Lena Dunham slips into a suite at London’s Soho Hotel looking like the polished, confident older sister of Hannah, the character she plays on her hit show Girls. It’s the international media day to launch the show’s third season and Dunham has flown in from New York just for the occasion. She takes her seat, greets the round table of reporters with her warm, nasally, “Hiiii guys,” and for a moment we all just sit there silently taking her in.
The transformation is astonishing. For one thing, unlike the hopelessly chaotic Hannah, Dunham is impeccably groomed: blown-out hair, shimmering skin, luminous eyes framed by kitty-cat earrings. It is the same perfectly powdered face that stares off the face of this month’s Vogue. Only her posture is familiar – that unapologetical slump. And of course, the body. That same small, pale, zaftig form we have all seen naked and sweaty dozens of times, now gorgeously swathed in floral print silk and a pair of fabulous red ankle boots. She actually appears to be wearing a bra. Hannah in a bra! The shock in the room is palpable.
But if Dunham notices, she takes it in stride. If anyone is used to having her appearance under a microscope, it’s this girl. On the day we speak, Gawker has just blasted Vogue for putting only Dunham’s face (as opposed to her non-skeletal body) on the cover. (The website also later obtained and ran the untouched-up photo spread). Asked about the Vogue controversy, Dunham laughs at the notion she’s somehow a feminist hypocrite for allowing herself to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz and airbrushed by Anna Wintour. “I actually found it kind of freeing,” she says with a shrug.
As with the controversy that ensued when her character had a fling with a rich doctor played by the conventionally handsome Patrick Wilson, Dunham seems to lack the energy to engage with sideshows. In that earlier media kerfuffle, some critics complained that Dunham had simply been gratifying a self-regarding fantasy. “It was a very difficult debate for me to take seriously,” she says with an unflappable smile.
But questions of authenticity get to the heart of what a show like Girls is all about. Dunham admits that the genus of all her work (including her cult-hit short film Tiny Furniture, which she wrote, directed and starred in) comes from a fascination with depicting the unvarnished truth about relationships and life. “I’m obsessed by the line between memoir and fiction,” she says. “I always have been.”
“Obsessed” is a word Lena Dunham, and everyone around her, uses a lot. The cast and creators of Girls don’t just like things or admire them. They are obsessed.
Think what you will about Girls, this is a hit show that was conceived, written, produced, directed and stars a woman in her early 20s. Dunham, now a seasoned 27, is still the boss. The auteur. She owns the show. To say that this is exceptional in showbiz is an understatement. It simply never happens. And that’s why I give Dunham and her gang the benefit of the doubt with their overenthusiastic use of “O” word. Obsession, if you really think about it, is the only way this show ever could have gotten made.
And this, I suppose, is the thing that certain critics find unnerving about Dunham both as an actress and an artist. She is obsessed with simply being herself. It’s not that she’s imperfect. It’s that she’s imperfect and doesn’t seem to care who knows it. Oddly, for a performer who spends so much time naked onscreen, you get the feeling she’s not terribly interested in her own body. Instead, she seems interested in the ways her naked body fascinates and freaks out the rest of us.
Now that the show has entered its third season, Dunham’s body is so familiar to regular viewers that it’s all but lost the ability to shock. It has become, I point out to her, almost a part of the regular set, like Hannah’s fruit bowl or her coffee table.
So what has been lost? Nothing, Dunham insists; if anything, it’s the opposite. “The moment the shocking stuff is normalized, that’s the moment it starts to do its job. People have conversations as they change their shirts and we don’t cut away in real life, so why should we on TV?”
Dunham says she’s really just aiming at the truth. Her simple wish to reveal the messy reality and economic disappointment of contemporary young adulthood remains the central thrust of Girls. She admits she has a complicated relationship with youth. On the one hand, she understands the world finds it fascinating enough to make TV shows about; and yet, she says, “I’ve never thought being young was all that much fun. I don’t feel that good physically or emotionally, so what’s so good about it?”
She’s sort of joking – because while Dunham might have her issues, they are not the issues of the girls on Girls. She has a million-dollar-book deal, is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and runs a hit TV show. She’s moved out of her parents place, bought her own apartment and has a fluffy white dog and a rock-star boyfriend (Jack Antonoff, lead guitarist for the band Fun). The more lost and hopeless her characters are, the more successful she becomes. But the true irony, Dunham insists, is that she’s a lot closer to Hannah than you might think.
“I sometimes wonder if Hannah could run a TV show, and I’m like, ‘Hmm, probably not,’” she says, sitting up to fluff her hair before slumping over again. “And then I think, maybe she could, but no one’s actually given her the chance yet. I guarantee that if you’d met me a couple of years ago, you wouldn’t have said, ‘Now there’s a girl who should be running a TV show.’ I was late for work every day and had a greasy sheen on my face. When I set out to do Tiny Furniture I was like, ‘I’m just going to take a month off babysitting and do this.’ I always feel like I’m leading everyone into a battle that I know we’re going to lose.”
But losing she is not. HBO has just ordered a fourth season, which means ardent fans can breathe a sigh of relief. As for Dunham, she’s just focused on the present. “All I’m thinking about is making this show as good and as real as it can be right now,” she says. “The truth is, I’m obsessed.”