Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
Three years ago, 23-year-old Lena Dunham made a low-budget art house film called "Tiny Furniture." She filmed the movie in her parents’ house and basically played herself; a recent college graduate moving back into her childhood bedroom while making plans for her future. Dunham was proclaimed a fresh, original voice; a director with a bright future. Writer/director Judd Apatow was one of those who took notice, and today he and Dunham executive produce "Girls," a show she created for HBO that premiered its second season on January 13.
Lena Dunham has achieved an astonishing amount in just three years. Her portrayal of Hannah Horvath in "Girls" recently won her a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. This past October, she sold a book of essays and advice to Random House, and her boyfriend is a rock star. Today she hardly resembles Aura, her character from "Tiny Furniture."
I thought I wouldn’t have much in common with Lena. She’s half my age and has been fiercely embraced by my daughter’s generation. But oh how quickly we realized there was common ground between us, literally.
Lena Dunham: My show’s moving into the 30 Rock stages.
Alec Baldwin: No!
Lena Dunham: Yes. We’re taking over your -
Alec Baldwin: You guys are moving to Silver Cup? You and Michael Fox.
Lena Dunham: Yes. We were in Silver Cup and then we went to Steiner because we couldn’t get our stages back because some show that has one word that’s about murder took it. And then we are coming back because you guys are leaving, so we’re gonna be on your stages and in your offices.
Alec Baldwin: Oh my God. Now I thought, isn’t Michael Fox coming there too?
Lena Dunham: He is. We’re – I think we don’t take as much stage space as you guys did, so we’re gonna have – cause we have fewer sets. So I think Mr. Fox is gonna have – we’re gonna have a piece and he’s gonna have a piece.
Alec Baldwin: Wow. As I’m sitting here meeting you for the first time and talking to you for the first time, you are nothing like I imagined you would be.
Lena Dunham: Really?
Alec Baldwin: Nothing. I’m a bit thrown here because you play someone who is, I guess, in your mind – and I want to talk about your vision of what kind of character you wanted to create – is a little bit a beat behind everyone else. I’ll let you articulate that, what you think she is.
Lena Dunham: That’s well put, though.
Alec Baldwin: But what I want to say is you, when I meet you, you seem like you could be like a senator or the head of the corporation. You’re really very, very – you seem so together and smart and you look great.
Lena Dunham: Thank you.
Alec Baldwin: And you’ve cut your hair. You look gorgeous.
Lena Dunham: That is personally very meaningful. I have to try and not turn red and get excited because you said that.
Alec Baldwin: It’s radio, so we don’t care. We don’t care what color we turn.
Lena Dunham: Okay, good, perfect. And I’m wearing my Crew jacket and I really – I should have dressed up more for you. But that being said, you know it’s funny, firstly the “a beat behind” idea really speaks to me because I’m always sort of saying – when people ask about Hannah, I’m always sort of saying, ‘She’s a version of me, but she’s a few years behind me and she’s also sort of a few minutes behind everyone around her.’ So you really picked up on a concept I’m sort of always thinking about a little bit when I play her and when I write her.
Alec Baldwin: But she’s who you used to be.
Lena Dunham: You know, it’s funny. I think I used to – I think I – in order to convince myself that I should play this character or that I should even write this character, I had to say, ‘Well, I’m just writing myself. It’s that easy. I’m just writing myself.’ Because the idea of sort-of creating an entire other human can be so intimidating.
Alec Baldwin: Who are you, though?
Lena Dunham: In real life?
Alec Baldwin: In real life, who are you?
Lena Dunham: I think that Hannah is someone who I’m very capable of being, who’s wounded, ambitious but doesn’t know where to place it. Hannah’s sort of the version of myself if I’d had less understanding parents and sort-of less drive to get things done. And I think who I am as a person is always sort of – if I had to describe the war within myself that exists currently, it’s sort of the challenge of trying to reconcile the part of me that always thought I would be like, you know, a weird Gender and Women’s Studies teacher who occasionally showed movies at film festivals and hung out in my strange apartment that was stacked high with books.
Trying to reconcile that with the part of me that has to like figure out a dress –
Alec Baldwin: Shoot the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. To shoot the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. To figure out a dress to wear for an event and everyone seems to be worried about whether or not the dress is in stores because it has to be my own dress. So I’m dealing with all these sort of – this strange ecosystem and all these weird politics that I kind of never imagined would happen to me in my lifetime.
Alec Baldwin: You never imagined it.
Lena Dunham: No.
Alec Baldwin: You really never imagined it?
Lena Dunham: I think my dream situation was that I would be someone who people thought 'Oh, she’s doing important work in her own little corner.'
Alec Baldwin: Like a Roz Chast cartoon character.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. Like a Roz Chast cartoon character or like – I think because I went to a pretentious private school, the biggest dream you would have is you would be like, ‘I’m gonna be Joan Didion.’ That was kind of where your brain was allowed to wander.
Alec Baldwin: Or maybe Nora Ephron. Maybe you’ll make films, but you’re not gonna be in films.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. And I don’t think, when I first started acting, I mean I never got parts in high school. I never even – I never was able – I think I had a two-fold thing about it. One is that I came from a family of artists and so the idea was sort of like you made your work and then got out of the way of it. Like part of what was – I think I internalized the idea that your work was supposed to speak for you. You are not supposed to speak for your work. And so I think I was self conscious about the idea of being any –
Alec Baldwin: Self-promoting?
Lena Dunham: So self-promoting and although that’s not what acting is, it’s –
Alec Baldwin: It is now. [Chuckles]
Lena Dunham: It’s become that. And then I also think that I thought, “Well, there’s people who are professionals who can do this better than me, so I’m just gonna act until I have access to the people who should be acting.” And sometimes I still feel that way. Sometimes I think like, you know, 'I’ll do this a little longer and then Michelle Williams can play me every day until I die.'
