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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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