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

lena dunham cover 1177
Peggy Sirota
Lena Dunham on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.'"

This morning, Dunham had a pre-interview with a producer for Craig Ferguson's show, which she'll tape tomorrow. It didn't go well. "I was such a fail," Dunham says. "I had nothing interesting to say." The producer was horrified when Dunham explained why she doesn't drive: "I'm afraid of Rebecca Gayhearting a child."

"The producer was like, 'Do not say that!'" Dunham recalls. "And I had this part of me that was so tired that I was like, 'I'm a punk! I'm gonna say it!' Which is crazy and a very bad idea. So I'm just gonna say it to you." She doesn't want to hurt Gayheart's feelings, she explains – "It's just a useful reference." The producer then tried to draw out anecdotes about Dunham's recently adopted dog, Lamby, and she drew a blank: "He walks. He barks. I just couldn't think of anything."

As we drive west on Sunset through Beverly Hills, the streets turning lovelier and more tree-lined by the block, Dunham somehow manages to extract most of my résumé. Learning that I covered the long-ago criminal trial of Sean Combs and his then-protégé Shyne, she ponders Shyne's jailhouse conversion to Judaism. "I know this is not something that I'm supposed to say," she says, "given the criticisms I've received, but when, like, black people convert to Judaism, it slays me. 'Cause why would you ever choose to be Jewish? I would not be Jewish if I had not been born Jewish. I can't get away from it now!"

Dunham does have enough tribal solidarity to feel total contempt for Mel Gibson, who was a conspicuous presence at Jodie Foster's Golden Globes table. "A weird anti-Semitic, anti-gay lunatic being her best friend?" she says. "It would be really funny if last night he was like, 'You're gay? Oh, my God, I had no idea.'"

She's thinking out loud now. "At these awards shows, I used to always be looking for examples of perfectly well-adjusted people," she says. "Now I'm like, 'Half these people are lunatics!' And I might be a lunatic. But I just want to see that lunacy expressed in a way that feels genuine and interesting."

Inside the mixing stage, huge, sometimes-unflattering HD images of Hannah project on a screen on the far wall, while Dunham sits in back, quietly in charge. She's the youngest person in the room. The biggest discussions revolve around representing the sound of an iPhone smashing on a floor, finding the precise dramatic moment to begin a Fiona Apple song, and reproducing the experience of tinnitus. When the time comes to pick a new music cue, Dunham seizes the first option presented by her music supervisor, an upbeat tune by breaking singer-songwriter Jake Bugg. "I liked the first one," she says, firmly, as they keep trying other songs.

As the episodes play, Dunham is tapping steadily on her own iPhone with manicured fingers (it's a purple-y polish called Love and Acceptance) – she's trying to send an individualized response today to every congratulatory text and e-mail she's received for the Globes wins. There are 138 texts in all, she says – and a middle-aged sound engineer sitting to her right shakes his head. "I don't think I've gotten 138 texts, total, in my entire life," he says. Dunham laughs, and goes back to texting.

Soon enough, the mix is finished, and Dunham has some advice for the crew. "Everyone needs to go home," she says, putting down her phone, "and fuck their wives." Her own plans for the evening involve sitting alone in her hotel room, revising two episodes of Girls, and maybe working on an overdue essay on the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar for a British newspaper.

 

Dunham's parents first took her to a therapist when she was seven years old, and she's pretty much been seeing one ever since. At that point, she was terrified of going to sleep, which she associated with the void of death. "The whole house was taken hostage by my nightmare sleep rituals," Dunham recalls. "I remember one night my dad was so mad, he just had to take a walk around the block, and I was like, 'Daddy's never coming back!' and my mom was like, 'No, Daddy's annoyed because you're being a shitty asshole.'"

Her parents (both successful artists – her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer best known for evocative pictures of dolls and dollhouses; her father, Carroll Dunham, is an oft-phallic pop-art painter) had to tell her three fun things they were going to do the next day. Her mother would have to kiss her eyes; her dad would have to adjust the door precisely. They'd have to promise her that they'd come get her at 3 a.m. and move her to their bed. "Then I'd get up to pee, like, three times," she says, "and they'd have to do it again each time I got back into bed. Then they'd come get me at 3 a.m., and I'd sleep at the foot of my parents' bed like a dog. So it was, like, get this kid into therapy."