Something that’s really nice about making a show that isn’t – that is a comedy that isn’t stuck in any sort of – I mean "30 Rock" was able to bust out of a lot of network sitcom tropes, but a lot of the time when you’re on a – I think one of the biggest things that networks prevent, besides curse words and showing your breasts, is development. I think that when you play – I think so many sitcom characters end up playing the same version of themselves in various scenarios for years and years.
Alec Baldwin: It’s funny – this is THE thing. As God is my judge, this is THE thing that we talked about in the meeting to prep this thing with you, which was shows I’ve seen where the protagonist, male or female, they’re going through the same set of problems in season six that they were in season one, it’s just different lines and different costars. And with you I’m wondering, do you have a bible on the show? Do you have an arc in your mind – not even on paper, not even approved with your other – because you do this with Judd, correct?
Lena Dunham: I do it with Judd and a woman named Jenny Konner, who’s the other executive producer. And we have a great little writer’s room, but our writer’s room doesn’t really work like – it’s not like we write a script and then all sit together punching it up. It’s much more we sit together at the beginning of the season and really talk through - It’s like a giant therapy session where we work out the emotional arc and then we go to it.
Alec Baldwin: And when you work out that emotional arc, do you think to yourself the things that she’s going through now – your character and the other characters – where you’re saying to yourself let’s make sure they’re not going through this; that there is growth a season from now or by the end of the season.
Lena Dunham: Completely. And that’s why I feel like it’s okay for me to cut my hair or it’s okay for me to start spinning or it’s okay for me – whatever I – whatever –
Alec Baldwin: To change.
Lena Dunham: To change, because I feel as though so much of what this show is about is about seeing these girls off into their adulthood. Like in my bible, the ideal finale to the show would be a feeling like they don’t have to have kids, they don’t have to have husbands, but you look at them and you kind of go, “They’re on their way; they’re more okay than they were when they started.” Or they’re less okay, but we have an understanding of what kind of adult we think they’re gonna be.
Alec Baldwin: So describe to me how that works, because the theme here is control and you are, like other brilliant comedy-writing chicks I’ve known over the years, you have – this is your show. This is your thing. So how does it start? How does – whose idea was "Girls?" Was it yours?
Lena Dunham: It was mine because I basically, I wanted – I made this movie "Tiny Furniture" and I made it, you know, my mom and sister starred, we shot it in my mom’s house – my mom and dad’s house. It was totally populated with friends, some of whom have made their way to "Girls" with me.
Alec Baldwin: What motivated you to want to do "Tiny Furniture?"
Lena Dunham: I had always wanted to be a writer and I used to think I wanted to be a playwright. And then in college I sort of had this revelation where I thought like plays, you rehearse and you rehearse and then they happen twice; like I just felt so frustrated by the lack of permanence. Like I’d always felt sort-of turned on by the fact that when my parents, as artists, made work, like they had these material items that would outlast them and I was frustrated that that wasn’t a part of the theater experience.
So I started making short films and I made my first feature and went to South by Southwest Film Festival with it. And then I just had – and I’d been making web TV and I just had this itch to sort of tell a specific story and I wrote the script –
Alec Baldwin: That’s what I want to talk about is that itch - meaning beyond the arc of the shooting and the career aspects of it, or the burgeoning career. What was it about what was going on in your life that you wanted to do that movie?
Lena Dunham: On a practical, real-life level, I wanted to talk about that moment between college and adulthood that felt so floundering. Every day I felt like I was walking through the strangest, most surreal soup. That would mean that on a deeper level I kind of wanted to talk about change, which is what I always think is sort of the most interesting place to find characters is in a time of intense change.
And so I sort of also wanted to capture this moment where I was – I knew that I wouldn’t live at home forever, that my little sister wouldn’t be sort-of 17 and ambitious but also stuck in her bedroom forever. That my mom was sort of looking – in this beautiful moment where she kind of was, I mean she’ll murder me for saying this, but she looked that kind of beautiful way where it’s like you’re not quite old yet and you just look kind of - She just looked kind of perfect to me.
Alec Baldwin: Like a great car.
Lena Dunham: Yeah! [Laughs] And I just thought –
Alec Baldwin: She’s not my mother, so I can say that.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. And I just thought I want to capture all of this. I want to capture our cats. I want to capture our house. I want to remember all of this and so -
Alec Baldwin: So you really love your mom.
Lena Dunham: I’m obsessed with my mom.
Alec Baldwin: Okay. [Laughs]
Lena Dunham: I love my mom.
Alec Baldwin: But I’m saying that’s interesting that you have that feeling, and that’s what makes you survey what’s around you and want to capture that. Because I find typically people who are not happy, they gotta wait awhile 'til they can negotiate the pain to go back and talk about that.
Lena Dunham: Totally. One of the biggest things that inspires me to make work is this feeling of looking around and going even if you’re not perfect, you’re also perfect right now. Let’s – let’s capture this and then, you know, I love the feeling – I was just watching like "Panic in Needle Park" last week, that movie.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Lena Dunham: Which is, you know –
Alec Baldwin: Kitty Winn.
Lena Dunham: Kitty Winn. Gosh, she’s so good. Where did Kitty Winn go?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Let me get that vile out for Kitty Winn. She’s incredible.
Lena Dunham: But so I was watching that and I was just thinking about how exciting it was to be able to watch sort of like Al Pacino at that first moment when he was sort-of like he still almost looked a little adolescent and he was still learning his craft.
Alec Baldwin: And just behaving on film.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. And I just love capturing that. And that’s something that I’ve tried to do with "Girls," too, is sort of grab people and go 'Let’s just see you as you are right now.'
Alec Baldwin: So the film did well. So then how does "Girls" happen?
Lena Dunham: "Girls" happened because – so then I went to L.A. and kind of did that. I went like 'Okay, I guess what you do next is get an agent and I guess what you do next is try to figure out what you do next.'
Alec Baldwin: "Tiny Furniture" helped you do all that. I mean, you’re on the runway now.
