Sitting cross-legged on a stool in a Los Angeles photo studio, the creator and star of Girls bobs her bare foot energetically — up and down, up and down — as she waits for a camera crew to finish setting up. A long day of primping and posing is coming to an end, but her verve doesn’t fade with it. She looks happy, smiling as she sips a green juice that is pretty much the antithesis of what her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, would consider an ideal snack. (Cupcakes in the bathtub? Now we're talking.)
Of course, the underachieving Horvath has never been a mere stand-in for Dunham, who has been nominated for three Emmys and won a Golden Globe for the series she created when she was just 23. But watching her drink an impossibly healthy, grown-up beverage, it’s hard not to think about how this May, Dunham will turn 30.
That's right: The woman who has given voice to the existential malaise of female twentysomethings is kissing that pivotal decade goodbye.
It makes sense, then, that she's also bidding adieu to Girls, which will end after its sixth season, set to air in 2017. (Season 5 begins February 21 on HBO.) “When I started working on Girls, I was single, I lived with my parents, I was figuring out my career,” Dunham says after the photo shoot, curled up on a couch in the corner of the studio, her face scrubbed clean of makeup and her energy still buzzing. (She tugs at her earlobe almost constantly throughout our chat.) “I feel ready to turn my heart and soul and insides over to something else. It felt right to be turning 30 and moving into this decade with a clean slate.”
One that she's already begun to fill. Last summer, Dunham and her bestie/producing partner Jenni Konner launched Lenny Letter, an online editorial venture that explores contemporary womanhood. When she's not stumping for Hillary Clinton, she executive produced a series pilot for HBO called Max, about a woman (played by Zoe Kazan) striving to make her name in the 1960s magazine world. And these days, Dunham splits her time between Brooklyn and L.A., living the bicoastal life with her boyfriend, musician Jack Antonoff, and their rescue dog, Lamby. Oh, and she's also reading books on fertility. (More on that in a moment.)
Still, despite being the boss of her very bright future, Dunham swears she doesn't feel like she's got it all figured out. “Every single day, I’m spilling things down my shirt and shoes are falling out of my bag and I forgot to feed my dog and so I run back into the house and then I’m late to the other thing," she says. "There’s never a day where I feel like adulthood has seamlessly happened."
Ah, that's the honesty we love — the kind that's made Dunham relatable to so many women. And the kind that makes for one helluva conversation.
How are you feeling about turning 30? “Really excited. When I was turning 25, I felt this weird sense of dread, like...I no longer had a cushion or excuse [to fail], because if you’re under 25, you’re the modern equivalent of a child. Everyone I trust has reported back to me that the challenging aspects of your 20s — the sort of stuff Girls is about, actually — just evaporates into the rearview mirror in your 30s."
And this will be reflected in Girls? “This next season, we’re looking much more at long-term relationships, long-term jobs, and figuring out that our parents are humans, too, and we have to take care of them.”
Looking back, what advice would you give 21-year-old self? “That it doesn’t matter so much what everyone else thinks. Whether I was being kind of naughty and tough or people-pleasing, I was always reacting so much to the people around me. None of it was about, ‘I’m going to give myself what I actually need.’ It’s only started for me in the last year to think when I wake up, ‘What do I want out of this day?’ or, ‘What would feel good to me?’ That isn’t selfish; it makes you a better friend, partner, coworker — it makes you better at everything to check in with yourself in a real way.”
Has this affected your work, too? People have such strong opinions about you. Do you think you rile some people up simply because you’re a young, outspoken woman? “I used to spend a lot more time than I do now trying to understand why people didn’t like me. I remember just sitting around in my early 20s and being like, ‘Why is that girl always mean to me at a party?’ And then I just realized that it doesn’t matter. Unless she wants to come up and say, ‘Hey, you hurt my feelings. Can we talk about it?’ it’s not my fucking job to decode what’s happening for her internally.
