What do you ask the woman who’s already been asked everything (and answered candidly)? Get her to interview herself, of course. Lena Dunham does a spot of soul searching
Lena Dunham swans into the room, one hand holding a bag of tortilla chips, the other hastily bringing them to her glossy lips. “Mhh bshdhhd schlumph” she says breathily through a mouth full of masticated corn. She is wearing what some might call a sweatshirt but only she knows is actually part of a fashion craze known to the chic upper echelons as a ‘comfort blouse’.
“Let’s talk,” she says, as if this isn’t exactly what we are here to do, as if she has just come up with a novel idea. You can say a lot of things about Lena Dunham: just don’t say she doesn’t know what time it is or what room she’s in.
She looks even more exhausted than she has a right to be, sighing deeply every few moments. It quickly becomes apparent that she actually has a tortilla chip shard caught in her throat and is aspirating. “Can I have that?” she gasps, stealing the journalist’s Diet Coke and chugging it, never apologising. She doesn’t have to. All the beverages in the world are her right. Right?
“OK, back to the matter at hand,” Lena says like the conscientious businessperson we all know her to be. “I’m at your service.”
You seem totally calm, infinitely kind and very fashionable. How are you handling all of this?
I can’t answer that question without sounding like a total d*ck, but I will say, if you’re not placing exercise at a premium, it’s easier. If I were going to the gym every day, I probably wouldn’t have had the time to do any of this, so something’s gotta give.
You seem luminously happy, glowing from within. But doesn’t all good art get made by people who are intermittently manic?
It’s interesting, because I used to think that you had to be depressed and withering away in pain about some break-up in order to make anything that matters. But I don’t anymore, because I think creative people are emotionally elastic and even when they’re happy they can reach towards a past experience. But I’m starting to think, life is full of so much pain and so many challenges, why would you create any more for yourself? That’s how I feel about Hannah [in Girls] who is always putting herself in these situations in order to write about them. I’m like, life is terrible; both your parents are going to die, you’re going to see someone get randomly hit by a car in the street, you’re going to have to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night, why would you add more pain for yourself?
In your new book you write a lot about your friends and family, but the most vicious stuff is aimed at ex-boyfriends. Do you have any death warrants out for you? Do you wear a wig at the grocery store to avoid these vengeful men? Do you even care how your family feels?
Absolutely I do. I’m not interested in exploitative writing. I’m interested in personal writing, and I think the adage that you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette is totally false. I think it’s possible to write your truth in a way that’s thoughtful and considerate. So I always show my friends my essays if they’re referenced in them. With the exception of a few ex-boyfriends who I do not think it would be safe for me to make contact with.
But truly, your parents must hate you.
I gave both my parents the whole book and they only had minimal changes. My mom’s changes were all like, “I didn’t actually get headlice at camp.” I also showed my sister, I showed my aunts, I showed my best friends. There are obviously certain people who aren’t safe, and so you can’t share things with them. Like, if you have an abusive husband you shouldn’t show him your memoir. But if you have a kind mother who occasionally f*cked up, you should show her your memoir.
You’re a feminist. That means you hate all men, yes?
No! Not at all. For starters, I’m obsessed with my dad. He is much more private than my sister and mother. He wasn’t in my film [Lena’s sister and mother appeared in her debut feature film, Tiny Furniture] because he’s not interested in that. He’s figured out a great pattern for living. He wakes up, he makes his paintings, he watches his television shows and he goes to the gym. He’s got his very own specific life and does not need to be dragged into the madness of the female circus. But he’s the most feminist man I know and, truly, the best friend you could ask for.
What’s it like having artist parents? Were they ever so distracted being creative that they left you in a freezing bath for hours? Did they do LSD in your kitchen?
Nope, they’re the best. I would have lost my mind doing this job if I didn’t have them. Because having parents who had a creative life means they know the ups and downs. Yes, sometimes everybody loves what you’re doing, but sometimes, everybody hates what you’re doing and you are totally ignored, yet you still have to find a way to be excited and make your work for yourself. I also find them to be a real safe haven. The amount of disasters I had in college where I came home depressed and fat and sick and I just knew it was going to be alright – that’s such a great thing to have.
Certain people on the internet seem to hate you. WHAT DID YOU DO TO THEM?! WHERE’S THE BEEF?!