Lena Dunham: Yes. I was on the runway and I was going around L.A. doing the sort of what I call the couch-and-water-bottle tour of L.A. where you meet everybody and have those kind of general meetings where – and I remember it was so funny because at first I didn’t understand that everybody says to you at the end of the general meeting, ‘Oh, I’d love to find a way to work with you.’ And so I would call my agent afterwards and go, ‘Oh, my God. It was amazing and he said he wants to find a way to work with me.’
Alec Baldwin: And he meant he wanted you to come clean his pool.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, basically. I’d always been obsessed with TV. I’d always loved TV and found it to be the most sort of comforting medium and the one that –
Alec Baldwin: What comforted you on TV?
Lena Dunham: What comforted me on TV was – there’s a range of things that comforted me on TV.
Alec Baldwin: Name something weird.
Lena Dunham: What was the most – what was the weirdest? I mean my favorite show when I was little was "Under the Umbrella Tree," which was a Canadian show about a woman who lives with three puppets. And it was on every morning at 7:00 a.m.
Alec Baldwin: Good God.
Lena Dunham: There were three of them named Iggy, Gloria and Jay. And Iggy was an iguana, Gloria was a groundhog and Jay is a blue jay and he lives out back in a birdhouse.
They like talk to you about recycling or like help their old, elderly neighbor who fell down in the street. Like they’re just like nice puppets, but looking back it feels like a child molester who’s on the lam with her three victims.
Alec Baldwin: My guilty pleasure like that was when I was in my 20’s and I’d go to my friend’s house. And we just had this weird habit, where like at 4:00 in the afternoon we would like make a drink and we’d roll the biggest joint and we’d smoke pot and watch a show called "Stairway to Stardom" that was on public access TV. And "Stairway to Stardom" was this older man. He kind of looked like Rod Steiger – he was a burly-looking, tough-looking older man – and his wife. And she kind of looked like Tammy Faye Baker. She was like a big, big honeycombed, shellacked hairdo. She was like this big, bosomy older woman.
And the guy would come out, and he had the funniest voice. He’d be like, ‘Welcome, everyone, to "Stairway to Stardom."’ And they’d sing a song, an opening song, and then they would bring out acts that would perform, that were all like local Queens, Brooklyn talent; people singing and parakeets. It was like – it was bizarre.
Lena Dunham: That sounds like the best thing in the world.
Alec Baldwin: It was the best show in the world, especially if you’d smoked an enormous –
Lena Dunham: Amount of marijuana.
Alec Baldwin: An enormous joint. So you’re on the sofa/water bottle tour and what happens?
Lena Dunham: I’m on the sofa/water bottle tour and my agent, who I feel like you’re not supposed to say you love your agent because it makes you sound really Hollywood.
Alec Baldwin: You love everyone.
Lena Dunham: I love everyone and also I have the best agent. He’s like really been at it for a long time. He’s like a cigar-smokin’ – you know, he’s what I imagined an agent would –
Alec Baldwin: What’s his name?
Lena Dunham: His name is Peter Benedict.
Alec Baldwin: Peter Benedict, I know. Peter Benedict, and he’s smokes cigars? He’s old school.
Lena Dunham: He’s old school.
Alec Baldwin: He’s like out of a Hector Mcarthur play.
Lena Dunham: Exactly, and he belongs to a cigar club.
Alec Baldwin: Which one does he belong to?
Lena Dunham: I think it says – it has a Cuban flair.
Alec Baldwin: Is it Grand Havana?
Lena Dunham: I think it is.
Alec Baldwin: I’m on the board of Grand Havana.
Lena Dunham: Are you really?
Alec Baldwin: I know Peter and I probably have seen him at Grand Havana.
Lena Dunham: Wow.
Alec Baldwin: Fantastic. I’ve probably seen him and smoked cigars with him when you were still a gleam in your parents’ eye. You weren’t even around. God damn it, the way this business works. No, now so he’s your agent and you love him.
Lena Dunham: I love him. And he said to me, I was sort of saying to him like maybe I could get – I just wanted to move out of my parents’ house and I thought – and make more movies. And I was like maybe I should write a spec "How I Met Your Mother" and I could get staffed on the show. I mean I didn’t know any – I didn’t know how any of this worked.
And he said that I should go for a meeting at HBO and I did. And I said, ‘Well, here’s what I’d want to see is like a show about all my girlfriends. Like sort of like "Tiny Furniture" but there’s more of us. And we don’t live with our parents any more, but it’s still about that.’ It’s like it was like so weakly, like a year after my movie there’s more of us and it’s a TV show.
Alec Baldwin: So the conversation wasn’t coming out of – and "Tiny Furniture" in the indie and in the festival world had a very good buzz. There was no conversation about you going right into films and making more films? Normally they’re gonna want to steer someone especially your age, who’s very young, they’re gonna go, ‘Let’s keep making movies.’
Lena Dunham: Well, you know, there was a conversation, but I think I picked up on the fact very early going on the couch-and-water-bottle tour that the kind of stories that I wanted to tell were not really being funded on a larger scale in film.
Alec Baldwin: Tina says that sometimes – the Tina I just finished working with - that it seems like it’s more difficult to a) to have the control you want in the film business –
Lena Dunham: It is.
Alec Baldwin: And b) to say what you want to say.
Lena Dunham: It is and the fact is, I could have kept saying what I wanted to say, you know, making $25,000 movies, but I wanted – it’s weird. The reason I like having some budget is not because, you know, I want to stage car crashes or I want to have, you know, 10 makeup artists on set – although those things would be lovely. But it’s more because of the fact that I do so many jobs, so it’s so exciting to not have to worry any more about answering the doorbell about returning the equipment, about making sure the people have the pizza. Also that’s gonna happen in TV, and what I –
Alec Baldwin: And HBO has money.
Lena Dunham: And HBO has – HBO is Time Warner and they have money, but they use it in this kind of amazing – they’re – it’s this amazing model, which is that they don’t have to answer to advertisers in the same way. So HBO can sort of fulfill its odd little interests and that’s what I started out as. And I - what I didn’t predict was how much I would love the opportunity to develop characters in this way and the kind of, the fiber of TV itself.
