Lena Dunham: 'I don't see sex as glamorous'

Outrageous comedy Girls is back, more risqué than ever. The show's creator, Lena Dunham, is keen to keep it feeling real. Sarah Hughes meets her

To her fans Lena Dunham, at 26, is the future of comedy, the clever, dry creator of the acerbic and honest Girls, a show about four twentysomethings in Brooklyn that has been hailed as "like nothing else on television right now" and which begins its second season on Sky Atlantic tonight.

Now she has announced that she will publish her first book, Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She's Learned ,"a frank and funny collection of advice and anecdotes", which was bought by Random House for $3.7 million, later this year.

To her detractors, however, Dunham is an inexplicably ubiquitous presence and her show a self-indulgent exercise in navel-gazing. Her book proposal was attacked on Gawker, a cheeky video she made in support of Barack Obama comparing first-time voting to virginity loss drew outrage from conservative pundits, and she receives as many online brickbats as she does bouquets – one particularly poisonous recent review branded her a "pathological exhibitionist".

Sitting in HBO's offices in midtown Manhattan, Dunham, dressed in a smart black suit and lace top, her dark hair cropped in a flattering elfin cut, seems both remarkably poised and understandably bruised by her year in the spotlight. "It's pretty unreal," she admits. "You kind of can't believe people understand you enough to even skewer you."

The daughter of two New York artists (her mother Laurie is a photographer and designer, her father, Carroll a painter), Dunham grew up in Manhattan's trendy Tribeca, attended Brooklyn's bohemian St Ann's School and went to university at the equally artsy Oberlin in Ohio. It was a privileged upbringing, although her parents would only be considered famous "if you're into the downtown art scene".

Even by Hollywood standards her rise has been meteoric. At 23, she directed her second film, Tiny Furniture, a clever low-budget tale of family relationships largely starring her own family and friends. It won the South by Southwest Festival's Best Narrative Feature Award and led HBO to offer her a writing deal. The result was Girls, a raw and very funny look at a group of friends trying to get by in New York, which, in a further stroke of good fortune, Judd Apatow, Hollywood's reigning comedy king, agreed to executive produce. "I wish I could say that I knocked on HBO's door for 10 years and it all paid off," Dunham says. "I got lucky. It was a real right-time, right-place scenario." As for Apatow's involvement (in addition to working on Girls she has a cameo in his most recent film This Is 40): "I'm so proud to work with him and love him so much. He's given me such a safe experience."

She has been ridiculed for everything from her less-than-perfect body and her penchant for shorts to her presumed privilege and political beliefs but appears unfazed by the personal nature of some of the attacks. "When you get criticism of the show you really have to think about it and take it seriously," she says. "But when you get criticism of your Obama video by deranged conservatives then you really don't."

That said, Girls' second season doesn't so much answer Dunham's critics as meet them head on. Early on in the opening episode, we meet Sandy (played by rising comedy star Donald Glover) a black Republican law student with whom Hannah is having a fling, a piece of casting that appears to be a direct answer to complaints about the show's overwhelming whiteness.

"We always wanted to use Donald and it was a chance to have a unique conversation," says Dunham. "I think it was always something we were going to address, our show was not about ignoring the realities of being a young person in America right now, but maybe some of that was on my mind sooner than it might have been because of the dialogue that sprung up around the first season."

As an answer it sounds a little more PR-driven then Dunham's usual responses but, whatever the reason, the scenes between Glover and Dunham are among the show's most squirm-inducingly funny. In one of the best moments, Sandy and Hannah clash about his political beliefs versus her assumptions of how a black man should think. It's a hard-to-watch yet horribly believable scene culminating in an aghast Sandy sighing: "You just said a Missy Elliott lyric at me" and it works because the audience is fully aware of how awful Hannah is being.

"I've always thought Hannah was the person who would have that crazy conversation," says Dunham. "When I talk about race or sexuality I want to have a fully formed cogent argument but Hannah thinks she can just doodle around about it, and you can't." She pauses, before adding: "And that's the complicated part."

The differences between Dunham, the creator of Girls, and Hannah, the character, has clearly been on her mind of late and it's true that the intensely personal nature of Dunham's work makes it hard for people to separate the two.

"It truly doesn't bother me when people mix me up with Hannah because I understand it's a blurry line – it's a blurry line for me as well," she says. "The thing is it's a constantly evolving thing, sometimes I feel like we're totally indistinguishable and some days I feel like I couldn't be less like her. I think people who know me understand where I stop and she starts."

A self-confessed control freak who grew up worshipping the witty likes of Elaine May, Nora Ephron and Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, she admits to having always felt like "too much of a weirdo" to have mass appeal and remains endearingly enthusiastic about everything from finally moving out of her parents' Tribeca loft to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights to her love of medical soap Grey's Anatomy. Yet it's also obvious her life has changed a great deal in the past year. She doesn't discuss her low-key romance with Jack Antonoff, the guitarist in indie band Fun (the couple were recently pictured kissing in Los Angeles) but admits it's no longer so easy to simply hang out whether with friends or by herself. "One of my great pleasures used to be just being alone in the coffee shop or going to movies by myself and maybe that's less comfortable now."

Her sudden ascension to stardom has also brought with it a hard-won self-awareness. "When you're in a situation where you tweet something and a lot of people see it or when you say something on a show and a lot of people analyse it you definitely want to consider what you're saying," she admits. "But you also don't want it to impinge on your creative freedom so it's all about threading the needle between those two points, between understanding that you have this unique position and trying to be as free as you ever were in your expression."

To this end, the second season of Girls takes more risks than the first. The show is now more of an ensemble effort, the male characters written with more depth (the original star of Book of Mormon, Andrew Rannells is particularly eye-catching as Hannah's ex-boyfriend-turned-gay best friend Elijah) and the jokes cut ever closer to the bone. Most notably the opening episodes edge towards Peep Show- levels of darkness, filled as they are with depressing parties, failed sexual encounters and varying degrees of self-loathing.

"It's hard for me to write from a place of fantasy to see sex as glamorous," Dunham says. "I think it can be kind of a battleground. We're always trying to make sure that a sex scene is informative character-wise and not just some sort of nudity thrown in there."

She thinks that Girls divides audiences because "so much TV is kind of devoted to characters you're supposed to love and people aren't really used to characters that you're not", enjoys writing about Hannah's misadventures because she is both "an underdog" and "a little asshole", and is as interested in the show's smaller, more tender moments as in chasing the big laughs.

Her chief concern, however, is ensuring that each episode feels real. "I don't think I write thinking 'yeah I'm really going to show people the truth of a situation' but I definitely think about how lucky I am to discuss these things that are not normally seen in a television world," she says. "The fact that watching Girls could make people feel a little less alone is totally meaningful to me."

And for all her growing fame, Dunham is sanguine about how the new season will be received: "Honestly, the bottom line is if you liked what we were doing last year then hopefully you'll continue to like this," she says, and then laughs: "And if it made you insane then it will still do that too."

'Girls' starts tonight at 10pm on Sky Atlantic. The first season is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download from 4 February from HBO Home Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence