We're just going to come out and say it. Jenni Konner is a freaking revolutionary. The Girls executive producer, who runs the show along with Lena Dunham, is a creative truth-teller, Writer's Guild Award winner, two time Emmy nominee, mother of two, and all-around inspiration to women who want to make interesting work on screen.
She's also a vocal, dyed-in-the-wool supporter of women in every facet of her life — on Twitter, in her work, and in hiring for her and Lena's production company, A Casual Romance. And, that's empowering in and of itself. That type of pay-it-forward work is the bedrock of what will shape the lives of the next generation of women, and it's not something that should be taken lightly.
But, what we appreciate most about Konner goes beyond that. It's the way she talks about life, work, and the challenges of being a woman and a boss — without sacrificing one for the other. She's flipping the script on "work advice" and all of that "think like a man" BS that we've all been guilty of believing and even encouraging. That's simply not Konner's thing. She's all about leading without changing your female attributes or needing to rewire your brain. Essentially, she's offering the advice you've always wanted to hear, but haven't. So, let's get to it.
Ahead, Konner is shot in the L.A. office of A Casual Romance. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First things first. Your Twitter handle makes us nervous. Do you actually think camp sucks?
"No. I don’t. That was literally an AOL name my baby daddy made up years ago, and I just always thought it was funny and stuck with it. I don’t hate camp, but I’m not a camp lover, either."
Will you send your kids to camp?
"I do send my kids to camp."
Dries Van Noten dress; Schutz shoes; Irene Neuwirth rings; talent's own watch and rings.
I’m so excited to feature you as one of our Superwomen, and really empower other women to feel like they can strive for the kind of success you have.
"I feel so honored to be a part of the series. Everyone is very excited about it here in Girls world. I started a production company with Lena [Dunham] called A Casual Romance, and the whole office is women."
Is that intentional?
“Not exactly. But, I think it’s really important to hire women. I’m not sure exactly how to look at it, but the people who work for us we stole from Girls so it’s not like we interviewed a bunch of people. I had an assistant who was male who I adore and is a part of my family now and he theoretically could have worked here."
You are a visible supporter of other women who are showrunners, writers — like the way you talk about Shonda Rhimes, or your Twitter exchanges with Mindy Kaling, about her show.
"That show is so funny. I love it so much. It just makes me laugh so much. We have a documentary we’re making about Hilary Knight, the illustrator of Eloise and we interviewed Mindy for it, and she’s so funny. Oh my god, I love her.
"I’m kind of a superfan and I really like to use Twitter for that and to connect with people I don’t necessarily know. Like, Lena and I are doing a talk show with Retta [the comedian and Parks and Recreation actress], and the way I got to know Retta is through being a superfan with her about The Good Wife on Twitter."
It’s so exciting, the way you speak about these other women, and the obvious admiration and respect you have for your peers. Is that support of women something you are intentionally cultivating?
"No, not at all. I think we all really need to support each other but mainly, that just comes from my fandom. From my experience, there's so much positivity coming from other women [in this industry]. Whatever idea people have about backstabbing and competitiveness is not on my radar at all."
Dries Van Noten dress; Schutz shoes; Irene Neuwirth rings; talent's own watch and rings.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?
"There are a few different things. Phil Rosenthal, who created Everybody Loves Raymond, said ‘Make the show you want because they’ll cancel you anyway,' which I loved. Barbara Hall, who is a showrunner for Madame Secretary and created Joan of Arcadia, said, ‘Hire people who are good at their jobs and let them do their jobs. Don’t micromanage.’"
Is that hard?
"Not for me. I’m great at delegating and I love to give away work. I am not a person who has the instinct to do all of the work. Lena and I both love really surrounding ourselves with incredibly talented people and letting them do their jobs."
What about the worst advice?
"This isn’t bad advice, exactly, but I think some people tend to cling to their work. They will write a piece of work and try to sell it, and if it doesn’t go they’ll hold on to it for a really long time. I think in general that’s a bad spirit to approach work with. Matt Weiner [the creator of Mad Men] has done that so successfully, I think he’s given people a lot of false hope about it working. But, [you should] never get so attached to something that you’re not creating other things. Especially in television, I think if a script has gone around town and hasn’t happened, you kind of need to move on."
Stella McCartney top; J Brand jeans; Sandro sneakers; Irene Nuewirth earrings, necklace, and rings; talent's own watch and rings.
And then, what's the best advice you never got — something you had to learn the hard way?
"Until I met Judd [Apatow] there were not a lot of people telling me how important the truth in my work would be. Telling your most truthful story can be really really powerful, but before I met Judd that was not something I was in touch with. And then, when I met Lena it became much more crystalline. She is my very young mentor for that reason — because she is so good at bringing the truth to everything."
What was it like before you came to that realization?
"I was just looking for stories to tell. I’m not saying the only way to write is to tell your own stories, but you have to find the truth in it for you. You have to find a connection to it and I don’t think I understood that when I was younger."
