were performing an act of genius. And, so, that’s why Proust is Proust, and Jenny Diski is Jenny Diski. People maybe meet Larry David and expect him to be a little bit saucy, but they have the concept that what he is doing is a form of performance. Whereas, with women who make television shows that feel personal, they forget that it’s something that’s had to be created, that’s had to be structured.

Growing up, I even saw it between my parents. My father was treated like an extremely serious painter’s painter, and my mother was somebody who photographed dolls. I feel really lucky that I had a father who had a very keen awareness of it. He didn’t go, like, “Yes, it is appropriate that my work should be met with essays and plaudits, and your mother’s work should be treated like a cute piece of interior design.” He was very clear about the problem. I think, had I not had that in my home, I might not have had the ability to notice that. One thing I’ll say is that, when I was starting to direct movies after “Girls,” and I would have meetings, people would often be, like, “Well, we know you can write, but have you directed before?” And I was, like . . .

“Uh, sirs, I directed most of the episodes.”

Yes, I was, like, “Quite a bit, actually.” I also had an extremely famous male actor once say to me after reading a pitch of mine, “I didn’t know you wrote.” I think he thought I was just a saucy comedian who loved to remove my clothing. Those experiences aren’t unusual.

With “Too Much,” was there an active feeling, like, “I’m not going to be the lead actor in this”? The premise does seem to reference your own life.

Totally. I can’t escape it. It’s about an American woman in London who has had a bad breakup in New York and is confused, meeting a recovering punk musician and trying to figure out if they can make a life together. It’s not a huge leap. But I knew from the very beginning I would not be the star of it. First, because I had seen Meg Stalter’s work, and I was very inspired by her. She’s unbelievable; I think people are going to be so blown away. We know how funny she is. But, then, when she enters a dramatic scene, you’re, like, Oh, we got a little Meryl Streep on our hands! I was thinking a lot about, like, What is it that allows women to be complicated on TV and still be embraced and seen and understood? There’s an openness to Meg’s presence that I think goes a long way. She has whatever the opposite of resting bitch face is. She has resting angel face.

I also think that I was not willing to have another experience like what I’d experienced around “Girls” at this point in my life. Physically, I was just not up for having my body dissected again. It was a hard choice, not to cast Meg—because I knew I wanted Meg—but to admit that to myself. I used to think that winning meant you just keep doing it and you don’t care what anybody thinks. I forgot that winning is actually just protecting yourself and doing what you need to do to keep making work.

So not being the lead in the show is an act of self-protection in a way?

No matter what people may think, I got into this because I wanted to be an artist. I actually was never a person who—as much as people may not believe this, because of the way that my work is structured and what it’s about—was unbelievably interested in attention. I don’t like having “Happy Birthday” sung to me. I don’t particularly like compliments. In that way, I fit in perfectly in England. That level of scrutiny does not make me feel powerful. It does not make me feel, like, I’ll show you. What makes me feel powerful is making my work. It’s the only thing I want to do. It is my only love in life aside from the people who are closest to me and my pets and books.

Have you found that shooting in England is very different from shooting in the States?

Days here are ten hours, whereas days in the U.S. can just stretch into infinity. And, as a person who does have a disability, I find that it’s really amazing for my quality of life. It is the first time in a long time that I’ve felt a boundless appetite for making things because of the fact that the pure logistics of it just don’t take from me in the same way. I can go to work, spend ten hours, come home, do revisions, eat dinner with my husband, watch an hour of “Couples Therapy,” and then go to sleep. Whereas my life on “Girls” was often going to set at 5:00 A.M. and not returning home until 9:00 P.M. I was living in such a constant state of sleep deprivation that I didn’t even realize it was sleep deprivation for years.

In the past few years, you have been really open about being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition that affects your connective tissue. I know you told me you had a flareup yesterday and were not feeling so well this morning. Can you describe what that means?

I had to walk around all this bumpy farmland for a film. My ankles popped out of their sockets, and so did my knees, but I was around new people, so I kind of wanted to seem tough. I kept going, “I’m completely fine.” My husband was with me. He was, like, “Why didn’t you just say, ‘Can I have a wheelchair?’ ” And I was, like, “Because the inner critic dies hard, my man.”

By the way, there are days that I have a walker that I use on set. I love my walker because it’s inspired by the lines and shape of a Jeep Wrangler. It’s actually quite chic.

When you were undiagnosed, did you feel you were pushing through pain in a way that made it worse?

