Ever since she burst onto the scene more than a decade ago, audiences have struggled to separate Lena Dunham the writer-director-actress from the female leads she creates. First, there was Aura, the floundering film-school student at the center of her semi-autobiographical indie Tiny Furniture, which lit up the festival circuit in 2010 and co-starred real-life family members including her mom, the artist Laurie Simmons, and sibling, Cyrus Grace Dunham. Then, of course, there was Girls’ Hannah Horvath, the Brooklyn-dwelling Oberlin grad (ditto you-know-who) and aspiring writer whose Gen Y ennui and cringeworthy exploits made Dunham both a star and a lightning rod.
In her new film, the sexual-awakening comedy Sharp Stick, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22, we meet protagonist Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a cloistered twentysomething who had a medically necessary hysterectomy at the age of 17. This storyline, too, seems to pull from Dunham’s own life — she publicly disclosed in 2018 that she had undergone the same surgery at 31 due to severe endometriosis — though she says there’s a bit of her in all of the characters in the new film. Orbiting Sarah Jo’s chaotic world is Josh (Jon Bernthal), father of the kid she nannies for; Josh’s pregnant wife, Heather (Dunham); Sarah Jo’s mother, the impulsive Marilyn (Jason Leigh); and her adopted sister, social media exhibitionist Treina (Taylour Paige). An affair between Josh and Sarah Jo sends the heroine on a path to sexual discovery that’s both absurd and enlightening.
Despite all the overlaps and similarities between her characters and her actual life, Dunham bristles at the idea that she has to constantly distinguish fact from fantasy in her work, a burden that she says is exclusive to women. “This is something that happens in a way that is unique to female creators, which is, people decide that they are the same person as their character,” she says via Zoom from L.A.’s famed Sunset Tower hotel. “Even Larry David, no one’s like, ‘You killed a man in your swimming pool?’ ”
Now 35, Dunham is recently married to musician Luis Felber, who scored Sharp Stick, and living full-time in London. She was caffeinated and chipper as she sat down with Rolling Stone ahead of the movie’s premiere to discuss her return to feature directing after a 12-year absence, shooting in secret, facing backlash, and more.
Why did it take so long for you to get back to directing films?
I finished Tiny Furniture, and I literally started on Girls three weeks later. That’s when I had my first meeting with HBO and began the pilot. Then Tiny Furniture premiered in March [of 2010], and we were shooting the [Girls] pilot in September. And then there was pretty much no moment for seven years where I wasn’t either shooting, editing, writing, promoting, rinse and repeat. And that was an amazing journey. I got to direct 20 episodes and write 60 episodes of television and be on a set and learn at such a rapid rate. After Girls, I needed to take a moment to collect myself and reconnect. I got the chance to direct some other television, spend a lot of time writing, working on my nonfiction. Then the moment came to make another movie, and then we went into a global shutdown.
You shot Sharp Stick in 2020 in secret. How did that work?
We definitely didn’t announce it. And it was a really challenging time because of Covid. But it wasn’t like everyone had to [keep the project secret from their families]. Jon didn’t have to commit subterfuge and lie to his children or anything.
How autobiographical is this movie?
There’s definitely things that the characters go through that resemble things I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve talked really publicly about having a hysterectomy due to endometriosis, and that’s a big part of Sarah Jo’s origin. I think if she was a superhero, that would be a part of her origin story. And she is sort of a superhero. There’s stuff in every character’s life — Treina’s relationship to social media and needing affirmation. Marilyn, what her version of motherhood looks like, her version of needing to retreat from the world. There’s even stuff in Josh’s life, what it feels like to try to slog through the challenges of a relationship and the kind of complicated desire that we all feel, and what it feels like to try to really do right in your life but sometimes not knowing the best way. So, each of these characters contains pieces of me, even if their life stories don’t resemble mine.
Does Sharp Stick feel more rooted in your own experiences than even Girls?
Sharp Stick is more autobiographical. It definitely contains some really truthful conversations about trauma. The amazing thing about working with actors of this caliber is that you hand them the character, and what once felt like it was uniquely yours becomes shared. They bring elements to it that you never saw.
I’ll never forget that Hannah stole money intended for the house cleaner in the pilot episode of Girls. Was that you?
[Laughs.] I’ve never stolen one dollar in my entire life, even from my parents, even when they would make it really easy. I’m just too scared. Every time I did something bad, I told my mom immediately or did it in front of her. So no, I never would have stolen the money that was intended for the housekeeper. I respect people who keep our spaces clean and safe, especially during the time of Covid.
The romance at the center of Sharp Stick between Josh, who’s married, and Sarah Jo, who’s a virgin, might not sit well with some. What do you think of the backlash your characters often receive?
It’s always funny to me when people make value judgments about what characters in movies are doing, because I’m like, “You know they are characters in a movie, right? We’re allowed to enjoy this. It’s not like your neighbor is cheating on his wife [with the sitter], and you’re keeping the secret. You can just kind of watch it and feel it, guys.” But at the same time, I also just think that if we look at our lives, we’ve all done things that don’t necessarily gel with what we perceive our value system to be. And that’s one of the most challenging parts of being human, is that you have an intact value system, and then you make decisions that might fall an inch outside of that value system or, in more dramatic cases, fall a mile. And I think those [decisions] are some of the most interesting terrain to explore as a writer. I’ve always loved to write characters where how they see themselves and how they behave doesn’t necessarily match up. I would be a fool to expect that no one will have a response to it. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot [in Sharp Stick] that is really in tune with some of the politics of our time. [One thing] I find the most exciting is removing the judgment around people’s sexual lives and decisions.
Is it easier to hear compliments or criticism when it comes to your work?
It’s really hard to receive compliments, and I have to talk to my therapist about why [laughs.].
You’ve been to Sundance as a producer and a juror, but this is your first time as a director. If we had been sitting together in Park City today, in a non-Covid-restricted world, what else would you have been doing with your day?
I’d be trooping up and down Main Street in some boots that we got from a swag room and taking every free, non-alcoholic beverage passed my way and asking for cans of oxygen, naturally.
Instead, I see you’re at the Sunset Tower Hotel. What’s the best meeting you’ve ever done there?
I just wanted to meet Sharon Stone, because who doesn’t want to meet Sharon Stone, right? So, we did a general meet. She’s as delightful as you’d imagine. But she said to me, “There’s a picture on the wall behind you with a four. That’s not a lucky number. Maybe you should move it.” And it was stuck to the wall. So I put a towel over it. And she said, “You’re crazy like me.” And I was like, “I’m gonna carry that with me for the rest of my life.”