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Lena Dunham: Girl on Top

How Lena Dunham turned a life of anxiety, bad sex and countless psychiatric meds into the funniest show on TV

February 28, 2013
lena dunham cover 1177
Lena Dunham on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Peggy Sirota

WRAP UP," the big, blinking sign kept telling her last night. But after teetering all the way to that stage in the kind of five-inch heels she'd always assumed were reserved for prostitutes, she couldn't pay it any mind. Her hands were shaking, but she rambled on, cradling her Golden Globe like a puppy. For once, Lena Dunham was acting like she had plenty of time.

It was fun, though, winning a couple of awards – except the part where she ran into the ladies' room so a friend could yank off the corset that was squeezing her into a "full-blown panic attack." She stole everyone's ravioli from communal plates, freaked out at seeing Adele and Bill Clinton, was transfixed by the sight of Jennifer Lawrence eating a bag of potato chips backstage. ("I was like, 'You are a bad bitch' – I almost tackled her and French-kissed her.") After the ceremony, Dunham stopped by HBO's party, but didn't drink, as usual ("It makes me feel fuzzy and out of control in a way I don't like"). She and her boyfriend of 10 months, fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, made it back to their Sunset Strip hotel by 11:15 p.m. She ate a celebratory turn-down-service cookie, though Antonoff snagged the prized oatmeal one while she was in the bathroom, leaving her with "stupid chocolate chip." Then she went to bed.

With two awards on the dresser and Antonoff beside her (until he had to leave in the early morning), Dunham slept well, free from her usual "embarrassingly classic anxiety dreams," like the improbable one where she gets fired from Girls – the HBO show she created, stars in, writes, produces and often directs. Or the one where she wakes up and "my boyfriend doesn't remember who I am, and he's also dating Lana Del Rey."

Dunham emerges from the elevator bank of the Sunset Tower Hotel late the next afternoon, walking with normal-human steadiness in her Zara flats (purchased for a mere $18, she mentions at least twice), greeting hotel employees by name. Her potentially intimidating confidence – part private-school poise, part Zen stillness – is undercut by the warmth of her huge Hershey-Kiss-colored eyes and the endearing, not-quite-Bugs-Bunny-ish prominence of her upper front teeth.

She looks super-put-together today, albeit in an almost middle-aged way: shiny blue blazer, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, stretchy dark slacks. Especially with her cute new short haircut, she barely resembles Hannah, her somewhat slovenly Girls character – a discrepancy that can be disconcerting. A maitre d' at the New York restaurant Babbo, for instance, wouldn't let the subject go. "He was like, 'You look so much fatter on camera.' Like, 'Why? Why? Why?' He was obsessing over it. I was like, 'I don't know what to tell you. I just don't know what to say.'" (Some of the answer might be "acting": "I've watched her transform her body to make it look weirder on camera," says her co-star Allison Williams. "Just even by moving a shoulder to make it look more bizarre. I'm mesmerized by the heavy extent to which she's drawn to the weirder choice.")

Dunham may be the 26-year-old creative force behind the most zeitgeisty show about young people since, like, ever, but she's also "the oldest lady trapped in that body," says her co-showrunner and executive producer, Jenni Konner. Dunham is obsessed with and driven by a fear of death, that cosmic WRAP UP sign. She has a long list of health issues, starting with a throat that constantly gives out ("I have a bad voice the way people have a bad back"), ultrasensitive skin ("I can will myself into getting a rash") and the fact that she's been "vaguely nauseous" for six months (but that, she admits, may be just from reading her iPhone in the car).

She's been known to undergo intravenous vitamin drips. She doesn't like getting high (her last attempt involved a THC-infused Jolly Rancher during a 2011 trip to Joshua Tree, and she couldn't stay awake – "Other than sugar, I've never had an intense relationship with any substance," she says). She breaks her time down into multiple detailed to-do lists: life goals (have a kid), seasonal goals (she really wants to organize her bookshelves into already-read and to-read categories this winter), Girls goals.

"It's funny to me that I'm writing a show that people consider to be the voice of twentysomething people," she says. "Because I don't feel that connected to it all the time." She sometimes has to remind herself that she's still young, only a couple of years older than the feckless characters on her show. "I'll sleep late, and say, 'This is disgusting, I'm an adult woman.' Then I realize a lot of 26-year-olds go out and get hung over."

 

Dunham has a tellingly autobiographical idea for a movie: A stressed-out, hypochondriacal, mortality-haunted 25-year-old wakes up one morning and finds that she's grown old overnight. "The rest of the movie is her as an 85-year-old, finally living her 25-year-old life," she says. "Then it ends with her dying."

It's hard to imagine that particular project coming to fruition, but the items on her to-do lists have an alarming habit of getting checked off. She has two feature films behind her, that award-winning HBO show (plus a just-announced pilot deal for another one), a couple of funny New Yorker pieces, and a reported $3.7 million book deal. Not to mention the collective envy of the nation's bitterest quadrant of artsy twentysomethings (the ones who send out sad tweets like, "Lena Dunham is everything I could've been if I hadn't gone to public school in Nebraska"). Though Girls gets roughly half the ratings of Game of Thrones, there are days when it seems like its star is the most discussed human being on the Internet, that the show itself is the linchpin of the online-recap industrial complex, and that, pretty soon, Girls' Studies will replace Women's Studies at liberal-arts colleges.

Lena Dunham Writing New Comedy Pilot for HBO

Even Dunham's colleagues admit that her success and work ethic can make them feel kind of bad about themselves: "It's both depressing and motivating," says Andrew Rannells, who played her gay ex-boyfriend. Adds Konner, "When I find a blackout in her knowledge – if she's like, 'Oh, I've never heard of that show' – I'm always thrilled."

Dunham climbs into the back seat of a chauffeured black SUV, followed by a mini-entourage of sorts: her assistant, plus one of Girls' producers, Ilene Landress, a sardonic New Yorker who previously worked with David Chase on The Sopranos. We're on our way to a Santa Monica studio to approve final sound mixes for the last two episodes of Girls' second season, even as Dunham and her collaborators are already writing Season Three.

Despite her early bedtime, Dunham is tired and hoarse, still recovering from a bout of bronchitis. "I have a little bit of, like, a delicate-flower body," she says, as we stop at a Starbucks, where Dunham gets two teas – one hot, one cold. "Between trying to write the new season and doing press stuff and flying a lot, my body was like, 'Nope. No more. We quit.'"

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