I spent half my time in bed as a kid. People thought I was lazy. I do not believe that being lazy is actually a personality trait. I believe that, if people are lazy, they’re depressed, sick, scared, traumatized, or disconnected. I could never participate in gym class. It was a constant “My knee hurts.” I was literally best friends with the school nurse, Chris Conta. I spent so much time in her office. Bless you, Chris Conta—you were so good to me. In my twenties, I didn’t listen to my body, and it wasn’t until I had some time off that I actually felt what I was feeling, and then I was really scared. And it’s taken a lot of reading about disability theory to get it.

Did your parents teach you or unteach you anything about workaholism?

We lived on the fourth floor of our building, and my parents’ studio was on the second floor. I would come home from school and just sit in their studio, and I had my own little desk with our first word processor there. I’d usually ignore my homework and be, like, “I’m going to complete work on my eleven-page novella. I’ll see you at dinnertime.” Which is ridiculous and sounds like “The Royal Tenenbaums.” But I think that my parents included me in what being an artist meant, which was times of deep productivity and times of frustration. My mom says that my parents were having a party with my godparents, who are both art critics: Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith. They were all talking, and I piped up to say, “Art, art, art. All you people talk about is art!” And it’s very adjacent to writing or making movies: when you’re not doing it, you’re consuming it, you’re talking about it, you’re thinking about it.

But my parents have also probably been the most critical of my work life. I think people often go, “Your parents must be so proud.” My parents are proud that I express myself, but they really did feel concerned about what was involved with the level and amount of work that I was doing at a young age. My father was, like, “In my day, you were somebody’s studio assistant, and then you went to grad school, and then you did another apprenticeship, and then you might work as a picture framer for a while.” There was a way of ramping into your craft. And I think that he felt—and my mom, too, to a degree—concerned that there hadn’t been that education for me, and that I didn’t have enough of a personal life to know when it started and when it stopped.

While making “Girls,” I’d written my first book, and I’d loved doing it, but it had been jammed in between all the shooting days. I think I wrote it in eight months. I thought an essay was something that you wrote during your lunch break. I’ve been working on my next book for six years. I didn’t even know you could do that.

I wonder, when you were young, if you felt like “If I don’t seize this moment in the spotlight now—if I don’t push myself to the limits—it’ll end.”

It is all anybody says to you. The vibe was very much, like, Women are in style right now: go, go, go. And I believed them. I don’t blame anyone in particular. It’s not like there’s one person, à la the evil boss in “Spice World” or the woman pushing the band in “Josie and the Pussycats.” I had kind, beautiful collaborators. It’s just the nature of the beast. I don’t expect something different from it. I expect something different from me. I want to be really clear that there’s no one where I’m going, “This is the villain in my story.” The villain is the mass consciousness around female bodies and what they do versus what they should do.

There was a period of time where in, like, four weeks I shot a Vogue cover, hosted “S.N.L.,” gave a keynote speech at South by Southwest, and then flew to an awards show. To say I was broken is an understatement. And every single one of those things was somebody’s dream! That was then handed to me as my dream, and I went, “Yep, it’s my dream.” By the way, I am a hundred per cent grateful for every one of those opportunities. But I had no tools to go, “Hey, that’s a lot, guys.”

You’ve described your new show as a romantic comedy of sorts, and I wonder how you feel about writing sex scenes at this age versus when you were much younger. The trademark of “Girls,” to me, is that the sex was routinely awful. Maybe certain people were having a great time, but . . .

Now that I look back, it’s really hard for me to think about a single scene where anyone was having a great time.

Maybe Adam and Jessa?

They kind of got into it. But then they also destroyed their home and threw things at each other. I think that there was one kind of lovely scene when Patrick Wilson was on the show, a kind of a tender fingering scene, if you will. But then he never spoke to Hannah again. So, you know.

I was actually just thinking about that Patrick Wilson episode the other day, because his wife, the actress and novelist Dagmara Dominczyk, recently posted a lovely note about their wedding anniversary.

Dagmara is the coolest person alive. When there was all the uproar around that episode with Patrick, and everyone was, like, “There’s no way that this man would ever hook up with this woman,” Dagmara posted one really cool tweet that said something like “Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top and all, and he does her just fine.” It was one of those gifts a woman hands another woman where you just go, “Thank you.” What I didn’t say to her was, “You also have a face that looks like an actual jewel.”

But back to writing sex on the new show. . . .