Beef would be the wrong word because beef has to be two-sided and I never started anything with them. But for some reason, certain sites have made it their stock-in-trade to take me down. Whatever issues they have with me, whether I irritate their writers or whatever, I think the people at these websites want to aggress creative people because they’re dissatisfied with their own lot in life. It was hard at first to have such targeted nastiness. because it’s such a double standard. The treatment of women by the press illustrates this point day-in-day-out; a guy can be called a douche but he won’t have his every word picked apart and have his character and his look assassinated. At the end of the day, the toxicity comes from constantly seeing yourself reflected back by a male-dominated media.
When Gawker leaked your book proposal, did you think about moving to the outback?
Yes! I had booked a ticket but there was a layover and no good hotel near the airport so I decided to bail. The leak was the most traumatic experience of my professional life thus far. Because, here’s my opinion: if you don’t like my work, fine. If what I do doesn’t appeal to you, I totally understand that. But at least give me a chance to present it to the world the way I would want it to be seen. To me, it’s such a huge violation. I would rather you took pictures of my boyfriend and me on vacation than put out my unedited work. It was really unfair because so much of it was focused on the advance I got for the book, and I have rarely seen a man attacked or put on trial like that, with the public saying, “Do you deserve your money?”
BUT DO YOU!? I mean think about it, Lena. You once failed a bowling class.
I’m not going to apologise for having gotten paid for writing my book. I worked very hard on it. I wasn’t going to write the angry lady op-ed they wanted out of me, like, “F*ck you all, I deserve my money!” because that’s not very elegant. But at the same time there were a few male writers who came out with books around the same time – first-time writers who got big advances – and everyone was like, “Cool, great for them.” But they were acting like I was basically Donald Trump, ruining New York City or something. I recognise there is a major imbalance in how much different people get paid – it’s probably unfair that I got that advance when teachers work so hard and make what they make – but I’m going to take that money and I’m going to continue to make an honest life in which I am as helpful as I can be to the causes that matter to me.
Why are you so weird about talking about money and yet you talk about your vagina, like, non-stop?
I remember once asking someone, “How much did that cost?“ and my mom was like, “You never ask someone how much they make or how much something cost.” So to me, how much I make is part of my private life. I understand that, for some people, it must be confusing that I’m comfortable talking about my sexual life and not comfortable talking about how much money I make, but guess what? That’s a personal choice.
Why are women such beasts to each other?
They’re not. Women are the best supports in my life. Women are a woman’s best friend. But I do think women are so used to being pitted against each other by the media that they start to perpetuate it for themselves. At a certain point, girl-on-girl violence is systemically learned. And it’s not that women want to be in catfights; if you grow up surrounded by hate, you’re gonna hate; if you grow up with parents who hit you, you might hit your children; if you grow up in a media that tells you that other women are your enemies, and that the best way to insult them is to assail their personal lives and their bodies, that’s what you’re going to do. Twitter is the worst. I’d rather have a knife fight in an alley than have a fight on Twitter.
You must cry a great deal.
I have my moments: if I’m tired, or I’ve forgotten to eat, or if I’m sick – then my guard is down. But for the most part, I love my job and I love the people that I work with. I also recognise that being able to criticise and reject things is part of the freedom of speech our country was founded upon. People have to be allowed to be critical and I have to be allowed to ignore it. How exhausting would it be to fight back at all of that? Instead, you can just keep moving forward.
But seriously, what has been the nastiest thing anyone has said to you? Dredge it up! Really FEEL IT.
That would be when I’ve tweeted about my pro-choice beliefs. The fact is that a lot of antichoice people in the US speak in fairly violent terms and talk about how you’re going to go to hell. I’ve had people say, “I hope you get ovarian cancer, I hope you die.” It’s so weird, because you’re like, “Who would say that to another human being?” And if your position is that we all deserve to live and that all of us have a right to life, then why would you wish cancer upon me? It goes against everything that they believe in.
Well, that’s just AWFUL. What can be done?
I actually just read an article about Mary Beard, she’s incredible; she has been fighting back against all her trolls on Twitter. The thing is, you can’t diss a brilliant classicist who understands the history of the universe, because she’ll have an amazing diss from, like, 1492 for you, and you’ll look like an idiot. Social media is weird because there’s a beautiful way that it creates community yet it also allows people in an anonymous form to say the most horrid, vile things. You go, “Really? A human being wrote this? Not some disgusting robot created by Hitler?” You just have to recognise it for what it’s good for and realise that you could write, “I love kitties and bunnies” and someone would write back, “Slut.”
But you always try your hardest to be a sweetie, don’t you Lena? Don’t you? You do try!
