Lena Dunham on girls in rehabilitation and recovery
US sensation Girls has grabbed headlines with its no holds barred approach to sex, body image and mental health issues. Lena Dunham talks to Declan Cashin about how series three feels like a recovery
Published 31/01/2014 | 16:30
Fans of the TV show Girls are quite accustomed to seeing Lena Dunham in the flesh. Yet despite, or perhaps because of that, it takes Day & Night a moment to recognise the 27-year-old when we encounter her in person in a suite in London's Soho Hotel.
She's fully covered up for one thing – unlike her screen alter ego Hannah Horvath, who, when she's not wearing ill-fitting T-shirts and blouses, proudly and un-self-consciously lets it all hang out.
Today Dunham is dressed in a stylish Mother of Pearl print dress, paired with red YSL boots, her short hair unfussily styled and her pretty face mostly unadorned of make-up. That stripped-back look is good for her: she's very pretty, with beautiful skin.
As if pre-empting our reaction to her real-life appearance, Dunham says: "It's so funny because people always say, 'You look so different than you do on TV, have you lost weight?' And I'm always like, 'No, it's just that on the show I stand slouched. Hannah has a funny, anxious posture that's different from my own'."
Dunham's looks and body shape became major pop cultural flashpoints during the two hectic years that her creation, Girls, has been on our screens.
In the past week, there's been further controversy over Dunham's photo-shoot in Vogue magazine, with some disappointed critics accusing her of betraying her sterling feminist credentials by allowing the snaps to be digitally touched-up.
We meet just as the magazine has hit the stands, before any of the brouhaha blew up, and Dunham was taking the nascent cover girl attention in her stride.
"I can't imagine what [the Vogue cover] would change, beyond that it makes me feel like a slightly more acceptable-looking person for one week," she says. "Then there'll be a new Vogue cover and everyone will forget about it. But it's definitely an amazing opportunity and made my mom really happy."
Personality-wise too, Dunham couldn't be more different to Hannah. She's a very attentive, charming interviewee and unfailingly polite. She's in London to promote the third series of Girls, in which she stars, as well as writes, directs and produces to multi-award-winning effect (reminder: she's still only 27).
For those who don't know, the show is set in the hipster-Wonderland of Brooklyn, and focuses on the lives of four struggling 20-something girlfriends.
Everything about the show is gritty and real: the sex, the nudity, and, more than anything else, the monstrous – and intentionally provocative – selfishness, sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness of its central characters.
As Dunham herself succinctly puts it: "Hannah is such a dick."
The first series was a sensation, acclaimed by critics and embraced by Millenial viewers. But the second season – a much darker affair characterised by sex scenes bordering on the abusive, contentious 'bottle episodes' (like the one telescoping solely and surreally on Hannah's brief fling with a wealthy, handsome doctor), and a challenging focus on Hannah's spiralling mental health issues – was a much more divisive affair.
Not that Dunham was aware of any 'difficult second album' wobbles. "It's so funny because I didn't even know that until recently," she says, not entirely ingenuously. "People were like, 'What's it like to launch the season after all the negative attention season two got?' And I was like, 'It did?!' I was in my own private world, I had no clue."
So the third series – which on the evidence of its first few episodes is of a much lighter, comedic bent, with Hannah living in seemingly happy domesticity with gonzo boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) – wasn't borne out of a sense of course-correction?
"No, because we shoot our whole season before we air it, so we're not getting reviews that make us think, 'Oh, we should change this up'," she replies. "I feel lucky for that because we're not having to listen to feedback and make a big shift.
"We get to write in our own happy bubble. Now I understand that season two didn't work for everybody, but there were so many personal stories in there that were so meaningful for me to tell that I just feel lucky we got to do it."
If the new season has an over-arching theme, it would be one of recovery and rehabilitation.
Dunham explains: "Everybody has been through very dark things – Shoshanna [Zosia Mamet] finished her relationship, Jessa [Jemima Kirke] is literally in rehab, Hannah's had a breakdown and Marnie [Allison Williams] has been through a break-up. So they're all figuring out how to take the next step in their life and it's not easy. I think it's about moving on."
In reality, however, it's not as easy to move on from the debates and arguments that have followed the show – and Dunham – around since the start: mainly, the relentless focus on Dunham's nudity on screen.
By her own admission, she doesn't have the type of body that is normally shown in all its glory on television – but the extent to which it exercises people is still astonishing.
Last month, during a public Q&A in the US, Dunham and the show's co-creator Jenni Konner got into a tense exchange with a journalist who asked a very poorly-phrased question about Dunham's fearless approach to 'dropping trou'.
But is she conscious that, rightly or wrongly, her casual exposure of what many real people would consider a 'normal' female body, is deemed to be a political, even a revolutionary act?
"I recognise why people responded to it intensely and what it meant to certain people," Dunham says. "And I also recognise that it might have made certain people uncomfortable.
"In the first season [the nudity] was really meaningful, but now people just need to experience what's new about the show. The nudity is kind of what's old about the show.
"But I also do know that, inherently, putting my particular body on screen in those situations is a reaction to what's currently on television. And I hope it's been comforting for some people."
The third season of Girls is already in the can, and the fourth has just been commissioned. "We're starting to think about the arc of that now and it'll make itself clearer once we start writing," she says.
At the same time, Dunham is developing a second series for the HBO network (about Betty Halbreich, a renowned personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York), as well as making a documentary about illustrator Hilary Knight.
That's in between finishing her first book, a memoir-essay collection, due out later this year, and for which she secured a reported $3.5m deal.
Doesn't she ever worry about burning out? "I do think it's really important, even when it doesn't feel good, to take time off," she says. "It's such a lame thing to say, but I'm really bad at taking vacations. I'm physically very lazy, but have trouble taking intellectual breaks. And I don't think it's healthy.
"I have trouble going to sleep at night because I think, 'There's so much I should have done today'. You just have to be able to shut that down. I meditate which is really helpful. I make sure I have those breaks even when I don't feel I want them, especially when you're getting so much feedback on your work. It's really easy to collapse."
And, finally, what does she have to say to those few snark-merchants who say that, the more successful Dunham becomes in reality, the less credibility she'll have to authentically render the fictional world of broke, insecure, recession-hit wannabe artists?
"I think writers always feel a certain lack of self-confidence, and with each new thing you make there's something terrifying about that act," she says. "It's very easy, even if you're having success, to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who isn't.
"So that hasn't been a big source of anxiety for me. But I know some people have watched and said, 'Why should I take your thoughts on this seriously when your life is going well?'
"And my response is, 'Well, it's fiction!'"
- Girls is on Sky Atlantic, Monday nights at 10pm.
LIFE AFTER GIRLS?
How long does Dunham see Girls lasting? “We talk about doing five or six seasons, and not trying to see them into their forties,” Dunham states.
As to what she sees herself doing full-time when it’s done, she says: “Sometimes I fantasise about it because the show is so all-encompassing. I think, ‘God when Girls is done, I’m going to get really good at cooking, going to go to the gym all the time and my whole life is going to make perfect sense’.
“I also recognise I have the best job in the world, and that I’m really lucky to be doing this now, so I try not to think ahead too much. I want to write books forever. I have a book coming out this year and I really loved the process of doing it. I also hope to go back to writing and directing films. It’s hard to imagine doing a Girls film but never say never.”