I would say, without revealing too much, that the sex in this show is really different, because it’s people who are connected to each other and who are having experiences of pleasure where they’re actually trying to understand who the other one is and what they need. And, as I was directing it, I realized—and I said this to Meg—that I always found the brief couple of times where I had to seem like I was enjoying sex much harder as an actor. It’s so much more vulnerable. Sitting there and making a face, like, God, when will this guy roll off me? is a much less exposing experience, even if you are unclothed to some degree. Because sexual pleasure is such a kind of private space. It belongs to two—or three, or four—people, whatever you want to include. I’ve always been more of a two-person gal, but I’m shaming no one.

At times, there were moments where I felt very shy about writing scenes that involved, at the most basic level, people having orgasms, or people looking into each other’s eyes, or people noticing when the other one was uncomfortable or unhappy. Because a lot of the sex in “Girls” was about one person being in hell and the other person vastly overestimating their own prowess or underestimating the other person’s experience. Also, maybe now that I’m older I also find bad sex a little less funny than I did then. Perhaps mocking these experiences, at the very moment in my life when I was going through them, was a way of lightening how deeply uncomfortable it is to be a woman in your twenties or your teens.

The characters in “Too Much” are in their thirties?

Thirties and forties.

So you’re making your own “Thirtysomething.”

Yes! I wrote the episodes for this, but I also had a mini writers’ room of friends working with me. When I start a project, I always make a must-watch list for the writers’ room, and “Thirtysomething” was the first thing on the list. And then “Ally McBeal,” always “Ally McBeal.” Though I think Ally McBeal was meant to be, like, twenty-six, which is terrifying. When I watched it in my teens, I was, like, “When I get to be Ally McBeal’s age, of fifty-nine, I wonder what my life will be like.” It’s like when you find out Miss Havisham was supposed to be thirty-seven.

Or when you find out that Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” is supposed to be fifty.

Oh, when you find out that Bridget Jones weighed a hundred and thirty-two pounds. Sometimes she weighed a hundred and thirty-two and a half, and sometimes she went all the way up to a hundred and thirty-six. But, boy, was it a problem!

How did you come up with the idea for “Too Much”?

When I first came here, I was, like, It’d be really interesting to do something about an American woman in London. You think you’re going to another country where they speak the same language as you, so it’s all going to kind of meld. And then I walked onto my first set and offered someone a hug, and they looked at me like I had just handed them a petri dish of unexplained bacteria.

There is a comedy, especially if you’re a kind of garrulous Jewish New Yorker, to the way that you’re interfacing with people. I also wanted to do something that referenced my favorite movies, which were romantic comedies produced by Working Title, but that deconstructed those a little bit.

Which films are you talking about?

“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” “Pride and Prejudice,” the Joe Wright one. Because I was working with Working Title already, I was, like, Wouldn’t it be interesting to work with the minds of these men who were able to produce this candy for women, but try to insert something else? Not that those movies aren’t emotionally honest, but I wouldn’t say any of the characters are dealing with the heaviest aspects of the human experience.

I wanted to ask you about writing into romantic optimism. Ultimately, for all it has to say about friendship, “Girls” feels romantically pessimistic.

Everything I’ve ever made is romantically pessimistic. Even the most romantic episodes of “Girls”—when Marnie and Charlie reunite, a heroin needle falls out of his pants. This is such a mortifying answer, but I think that it had to do with meeting Lu, and being, like, Oh, there actually is a feeling that you can have that it might be O.K., that the thing might last, that you’re not always running as fast as you can and then realizing you’re on a treadmill. It was wanting to make something that was about that feeling, but also acknowledging that, when we met each other, we had both experienced an enormous amount of life, trauma, complexity, and addiction, separately. So what does it look like when you meet and you’re both just trying to be the best versions of yourself, the version that you can live with, and then you welcome someone else into that? I actually have a story about this that is related to Twitter, but I don’t tweet anymore.

Do you even have your log-in?

I don’t have the log-in. I haven’t had to log in to my Twitter or my Instagram for six years! I don’t think those platforms are really where we’re meant to be spending our time. These places don’t protect women and minorities, and use free speech as a kind of illusion for allowing incredible amounts of racism, transphobia, and misogyny to run rampant on platforms that have the absolute power to control that. I just realized that there was no way that I was going to move toward the ways I wanted to feel in my personal life if I still had access to those things. So I have a wonderful person, named Dolly, who is smart and somehow is on social media all the time and maintains a beautiful attitude. She does it for me.

So does Dolly write your long Instagram captions?

No, I’ll write them in the Notes app, and I’ll send them to Dolly, and sometimes Dolly will give me notes. So it’s kind of like having an editor, which I love. But I don’t see the comments.

