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Lena Dunham: Girl on Top

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Dunham started writing poems, short stories and what she thought were novels around third and fourth grade. She also developed a precocious penchant for self-dramatizing. At the first of the two upscale private schools she attended, Friends Seminary, she was both genuinely socially isolated and really into the role of being socially isolated. "I really liked the idea of 'Kids don't get me,' " she says. "I used to call my parents collect every single day from the pay phone in the cafeteria, in third grade, crying, 'I want to come home,' but I looked forward to the time of day when I could call my parents on the pay phone." (On Girls, Zosia Mamet's dorky, long-virginal Shoshanna represents Dunham as a child: "Shoshanna is the part of me that was terrified of sex and felt a little bit left out of the group.")

Dunham fit in somewhat better at her ultra-artsy high school, St. Ann's, where she studied playwriting, and met future Girls co-star Jemima Kirke, who would sometimes take a break from being popular to hang out. But Dunham was still oddly invested in the idea of not belonging. When her parents talked about moving to their Connecticut country house full-time after 9/11, she was excited. "I was like, 'If I was at a public school in Connecticut, I'd be the weirdo that I always felt like I was, at this school where it was all 4-H kids.' I was like, 'Yeah, and I'll have a goat!'"

She's willing to admit to similar role-playing now, like letting stylists put her into awkwardly high heels – which fits a little too well with her anti-glam image. "I feel like I do push that angle," she says, shrugging. "It's like, if you have to take all of these things of, just don't wear them!"

Until she was 13, Dunham wasn't particularly driven. "I was really into watching Singled Out for hours," she says. But then she faced the death of one of her best friends, who happened to be her father's mother. "When Lena didn't have any friends," says Simmons, "she formed this beautiful and amazing friendship with her grandmother."

Her grandmother had been a nurse, and then a real estate agent, but "she had more capabilities than she used, because of the time in history," says Dunham. "She could have been a doctor. She could have had a bigger, more expansive, more comfortable life. I looked at my great-aunts, or whatever, who were just sitting watching TV, and was like, 'How do we ever just sit around loafing, if we're just gonna die? How can people take a life and just waste it?'

"And it just made me feel like, 'No. Can't stop. Won't stop. I'll sleep when I'm dead.' I have all of her letters and photos and have really tried to keep her life preserved and am hoping to do something with them someday. So I guess it made me wish for a big, productive, preserved life."

 

A few days after the Globes, Dunham shows up at least a half-hour late for lunch at a Brooklyn Heights coffeehouse, proffering a sort of meta-apology: "I kept practicing this line I was going to say to you," she says, "but I was too embarrassed to say it: 'My lateness has been my forever life thing, it's not a new thing.' I just have a lateness problem that has existed since childhood." It's frigid outside, and she's wearing a scarf lent to her by the lady who runs the doggy day care where she just dropped of Lamby so she could "have a productive day," which has already included a 40-minute story conference with Girls executive producer Judd Apatow.

Her eyes are still lined with now-smudged makeup from a Daily Show appearance the previous day. ("I love what it looks like when it gets crumbly and shitty.") She orders salmon over greens; her father's nutritionist has been urging her to eat more fish. Through the window behind her, an irregular parade of moms or nannies with strollers streams by – this is what Hannah would call grown-up Brooklyn. Dunham lives in a nearby one-bedroom – the New York Post printed the building's location, and a stalker-y dude promptly showed up. She only recently left her parents' Tribeca loft, the one that served as the setting for Tiny Furniture, her bleakly hilarious 2010 movie about an aimless college graduate, which led directly to Girls.

Like Girls, the film drew heavily from her own post-Oberlin aimlessness, which lasted all of 18 months. She was a daytime hostess at a restaurant, worked in a toy store, baby-sat and had a law-firm job. "I remember being really depressed during all that," she says. "I hated it. I felt my jobs were crazy and I was like, 'How am I gonna do this? I'm gonna have to figure out a way to do this for my whole life.' I quit the restaurant job abruptly, and my dad was like, 'You have to think about the implications. What if you had a baby?' And I was like, 'I don't have a baby!' His point was that it's not good practice for life to just quit things without considering where you're headed next. And I was like, 'We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, motherfucker!'"

Dunham got most of the $50,000 or so budget for Tiny Furniture from her parents (the mother of one of her friends also pitched in). This was a fact that she initially attempted to conceal, even once getting an artful evasion past The New Yorker's fact-checkers: She told them that Tiny Furniture was funded by three New York art-world investors, which was not technically false. (She's since paid them all back.)

One critic called Tiny Furniture "the cinema of unexamined privilege," which anticipated later critiques of Girls. "A lot of people think depicting some version of privilege is, in and of itself, unexamined," says Dunham. "The movie's not a vehicle for letting the world know that JAPs shouldn't have to have jobs, it's not me being like, 'Leave these poor girls alone!'"

Apatow has a similar response to the show's critics. "People talk about the show as if we're not aware of all the awful mistakes they're making," he says. "People say, 'Oh, they're self-entitled or self-involved,' and I always think, 'Yeah! That's why we have her steal the tip from the maid in the first episode!' You can say, 'Where are all of the ethnic people?' and I might say back to you, 'Yeah, where are all the ethnic people?'"

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