Alec Baldwin: If they believe in you, based on my experience – I’ve never worked with them, but I’ve had many friends and colleagues over the years who’ve worked for them, and I’ve almost worked for them here and there – you know HBO is one of those places like – that I think the most successful studios and networks, the way they operate, which is that they vet it maybe to a fare-the-well, but once they believe in you, they’re all in. It’s yours. They give you the money. It’s not too intrusive.
Now so the template of four women, and obviously HBO is no stranger to the template of four women, talking about, but obviously those women were older. Had you been a fan of that show?
Lena Dunham: Yes. I think that I can’t find one girl who isn’t at least secretly a fan of "Sex and the City" who’s my age. And I loved it and, you know, I was very conscious when I was first writing the show. I thought to myself, ‘Should I put these girls in Boston?’ And I tried to make it three girls because – and Shoshanna was initially not one of the girls. Shoshanna was Jessa’s – Zosia Mamet’s character was Jessa’s – Jemima Kirke’s character’s cousin and she kind of came in and out as it kind of –
Alec Baldwin: Recurring.
Lena Dunham: As a recurring, in-and-out goofball who was sort of supposed to call to attention –
Alec Baldwin: She’s in it now, though, right?
Lena Dunham: Seriously.
Alec Baldwin: She’s so dippy, that character, in a wonderful way. She plays it really well too.
Lena Dunham: I know. I know. She does. She plays it beautifully. But the reason that I wrote her was to sort of call out the "Sex and the City" thing, like this is the girl who came to New York to have her Cosmos and her Manolos and it’s not going quite right. But she was so wonderful and she added something that the three of us didn’t have on our own and so it became a four-person dealio.
And um, so I tried to make it three women. I tried to put it in a different city, but the fact is is that New York is where it was supposed to happen and four women just somehow, there’s a symmetry to it that doesn’t exist.
Alec Baldwin: So Darren Star be damned, I’m gonna do what I want to do.
Lena Dunham: I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help it. But the fact is that "Sex and the City" is this factor that hangs over – I mean in a positive way – everything female-centric. In the writer’s room every – there were so many episodes of "Sex and the City" and they tackled every area of sexual function and dysfunction that there’s almost nothing you can pitch that they haven’t done.
Alec Baldwin: But I’ve found that the women on "Sex and the City," that those women would have things happen and they tended to brush off the consequences pretty quickly.
Lena Dunham: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Whereas the girls on your show, the tone seems very different. Everybody seems to almost be doubting what they’re doing or they have kind of a sense of fear or anxiety about it while they’re doing it. It seems more real. Is that – was that deliberate on your part?
Lena Dunham: Well, something I feel about being in your 20’s, which is different than – you know, "Sex and the City" was a show about women in their 30’s who had successful careers, pre-recession, the best, most supportive friends. They didn’t have – I mean they had little friend tiffs, but the characters on our show are tortured. It’s sort of impossible to get through your 20’s without – it’s like if you ask a girl in her 20’s, ‘Are you a happy person?’ I think she can say, ‘I have happy moments,’ but I don’t think it’s possible – maybe I’m – maybe people will radically disagree with me, but I don’t really think it’s possible to be sort of an at-peace human when you are between 22 and 30. And so I think there’s two –
Alec Baldwin: You don’t.
Lena Dunham: I don’t, because I –
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that’s a problem that – I mean for me, that’s something I’ve noticed – I mean because I’m much older than you, and one thing I noticed when I went to college, which is a long time ago, an interesting number of people, they really knew what they wanted to be. They weren’t quite sure how to get there, but they had a dream. ‘I want to become a lawyer.’ ‘I want to become a doctor.’ ‘I want to go into politics.’ ‘I want to go into...’
And now, people today – it seems like young people, they think they have more time to figure it out. They’re turning 25 and they really don’t have that picture in focus. Do you agree?
Lena Dunham: I do agree, and I think a big part of it is being – I think the internet has cracked things open in a way that’s both beautiful in that helps you find – there’s so many things that I wouldn’t have even known about, things that have been huge for me, that have existed because of the internet. And I think that I’ve been able to partially, you know, connect with people who would be fans of the show because of the internet.
I think, you know, it’s always exciting when I click – there’s this website called rookiemag.com that’s run by this girl, Tavi Gevinson, and it’s like a smart teen magazine that exists only on the internet. I just think, if when I was a teenager, there had been that place and that message board, I would have felt like the world was my oyster. Like just meeting other weirdo girls who had the same – who, like you know, whatever at the time, I just wanted to like talk to someone about Conor Oberst or something on the internet and that would have been possible.
But I think now the fact that like the internet has created so many strange, specialized jobs and so many things where it’s like you know, ‘I’m a brand consultant/blog enhancer’ or whatever people are. Like suddenly the world feels wide open, but there are less jobs available and so it’s a really confusing moment to make any decisive choice about what you want to do.
Alec Baldwin: It’s interesting you say that the internet is responsible for that and that idea of having too many choices than you need, you wind up [Crosstalk].
Lena Dunham: That could also be a metaphor for like men in their 20’s dating. I feel like men in their 20’s – like I once dated a guy who told me that he didn’t feel like he could be serious about anyone in New York because it would be like eating at the same restaurant every night in New York. There’s so many amazing choices. It’s New York City.
Alec Baldwin: Right. I hope he chokes at whatever restaurant he goes to. I actually shouldn’t say that. That’s mean. That’s wrong. I’m sorry.
Lena Dunham: [Laughs] I feel like that, so it’s helpful to have it backed up by Alec Baldwin.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing. More in a minute. Here’s The Thing is supported by the Venture Card from Capital One. What’s in your wallet?
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Lena Dunham didn’t have to look far to come up with her character on "Girls."
