Man-crazy, chubby, broke… how I turned my sad life into the new Sex and the City: Wunderkind behind Girls reveals the inspiration for her TV hit that shocked America
00:27 GMT, 21 October 2012
The opening sketch of last month’s Emmy Awards featured a young woman sitting on a toilet, completely naked, eating a cake – and not at all dismayed to be seen that way.
The sketch was supposed to show what was going on backstage before the annual US television show gongs were handed out – and the hapless woman on the loo got proceedings off to a hilarious start.
The star of the sketch was Lena Dunham – TV’s latest wunderkind – who later that night was seen in a more serious light as her acclaimed comedy drama, Girls, was nominated in four categories.
Hit: Girls has become one of America's most talked-about shows. From left, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Marmet
Lena, 26, left empty-handed, but she is now one of American TV’s hottest properties while Girls has become one of the country’s most talked-about shows.
It launches tomorrow on British TV and focuses on the lives of four twentysomething women making their way in modern New York. Central is Hannah Horvath, played by Lena, who also wrote the screenplay.
Lena admits Hannah is a version of herself before she broke through into the big-time – man-crazy, chubby and broke – and that almost all of the stories and many of the characters were taken directly from her own life.
She says: ‘It’s closely based on my own experience of getting out of college and not having a sense of whether I would ever get to do the thing I wanted to do, and I was so miserable.
‘It was a really kind of confusing, frustrating time, and I saw a lot of my friends going through the same thing, and it didn’t feel like it was being reflected back at us. I’ve always been someone who feels better if I see what I’m going through in a movie or TV show – then I’m like, “OK. It’s not the worst.” So I really wanted that for me and for other people.’
Girls is certainly no reprise of Sex And The City. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw and her glamorous friends, these girls don’t live in Manhattan. They exist in cramped apartments in downmarket Greenpoint, in Brooklyn.
Realistic: Girls shows the fumblings and false starts of every twentysomething
Their clothes are drab: no Manolos, no couture. They are not particularly attractive. They have no money. They are unfocused, unambitious and feckless. This is a show about thwarted dreams.
And lots of sex. Not beautifully lit, erotically choreographed Hollywood sex, but very bad and embarrassingly clumsy sex with useless, often unpleasant young men.
The couplings are not only frequent but
also graphic. Mostly they involve Lena as Hannah, being manhandled by
her boyfriend Adam Sackler, who appears to have no interest in her and
whose expectations of what a young woman should and should not do have
been heavily influenced by a decade of internet porn.
Very little is left to the imagination and it is often uncomfortable to watch. Yet its searing honesty is what has brought most of the acclaim for the show. One critic said it was ‘an exciting moment in TV history’, while feminists have argued furiously over whether it is liberating for women to be depicted in this way, or whether it does untold damage to the cause.
Lena is being feted as the voice of a generation and has just landed a deal worth 2.1 million for her first book.
Fans like the fact that she portrayed Hannah as the physical opposite of the pin-thin, waxed and polished Bradshaw, who is a size 6. Hannah is, as her cruel boyfriend puts it, ‘soft and round like a dumpling’, and is more likely a size 12-14.
Lena herself was criticised for showing off her dimpled thighs in a pair of microshorts earlier this month. Her feisty response was typical of her character. She said: ‘I don’t think a girl with tiny thighs would have received such attention.
My response is, “Get used to it because I am going to live to be 100, and I am going to show my thighs every day till I die.” ’
Different: Girls is certainly no reprise of Sex And The City. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw and her glamorous friends, these girls don't live in Manhattan
She denies that she set out to deliberately provoke people with the sex scenes. ‘I don’t think it’s a shock-value thing,’ she says. ‘I seriously consider TV to be the people’s medium. Like the idea of seeing your parents naked, or worrying about whether your body is weird.
Or what goes across the face of a person who’s supposed to be experiencing pleasure but isn’t – those are things I’d love to normalise on TV.’
Her point is that what she’s showing is not glossy but realistic sex – the fumblings and false starts of every twentysomething who thinks they have a skill mastered when they really haven’t. It is not, as she stresses, any fun to watch. Most of the sex scenes in Girls are about as sexy as a flat tyre.
‘If anyone’s turned on by those, I’m worried for them,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think about it that much when we were making it. I just wanted to make something honest and if people like it, they like it.
Some middle-aged viewers have already expressed to me that they feel worried for their children. But I don’t think sex has changed that much. And with these scenes we’re always trying to make the sex a reflection of where the characters are at emotionally.’
As well as the sex, there is also talk of ‘abortion parties’, drug-taking, casual acceptance of sexually transmitted diseases, jaw-dropping faux pas – including Hannah making a rape joke at a job interview – and raucous nights out.
Girls is a warts-and-all portrayal of what it is like to be young in New York for four qualified young women who are still being supported by their parents – and struggling to find work.
True to life: Girls is a warts-and-all portrayal of what it is like to be young in New York for four qualified young women
Lena herself grew up in downtown Manhattan. Her mother is a well-known photographer and her father a painter. She went to school in Brooklyn before going to an arts college in Ohio to study creative writing. Then she returned to New York and still lived with her parents until last June.
She says: ‘I got out of college in 2008 and for two years I was working as a babysitter and in a children’s clothing store and as the worst law-firm secretary you ever met in your life.’
Star: Lena Dunham is TV's latest wunderkind
She then made Tiny Furniture, an indie film about a recent college graduate who returns to New York from Ohio and tries to work out what to do with her life. It proved to be a breakthrough – executives from US cable giant HBO saw the film and gave her carte blanche to make her own TV series.
She didn’t like the idea of Girls being compared to Sex And The City – but accepted that comparisons would be inevitable. And so, with typical candour, Lena chose to address the matter head-on. In the pilot, Shoshanna, one of the girls, has a Sex And The City poster on her apartment wall.
Lena says: ‘We wanted to make it clear that these are girls who moved here with the hope of a Sex And The City lifestyle. It’s like a ghost that’s following them around.’
Has there been anything from her life she wouldn’t put in her show ‘Not yet, but I’m hoping there will be. I always imagined having a baby is something that I’m going to keep in a private place, but maybe my curse is that all I’m going to want to do is tell everybody about what my birth process was like and what my children’s nightmares are.’
Lena recently began what a friend calls ‘her first serious relationship’ – with Jack Antonoff, the guitarist of the indie rock band Fun.
A second season of Girls has already been filmed and she has also signed a multi-million-dollar book deal for a tongue-in-cheek memoir called Not That Kind of Girl – A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned.
But she says she does not fear early burn-out or being hit by creative block. ‘My answer to that is that even if you’re having a successful moment in your career, it never all congeals at the same time. It never all makes sense at the same time.
‘You still feel the same interpersonal anxieties. You just have bigger opportunities in which to fail and humiliate yourself.’
Girls launches with a double bill at 10pm tomorrow on Sky Atlantic HD