“If I get constructive criticism, I try to internalize that. But randomized hostility from segments of the population who don’t think you deserve the things you have, all you can do is just keep trying to prove that you do. I do think that when you’re young and female and you have a certain kind of success, there are a harsher — I’m not going to say that is the reason for criticism — but there is a harsher set of standards placed on you than might exist for your male counterpart. I think the reasons people dislike me might not be that I’m a girl and I have a lot to say, but it sure doesn’t help. [Laughs]”
You said recently that feminism means respecting a woman’s choice to do something that you maybe don’t agree with. What’s an example of that? “That statement only goes so far. It doesn’t go so far as to excuse things that I don’t think work within the historical and political definition of what feminism is. When girls say, ‘Hey, Miley Cyrus’ hot pants are not feminist.’ Maybe they are for her, and maybe they’re not for you. Part of the deal is that she wants to wear hot pants, and you want to wear slacks. The biggest things are when a girl says about another girl, ‘She’s not respecting herself sexually. She’s looking for love in all the wrong places.’ You don’t get to decide that. You don’t get to decide what a feminist looks and acts like. That said, I do reserve the right to not honor it if a woman throwing tomatoes at people outside an abortion clinic wants to call herself a feminist. I don’t have to indulge that.”
Let’s talk about sex. Girlshas always been very frank about it, with depictions both positive and demeaning. What’s your goal with how you portray sex in the show? “Just honesty and reality. My goal isn’t always to show sex that’s necessarily feminist or empowering. It’s to show sex that feels real. My early 20s were very much defined by sexual encounters that were often ill-advised and didn’t always make me feel that great about myself. That was something I wanted to look at in the show, because I know I’m not the only woman who feels that way. Also, sex can be such a battleground for men and women. It’s really hard to be political in the bedroom. Everything that you stand for in the world kind of falls away. I know plenty of feminists who like to be dominated and plenty of shy women who like to punch people in the face.”
What do you wish you had been told about sex in your early 20s? “That it was okay to ask for things — not just what you want physically, but also emotionally. I was always sort of being the cool girl and the girl who didn’t care, who was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t mind if you call me; I don’t mind if you don’t call me.’ It’s okay not to be that cool around sex — you just have to be honest. One of the reasons sex can be so painful is because we don’t ask for what we need. Some guys I really gave the short end of the stick to — no weird pun intended — because I wasn’t honest with them, and I didn’t tell them what I needed. Maybe if I had asked for what I wanted, I would have gotten it.”
You seem so comfortable doing the nude scenes in Girls. Has it gotten easier over time? “In some ways, it’s gotten harder. When I first started the show, I wasn’t in a relationship, no one knew who I was, I was just kind of living for the work. So when I took my clothes off on camera, it was just an extension of that. It didn’t occur to me that in the first season, TV critics and people on the internet would be seeing this. Now, for better or worse, when I take my clothes off, I already can hear the din of the reaction. Part of getting older for me has actually been feeling more modest. Unfortunately, Hannah Horvath doesn’t always allow for that. I hope to reprise some of her nudity in this final season with vigor.”
You’ve talked about this on your podcast, but how does it feel when you see negative comments about your body? “I didn’t feel pretty in high school, or really, in college. When I started to become a public figure, part of me expected people would react to me the way boys did in high school and say rude things, but part of me also expected people to be better than that. So, there was a moment for me when I saw my first ‘her body is hideous’ comment. Part of me was like, ‘I told you so,’ and part of me was like, ‘I can’t believe this is what the adult real world is like.’ At this point, I’m so used to it, I could see, like, 57,000 of those comments and I wouldn’t feel a thing. But even the most confident woman has a day where she feels bloated and insane and she ate three cupcakes that she didn’t want. When you top a day like that off with a little Google of yourself, let’s just say it’s not a pretty situation.”
You mentioned cupcakes — do you still feel like that girl eating a cupcake in the bathtub? “It’s funny, I’ll have a moment where I’ll feel cool and sexy, and then inevitably something happens, like I fall over or I trip or I hit my knee. So even when I feel beautiful and adult, I also feel awkward and young and unsure. And yes, I also definitely still eat in the bathtub. [Laughs]”
In Lenny Letter, you said your New Year's resolution was to eat French fries whenever you felt like it. How's that going? “Well, something terrible happened. I have endometriosis, and it’s been a struggle for me for, like, 10 years to feel my best. So I got this book, which I cannot stop talking about, called Endometriosis: A Key to Healing Through Nutrition. It basically talks about how to eat to fight the challenges of endometriosis, and one of those things involved removing fried foods. I was like, ‘What about my fucking New Year’s resolution of enjoying fries every time I wanted them?’ Cut to: I have not been eating fries, and it’s helping so much."