Lena Dunham: Physically, I’d say Hannah is – I mean she’s me because I play her – but she’s – it’s funny because she’s chubby but she doesn’t – that’s not where her anxiety comes from. Like she’s just not – I like playing a character who isn’t – doesn’t have a perfect body but that’s not the main source of their anxiety. I feel like we have very few female characters on television who don’t look like models and aren’t constantly discussing it.
So of course Hannah has her moments of self-consciousness just like every woman does, but that’s not – she sort of doesn’t notice that her clothes don’t quite fit. She sort of doesn’t think about what she eats.
Alec Baldwin: Clothes are just to cover you up and keep you warm.
Lena Dunham: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: Now they have some degree of style to them, great, but let’s not get carried away.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. And like she’s more interested in whether her clothes are funny and witty. Like I don’t think she really cares about being sexy. She’s more just like, ‘Oh, this dress like has owls on it. How sweet.’ I used to be much – in college I dressed like a complete loon. I feel like my dad always told me I looked like a lion tamer all the time. I’ve calmed down just because I realize that you could –
Alec Baldwin: A lot of vests?
Lena Dunham: So many vests.
Alec Baldwin: Red vests.
Lena Dunham: So many red vests, so many like strange boots pulled over my weird leggings with the three-flounced skirt. I could never accessorize enough. It was oppressive. But -
Alec Baldwin: You looked like you were in the Luftwaffe.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s Hannah’s sort of physical. I think emotionally some facets of Hannah are that she is – you know, she has a certain amount of wit and a certain amount of sort of spunk, but she isn’t really applying it anywhere properly yet. And she’s also –
Alec Baldwin: But you’re smart and funny and not mean. Because a lot of the people in that world, in the improvisational comedy world, are smart and funny and they’re mean. And that meanness is the font that it comes from, the source.
Lena Dunham: I know. And you know, the thing about – the first thing is like my dad is a manners Nazi. I think that I grew up thinking that the worst thing you could do is offend somebody.
Alec Baldwin: I was just going to say, ‘Could you sit up straight in that chair?’ Your dad told me to say that to you.
Lena Dunham: I know. My dad – oh my God, my dad still tells me to sit up straight constantly.
Alec Baldwin: I’m gonna call him.
Lena Dunham: And then [Laughs] – and it’s funny because both – my dad is an artist and he paints these sort of outlandish, intense – I mean he paints things that are pretty sexual images, pretty aggressive images.
Alec Baldwin: Such as?
Lena Dunham: You know, a man with a – I mean they’re funny but they’re intense. It’s like two men with penises for noses in a war with guns and knives with three women.
Alec Baldwin: And you grew up around this. This was around you all the time.
Lena Dunham: I grew up around it, but it was – what was interesting was like my dad was like, ‘You can do that in your work –
Alec Baldwin: No wonder you do a show called "Girls."
Lena Dunham: I know.
Alec Baldwin: Dad had penises on his face.
Lena Dunham: On his face, on everyone’s face. But you know, you – I grew up around it, but I think that my dad always really showed me that there was a difference between, you know, what your work was and who you were. And he’s – my parents are so polite and so sort of – I think so much of this – again, I’ve never had kids. I’ve – you know, I don’t know what that feels like, but I think –
Alec Baldwin: How old are you now?
Lena Dunham: I’m 26. And I want kids, but I’m not ready.
Alec Baldwin: No, please. I’ll call HBO tomorrow.
Lena Dunham: I just got a dog.
Alec Baldwin: I’ll have them reorder your birth control pills for you. No kids now.
Lena Dunham: Seriously. I don’t want kids. I just got a dog and everybody thinks I’m insane.
Alec Baldwin: You’ve just finished season what?
Lena Dunham: I just finished season two.
Alec Baldwin: And you signed for how many?
Lena Dunham: Starting season three. Well, we’re starting season three and –
Alec Baldwin: When?
Lena Dunham: We’re starting at the end of March. I’m so excited.
Alec Baldwin: Great. I’ll be available.
Lena Dunham: Yay!
Alec Baldwin: I’ll come and play your therapist.
Lena Dunham: That would be the most fun thing in the world.
Alec Baldwin: You need a therapist.
Lena Dunham: Bad.
Alec Baldwin: Bad.
Lena Dunham: Bad. But I forget what I was saying, but I’m glad you don’t think I’m mean. I get too guilty. If I ever make a mean joke, it’s like –
Alec Baldwin: But do you appreciate what I’m saying?
Lena Dunham: I do. Well, I’m terrified – it’s one of the reasons I don’t really feel like a comedy writer because there’s sort of like a quickness and a harshness and-
Alec Baldwin: But you need to have those people in your bullpen? Do you have some more traditional, edgier?
Lena Dunham: We do have – I have a couple of writers on the staff. One, Murray Miller, who, this season, was really essential in sort of bringing us just hard jokes. But no one on our staff has that particular kind of darkness. I’ve been around a lot of those comedy writers and, you know, there’s that feeling of like even when they’re saying something nice to you they’re trying to murder you with their eyeballs. It’s – it’s –
Alec Baldwin: It becomes too much salt in the soup, though.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. It’s impressive to me in small doses, but terrifying.
Alec Baldwin: You’ve gotta have it, but you’ve gotta mix it carefully. Like when we did our show, there was – that was a big issue, where sometimes I would say, ‘I just think this is too mean.’ Like we’re gonna lose people. Like we want to be mean, but we have to decide who we’re gonna be mean to and who deserves it.
Lena Dunham: It’s true. My thing is also I only really make jokes about people I like. Like when there’s a joke that references a celebrity on the show, it’s usually a joke that I’m making because I have really taken note of their work and am fascinated by –
Alec Baldwin: It’s not because you slept with them and you want to get even with them.
Lena Dunham: No. I don’t have that – that instinct.
Alec Baldwin: So talk about two things, the level of control you have. I mean you are a very young woman, and I’m assuming it’s all you, correct?
Lena Dunham: I mean it is. I mean I work with Jenny and Judd really closely and I – I definitely – I think I’m constantly sort of telling myself I have bosses around. It kind of comforts me. I mean-
Alec Baldwin: You don’t, do you?
