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 FurnitureThe festival circuit lit up with ‘The Lights of the Festival’ in 2010. It starred real-life family members, including her mom Laurie Simmons and Cyrus Grace Dunham, as well as her sibling Cyrus Grace Dunham. Of course, there was the surprise of a third. 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.
The sexual awakening comedy is featured in her latest film Sharp StickWe meet Sarah Jo (Kristine Frost), the protagonist of a young, cloistered woman who had to have a medically-required hysterectomy in her late teens. 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.
Dunham, despite all the similarities and overlaps between her characters’ lives, is not happy with the notion that she must constantly separate fact from fiction in her writing. This burden, she claims, is only for 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?’ ”
Dunham, now 35, is currently married to Luis Felber (musician). Sharp StickLiving full-time in London, she is a freelance writer. As she sat down, she was high on caffeine and a bit chubby 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 you so long to get back into directing films again?
I’m done Tiny FurnitureI started literally on, and he sat down with me. GirlsThree weeks later. That’s when I had my first meeting with HBO and began the pilot. That was it. Tiny FurniturePremiered March [of 2010]And we were shooting the [Girls]September was my first year as a pilot. And then there was pretty much no moment for seven years where I wasn’t either shooting, editing, writing, promoting, rinse and repeat. It was an incredible journey. I had the opportunity to direct 20 episodes and 60 episodes of television. It was also a great experience to be on a set and learning so quickly. After GirlsI needed to stop and take a breather. I was able to direct another television. I also had the opportunity of spending a lot time writing and working on my nonfiction. The moment came when we had to make another film, and then we were forced into a global shut down.
It is a shot Sharp StickIn 2020, in secret. What did it take to make that happen?
We definitely didn’t announce it. It was difficult 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.
This movie is so autobiographical!
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. If she was a super hero, this would be part of her origin story. She is kind of a superhero. There’s stuff in every character’s life — Treina’s relationship to social media and needing affirmation. Marilyn talks about her motherhood experience and how she feels like she needs to escape the outside 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 it Sharp StickYou will feel more connected to your experiences than you ever thought possible Girls?
Sharp StickIt is more personal. It contains honest conversations about trauma. It is amazing to work with actors of such caliber. You can hand them the character and it becomes yours. You see elements that they bring to the character that you didn’t previously notice.
I’ll never forget that Hannah stole money intended for the house cleaner in the pilot episode of Girls. Did that work for 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. I was too scared to do anything bad. I always told my mom or did it right in front of her. No, I would not have stolen the money intended for the housekeeper. I admire people who keep our spaces safe and clean, especially during Covid.
The romance at its center Sharp Stick between Josh, who’s married, and Sarah Jo, who’s a virgin, might not sit well with some. What do your thoughts on the backlash your characters get?
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. I believe those are the best. [decisions]These are the best areas to explore as an author. I’ve always loved to write characters where how they see themselves and how they behave doesn’t necessarily match up. It would be foolish of me to think that anyone will ever respond. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot [in Sharp Stick]That is very in tune with some political issues of our time. [One thing] I find the most exciting is removing the judgment around people’s sexual lives and decisions.
Are you more comfortable hearing compliments or criticisms when it comes down 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. What would you do with your time if we were sitting in Park City, in a non Covid-restricted universe?
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? We had a general meeting. She’s as delightful as you’d imagine. She said, “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.”It was stuck to a wall. I covered it with a towel. She replied, “You’re crazy like me.”I felt like: “I’m gonna carry that with me for the rest of my life.”