You were saying this somehow relates back to your romantic pessimism?

Oh, yes. So I remember I would send a bunch of tweets to Dolly and go, “Put these out as you want them.” And she wrote back, and she was, like, “I think maybe,” in the sweetest tones, “that every one of these is about how much you hate men and how all they do is disappoint you, and that every man besides your father is a monster and a goblin and should just go live on an island by themselves.” And I was, like, “Oof, yeah.” I was getting to a bitter place. And, for all of the complexities I’ve experienced with the public, I’ve always loved men. I love writing men. I love spending time with men. I love complicated men. I love working with male actors. So to get to a place where I was talking about men in this monolithic way, I didn’t find it cute. I didn’t find it funny. It was just a trash compactor of disappointment. It also had to do with my own confusion around how I wanted to perform in a relationship, and what I thought I needed, the kinds of people I was pursuing. I think that, with a few exceptions, anyone who’s experiencing a kind of monolithic disappointment has to examine their own participation in it. And so, by the time I met Lu, I was in this place where I was, like, “I am going to have a really beautiful life, and it’s going to be mine, and having a long-term partner really may not be a part of that.”

You saw yourself as becoming one of those women who is fancy-free with a bunch of parakeets.

Fancy-free, but replace parakeets with cats with a variety of disabilities, and you have the picture. That’s what I was seeing. It was hairless dogs, disabled cats, a couple of tortoises.

And vacations with your friends.

Or a vacation with my cat, even. No, I was going on vacations with my best friend Russell, who is an acupuncturist in Los Angeles, which I still do three times a year. And part of the reason that I have the right husband for me is because he has no problem with me needing to do that. Part of my personal reset is that I need to go on a private trip with a worldly homosexual man three times a year, or I won’t be the person he loves. And he’s O.K. with that.

Do you feel like you’ve been able to maintain long-term friendships? I mean, few people keep a lot of the same friends from their early twenties, but you were in such a crazy whirlwind.

I would say a few things. Considering how complicated my twenties were, I do maintain really beautiful and emotional relationships with most of the people who were my friends. I would say that my closeness with my family has remained unchanged. And then I think the really nice thing about getting sober is that people with whom you think you may have had a rupture will come back around, and you’ll find a new way to look at each other and be in each other’s lives. I’ve also made some new friends, like Janicza Bravo, who’s one of my favorite directors in the world. She has also become one of my closest friends, and we worked on “Too Much” together. She’s in it, and directed a special bottle episode that we’re very lucky to have.

Speaking of friends, are you going to the Eras Tour when it comes to London this weekend?

I’m going to try. I went in Boston, and I went in Pittsburgh. I like to sometimes go to the cities that are a little bit more off the beaten path. I was telling Lu before we went, “Listen, you’ve never seen me like this.” It’s like something comes through me—it’s my church. I start speaking in tongues. Even since before Taylor and I were friends, I just always had felt such a deep connection to her music. Something unique to only me, obviously.

I’ve seen every tour she’s ever done. I love seeing a woman who’s not yet forty being, like, “Yes, I have a body of work.” What I find inspiring is her acknowledgment of her own prolific expression.

I remember there was a profile of Taylor that mentioned that you and she would have slumber parties in nightgowns together, and everybody made a whole big to-do about it.

Well, she was having the exact experience that is standard for a woman in their twenties, which is finding who your people are. But there was just an examination of it that was so microscopic, and a set of standards that were so outlandish. I’m always very careful to be protective of her in every single way. Probably the two things I get asked most in life are “What is Taylor like?” and “Can I have tickets to the Eras Tour?” And usually my answer to both things is no, but I will say that she’s everything that you would want her to be. She’s kind, she’s devoted, she’s introspective, she’s emotional, she’s funny as fuck. I guess my feeling sometimes is, Isn’t she giving us enough, guys?

Should we discuss the so-called “Girls” resurgence? Apparently, Gen Z is watching the show en masse and making many memes about it.

I really only hear about it from other people, because I’m not really online. I have a secret TikTok, where the entire algorithm is neurodivergence, cats with disabilities, and knitting, and that’s how I like it. What makes me the happiest is when my brother or his girlfriend sends me a “Girls” meme, and I literally do not understand one per cent of why it is funny. I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to a point where I actually can’t decode it.