[Editor's note: A few weeks after our interview, Dunham posted on Instagram that she is going through a "rough patch" with her endometriosis and will be taking some time off to rest.] Where does your confidence come from? “Well, firstly I don’t feel confident all of the time. Something that was really great for me was having a mom who was so engaged with her work, such an outspoken feminist, who seemed to have a certain comfort in her own skin and her own body. High school was really hard for me. I have OCD, so I was totally, mentally just spinning out. I had gained a ton of weight really quickly and not grown taller at all. I had acne. I went to a chic, private school where lots of girls looked beautiful and toned and had glossy hair and Prada shoes, and that wasn’t my reality. There was a real solid moment where I was like, ‘I’m repulsive.’ I think feeling those feelings and coming out the other end, realizing I don’t have to be the prettiest person here to have value or to have say — that really stuck with me.”
As someone who has explored the complexity of female friendship on Girls, what do you think about the glorified view of it that’s so trendy right now? The kids call it “squads.” “Well, my good and beloved friend Taylor Swift is the person whose friendship spawned the squad. What I really love about it is that it’s showing that women are stronger together. It’s easy for someone to say, ‘Oh, this is glorifying an unobtainable female friendship.’ But I think what it’s really saying is, when we link arms we’re just better for it. I like that it’s a view of female friendship that doesn’t involve fighting or competition or jealousy.”
You’ve been campaigning for Hillary Clinton. How has that been? “Amazing. She’s a candidate I really believe in. She’s such an important cultural figure. I don’t know how old you are.”
I’m 28. “You’re 28. I’m 29, and so you and I were 5 or 6 when she went into the office as first lady. I just loved her. I was fascinated by her. I loved the stories my mom would tell me about her unwillingness to fit into the first-lady box. She’s been a really important figure in the cultural conversation around feminism and politics for a long time. The fact that that person is now running for president is thrilling.”
What do you like about Hillary as a candidate? “Women’s rights are the area where I’m most focused, and her track record of protecting women — as first lady, as a senator, as secretary of state — is impressive. I like that she is concerned about gun control. That’s an issue for me that is just non-negotiable and deeply connected to women’s rights and racial injustice.”
Sometimes I think about the traditional responsibilities of the first lady and how they might fall to Bill Clinton. Like, is he going to lead the Easter egg hunt? “That is the dream of my life, seeing Bill Clinton be like, ‘I organized a really nice tea for the wife of the prime minister.’ That is my dream — Bill Clinton being forced to hang out with the other first ladies.”
You have a lot of projects lined up already, but I'm guessing you have a lot of other ideas brewing. “I’m really hoping to direct another feature-length film soon, to write another book, and to start a family. I like that when you turn 30, it no longer sounds insane that you might be a mom — the matriarch of your own clan.”
Have you given yourself a timeline for starting a family? “It’s something I would like to do sooner rather than later, but I also know that God laughs when you make a plan, if you believe in God. Someone laughs when you make a plan. My mom was like, ‘There will never be a perfect time. There is never a time when a human being entering your life who needs full and total care from you is going to be a convenience for you.' You have to get on board with the fact that it’s going to be weird. So, I feel close to getting on board with that.” Will you be back in New York? “Yeah, I really want to raise kids in New York. I loved growing up there. I love all the weird stuff. Yes, I definitely saw some human shit on the street, but at the same time, I also saw so many important things and had access to amazing art. And not that L.A. is not an amazing city, but I can’t drive, so I can’t be a mother in Los Angeles. I don’t have a license and I don’t want to get one. So what am I going to do with my kids? I’m going to have to wait until my child is 16 before we can go out to dinner. I know we can take Uber, but I don’t want my kid to be like, ‘Mom, I have to go to the hospital,’ and to say, ‘Hold on a minute while I call an Uber.” “We’re pooling.” “Yeah, we’re pooling to the hospital. [Laughs] This should go great.”