The Rise of Lena Dunham: From the NYC Art Scene to Hollywood Lightning Rod
The "Girls" creator enthralled Judd Apatow and the late Nora Ephron despite attacks on her age, her politics and all those nude scenes.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lena Dunham breezes onto the Girls set in a converted warehouse on the far west side of Manhattan wearing a printed dress by cool-girl label Opening Ceremony — its long diaphanous skirt has a central split that reveals pale legs in black short shorts. On this day, she’s directing the ninth episode of Girls’ 10-episode second season, which bows Jan. 13 on HBO.
It is an inhumanely hot mid-August day, the kind of temperature that unleashes the baked-in stench of New York City gutters. But Dunham — her pre-Emmy pixie hair pulled off her neck in a tiny ponytail — is composed and completely happy in her outfit, even if the buttons at the top of her sleeveless dress are puckering slightly across her breast line. Purchased on an “insane shopping bender” during a Los Angeles jaunt when she stayed at the home of her Girls co-showrunner and good friend Jenni Konner, this dress is not something Dunham’s underemployed, sartorially challenged Hannah Horvath would have the wherewithal or wallet to pull off. But one of Dunham’s signature attributes is utter contentment — inexplicable to some — in her own skin, even at a scale-tipping-by-Hollywood-standards size 8.
“I’ve always loved clothes, as much as that might shock people,” she says. “A lot of people are like, ‘What? You can’t be a size 8 and love clothes — how does that work? You have to wear a burlap sack.’ ”
Actually, Dunham frequently is naked in Girls’ often humiliating or awkward sexual encounters. The second episode of the season opens with a topless Hannah having sex with her new boyfriend — an African-American Republican played by Community star Donald Glover — her naked breasts bobbing up and down. “Yep, there are a lot of scenes that are pretty nude,” she says matter-of-factly. “They’re nude emotionally; they’re nude physically. They’re not always sexually nude, which can be even more awful because then they’re nude without context.”
Asked if she’s self-conscious about putting herself and her body on display for millions of strangers, she shrugs: “Um, no. My parents really valued expressing yourself and placed a premium on that for everyone’s reason for living.” Pressed further, Dunham admits that a certain amount of her naked abandon “does not come from a place of confidence and is a compulsion. And I’m sure I will be working that out in therapy for the rest of my life.”
At 26, Dunham has become the object of intense admiration for her relentlessly honest depiction of the millennial hipster generation in post-crash America, effortlessly winning fans from Judd Apatow and the late Nora Ephron to The New Yorker editor David Remnick. That she seemingly has leapfrogged the requisite dues-paying slog that precedes many success stories is viewed as both incredible and incredibly annoying — accusations of nepotism have been a familiar refrain (even though her art-world parents hardly would qualify as “Hollywood”).
Indeed, most women Dunham’s age who find success in Hollywood are ingenues, actresses or the ubiquitous model-turned-actress. In other words, women whose sheer beauty makes them famous, all of which makes her even more unusual, un-pigeonholeable and galling to her critics — many of them anonymous online hate spewers as well as bloggers, journalists and media personalities, from Gawker’s John Cook to the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser and Howard Stern (the latter two have used words like “fat” and “for ugly people” to describe Dunham and her show).
“Since when is the struggle for self-acceptance mock-worthy?” counters HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle. “Our culture sets an impossible standard for the female body and then criticizes those who don’t achieve it.” And Dunham has proved she’s not afraid to defy unattainable stereotypes. “She puts it all out there,” adds Konner. “People call her brave. She is so honest in all of her work, including showing her body, that you cannot help but react.”
In fact, Dunham has served as an attention-seeking lightning rod ever since her 2010 breakthrough movie Tiny Furniture, a semiautobiographical narrative about a film-studies graduate who returns home to find her degree is useless and her life is going nowhere. Dunham wrote, directed and starred in the film along with her mother, artist Laurie Simmons, and her sister, Grace. Tiny Furniture (the title is taken from her mother’s work constructing miniature rooms with dollhouse furniture) won numerous honors, including the narrative feature award at South by Southwest and the best first screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. It also earned her a blind script deal at HBO as well as legions of admirers including Konner (who admits she was “obsessed” with the film), Apatow (who sent Dunham an e-mail asking if she wanted to work with him) and Ephron, who became a mentor to Dunham in the last few years of Ephron’s life.
Apatow heard that Konner was working with Dunham on an HBO pilot (they were put together by their respective agents at UTA) and asked if they wanted a partner. “Lena is just a fantastic sounding board for human behavior,” says Apatow. “She is really smart, and if you’re scared to reveal something about yourself, she roots for you to go deeper and to not be afraid.”