Lena Dunham: Not exactly. I have collaborators. I have collaborators. But I have collaborators who I take really seriously. And-
Alec Baldwin: And who you need.
Lena Dunham: And who I need and who I would never – I think the minute you get an attitude like, ‘It’s my show. This ship runs on Dunham and my way or the highway.’ I think it’s broken. I think you -
Alec Baldwin: Hoist the Jolly Roger.
Lena Dunham: [Laughs] Exactly. I think you still want to feel a little fear when you share a script with your collaborators. You want to go, ‘I hope they like this. I’m gonna listen to them when they don’t.’ I still feel tremendously indebted to them and anxious about their reactions, and I never feel like you know, ‘I’m the big boss and you guys can all get with it or leave.’
Alec Baldwin: So when – so the Hannah character, you start out in "Tiny Furniture." I almost feel like "Tiny Furniture" is –
Lena Dunham: It’s a prequel.
Alec Baldwin: It is a prequel.
Lena Dunham: It’s a prequel in a lot of ways.
Alec Baldwin: You may become one of these actresses now where it’s all one series.
Lena Dunham: It kind of is. It’s funny when I look at any character I’ve played in anything that I’ve made –
Alec Baldwin: It’s you.
Lena Dunham: It’s me. And it’s funny, I’ve never played anyone whose name doesn’t end with A. I’ve written all these characters who – because I always have to have a name that I think sort of like in the world of Lenah.
Alec Baldwin: What’s Hannah’s last name?
Lena Dunham: Horvath.
Alec Baldwin: It’s the two double syllables.
Lena Dunham: Yep.
Alec Baldwin: Someone said to me, ‘To be a famous star you have to have two double-syllable names.’
Lena Dunham: You do, do you?
Alec Baldwin: Or two monosyllabic names. Sean Penn. Marlon Brando. Lena Dunham.
Lena Dunham: Alec Baldwin – oh, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: It helps.
Lena Dunham: My mom did tell me that she gave me my name, which is so funny because it’s not like we have any actors in our family.
Alec Baldwin: You’re real name is what? Svetlana?
Lena Dunham: My mom said, ‘I named you after my Russian great-grandmother.’ My mom said when she named me she thought, ‘I don’t know what you’ll want to do, but this is a great name if she does want to be a movie star.’ That was what my mom thought. Which is so funny because it’s not like my mom’s some crazy stage mom or like –
Alec Baldwin: What is she?
Lena Dunham: She’s a photographer and she –
Alec Baldwin: And what’s the source of your real closeness? Or to the extent you can say. I don’t want to pry.
Lena Dunham: Oh no, I don’t mind. Clearly I don’t mind. We are very similar in ways that can be delightful and can be maddening. Something I like about both my parents, and I’d imagine you’re like this with kids too, is they really talked to me like I was an adult always. And I love that. And I love talking to kids like they’re adults because it’s like they kind of come alive when you just ask them real questions.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Lena Dunham: My mom always really let me into her world and say, ‘I’m working right now. I’ll talk to you in 10 minutes.’ Just having that kind of access to her was amazing.
Alec Baldwin: Sincerity.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, and I just have always thought she was the coolest. It’s funny and it’s nice to see it echoed because all the friends think she’s the coolest, too.
Alec Baldwin: Now you’re gonna do – how many seasons of the show are you signed on to do?
Lena Dunham: You know, it’s not clear. I mean HBO contractually has me I think as an actor for six years but as a writer and director – I should pay more attention to my deals, but I’m just so excited to have my job, I just go, ‘Okay, whatever you say.’ But I think my dream world is that, you know, I want to kind of follow like, you know, how British shows always know – British shows and "30 Rock" always know just when to get off the air.
Alec Baldwin: Right. The question becomes how you can maybe do that TV show. The schedule is how many months? How many episodes?
Lena Dunham: We do – well we’ve been doing 10. I think between you, me and McGee, I think we might do 12 next year.
Alec Baldwin: That works for you?
Lena Dunham: I would love that. I don’t want to like – I don’t have any desire in doing like, you know, a 22 episode – I don’t even understand how someone does the 22 episode marathon. But I do think that doing – I think that a little more would be just a little more storytelling real estate and it would be amazing. But you know, so I shoot four-and-a-half months out of the year, then I’m editing, then I’m doing press, then I’m writing, then I’m back.
Alec Baldwin: It’s not four-and-a-half months.
Lena Dunham: So it’s not –
Alec Baldwin: It’s eight months.
Lena Dunham: It’s actually more like 12 months.
Alec Baldwin: No. Did you make a movie during the break just now?
Lena Dunham: No, I couldn’t.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Lena Dunham: Because there was no time. I finished shooting in August. I was editing.
Alec Baldwin: Why didn’t you make a deal with HBO where they’ll finance your film? So you’re working for them and it’s all in-house?
Lena Dunham: It’s very smart. I mean, I really want to make a movie. I have two feature scripts that I’ve been working on that I just – I want to make another, before I make like a big like massive ambitious movie, I mean I want to make a creatively ambitious movie. But I want to make another small movie. I have small movie ideas.
Alec Baldwin: Do you have a massive ambitious movie inside you?
Lena Dunham: I do, but it’s so –
Alec Baldwin: I’m not trying to – but do you have an idea?
Lena Dunham: I do, but it’s so weird.
Alec Baldwin: Is there a 54-year-old psychotherapist in it?
Lena Dunham: There’s a 54-year-old somebody in – I mean I’ll talk to you later, because-
Alec Baldwin: An air traffic controller?
Lena Dunham: Working with you is one of my longstanding dreams, but I – and I’m also writing a book, so that’s something that was really –
Alec Baldwin: I heard about that.
Lena Dunham: It’s something that was really important to me to start doing at this point in my career.
Alec Baldwin: Hmm, you star in and you’re writing your own TV show and you’re writing a book. Hmm, who does that remind me of? What are you going to write a book about?