It’s so funny, because I have a friend who has an eighteen-year-old daughter, and I mentioned you, and she was, like, “Literally the only thing I know about her is that she made ‘Girls.’ ”

Great. That is all I want her to know about me, and bless you for telling me. One time, someone sent me a TikTok that was about Adam and Hannah, and I made the mistake of looking at the comments. There was one that was, like, “I don’t know why everyone hates her. Why does everyone hate her so much?” There was something so tender about a young person going, “I don’t know why everyone hates her!”

It’s like when I found out about how everybody was upset at Madonna when she made her book about sex.

No comparison I could love more. I remember when I shot the Vogue cover, and I just had this vision into the future where I was ninety and still living in my same first apartment, in Brooklyn Heights, and I would need help getting my groceries up the stairs, and some twenty-two-year-olds who live downstairs would roll their eyes. I would be, like, “Come upstairs. I’ll show you some interesting things from when I used to be on television.” And they’d be, like, “You’re the one who has all this cat food delivered every week. You were not on television.” And I would bring out this laminated, crunched copy of Vogue and be, like, “This is me.” What’s funny is I feel that way now sometimes, but I could not love it more.

I wanted to ask about self-awareness. I wonder if the characters in the new show are more self-aware, because it seems to me like half the humor in “Girls” was just that nobody was aware of anything.

Nobody understood anything about themselves.

Do you feel like your characters understand themselves more, now that you feel like you understand yourself more?

Yeah, I do. I feel like the character in “Too Much” has her moments, like we all do, and that’s where comedy comes from. But she’s loving, and she’s open, and she’s really trying. She’s a committed friend; she shows up when people ask her to. She doesn’t treat the man in her life like he’s just an accessory for her own self-acknowledgment. And one of the reasons, besides just loving Meg, that I wanted someone else to play [the part] is: I want people to be able to see those things in her. I think sometimes when people associate you so recently with another character, they’re not able to see that. For so long, people were, like, “You are Hannah. Hannah is you.” They had no sense that there was any level of satire in it. I swear, even my friends started to get confused.

I think when I knew undoubtedly that you and Hannah were different was the moment I realized that I don’t think Hannah is supposed to be that great of a writer.

No, she’s a bad writer!

I mean, when she reads the thing at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you’re, like, This is remedial.

She’s not dumb, but she’s dumb. You know? She’s a blogger. She’s just exactly mediocre. She’s mediocre at sex. She’s mediocre at friendships. The funniest characters in the world see themselves in totally different ways from how the world sees them. So I was, like, Wouldn’t it be fun to make a show about four girls who think they’re the best at everything?

They think they’re running New York City.

They’re delusional! Hannah thinks everyone’s copying her, when they’ve never even heard of her. You know, one time I was dating this guy casually between “Girls” and now, and I walked into his house, and his roommate looked at me and was, like, “It’s interesting that you’re here. I wanted to ask you, have you seen my student film?” And I was, like, “What’s your name? No.” And he was, like, “Because there was some stuff in an episode of ‘Girls’ that’s kind of reminiscent of it.” Ultimately, his student film was about a guy whose girlfriend got an abortion when he didn’t want her to. I was, like, “That’s called being a man in America, my friend.” But he was so sure that I had seen his student film, which I then had to look up. And it had, no shade, like, thirty-nine views on Vimeo, and most of them were probably his mother. I remember I walked out being, like, “Would you ask Noah Baumbach if he copied your student film?”

That’s so crazy.

Anyways, Hannah was a dummy. The other thing I always say to people is, “Do you think Hannah could have made a show?” Hannah can’t even shop for groceries. No one ever got that the “voice of a generation” line was a joke.

Everyone thought we were our characters. Allison [Williams] said something interesting recently where she was, like, “All the women on the show, they thought we were just in a documentary about ourselves. And all the men on the show, they were, like, ‘Let us give you an Oscar.’ ” And that gap is so fascinating. Not to say any of the men on the show didn’t deserve the incredible roles and opportunities that were handed their way. But we were all on the same show.

Your podcast “The C-Word” looks at the lifespan of women who have had a rough ride in public. Was it about trying to see what the other side of that experience looks like?

It was only about that. My co-host, Alissa [Bennett], we’ve been friends for twenty years, and she was such a source of comfort for me in just her ability to place some of these ideas within history. We would have these epic conversations about “Can you believe that this is what they said about Tuesday Weld? Can you really wrap your mind around that?” But I never want to do something if I feel that its only application can be to someone who’s experienced celebrity. I’m not so interested in that. I feel like, when I try to talk about my own experience of fame, it falls apart in my own hands, because it’s not really about anything. So I never want to do anything where I think that the only takeaway would be for someone who has experienced the same kind of scrutiny I have, because that is obviously a narrow and specific audience. I wanted to make a podcast that could be useful to any woman. We all know what it’s like to be in your workplace and suddenly go, “Everybody sees me in a way that is not reflective of who I am.”