Like Apatow, Ephron sent a note of congratulations to Dunham after seeing Tiny Furniture. (She also complimented Mindy Kaling on Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), her 2011 book.) Ephron “was super-supportive of young writers,” says Dunham, who has the same gift for comedic disclosure as Ephron. “I think what made Nora continue to be such a vital writer for her entire life is she never went into the success bubble,” she adds. “She was constantly communicating with people all over about work, about life, which is a trait I hope to emulate.”
It was, indirectly, Dunham’s relationship with Ephron that connected her to Remnick, who on short notice asked Dunham to write an essay for The New Yorker after Ephron died in June. “It was a really moving and personal piece centered around Nora’s capacity to meet and be a mentor to younger writers and filmmakers, particularly women,” says Remnick. “It’s the voice — she’s just got it.” A few days later, on July 4, they met for the first time “at The Odeon — her choice — like it was 1988,” he recalls. “It was about 400 degrees, and we sat talking for hours.”
Dunham since has starred in a short film about The New Yorker’s iPad app (for which she recruited frequent collaborator and Tiny Furniture and Girls co-star Alex Karpovsky and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) and published an essay about her first boyfriend. And Remnick has become another literary mentor. “He’s someone I share ideas with,” she says. “But he’s not a yes man. He’s really been wildly supportive of me writing prose — I don’t think I would have had the same desire to write a book had I not met David.”
While working on said book, an advice memoir currently titled Not That Kind of Girl, for which she received an eye-popping and Internet-imploding $3.7 million advance from Random House, Dunham is writing the third season of Girls, which she began doing before the second season even aired — an allowance indicating strong network support. “When she turned in the pilot for Girls,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, “all of the things I reacted to in Tiny Furniture I found in that script, but the voice had matured and gotten stronger.”
He continues: “The experience with Lena has been eye-opening in never underestimating anybody’s ability to step up — because after the script comes the tasks of running a show, directing, casting. At every step, she has been as responsible, clear and self-assured about her choices as any creator I’ve dealt with.”
Konner, an industry veteran who got her start working on the short-lived Apatow series Undeclared, says though Girls is Dunham’s first TV series, “I learn from her every day. She didn’t understand about producing television because why would she? She didn’t know what an order meant or what the upfronts were. I’ve never seen anyone able to learn that quickly. It’s like living with someone in a montage; by the end of the song, she knows everything.”
As the older daughter of successful artists — Simmons is a photographer and visual artist who counts the late Andy Kaufman among her childhood friends; dad Carroll Dunham is a painter whose work has sold at action for as much as $433,000 — Dunham grew up in a household steeped in the New York City arts scene. Photographers Sherri Zuckerman and Catherine McGann, known for chronicling New York nightlife for The Village Voice, were among Lena and Grace’s baby sitters.
Dunham was educated at progressive institutions— from elementary school through high school at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, then Oberlin College in Ohio — that emphasize creative self-expression over grade-point average. At St. Ann’s, Dunham devoured with equal fervor the work of female confessional poets (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) as well as comic memoirist David Sedaris and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. They are among the writers, she says, “who make me want to put down their books and run and go write.” She also regularly binged on Nick at Nite, studying the work of iconic female comedians including Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Kane (who guest stars in the eighth episode of season two).
She was by all accounts a precocious and clever student at St. Ann’s, where the competition to stand out is fierce. Dunham’s Girls co-star Jemima Kirke — a painter and actress whose father is Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke — was a classmate and close friend even then. The two were featured in a New York Times Magazine series devoted to the rebuilding of New York two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They were photographed with friends under the Brooklyn Bridge; Dunham lay on her back holding a white rabbit. “The water is striped with the lights of the buildings, and the trash floating makes it feel like parts of the city are alive and moving on the water,” she said in the accompanying article.
Two years later, Dunham was featured in another Times piece about a vegan dinner party she threw for her high school pals. It is one of the aspects of her biography Gawker targeted for snide commentary (more on that later).
At Oberlin, Dunham pursued creative writing. “When you’re in a creative writing program at a school in Ohio, there’s nothing to do but read and smoke marijuana,” she says, laughing. But Dunham actually made three short films before graduation in 2008, including Pressure, which features a 19-year-old Dunham (sporting a frosted shag ’do and ripped tights) and two friends in the stacks at the Oberlin library. It is a four-minute riff on the pressures to have sex and showcased Dunham’s early talent for self-deprecating confessional comedy. She also shot her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, over four weeks while still at Oberlin.