Totally. Even when a female journalist writes something negative about me, I really try to avoid lashing back because all it does is add fuel to this broken media culture about female friendship. What the press want to find is a picture of two women rolling their eyes at each other, and they’re not going to get it from me. I guarantee that if you read a quote that’s me throwing shade at another woman, that it was f*cking twisted, because that’s just not how I operate. And believe me, I have plenty of terrible thoughts within the privacy of my own home and my own mind, but that’s where they should stay! One of the things I’ve tried to do with Girls is show that women can be jealous of each other, they can take issue with each other, but at the end of the day, they need each other. Those friendships are the strongest bonds they’re ever going to have in their lives. The guys come and go but the girls are there to stay, those are the relationships that really matter.
So what’s up with all those ‘hos’ on Girls?
They’re each taking the next step in their lives, be it a relationship or be it professionally. They’re going from their obsession with each other to actually figuring out what their next step will be, and they’re making some more mature choices. But what they’re realising is, that just because you make the right choice, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the right result.
Are you always going to make angsty work about women living in Brooklyn? Cuz it’s sort of like, um, give it a rest already.
People make this assumption that the first thing you make is the only kind of thing you’re ever going to make. But I love history, I love politics, I love many, many genres of film, so for me, I’m always planning to just tell stories. They will all have a kernel of emotional truth that I’ll connect to, but I’m thrilled at the idea of doing a period piece, for example. I don’t think everything I'm going to make is going to be, you know, 20-something women in Brooklyn, then 30-something women in Brooklyn, because I would get bored.
You’ve been in therapy since you were nine. Aren’t you sick of it? Moreover, isn’t your therapist sick of you?
I don’t always have serious stuff to say. Sometimes I just sit there and think, ‘I want a sandwich’. Or, ‘I’m tired, I want a new scarf.’ But that’s just part of the process; paying someone to listen to you stammer until you find what’s really important. Because the fact is, we all have some underlying drive and anxiety that’s pushing us forward at all times. My therapist actually said something really interesting to me that I think about a lot. She was like, “Do you want to talk about your break-up?” And I said, “No, I’m just bored all the time”. She was like, “Sometimes I find that when people are bored, what they really are is angry, but it’s easier to go, ‘I’m bored,’ than, ‘I’m mad’.” It made me realise that me being bored was really a substitute for me not wanting to experience all those uncomfortable emotions, and it really cracked something for me. Having a therapist has taught me to be less cruel to myself. It’s not like therapy has made me the world’s sanest person; it just made me slightly less insane.
If you’ve had so much therapy, have you quit being so concerned about death? You’re very morbid, you know.
I know. But I think about death all the time, and have done from a very young age. But actually, the older I get, the less I think about it, because the more I just know it. I don’t have to remind myself of it; it’s just part of my consciousness. I remember thinking when I was younger, ‘I’m going to die someday’, and it wasn’t comforting when my parents said, “Oh but it’s a long time away.” I was like, time passes, who cares if it’s 10 minutes away or 16 years away, it’s gonna happen! It used to cripple me to the point where I would be like, ‘Why would I even go to the store? Why would I wash my hair if we’re just gonna die?’ But now, I’m like, ‘I’m having a great time with my friends and I’m going to die’. The fact is, whether you’re a scientist or you’ve studied biology for 60 years, whether you’ve studied Nietzschean philosophy, or whether you’re just a dude who works at a gas station, we basically all know the same small amount about dying. That’s crazy.
You post too many dog pictures. You used to judge others for this offence and now look at you.
I’m sorry. I’m obsessed. If I feel this way about my dog, how am I going to feel about my kid? Everything he does, I’m like, ‘How did you get so clever and so perfect?’ I feel like, because he is some kind of weird mutt and we don’t actually know what breed he is, that he was designed by some sort of higher power to hit all my cuteness triggers. That someone was like, ‘Oh, let’s make his eyes this big and his nose this colour and his ears like this; it’ll make Lena crazy.’ I never got to see him as a puppy so I actually told my boyfriend, not even as a joke, that I want to get him cloned. But it’s like $100,000 to clone a dog, and that money should go to charity. But I do want to know what he looked like as a baby. I think sometimes, ‘Where’s your mother? Do you have siblings?’ I think about his life and the mystery of it and sometimes I make my boyfriend tell me the story of where he came from. He says he came from a garbage heap in upstate New York. That he was born in a landfill site and he walked to the city to find us. It’s a nice theory.
Lena Dunham’s collection of essays Not That Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (£16.99, Fourth Estate) is available to buy now
Lena Dunham is the guest editor of this week's issue of Stylist. Download the full issue to your phone, tablet and Kindle here.