Is the podcast over?

No, we will do more. Just the other day, I sent Alissa an article. I Googled myself. I’m not lying when I say that it happens once a year, and it’s because I’m looking for something to send my mother. So I went to Google News—because I wanted to send my mother an article in which I talked about my grandmother in relation to “Treasure”—and it had a big headline that was, like, “Lena Dunham: The Tragic Rise and Fall of a Starlet!” And it was on a Web site I’ve never heard of in my life. One of those ones where you’re, like, Did A.I. write this?

The probability is high.

I sent it to Alissa, and she was, like, “Oh, my God, you got C-worded so hard.” But I’m, like, “No, you don’t understand—it delights me.”

You can’t just be delighted, though. That can’t be your only reaction.

No, you are right. I’m sure that’s a defense mechanism. But I guess there’s something where it’s, like, If you’re going to be misunderstood, why not take it all the way? I think that I have a little bit of that. I think that’s one of the reasons why “Reputation” is my favorite Taylor era, because it’s so much about “If you’re not going to see me, if you’re going to so refuse to understand what’s in front of you and what I’m trying to say, then why don’t I just put on a black catsuit and move it all the way over to villain mode?” And I think that in the past six years I’ve done a good job of disassembling that, because, as I said before, I don’t want to be involved with any kind of thinking that’s going to take away from me making work. Although I did just dye my hair black, but it’s not about going into villain mode. I honestly had just watched “Poor Things,” and I thought, Why not me?

Did you do it yourself?

No. I went through such a long period of cutting my own hair. My father said, when I was young, it was like clockwork. If something happened to me with a boy, I’d go buy a box of Pantene, the least attractive color. So now I have left it to professionals. But I think “Poor Things” made us all want to do things.

It made me want to buy dresses with huge sleeves. Are you inspired by the Yorgos Lanthimos–Emma Stone collaboration?

I love watching it. That’s another thing that I like about nonacting is leaving space for that kind of relationship. I remember looking at Meg and being, like, “You are my muse. You inspire me every single day to go home and tap out pages upon pages.” I definitely don’t want to be my own muse.

You were for a while.

I guess. I mean, it’s funny, because in my head it was always Jemima [Kirke] or Allison or Zosia [Mamet]. Or Adam [Driver].

I’m happy you are working with Andrew Rannells again, on “Too Much.” When I watch “Girls,” that’s to me the love story of the show, Hannah and Elijah.

I’ll give you an exclusive. Andrew and I play spouses.

So you’re in the show?

I’m in the show! I think I just accidentally revealed that. But it’s a smaller part. Not a walk-on, but it’s not a lead.

I wanted to ask about the role of illness in the new show. Is disability discussed openly in the work?

Meg’s character is not distinctly disabled. She talks at one point about having PCOS, and that gives you an understanding that maybe she’s had a different experience of her reproductive life. I think something that was really important to me with the new show is that Meg is one of the beautiful women working today. She is so alarmingly gorgeous. The fact that she is not a size 0, or that she’s not part of the new class of Ozempic-thin women, is not part of it.

It seems like we had this moment of body positivity, and then every single day it’s like we’re looking around and it’s like our masses are decreasing. I do not mean to objectify Meg, but she looks like a flower covered in dew. She is Anna Karina to me. But it’s really important to me that there be a love affair between a guy and a girl where the fact that she is not teensy-weensy doesn’t drive it. I feel like so often we see those stories, and the guy is somehow, like, “And I love you anyway.” Meg was really, really careful about this, too, even though a lot of her comedy leans into humor around the female form. We were, like, “We don’t want anyone to think we’re doing a show about a beautiful man doing someone a favor.”

When the character moves to London, is she running away from something?

Yeah. She’s part of a super intensely codependent Jewish family of women. Her mom is Rita Wilson, and her grandmother’s Rhea Perlman, and she’s definitely in what my therapist would call a closed-system family. And then she’s also had a breakup with somebody that she really thought would be the person she was going to spend her life with. And she’s also had a little bit of a crisis of confidence around work. So it’s a combination of things that sent her on her way.

You’ve wrapped shooting on “Too Much” and are editing it now. What’s next for you?