In 2009, Creative Nonfiction, which like her later work mines identity and relationship anxiety, was accepted at SXSW as part of the festival’s Emerging Visions initiative. It was there that Dunham met Karpovsky, who was at SXSW with director Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax. “He was on the cover of The Austin Chronicle that year, so he was kind of like an SXSW celebrity to me,” recalls Dunham. “We went on what I consider to be a date. I don’t think he does. It was terrible. And then it transitioned into the lovely friendship that we have today.”
After graduating, Dunham briefly moved back into her family’s Tribeca loft. But unlike the post-college malaise of living with parents and working at unpaid internships that infuses the worlds of Tiny Furniture and Girls, she likes spending time with her family. Nonetheless, in spring 2011, she purchased a $500,000 one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights — a neighborhood the characters on Girls call “grown-up Brooklyn” — in a carefully preserved prewar building on the site of a 19th century finishing school. (Konner’s father and stepmother lived in the same Tribeca building as Dunham and her family, and Konner’s father had given her a Simmons photograph of a tiny woman watching TV. Coincidentally, Naegle has a larger version of the same Simmons photograph, notes Konner.)
It is Dunham’s rarefied upbringing — her family also has a home in Cornwall, Conn., where Meryl Streep is their neighbor — that detractors have latched on to as giving her a leg up. And the pedigree of her co-stars has only spurred more backbiting. There’s Kirke, whose artistic family includes sisters Domino and Lola, a musician and actress, respectively; Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David Mamet; and Allison Williams, daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams. (In an aside, Dunham says she was skeptical about casting Williams, who possesses movie-star looks. But Apatow championed her. “I was like: ‘She is perfect-looking! That is not what we are doing on this show!’ I was a little bit snotty,” recalls Dunham.)
While none of the actresses was a household name before Girls — Mamet has played character roles on Mad Men, United States of Tara and Parenthood — that has not tamped down the nepotism screeds. “I think when the perception of anybody is that they haven’t paid their dues, so to speak, there’s a pushback,” reasons Lombardo. But, he adds, the series “was being judged by some standard that seemed not uniformly applied to all media, which is telling.” He admits to being surprised by “the amount of acid and toxicity heaped upon the show, whether it was about the character of Hannah or whether the show was accurately reflecting the multicultural diversity of New York City.” The charge that Girls is myopically focused on “white-girl problems” is one criticism Dunham and Konner expected and seem to have taken in stride — they already had their sights on Glover, a rapper, actor and former 30 Rock writer, while the first season was airing. He appears in the first two episodes of season two, but Dunham hints he could return in season three. When he realizes he’s merely a fetish for the cosseted Midwestern Hannah, their relationship dissolves in a hilarious scene in which Hannah quotes Missy Elliott’s “Work It.”
Less funny was the reaction to Dunham’s Obama re-election campaign ad comparing voting for the first time to losing her virginity: The moralizing outrage from the conservative pundit-ocracy was predictably swift and ludicrously loud. “I thought maybe 50,000 people will see this,” says Dunham. “But there was definitely no thought that my dad was going to call me and say, ‘So, Sean Hannity [the Fox News host] just called you a whore.’ It made me realize that politics is the topic that makes people angrier than any other. It is not a civil climate to express yourself in, but it’s essential.”
Gawker, a repository for the resounding takedown, seems to have taken particular pleasure in sticking in the shiv. The site posted Dunham’s entire 66-page book proposal, which it characterized as “nauseating” and “cloying” while accusing Dunham of “narcissism,” “navel gazing” and an inability to conceive “a rationale for writing that doesn’t serve the goal of drawing attention to herself.” Her lawyers sprung into action demanding its removal. “I wasn’t embarrassed about any of that. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh f---, you caught me!’ Yeah, I have a lawyer. Who cares? The thing about it that was uncomfortable for me was that’s my unedited work,” she explains. “What you give to your editors and your publishing company is different than what you give to people who are paying money for a book.”
Dunham’s workload is such that she does not have time to get caught in the vicious circle of Internet self-loathing. “I channel most of my anxiety into intense hypochondria,” she says with a laugh. “So any feelings I have about anonymous Internet commenters translates into: I have a tumor in my tonsil or chronic fatigue syndrome — I’m sure people with real chronic fatigue syndrome will be angry at me for saying that.”
But she admits it’s a challenge to tune out every bit of it: “I feel like all the things that you imagined people saying about you behind your back exist on Twitter in misspelled type. It’s ugly. But at the same time, I get to do this amazing job. And I really thought I would have to work at the baby-clothes store [Bu and the Duck, on Franklin Street in Tribeca] for the entirety of my 20s. So that makes a certain amount of Internet hate totally reasonable.”