Interview: Lena Dunham - Girls
The bestselling writer, award-winning actress and generally awesome New Yorker candidly answers Time Out readers’ most searching questions
Lena Dunham is getting ready to talk. At length. About herself. Perched on a sofa in a Manhattan film studio, she's preparing to spill the beans about her hit TV show Girls, her personal life (including her love life) and the daily effort that goes into maintaining her status as a feminist icon, torch-bearer for millennial angst and, simply, an astonishingly talented human being. At 28 the writer, director and actor already has a Golden Globe, a heap of Emmy nominations and a bestselling book under her belt.
Lucky for Dunham, then, that talking about herself is one of her greatest talents. She's a chatterbox, yes, but it's her eye-watering honesty that's endeared her to so many people – in her native New York and far beyond.
First there was Girls, the show which she scripts, directs and stars in as capricious writer Hannah Horvath. Covering the lives, loves and cringeworthy sexual escapades of four young women living in Brooklyn, the HBO drama has helped bring natural human bodies and frank sexual behaviour to our TV screens. Take, for example, the first episode of the fourth season, aired last February, which featured an act that can only be described as 'bum motorboating'.
There's also Dunham's memoir-of-sorts, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned". Published in September last year, the book drew criticism (some commentators claimed it showed her to be guilty of child abuse) as well as support (the book also revealed that Dunham had been the victim of rape).
Dunham's talent, popularity and candour have given her a serious claim to being the voice of her generation, but those same qualities have also put her in the firing line. Right now she's taking some time away from Twitter, and its near-endless supply of trolls; 'I'm trying to create a safer space for myself emotionally,' she told media at last week's Golden Globes ceremony. Turns out that, for every enamoured fan writing their university dissertation on Girls, there's some snarky blogger tearing her plotlines apart.
Today, though, Dunham's here to answer to her fans, not her critics. Rather than grill her ourselves, we've decided to let Time Out readers from around the world set the interview questions. And so – covering chat-up lines, her preference in house pets, and what it's like hanging out with Taylor Swift – here's what you guys wanted to ask Lena Dunham. Her answers are as honest as ever.
What keeps you going when you hit roadblocks or receive criticism?Angél H
'My family, green tea and sleep. I like to get some good family time in, I like caffeine in the form of a healthy cup of green tea, but mostly, honestly, I'm a big proponent of napping your way through problematic portions of your life. I napped for like five hours yesterday. I woke up feeling much worse, but at least I wasn't awake for some of it!'
What is the most millennial thing you have done?Alexandra S
'I guess using a lot of Uber cars? Just transactional app stuff. And I have true close friends who I have met on Twitter, as if Twitter was a party. One of my best friends, we met on Twitter, we fell in Twitter love, then we started writing emails and she came to visit me. And everyone was like, "You're getting Catfished." But I wasn't, and we're really close. But the fact is, my parents have a lot of trouble conceiving of the idea of meeting a friend on the internet. It's not something they're necessarily supportive of. But now I'm like: Guys, I know people who have married and had children based on their internet unions. It's no longer taboo, I can make a friend on the internet.'
Do you feel that the perception of female actors and writers varies between the UK and the US?Leonie B
'I think the UK has a wonderful history of strong female leads (all time faves: "Prime Suspect" and "Ab Fab") and an awesome history of giving women autonomy on television. I've always loved the BBC for this reason and almost cried when I met the cast of "Call the Midwife".'
What were the best and worst reactions to your book? Jonny E
'Best: people telling me it had made them feel less alone. Worst: offending a guy who I made out with once in college by describing him in unflattering terms and receiving a rather tragic and guilt-inducing email about it.'
I'm writing my thesis on Girls. How do you feel about scholarly think pieces on the show?Alexandra S
'I feel really good about it. I mean the idea that I've done anything of scholarly merit is very meaningful. I hope your professors feel the same way I do and they're not like "Why the F are you writing your thesis on this half-hour comedy where this person is always showing her breasts?" But as long as you're supported institutionally, I'm thrilled about it. A couple of people have told me that they're writing academic pieces on "Girls" and I feel there's no higher compliment. Unless it's exploring how "Girls" has advanced capitalism and ruined New York City or something like that.'
Any tips for asking a cute guy out?Guillaume V
'I have never asked anyone out successfully – that should be said right here. I was set up with my boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff] on a blind date; I was like 40 minutes late and now we live together. So I really don't know how you're supposed to go about this. I guess I would say I'm a big proponent of honesty and not playing games, so if you want to spend time with someone in a romantic setting, and you've picked up on the signal that they might too, you should just ask them to go do something! I think something I feel embarrassed about in my twenties is that I didn't do enough real dates. I feel like all I ever did was just go over to people's houses and throw up. I just didn't live that dream, so you go forth and do that.'
Who are your favourite London girls?Hannah S
'I have so many, because London girls are so chic and smart and special! A few standouts are Polly Stenham, Emma Gannon, Felicity Jones, Gemma Cairney, Ruby Tandoh and my make-up artist Sarah Reygate.'
What's it like being friends with Taylor Swift?Charlie K
'I get asked a lot in the press about being friends with her and I always say, "It's just as great as you'd imagine." She's funny, talented, kind, she smells great, she's a good cook. I would recommend it to anyone.'
Is there anything that would make you quit social media?Josh M
'I have dealt with a lot of social media firestorms. Maybe when you first join Twitter and you have 400 followers and you feel like a fucking superhero, everyone who's following you is pretty much nice and agrees with your politics and thinks you're cool. Once it expands, suddenly you're like: Oh, it's statistically impossible that all these people following me would like me, or even know who I am. I haven't quit Twitter, but the thing that's made me pull back from it has been the amount of pure abusive language. So what I've done is pull back in such a way that I don't feel its violence so directly: I make my assistant look at it, now she goes to bed with those images in her mind! [evil laughter]'
Do you have a go-to dance track?Tim L
'It features in this season of "Girls" and it has been my go-to dance track for a long time. It's "Get Low" by Lil Jon. It's just what works for me. No matter the time or location, I will dance to "Get Low". I actually met Lil Jon this year and I told him how much I loved "Get Low". He seemed flattered, but he probably thought: Everyone loves "Get Low", it's the greatest song in history. Also, in his new song, "Bend Ova", I thought the lyrics were "Bend over and let me see the devil", and I was like: He is a poet. But he was like: "Those are not the lyrics." Though I think what I came up with is better and sexier!'
Do you have any advice for writing a script based on personal experiences? Jessica K
'Something I had trouble with was understanding that when you're writing a script you have the option to embellish on life or switch the order of events or make it generally more cinematic. I would stick too closely to my own experience and not necessarily think about the fact that it needs to have an event happen. Realising that I could channel my own experience into a story that was slightly more cinematic was a very important moment for me – allowing myself to accept that the kind of screenwriting I'm doing is a work of fiction.'
Are you a cat person or a dog person?Giles R
'I'm a dog person. I grew up with hairless cats, but they're not something everybody's into. I don't think I'm in a relationship where hairless cats can be an option in my future.'
The characters in Girls have shown their true colours over the years. If you could go back, would you write seasons one to three any differently?Helen L
'I regret nothing.'
By Time Out editors. Photo: Danielle Levitt.
Girls is on NowTV Ch110 HBO, Fridays at 10pm.