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Lena Dunham: Girl on Top

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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.

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