Lena Dunham: I’m writing a book – well I guess it’s about me, although it’s a little less about me because it also has an advice component. But it’s like personal essays.
Alec Baldwin: So is it like Paula Pell’s "Hey Young Girls?"
Lena Dunham: Oh my God, I love – "Hey Young Girls" makes me so happy. Paula Pell is funny. Paula Pell is someone who’s funny and not mean.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. She’s mean to the right people.
Lena Dunham: She’s just a dreamy person. But you know the thing that’s been so great about writing the book is I’ve always loved writing prose and I wanted to make it part of my career sooner rather than later because I didn’t want it to be like when I decided to write a book in 10 years and it was like, ‘Oh look, here’s celebrity memoir number 57.’ I wanted it to really feel like I’m a person who writes prose and that it’s a part of my life and career for a long time.
Alec Baldwin: But unlike other people that are writing books, they don’t have TV shows that they’re starring in and writing. When you’re done doing now not just 10 but 12 episodes, what do you have left to go into the book?
Lena Dunham: There’s stuff that’s just for the book. There’s stuff that’s just-
Alec Baldwin: As an example? Just topic-wise.
Lena Dunham: Well like I write a lot about my childhood in the book. I write a lot about my parents. I write a lot about college and sort of like the – I write a lot about that period. I write about like sort of the beginning of being a sexual person. I write about relationships. I’m writing a lot about sort of female role models.
Alec Baldwin: What do you want to say about sexuality?
Lena Dunham: It’s interesting. I’ve had to become more conscious about what I say and what I promote, not in a way that stifles me, but just in a way where I realize now that there are 17-year-old girls who come up to me and tell me that the show means a lot to them and the show-
Alec Baldwin: If one percent of your audience is influenced – this is what I learned from someone – if one percent of your audience, one percent, is genuinely and in any way influenced by what you do and say, that’s still tens of thousands of people.
Lena Dunham: It’s amazing. It’s an amazing thing and it’s like, it’s a platform that you have to take seriously. Which is why sometimes it’s like I used to be really into Rihanna, that pop star, and then it’s like again, I don’t want to ever throw stones from my glass house, but I follow her on Instagram and I just think about how many little girls beyond what I could even comprehend are obsessed with Rihanna. Like you know, she left Barbados, she’s had this amazing career, she’s won a Grammy.
Alec Baldwin: She’s talented.
Lena Dunham: She’s talented. And then she gets back together with Chris Brown and posts a million pictures of them smoking marijuana together on a bed. And it cracks my heart in half in a way that makes me feel like I’m 95 years old.
Alec Baldwin: Because you want to be on a bed with Chris Brown smoking pot?
Lena Dunham: No, because she got back together with someone who –
Alec Baldwin: No, I got that.
Lena Dunham: Oh you got it. You made a really good joke and I got too emotional in my response.
Alec Baldwin: No, no, no. You’re so sincere.
Lena Dunham: It’s terrible.
Alec Baldwin: You’re not mean enough.
Lena Dunham: It’s terrible.
Alec Baldwin: No, but so you are, as a role model, what won’t Hannah or the other girls in the quartet do?
Lena Dunham: Jenny and I talk about this a lot. We won’t fuck someone because they have a nice apartment. There’s not gonna be any version of sort of like prostituting yourself. There’s not gonna be any version of dating somebody because he can take you out to a nice dinner.
Alec Baldwin: Wait – wait. You’re putting down my whole playbook. This is all I have left at my age. Wait a second. That is so wrong of you. Come on.
Lena Dunham: [Laughs] It’s interesting. I have so many friends who are so sort of tortured by their romantic relationships and I think such a big part of it is that the desires of young men and young women are not caught up with each other.
Alec Baldwin: Right. And I say to my wife 'I do want to eat in the same restaurant every night, but I want the hostess to wear a different outfit every night.'
Lena Dunham: Perfect.
Alec Baldwin: But, so you say they won’t monetize sex.
Lena Dunham: They won’t monetize sex and it’s like even more subtle than that. Like I don’t like a storyline that’s like – unless it’s really saying something about where a character is at – I don’t like a storyline that’s like, you know, he bought me an entire trousseau of dresses and so I’m his forever. Like that’s just not the way that I want to idealize anything.
I think that the characters – the characters can make mistakes but they have to be emotionally responsible for the things that they’ve done. I don’t ever want to like have a makeover scenario where someone’s doing better after they’ve put on a great dress and you know, straight-ironed their hair. I just – it’s a really like instinctual thing but it’s just a feeling –
Alec Baldwin: You want them to have balance.
Lena Dunham: I want women – this is so kind of hippy-dippy, but I want them to make their own choices. I want them to – I don’t want people to live in service to sort of what television thinks they should look like or what their family thinks they should act like.
Alec Baldwin: How much do you think the women – this is a very sensitive topic. I mean because I’m not gonna go Norman Mailer here, but I feel like the interesting thing for society is women have been allowed to make their own choices now for the most part, for the last 40 years or at least for the last 25. And that’s reaped enormous benefits for society, I mean forget about just women.
But at the same time, women are the only ones who can have children and therefore in the way that we’re trying to – in the traditional family or even in the gay family, where a man - two guys want to have a baby with a woman or two women have a child together – that balance of career and ambition and so forth with family, is that something that you struggle with sometimes or even think about? Not struggle with, but think about.
Lena Dunham: I do. I mean I think about it all the time, actually.
Alec Baldwin: You do?
Lena Dunham: Because I’m –
Alec Baldwin: Because you’re the product of a happy home.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, and I want all those things.
Alec Baldwin: And you want to replicate that.
Lena Dunham: Totally. I was raised to think that the two most important things you could do in your life were to have a passionate, generous relationship to your work and to raise children. And so –
Alec Baldwin: You still feel that way.
Lena Dunham: And I do still feel that way.
Alec Baldwin: You want to have children.