And, that’s so true about what you’re doing with Girls. I remember very clearly sitting in HBO offices and seeing the first two episodes of Girls—and it just felt very, very different. It took me almost 24 hours to process it and decide if I even liked that uncomfortable, emotionally raw honesty.
"That’s how I felt when I saw [Lena Dunham’s] Tiny Furniture. I connected with it in this way, and I hadn’t seen something that spoke to me so clearly before."
Did you think people were ready for it, when you were making Girls?
"No. I honestly couldn’t be worse at predicting what people want to see or don’t want to see or what they’ll connect to or not. This was another great lesson in just making the work you want to make and hoping people will connect to it. Trying to make work you think people will want, I found that not to be a successful strategy."
Stella McCartney top; J Brand jeans; Irene Nuewirth earrings, necklace, and rings; talent's own watch and rings.
So, you told your and Lena’s truths with Girls, and it worked; the show became this immediate cultural touchstone. How did you deal with that?
"I was mainly shocked. We really didn’t see it coming. And, it’s really exciting to be able to make this show we love making so much, and have people connect to it. And, even the people who don’t connect to it and have talked about it in a thoughtful way — even that is exciting to me. I was talking to Willa Paskin, the TV critic, and she was saying she wasn’t a fan of the big romantic ending we had this past season. She had such a thoughtful explanation of it. Also, Alan Sepinwall and all of these people who write these think pieces [about the show], it means everything to us — even when they don’t love everything uniformly, they have this thoughtful view."
You mentioned to New York a while back that "to be divisive is kind of hot." Still true?
"It is. It feels great. It truly feels great. It’s better than being ignored."
On a more practical level, though, how do you deal with criticism?
"It depends on the kind of a criticism. If it’s thoughtful criticism, then we process it and think about it. If it’s negative comments on the Internet that are nasty or not based in reality, then we ignore it. Judd has been really good about saying very early on, ‘Don’t read the comments; don’t get into it; don’t go insane on the Internet.' That doesn't always work, but in general, we try not to indulge that stuff.
"I’ve been working with [Judd] for a long time, and he always says that a good note can come from anywhere. And, we’re just not people who resist notes. We have some true collaborators with us and when they have a note it’s coming from a thoughtful place — and often, it’s not a note but a question.”
How have you taught yourself to take a beat and process the thoughtful criticism — to deal with the idea that someone is unhappy with your work, which is so personal?
"People always say you can’t take that stuff personally, but that has never worked for me. I actually do take things personally and that’s okay, too. I do feel like our work is personal and sometimes we feel personally about it. I think one of the great gifts of being a woman in the world is that we take things personally — and our work is different because of it.
"I don’t ever try to back away from what the female version of a showrunner looks like. I never try to do my job like a man; I’m trying to do my job like a woman. I do take things personally and I do very much care about the feelings of everyone including our crew, our cast, and our writers. And, I think we have a very functional cast and crew because of it, not despite it."
That’s such a refreshing approach. We give so much career advice to women that is about hiding their female-ness, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.
"I know. I was being interviewed recently, and they were talking about the dos and don’ts in the office and asked about crying. I was like, ‘Yeah, I cry at work!' It’s okay to show vulnerability and still be in control."
So, how do you show vulnerability but still command respect? I have heard people reference you as everything from the Mrs. Garrett of the show to Lena’s emotional bodyguard — and, these are all amazing, human qualities, but also ones that people, for better or worse, don’t always associate with leadership.
"That’s what I want to change. I want people to be able to associate all of these female things with leadership. Two of the women who are very, very high level on our show, besides Lena and I, are Ilene Landress, our executive producer, and Regina Heyman, our producer.
"And, I have this personal theory that women crew up differently than men. Instead of being like 'Okay we need the best DP, and the best gaffer,' they think ‘We need the best gaffer that’s going to get along with the best DP.' They think about personality balances in a way that I think is uniquely female. [That’s a part of why] our crew keeps coming back year and year. It’s not a very convenient job to have, honestly. They can get on other shows that last all year long. So, it’s not the most lucrative job, but all of our crew comes back, and I think that’s because it’s a lovely place to be. I’m really proud of our management style."
Reading Lena’s book, there was an eye-opening moment for me where she’s talking about a previous sexual experience that she’s working through, and she’s not sure if it’s rape. And, in the writer’s room, she tells the story and considers whether it’s something that would make sense for the show, and you have this really kind, supportive reaction to her. That, to me, was a real insight into how personal it gets in that environment. Is that specific to your show?
"It’s a really intimate writers' room. On Undeclared, we shared deeply personal stories, but it wasn't quite as intense. On Girls, we all really trust each other and that makes for this very safe space where we are allowed to say these things. When the leadership is Lena, who tells her truth no matter the consequences, we all fall in line."
So, that’s where it all starts?
"100%, I think it comes from her. She is honest and willing to accept the consequences of that honesty. She’s leading by example."
Is there a flipside to that? Is it more exhausting to work on a show where you give so much of yourself?
"I don’t think so. We love making this show. It is truly the greatest job in the entire world. And, I think exhaustion actually comes from a lack of creativity or appreciation or love or gratitude, not from sharing emotional stories."