Dunham was soon diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which revved up around the age of nine. She went through a hypochondriacal phase: "AIDS, jaundice, you name it, I had it." Then she started counting. "I was obsessed with the number eight," she says. "I'd count eight times…. . . . I'd look on both sides of me eight times, I'd make sure nobody was following me down the street, I touched different parts of my bed before I went to sleep, I'd imagine a murder, and I'd imagine that same murder eight times."

Dunham developed an intense dread of sex as soon as she learned what it was. From the evidence presented on Girls, it's unclear whether she's ever fully gotten over it. "I'd come up with a theory that I thought made a tremendous amount of sense," she says, "which was that you'd lay next to someone you loved, you wished for a baby, and then the sperm and the egg met through the pores of your skin. My friend Amanda was like, 'No, a man puts his penis in your vagina,' and I was like, 'This is the worst thing I've ever heard; this is the worst thing that's ever happened to me.' I told my little sister when she was five, so I wouldn't have to be alone with it. And now she's a lesbian. So there, we've nailed it! That and the fact that I used to make her make out with me through my grandmother's dialysis mask. No, that's not why someone's gay, but it's a funny theory."

Her parents were not entirely surprised by any of this. "Lena was kind of a weirdo," says Simmons. "But I was used to weirdos. I was one, and all the artists I know were probably weirdos when they were kids too. The funny thing is when two artists expect to have a superconventional child."

Simmons had grown up in suburban Long Island, where her own parents found her baffling. "That's a really awful feeling for a kid to think, that everything they dream up, their parents find peculiar," Simmons says. "So I just decided nothing was going to shake me up."

In the throes of her number-eight obsession, Dunham put that ethos to the test. "I remember saying to my mom when I was little, 'I just had to imagine having sex with you eight times,'" she says, "and she really took it in stride! She was like, 'Well, it's your imagination; it didn't really happen.'"

Dunham didn't have sex until college, though she did kiss a grand total of four guys in high school – two of them during a very eventful "humanitarian" trip to Cuba. "Cuban guys were really aggressive," she says. "One put his tongue in my ear and it was exciting and traumatizing, and then as I was leaving, I was like, 'What if he was the love of my life and I left him in Cuba?' and my friends were like, 'He didn't speak English, he was maybe a street person…. . . . '"

By high school, Dunham had gotten control of her OCD symptoms, but she was "drugged like a big horse" on massive doses of antidepressants. "I was so exhausted all the time, night sweats," she recalls. "I was pretty fat in high school if I look at it, because it just slows down your metabolism. My mom would always be like, 'I think you're having a lot of side effects,' and I'd be like, 'You're such a bitch; you just want me to be skinny!' and my mom was like, 'No, you're just sleeping all the time and sweaty.'" (There were some food issues, too – until recently, Dunham would ask for hotels to remove the mini-bar so she wouldn't eat everything in it.)

She weaned of meds toward the end of college, and has been frantically productive ever since. As of last March, though, she started taking a small dose of the anti-depressant Lexapro, just enough to dampen her anxiety. She keeps Klonopin in her bag, but she's afraid of it. "Don't ever Google a drug," she says, "because it's all psychos being like, 'This blinded me, it killed my husband.' I once flushed all my Klonopin down the toilet, because I was so scared by what I read. But if I feel I'm in the Tower of Terror, a little piece will just let me breathe."

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?'"

Arguably, Dunham's most consequential privilege wasn't economic: It was growing up in an environment that taught her that being creative, making things, was part of daily life. Freakishly, Dunham actually enjoys the process of writing; she'll unwind from writing one project by working on another. While her dad is more typically tortured in his approach to painting, her mom says she has more of a "whistle-while-you-work attitude" – and Dunham spent hours watching her mom in her studio.

"For me, every time I write something down," says Apatow, "I might confirm the fact that I'm not any good. And if I'm not good, who am I as a person? Almost everyone that I work with has moments where they make jokes about how awful they are. That's not her issue – she has an enormous amount of issues, and most of them are in the show – but luckily, that's not one of them."

The fact that the other female cast members of Girls are all daughters of prominent people (Mamet's father is playwright David Mamet; Kirke's dad is Bad Company's drummer; Williams' dad is NBC's Brian Williams) led to endless nepotism debates. "You should see how many famous people's kids we turned down," says executive producer Konner. The criticism even spread to Dunham herself, which seemed like a stretch. "I can't get anyone a show on HBO," says Simmons. "I can barely get anyone a show in a gallery!"

