Get ready for television’s radically new view of the secret lives of “Girls.”
It comes from Lena Dunham, a young writer-director-actress whose unique creative voice has made marks at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Festival in Austin, Texas. After big receptions there for her films “Creative Nonfiction” and “Tiny Furniture,” she returned last month to unveil her newest project: the often stunningly frank HBO series “Girls,” which premieres Sunday, April 15.
With filmmaker Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) as an executive producer, the serio-comic show revolves around several 20-something New Yorkers struggling to balance their careers and love lives … and, frequently, their friendships with one another. If that sounds like a younger “Sex and the City,“ Dunham purposely sets her edgier “Girls” apart by referencing the earlier series in the first episode.
“I’d heard that writers and independent filmmakers could make a living writing or directing for TV,” she tells Zap2it, “so my interest in television was something I started to talk about when I had the opportunity to get an agent and think about the next step in my career. Having a show that was mine, with a character like the one in ‘Tiny Furniture’ that I could develop over a series arc, was nothing I’d ever even contemplated. The fact that HBO had an interest in something like that was mind-blowing.”
Either the writer or co-writer of the initial season’s 10 scripts, and the director of half of them, Dunham explains she looks at her central characters as “girls” rather than women. That includes her own alter ego, self-aware but deeply vulnerable Hannah, who’s forced even more to find her own way when her parents cut her off financially. The plight also leads her to take a fresh, not entirely thrilling view of her invested-only-to-a-point boyfriend (Adam Driver).
Dunham’s fellow “Girls” in the show have notable parentage: Allison Williams is the
daughter of “NBC Nightly News” and “Rock Center” anchor Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet has the noted playwright-filmmaker David Mamet for a father; and Jemima Kirke, who also worked with Dunham in “Tiny Furniture,” is the offspring of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke.
“It’s all been sort of mind-bending and wonderful at the same time,” Williams maintains of her “Girls” involvement. “I’ve dreamed of doing this my entire life, and funnily enough, there’s something that feels more adult about playing your own age than playing grown-ups in musical theater in school and middle school. I played Sarah in ‘Guys and Dolls’ before I understood any of the themes she was dealing with.
“There’s something much more serious about playing Marnie in ‘Girls,’ ” Williams notes, “because it seems sort of zoomed-in. There are parts of her life that you don’t necessarily see in other people’s projects, and I think that warts-and-all style of Lena’s is very compelling and certainly very refreshing. I’m so proud to be part of a project that speaks the truth. As an actress, it’s a dream to play a character who feels real.”
Early in “Girls,” Williams has quite a candid scene — involving only herself — and Dunham is
grateful that her fellow actors have been willing to go where her thoughts take them.
“I feel we didn’t put in anything that was sex for sex’s sake,” Dunham reasons, “or shock for shock’s sake. We were really trying to do something that felt nuanced and specific, and not abusing HBO’s approach.”
Indeed, adding that her famous father is very aware that an actor’s job is to portray someone else’s experience, Williams appreciates that “there’s never a moment where the show shrugs or shrinks away from whatever point it’s making. And Lena is that way, even in the way she speaks. She’s very honest, she doesn’t obscure anything, and her DNA runs through every corner of this. That’s undeniable.”
Though “Girls” is very much her project, Dunham, as an executive producer of the series, knows what it means to have Apatow’s benediction on it.
“Judd is so much more than someone who attaches himself and then walks away,” she reflects. “He has been so present from the beginning, sharing all of his knowledge. It’s amazing to have his stamp of approval, but also to be benefiting constantly at every turn from his having had really successful films … as well as challenging experiences with networks where his shows weren’t allowed to stay on the air.”
Dunham certainly hopes for success for “Girls,” but she realizes its target audience isn’t easily defined. While she credits HBO with letting such series find its fans, she knows her show’s take on coming of age will challenge some viewers.
“I have to admit it does excite me to think about someone’s mom tuning in and being freaked out for a second. I guess that’s the tiny bit of high-school rebelliousness that’s left in me.”