Lena Dunham Gets Real With HBO's 'Girls,' One Crisis at a Time

Girls Jemima Kirke Lena Dunham Zosia Mamet Bench- H 2012
Jojo Whilden/HBO

Girls Jemima Kirke Lena Dunham Zosia Mamet Bench- H 2012

As she graduated college, Lena Dunham had a vision of what she'd be doing as she waded into real life in New York City.

“I just spent all day getting sandwiches for someone who doesn’t know my name, thinking that that was somehow going to get me where I was going to go,” she said, rehashing a projected inner monologue she had prepared for her postgrad self. “And I was always of the mind that I was just going to have a shitty job that had nothing to do with anything and then write when I could write, and that was my hope.”

Of course, it's worked out far better than that, and now, at age 25, she produces, writes, directs and stars in HBO's Girls. Dunham picked up the nomination to the pressure-packed position of "the voice of her generation" when her indie film Tiny Furniture debuted at 2010's SXSW; with Girls, she has cleared her throat and made her thesis statement: Life is hard and confusing and messy and endlessly funny, and by being honest, it's possible to speak with, not at, viewers. 

Tracking the personal and professional travails of four recent college grads in New York City, the show captures the particulars of today's twentysomething struggle for economic and existential survival in an immediate way that requires intimate knowledge.

Dunham plays an aspiring writer named Hannah who has just been cut off from her parents’ financial lifeline and suddenly finds herself desperate for an upgrade from her unpaid internship. Unfortunately, she lives in a city filled with employers less than eager to do something as preposterous as compensate for work in a market filled with the young and grasping. Bright and driven (if a little self-destructive) but seemingly unemployable in ways that defy logic or fairness, hers is a problem shared by just about every new transplant to the city.

“People are graduating from college during a recession, and that’s a huge deal,” Dunham told The Hollywood Reporter at the New York City premiere of Girls. "And I think that TV shows, at the time I started writing this, weren’t necessarily reflecting that reality." She said one of her goals was to “look at that financial struggle, and the fact that students are graduating with these degrees, going like, ‘World! Can you wait for me?’ And the world is like, ‘Uh yeah, I actually can wait for you.’”

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For Dunham, success came quickly. But she has seen friends struggle and considers her rocket to stardom a surprise. And there are still plenty of universal difficulties shared by twentysomethings, especially among women. In the show, Jessa (played by Jemima Kirke) gets pregnant and plans to have an abortion, while Hannah goes through her own gynecological dramas. That the national debate has focused so heavily on women’s reproductive rights is coincidental -- Dunham wrote the show far before Rick Santorum became a force in the GOP primary -- but she isn’t afraid of the topic.

“I was raised by a pro-choice mother, and that dialogue was always on the table,” Dunham said. "I think it’s never fully gone away, but at any election time, especially right now, it really becomes loud and national again. And so I am glad that we’re exploring that stuff when the debate is most visible."

As for whether Girls will become a flashpoint in the conversation, Dunham is unafraid of participation.

"That’s totally a possibility," she said. "I haven’t thought much about it, but I know that the show, even though it’s highly personal, has the potential to start sort of a politically leaning debate. And I’m excited to watch those dialogues happen, and I'll need to make sure that I’m electorally informed so I can engage with them."

On less charged notes, there are plenty of specific nods to New York and New Yorkers, from the Tasti D-Lite frozen yogurt the girls eat in front of the park ("It was really important to me to have it -- a product that exists almost nowhere else, I believe") to the discussion of different bars in specific Brooklyn neighborhoods.

"It was really important to me to get those details of really what the fabric of New York life is for girls this age," Dunham said. "I just wanted it to be just like, if a New Yorker watches it, there were subtle nods to them, but it wouldn’t isolate anyone else."

It all points back to that perilous title she picked up two years ago, which Dunham seems to wink at in Girls’ first episode, when Hannah – high on opium tea – tells her parents she thinks she’s "the voice of my generation … or a voice … of generation."

Dunham said that line was used to give Hannah hilarious delusions of grandeur, but she admits that having been given the label perhaps played into her subconscious. Nonetheless, for all the praise, she wants to avoid the title; after all, her work is predicated on being an outsider.

"I think that’s a scary mantle to assign to someone, just because every generation is comprised of so many different types of weirdos," she laughed.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com