"First of all, Jemima and I just happened to go to school together, so I don't think that counts," says Dunham. "But my truest answer is that Allison and Zosia, if anything, they might have come into their auditions, and this is a privileged thing, with a little less of that panting, puppy-dog, 'I need this job' thing, and more of a willingness to be themselves and play."

Dunham saw that line of criticism coming, and she also expected discussion of the show's frequent depiction of sex as awkward and demeaning. A closer look suggests, however, that Hannah clearly gets off on being degraded (though not to the point of being peed on) – and that her relationship with her now-ex-boyfriend, Adam, worked because he's into doing the degrading. Says Adam Driver, the actor who plays him, "There's something carnal and unspoken going on in those scenes."

"She can let Adam do that without thinking that he's twisted on every single level," adds Dunham, nodding. "I also think I always have had an attraction to depicting some degradation that I still haven't worked out."

And in real life?

"I had to watch out for it more in my younger days," she says. "I'm so much less turned on by bad behavior now."

She somehow didn't anticipate outrage over the show's uniform whiteness – and sees the fact that it surprised her as a problem in itself. "I didn't really see the big hole in the show. I have to be honest and say it made me examine how I see that stuff." The broadness of the show's title, everyone agrees, left them particularly open to all manner of critiques. "The title White Chicks was already taken," Dunham says. "So we couldn't use that."

Two excited young female fans – one of them a blonde so Scandinavian as to verge on albinism – stop by the table, asking for a picture. "They were really white," Dunham says, laughing, as they walk away. "That's a good point: 'Her comment about race was interrupted so she could talk to the two whitest people I've ever seen.'"

Last year, after wrapping the first season of a show that focuses on what Internet people like to call "First World problems," Dunham got a taste of the Third World, heading to India with her mom. They went to Delhi and Mumbai, Jaipur and Narlai. "I had this dumb, Western idea," says Dunham. "Like, I'm gonna go to India and it's gonna be so transcendent that I'm not gonna be afraid of death anymore, and I'm going to lay down so many of my Western anxieties and embrace a new kind of knowingness and bring it back to the U.S."

At age nine, Dunham had started following her mother's practice of Transcendental Meditation – she stopped for many years, until she picked it up again with the help of a teacher Apatow had met. It helps her with her fear of death, which she describes as "a very primal, 'I will be alone and unheard and everyone will be together somewhere else' kind of feeling." Somehow, she thought that a trip to the birthplace of Buddhism would complete her journey.

Instead, it was overwhelming on every level, an "onslaught of pure humanity" that was a big challenge to her OCD-driven germ phobia. She ended up leaving early. "We do a really good job in this country of basically sealing off sick people and sealing of toilets and sealing of everything that lets us know we're animals. And in India not only do they not do that, there's no interest in doing that."

She's sitting in a favorite Soho macrobiotic restaurant, early on a Saturday evening. It's been a workday for her, pushing forward on Season Three. She'll go back and write some more when we're done.

"It's the most beautiful culture," she says. "I went there and my first reaction was like, 'There is so much I don't know.'" She had just put out her pro-Obama video – in which she freaked out conservatives by comparing first-time voting to first-time sex – but suddenly felt "unqualifed to talk about anything. It just completely cracked my brain open. I can only compare it to when I give someone else my script to make notes on and they start questioning things I didn't even think were questionable, and it's the worst feeling in the world. So this was too much of a note from the universe."

She found herself sympathizing more with the stray dogs she saw than the poverty-stricken people – maybe because the human suffering was too overwhelming. "Sometimes I think that if we were, at any one instant, to truly comprehend the amount of human suffering happening in the world, we would just die," she says, brown eyes bright. She sounds more than ever like a J.D. Salinger character, perhaps a lost Glass sibling.

She's still processing India; she's still processing everything. There's so much left to write, so much to learn, and the clock's ticking. "Some of my anxieties might be solved by a better awareness of what's actually befalling this planet and what makes everything run and what's come before us," she says. "But it overwhelms me too much. It makes me want to take a nap." She takes a breath. "And in that respect, I really relate to people in my generation."

This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1177: February 28, 2013