AUSTIN, TEXAS − The long line that stretched from the conventional hall in Austin into the street and around the building was another small victory for Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO series “Girls.” Dunham, the 27-year-old director, actor and screenwriter, was asked to speak at the SXSW festival, and she did it her way. She wove her life history into her address, making it somewhat personal yet still universal, like one of her creations. She spoke about the writers who had influenced her in the Mumblecore genre and, in an attempt to bring about change, sharply criticized Hollywood’s treatment of women.
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It all started, she said, after she saw her mother directing a film at the age of 56. She decided then that she wanted to give it a try as well.
“I’ve been a passionate storyteller, for better or worse, for a long time,” she says. “I’d say better would be the eulogy I wrote for my grandma, and worse would be ‘Waiting,’ the play about an abortion clinic that I wrote and directed in the 10th grade and staged almost entirely with girls that had not yet begun to menstruate.”
She recounted that she went into the world of television at a strange time, when there was fear that actors might be replaced by robots. But, she says, she was happy to be working in a place that allowed women to act and express themselves. As an example, she mentioned the actresses Mindy Kaling, Claire Danes and Julia Louis-Dreyfus − who, she says, are doing the best work of their careers.
Dunham also mentioned the success of actor Adam Driver, comparing it to the roles women receive in her series.
“It’s a rough scene. It’s hard to always offer comforting words on that topic. I think about this in relation to the cast on my show, which consists of three very talented women and also some very talented guys. Our male lead, Adam Driver, has had a bang-up year in movies, which could not be more deserved because he’s a ferocious genius with an incredible work ethic and I’ve learned so much from him. But the girls are still waiting patiently for parts that are going to honor their intelligence and their ability.
“People are ready to see Adam play a million different guys in one year. Meanwhile, [co-stars] Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet are still waiting for parts they can get interested in.
“They’re all ready to stretch their legs in the same variety of diverse roles. But in the meantime, Williams is relegated to all-American sweetheart and Mamet is asked to play more flighty nudniks .... Even though both are capable of so much, they’re not asked to do it. And this is not a knock on Adam’s talent, which is utterly boundless, and he’s exactly the actor who should be doing all this.
“[Hollywood] is a world where women are typecast and men can play villains, Lotharios, nerds in one calendar year. Something has to change, and I’m trying.”
This is coming full circle for Dunham, since her first film “Creative Nonfiction” was first screened at the SXSW Festival in 2009. The festival, an annual set of film, interactive and musical performances and conferences, has evolved since 1987 into Austin’s “signature event.” She recalls that the first time she submitted the film, she was notified that it had not been accepted. She revised it and resubmitted it a year later, and recalls how excited she was when she heard it had been accepted to the festival.
Greatest week of her life
“I almost fainted, and the joy and disbelief were so wonderful and so massive that I remember just having one of those very rare and exciting ‘first day of the rest of my life’ feelings. And I’ll never forget where I was: I was sitting with two little boys I babysat, waiting for their piano lessons to start. Actually, I was helping one with his math worksheet while the other played ‘Jailhouse Rock’ really badly. And I was so happy that I started to smile and cry at once. And I listened to the message over and over, and then the little boy who was sitting next to me stabbed me really hard with a mechanical pencil. And I was like, ‘Why did you do that? What happened?’ And he said, ‘I hate to see you smile.’”
On hearing the news, Dunham took a week off from babysitting and from her day job in a baby-clothing shop and flew to Austin, Texas. She says that she found a camera she had forgotten, with pictures of her first trip to the 2009 SXSW conference still inside.
The festival “proved to be the greatest week of my life,” she said. “I ate tacos. I drank milkshakes. I swam in Barton Springs. I drank a beer at a backyard rock show and talked to cute guys who would’ve never given me the time of day in New York.”
When the judges awarded her second film, “Tiny Furniture,” the prize for Best Narrative Feature a year later, she left her babysitting career for good. She recalls what happened just before the awards ceremony: “The producer Alicia Van Couvering got an email meant only for press that announced the winners that was embargoed. Then we felt weirdly ethical, like, ‘Are we supposed to confess that we know? Will they take the prize away if they know that we know?’ So we went to the ceremony ready to pretend to be surprised.”
Make them laugh
When Dunham returned to the festival as a success story in 2012, the first three episodes of her series, “Girls,” got their premiere screening there. Asked to speak there this year, she said how important it was to her to say significant things at the event. The SXSW festival, she said, marked the beginning of her professional path, the only part of her life that she enjoyed.
She listed several things that were important to her in her career: “I want to make people laugh. I want to be of service to the causes that are dear to me and be an agent of change specifically for women and girls, and on a purely selfish level, I want to continually challenge myself to grow as an artist.”
The things she does not care about include ratings. “HBO would like me to feel differently [but] I never expected to have a television show, and now that I do, I never expected to have one with blockbuster ratings. It’s enough to have the platform,” she said, adding she’s more focused on her goals as an artist.
She also does not much care for Republicans (“I’m sure there are some really great ones, but I haven’t met them”); “all of Deadline Hollywood, especially the commenters; and male comedians saying women aren’t funny.” Also wrinkles.
Things that she sometimes cares about include Twitter replies, fashion blogs and calories.
Dunham ends the interview with an important lesson she has learned in her career: “Don’t wait around for someone else to tell your story. Do it yourself by whatever means necessary.”