I think the thing I would really like to tackle next is trying to make a film that’s distinctly commercial but also maintains the DNA of what is interesting to me.

So, something like “Barbie”? Are you going to start shooting the Polly Pocket movie that was announced?

I’m going to tell you something here that I haven’t told anyone: I’m not going to make the Polly Pocket movie. I wrote a script, and I was working on it for three years. But I remember someone once said to me about Nancy Meyers: the thing that’s the most amazing about her is that the movie she makes or the movie she would be making with or without a studio, with or without notes—that somehow her taste manages to intersect perfectly with what the world wants. What a fucking gift that is. And Nora Ephron, too, who was such a mentor to me, but always said, “Go be weird. Don’t kowtow to anyone.” And I think Greta [Gerwig] managed this incredible feat [with “Barbie”], which was to make this thing that was literally candy to so many different kinds of people and was perfectly and divinely Greta. And I just—I felt like, unless I can do it that way, I’m not going to do it. I don’t think I have that in me. I feel like the next movie I make needs to feel like a movie that I absolutely have to make. No one but me could make it. And I did think other people could make “Polly Pocket.”

So when you say you want to make something that still has your DNA, your taste, but that’s commercial, what does that mean? Do you know what genre that would be?

I think it’s another romantic comedy. Right now, I’m so full of, as my grandmother would say, piss and vinegar that I really want to focus. I also have a few TV projects going that are more commercial.

Like what?

There is a spy show that I’m creating for Netflix. It’s based on the idea that organizations like the C.I.A. and M.I.6 are tapping college students in, earlier and earlier. So it’s, basically, What happens when a group of college kids, who have all the issues, pains, and fears of college kids, are tasked with an agenda of national protection? My New Year’s resolution this year was, like, “I’m going to try to think more commercially thirty-seven per cent of the time, just because it’s an interesting challenge.”

Well, I was going to ask about Netflix, which will be the home of “Too Much.” I was wondering if there was a reason why that was your new creative-television home as opposed to HBO.

I think the whole business is changing. I loved my experience with HBO. I hope there’s more. I’m still close to my executives there. Netflix, I happen to have a real creative connection with them on these two projects. If there’s a project that’s close to you and you find somebody who’s excited by it and understands it, that’s not to be taken lightly. It’s almost like when you’re young, and you keep saying there’s a lot of fish in the sea, and then you realize, Not as many fish as I thought. I can feel the business contracting. So I enjoy having a creatively poly life style. Just as it doesn’t make sense that one person can meet all your needs, it doesn’t make sense that one producing home is going to understand everything that you make.

You also have producing projects that you’re doing with your own company, Good Thing Going. What’s next?

We have a project that I am really passionate about, which is actually written by my brother’s best childhood friend. Her name is Emily Rappaport, and it’s called “Female Friendship.” It’s funny, because we’re producing it with Maude Apatow’s company, Maude is going to star in it, and I’ve known Maude since she was eleven. The show is about Emily’s experience of being in a best friendship, and then one member of the best friendship realizes that they’re not a woman and decides to transition. For Emily, that person in her life happens to be my brother.

Emily sent me the script just to get my notes, but I read it and was, like, “I must be a part of it. If someone else works on this with you, my heart will crack in half.” What I love about it is that it’s in the genre of the movies that I love, whether it’s “Girlfriends” or “Walking and Talking” or “Lady Bird.” It feels like it has this incredible specificity around coming of age that turns it on its head in this really cool way.

So the memoir you’re working on—was that something which you assigned yourself?

I assigned it to myself, in the fall of 2018. I’d written my last one in such a fugue state, which is how I tend to write. But what I found was that I wanted to approach this one in a much more intentional way. Now I would say the book is finally so close to being done. Every day I think, Is today going to be the day that I write the last sentence?

What was the hardest part of the memoir to write?

A lot of it spilled out, and I was, like, “See, look at me. I’m not traumatized at all.” And what was really interesting was that my editor at Random House, Andy Ward, read it, and he was, like, “You’ve poured out about your health, you’ve poured out about complex relationships, but you barely talk about your career.” I think at first I was, like, “Well, it’s boring: I go to work, and I leave work. What am I supposed to say? I met Beyoncé once, and we shook hands, and it was exciting?” And he was, like, “No, you’re supposed to talk about, How did it feel? What was it like?” I was examining all of this stuff that tons of people would pay millions of dollars to never have to talk about again, but then avoiding the part of the book that should in essence be most fun. So that’s what I had to go back and do.

