Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Lena Dunham’s Change of Pace

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On a recent sun-dappled afternoon, I met the thirty-eight-year-old writer, director, and actress Lena Dunham at a brasserie called Soutine, in London, not far from her home in North London. “This place is like my out-of-house office,” Dunham said, as she settled into a brown leather banquette at a corner table. The restaurant was nearly empty, save for a few customers lingering over tea, but you could sense that it was the kind of place that did a bustling brunch service. “I think I like it here because of its inherent Tribeca-ness,” Dunham said. “I was, like, O.K., this place makes sense to me.” Dunham grew up in Tribeca, as the daughter of two artists, the painter Carroll Dunham and the photographer and filmmaker Laurie Simmons. She has a tattoo of the Odeon’s neon sign. (“On my butt, or I would show it to you,” she said.) She is, in many ways, the consummate city kid, not least because she created one of the great New York TV shows of all time, the HBO comedy series “Girls.” But, since 2021, Dunham has been spending most of her time in London with her husband, the British Peruvian musician Luis Felber, enjoying a relatively low-key expat existence.

She didn’t flee New York, exactly; it was work that first brought her to the U.K. But being in London ultimately offered Dunham the freedom of a place where “you don’t feel that you are being in any way hemmed in by other people’s perceptions,” she said. As many of us recall all too well, “Girls” was, during its six-season run, in the twenty-tens, an inescapable subject of millennial discourse. Dunham, who wrote the pilot when she was just twenty-four, became a controversial and constantly discussed celebrity, equally heralded as the voice of her generation (or, as her onscreen character Hannah put it, “a voice of a generation”) and maligned for her bravado, her candor, and her blind spots. Even after the show finished, debates about Lena Dunham—her body, her politics, her love life and friendships, the fate of her household pets—were inescapable. At the same time, Dunham was also grappling with an addiction to prescription drugs and with several illnesses, including endometriosis, which led her to have a hysterectomy at just thirty-one, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or EDS, a connective-tissue disorder. London provided an opportunity to reset—and then get back to work.

A variety of new projects is out or en route. Dunham co-stars in the new film “Treasure,” opposite Stephen Fry, playing the willful daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and she is currently acting in a major motion picture she cannot yet discuss, although she would say that it involves the English countryside. She is almost done writing a new memoir, which she has been quietly working on for years. She is producing several new shows and films under her production banner, Good Thing Going. And—“Girls” fans rejoice—she is at work on a new semi-autobiographical comedy series, “Too Much,” which will début on Netflix, in 2025. Co-created by Dunham and her husband, the show stars Megan Stalter as a thirtysomething American woman who moves to London and (surprise!) falls in love with a British musician, played by Will Sharpe. Though the story closely references Dunham’s own life, she told me that she was reluctant to cast herself in another leading role, in part because, as she put it, “physically, I was just not up for having my body dissected again.”

The morning we were set to meet, Dunham told me that she had experienced an EDS flareup the day before. We had planned to walk around St. John’s Wood and, at her suggestion, “look at beautiful Georgian buildings,” but she didn’t feel up for a lot of strolling. So we sat at Soutine for several hours, eating avocado salad and potato rösti. Dunham ordered an oat-milk latte, a fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a bottle of sparkling water, all at once. (She has been “happily sober” since 2018.) She wore a frilly pink satin dress covered in tiny bows and a pair of gray cotton ballet flats—“granny house slippers, but make it chic,” she said of them. She had long, candy-colored nails, which she drummed softly on the table as she spoke about her recovering workaholism, her love of British rom-coms, her adult friendships, and the novel pleasures of a low-drama life style. We spoke on two other occasions by phone. Another topic under discussion: the recent resurgence of “Girls” thanks to a new Gen Z audience, who view the show as a nostalgic glimpse into New York’s recent past. Dunham is amused by the revival but doesn’t engage much with it; for one thing, she doesn’t read social-media comments anymore. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to London to begin with?

Back in 2018, my life was in a very transitional place. I came here to research a potential theatre project around this playwright who I love called Andrea Dunbar and understand her work more, and to see if there was some adaptation to be done. While I was there, I decided, Let me just see if I can form creative connections with people in the city. I was trying to make [a film adaptation of] “Catherine, Called Birdy,” a project I’d been working on for a year. I had not yet found an American producer who thought, Oh, yes, a medieval period piece about getting your period. What a great idea.

On that trip, I met Tim Bevan, who’s become my producer at Working Title, and who is making my new show with me. “Birdy” was interrupted by COVID. Filming for that actually commenced in 2021, and I thought, I’ll be here for the duration of the film, I’ll edit, and then I’ll skitter off to my life. And, about three weeks before we started, I met Luis. It became clear to me that he’s a person who set up a really beautiful creative life for himself. I was, like, I cannot drag him back to New York with me. I have to be here and engage in this life that he’s made.

How did you two meet?

We met on a blind date! Our friend Honor Titus, who’s an amazing painter, suggested it. I was sitting there in quarantine purgatory, going, “I’m never going to meet a single person.” And he just said, “My friend is a blast.” And I believe he actually said, “You’re not going to marry him or anything, but you two should hang out.” Cut to: I owe him my life.

Did Luis have any context for your work when you two met?

He had looked at my Instagram and was, like, “Why would a writer have so many followers? That’s strange.” And then, he said, he watched one video of me in a Christopher Kane bathing suit that said “Sex” on it, dancing around a swimming pool—which is something I would never put on Instagram now—and thought, like, She seems fun. He’s seen three episodes of “Girls,” and that’s it. By the time he would ever have watched more, we were living together, and he was, like, “Well, now you’re just here, so I’m not going to.” But we then collaborated on the last two movies that I made, and we created this show together. So he’s very much a part of my work life now, having not had any context for it before, which is a perfect scenario for me.

Was there ever a sense of just not wanting to come back because of the American media? It’s not like the British press is historically any better. . . .

I’m fully aware that the British press has tortured many women to death, and that’s not an overstatement. That being said, it’s not where I started. It’s not where they first saw me. So of course there was a freedom to it. I think that transposing myself into this new place, where you don’t feel that you are being in any way hemmed in by other people’s perceptions—it also allows your inner life to open back up in a new way. For better or worse, I’ve never been obsessed with other people’s perceptions of me, but I have always been obsessed with being able to do my thing. Like, I’m incredibly worried in this conversation that you find me polite, timely, and inoffensive. I’m incredibly worried that my friends feel supported or understood. But I don’t think I could have gotten through my twenties and continued to make work if perception was my primary concern.

Both of your parents are artists, and art-making was the lingua franca of your household. Did you feel that putting so much of yourself out there early on was an artistic act?

Well, first of all, great use of lingua franca. [Laughs.] I was just talking about this with my friend Pamela Adlon, who makes fairly diaristic female work also. Now, I try not to spend my time ascribing the challenges of my career to gender or sexuality. But we were talking about the fact that there was always a sense that women who wrote in a way that was in any way personal were somehow vomiting out, whether it was Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf or Octavia Butler. They were performing an exorcism, and men who did it were performing an act of genius. And, so, that’s why Proust is Proust, and Jenny Diski is Jenny Diski. People maybe meet Larry David and expect him to be a little bit saucy, but they have the concept that what he is doing is a form of performance. Whereas, with women who make television shows that feel personal, they forget that it’s something that’s had to be created, that’s had to be structured.



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