Lena Dunham: Big time. I’m so excited. I don’t want to like Jolie-Pitt the whole situation, but I’d like, like at least two. And I think all the time –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, no Mia Farrow.
Lena Dunham: It’s funny – exactly. Jenny Konner’s daughter Coco, who’s 8 and is my dear friend, we like to go out and see live music together. Coco one day was like, ‘When do you think you’re gonna have children, just roughly?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, Coco. You know, I’m 26 so I’d like to wait until I’m like at least 30.’ And she was like, ‘At that point I think you should, um, not be working on "Girls," and if you are working on "Girls" you’re gonna have to cut your hours down to like 8:30 to 6:00 because you need to be able to be there when they wake up and you also need to be there for them at night.’
Alec Baldwin: This was Tina’s issue, yeah.
Lena Dunham: And she basically an eight-year-old started to school me in the way that my lifestyle would not allow for children. She was like, ‘You know your boyfriend’ – my boyfriend’s a musician and he tours a lot – and she was like, ‘He might have to quit his job.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think he’s gonna quit his job.’ And she was like, ‘Well that might be hard for you two. You might have to really talk about it.’
And even just now I just adopted a dog and I was really – it was like instead of just meeting a dog, thinking it was adorable and bringing it home, it was this tortured thing of like, ‘Am I gonna be able to give it what it needs? What if it resents me?’ And at a certain point, my mom, who is really ready to play dog grandma and is planning to spend a lot of time with the dog, was like – she was like, “Lena, it’s a fucking dog.’ She was like it’s – at a certain point she was like, ‘I get it. I’m glad you’re thinking it through, but like this is not like adopting twins.’
Alec Baldwin: Now two things that I think are kind of connected, which is how do men present themselves? You have a boyfriend –
Lena Dunham: I do.
Alec Baldwin: And I don’t want to pry into your personal life, but how do men present themselves to you differently? You said that Hannah was this and that and a chubby girl and now you’re – now the name Lena Dunham means something else to people. How do men present themselves to you now different from the way they used to?
Lena Dunham: It’s interesting. I mean I’m so bad at knowing if anybody’s hitting on me. Like someone has to literally like beat me on the head with a drumstick and drag me back to their cave for me to understand that it’s going on.
Alec Baldwin: And then you would press charges against them. [Crosstalk]
Lena Dunham: And then I would and then they’d – and then I’d hire Gloria Allred has my attorney.
Alec Baldwin: You’d be even bigger and get on TMZ.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. But, you know, the thing is that sleazy people are attracted to – sleazy people and not sleazy people are attracted to any sense of gravitas that someone might have. So I definitely have had more – I mean I definitely have had felt less ignored by the opposite sex, but I’m also so bad at perceiving any of it and so sort of -
Alec Baldwin: How did you know your boyfriend liked you?
Lena Dunham: Well, we got set up on a blind date, so I knew he liked – well, I didn’t know he liked me, but –
Alec Baldwin: He was predisposed.
Lena Dunham: He was predisposed to like me because what we were going on was a date. And then that was a special situation because I went, ‘Oh, I think he likes me and I like him.’
Alec Baldwin: Now, you don’t have to tell me the answer to this question but I just find it charming. Where did you go on your first date with your boyfriend?
Lena Dunham: We went to Blue Ribbon Bakery in the West Village. And the reason I was happy is because I find picking a restaurant so anxiety producing because I feel like –
Alec Baldwin: In New York.
Lena Dunham: Yeah because someone’s -
Alec Baldwin: It’s the dilemma of Buridan’s ass.
Lena Dunham: It really is.
Alec Baldwin: We’re gonna starve to death with two bales of hay next to us.
Lena Dunham: And also what if I choose the wrong restaurant and you have a bad association with it, or you think I’m sleazy.
Alec Baldwin: It reflects poorly on me.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. It’s just the worst. And what if we go there and you don’t like anything on the menu.
Alec Baldwin: He says, ‘You call this a bran muffin?’
Lena Dunham: Exactly. It’s so stressful.
Alec Baldwin: So what happened?
Lena Dunham: So he said – before I even had to say anything, he said, ‘If it’s stressful for you, I can pick the restaurant.’ And I felt like, “Okay, I’m gonna be in great hands.”
Alec Baldwin: Where did he pick?
Lena Dunham: And then he picked Blue Ribbon Bakery and then I ate a cheese – And then I ordered a hamburger and he said, “I think you should get cheese on it.” Isn’t that nice?
Alec Baldwin: And you went, ‘Oh my God, I’m home.’
Lena Dunham: [Laughs] I was so glad.
Alec Baldwin: You’re like, ‘Did my mom call you before this date?’
Lena Dunham: And let you know what my dreams are?
Alec Baldwin: That I like cheese. That I like Jarlsberg on my burger.
Lena Dunham: Exactly. Exactly. Somebody suggesting you get cheese.
Alec Baldwin: I want a Jarls-burger. And then you’ve been dating him for a while.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. A long – like almost a year? It’s been - he’s a very, very great person.
Alec Baldwin: To meet you – and tell me if I’m onto something here – you seem like someone that regardless of what you look like or didn’t look like or what you had or didn’t have, whoever you were - you have a very, very healthy and kind of guileless sense of who you are. And you presented yourself to people your entire life going, ‘This is who I am and if you like me, great. And if you don’t there is another 6.5 billion people out there, so go for it.’ Am I right?
Lena Dunham: [Laughs] I mean that’s the most lovely way of putting it. I mean I think I always had a feeling like if you just stick around and continue to be yourself, the correct people will find you. And that’s something that’s been so wonderful about the show is that it kind of confirms that for me, which is not everyone watches it, but the people who watch it understand it, and that feeling – I’m sure you’ve had this before – of uniting with your appropriate audience and sort of uniting with your people is like about as comforting as feelings get.
Alec Baldwin: You too can unite comfortably with Lena Dunham over the unique discomfort of being a woman in your 20’s today. "Girls" is on Sunday nights on HBO. I’m Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.