You wrote an Instagram post last year about feeling skeptical about the form of the personal essay and how the world receives it, saying that you aren’t sure confessional writing is a “key to liberation” anymore. But you are going back to that well.

It is the only thing that belongs to me. Ultimately, at the end of the day, “Girls” is property of HBO/Warner Bros. And I am full of gratitude, and there is no way I would do it differently. It’s sort of the same way that my father spends all of this time making a painting and has this really intimate relationship with it, and then the only way that we can live our lives is that it’s going to go live in a millionaire’s house. I started writing personal essays at the exact moment that “Girls” was first coming out, and I didn’t even think about publishing them. I was, like, There just has to be a place, like when I was a teen-ager and thought I wanted to be a poet, where I can always go. And that’s what that writing is to me.

I no longer necessarily think that this is the most radical art form and that it’s going to change and shift the world, but I do think that it has the most power to change and shift the inner landscape of the person who’s doing it. And you’re right—I can say I’m swearing it off as much as I want, and then I just can’t quit it. I remember when I wrote about my hysterectomy three months after it happened, and everyone who loved me was really concerned about how quickly I was doing it. They were, like, “You haven’t even metabolized it.” I remember thinking, So what? Then I’ll write something else when I’ve metabolized it.

I wanted to ask you about your relationship to self-help. Many of your Instagram posts seem quite motivational. They almost have a directive quality to them, like, “Don’t give up before the miracle” or “Here are some tools for learning how to love yourself.” Are you a self-help reader?

There are definitely self-help books that I love, such as Mark Epstein’s “Thoughts Without a Thinker,” which is a Buddhist psychoanalysis text, or [Bessel van der Kolk’s] “The Body Keeps the Score.” “Don’t give up before the miracle” is a sobriety phrase, and people who have been in that world understand it. When I quote something like that, I wouldn’t say it is ironic, because it’s beautiful, and it’s helped me, but it’s a little bit wink, wink. It’s the equivalent of not quoting directly from the Bible but maybe having studied the Bible as a kid and then quoting it in a slightly off-kilter way. I don’t look at Instagram these days, but, at the time of my life when I still was doing that, if there had been people there speaking honestly, it wouldn’t have felt like, to use another sobriety phrase, such a “compare and despair” place. But, if someone asked me, “Would you like to write a self-help book?,” I would say, “I don’t think that I am the correct person for that gig.”

I’ve realized, listening to you speak, how intentionally you seem to be in choosing your words. I wonder if there’s been a certain kind of sea change in terms of an appetite for provocation.

I think that, when I was younger, not coming out of a Disneyfied world of P.R. training, just being thrust into this, I always kind of thought that the person who wrote that show, which seems to provoke people, should be the same person who comes to the interview. And I was too young to really have developed the skill set to sort of keep one thought in the work and the other in the world. The work is always asking questions, and allowing you to meet it fully. But the person is young, and doesn’t know, necessarily, to distinguish between those two realities. Trollish behavior, or edgelord behavior, or whatever we call it now, is really not in my DNA makeup. I think that people would be surprised by how much the person they experienced as provocative was honestly just puppyishly trying to show up and give the most and do the best. And it’s funny that you can have one intention and have it be met so differently. And that definitely created a lot of confusion and psychic distress. But I think that skills, like learning to take a moment to know in what contexts I can speed-wrap my thoughts and in what contexts I can move with a little bit more intentionality, have been helpful in protecting me so that the part of me that is always showing up ready to bare myself is available to the page, but not available to people who are looking to utilize that in a different kind of way.

Are you a person who has regrets? Is that a useful emotion for you?

You know, my mother named her retrospective that she had at the Baltimore Museum of Art, in 1997, “The Music of Regret,” because it’s an emotion that she really understands and that has been a sort of narrator for her. But I think feeling regretful is different from feeling sorry. Sorry is something where you can walk in, and you can do something about it. You can express an intention, you can change an action. Whereas regret is staying toggled to something, as if you have hundreds of ankle weights on you. And I think people think somehow that regret makes them a quote-unquote “good person.” It’s funny that there was a [parody] Twitter account called Lena Dunham Apologizes, because I think what people didn’t understand is that, truly, if I’ve done something that has made someone feel unseen or uncared for, or like they’re excluded from something, my first instinct is to apologize. It’s my first instinct with friends. It’s my first instinct with family. It’s certainly not a P.R. mechanism. You try to make a repair, you hope that’s successful, and you keep moving. Regret keeps you chained to an earlier version of yourself. So I really try not to fuck with regret. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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