So, the season 4 key art suggests that the girls are going to grow up a little bit this season. From your vantage point, what is it that defines their lack of maturity now?
"I guess it’s the intense narcissism of the characters. Not that you don’t meet narcissistic grownups, but there is something in their narcissism to me that’s very much like being young. The world really revolves around them, to them. Which, I think, will changes as they get older."
Are you interested in telling those stories — of these same girls as they age?
"I think so. That’s the great thing about HBO, I think people are really interested in seeing characters grow in a way that is not as appealing on network TV or in the comedy world. Honestly, I think Shonda does that incredibly well. When you think about Meredith Grey from day one to now, it’s mind-boggling. And, she still feels like her. She’s changed on her terms; it’s fantastic."
What about Girls, The Movie? Is that something you’re interested in?
"I mean, no one has said anything about it to us but I would never rule that out. I would do Girls the boardgame if they wanted me to."
A little more about the show. You’ve spoken pretty openly about these girls not necessarily having to be role models. But, do you feel some responsibility to be representative of women, or creative people, or people who live in Brooklyn — to tell a story that is true to their lives?
"That’s such a complicated question and something we’re still figuring out. I want to respect the people we are talking about, and the characters and the viewers, as well. It’s nice to have a struggle like that."
Can we talk a little bit about Jenna Lyon’s cameo arc this season?
"We worship her. She was so funny and great in the show. It was a dream to have her around. Who doesn’t admire the fuck out of Jenna Lyons?"
Did you want her to play that role from the first moment the character was first conceived?
"Truthfully, I think the idea came from one of our directors, Jamie Babbit. We wanted to have it be a very strong woman and kind of a person you truly believe in that role — and, who better than Jenna?
"It was so fun when she was around, too. She taught us business terms we didn’t know. We were like, ‘What’s it like to fire someone?' and she was like, 'I don’t fire someone, I manage them out.' She is in a whole corporate world that is so vastly different [from ours].”
How do you deal with moments of fear? Or self doubt? What do you tell yourself to get through them?
"You know what helps me a lot? I work out with Tracy Anderson and it gives me so much inner strength as well. I also do transcendental meditation. Lena does it, too; we both do it with the David Lynch Foundation and it’s unbelievably helpful. I also take naps. I am very pro-nap; a 20-minute disco nap can solve anything.
“We are going into our fifth season of the show, so there is less and less fear. But, I also feel really really comfortable asking for help when I don’t know the answer."
You have all of the tough things like asking for help and delegating, down.
"Well I’m 43. I’m old as fuck, I’ve learned a lot of things."
Ha! Hardly. But seriously, how has your life changed since you started transcendental meditation?
"I would actually say the exercise has been the more powerful thing. I didn’t start exercising in a real way until I was 38 years old. I joined gyms but never went to them. When anyone else might find religion, I found Tracy. Now, we bring trainers to the set to work out the crew and it’s really fun. There are Teamsters on pink mats doing [Tracy Anderson Method] dance moves."
I took one class with her two years ago, and I found it to be a pretty terrifying experience.
“It’s a great lesson in letting go of any ego because it’s like, I am not going to be looking great during any of this — but that’s okay!”
Is there anyone else who has really informed your career, besides Lena and Judd?
"Well, before I was writing, I worked as an assistant at Tribeca Productions. Watching Jane Rosenthal do her thing — even though I was so young and dumb and probably couldn’t absorb all she was doing — just working for a very strong woman in charge of a company that was growing every minute was so exciting."
Do you believe there are people working for you right now who are taking away those same kinds of lessons?
"I hope so, I really hope so. Lena and I both, we really try to do our jobs with kindness. There are plenty of people who don’t run a show in a kind way and still have really great shows. The equation isn’t be nice and your show will be good, but even with that being said, why wouldn’t you? I hope people learn [from us] that you can be really kind and open and still have a lot of strength."
Do you have a favorite scene from Girls so far?
"I think of the pilot, but there are some moments in this upcoming season that I can’t really tell you about between Hannah and Adam that are really, really beautiful. Marnie stuff really makes me laugh, and there’s some really good stuff coming up with Hannah’s parents that we worked really hard on. We gave them a meaty story that I feel really proud of."
The Adam stuff is especially interesting to me. You have to step back at some point and think, Wait, that guy evolved into the voice of reason in this relationship? How did that happen?
"One of my favorite moments of the show actually is episode 7, the party in Bushwick when all of a sudden Adam turns to her and says, ‘You never ask me a fucking thing about myself.' That’s the moment in the show when you realize Hannah is an unreliable narrator and there is more to this guy. That was a humanizing moment for Adam, and you go, ‘Yeah, she doesn’t ask him a thing, she just complains about him.’"
That was a turning point for the viewers, but had you always envisioned him as someone who would evolve in this way?
"No, but I mean Adam Driver is just so brilliant; an actor that good you have to write for. We’re so lucky. We have to keep him around and let him do all the things he can do."
Who are the most interesting characters on TV today, who you’re excited to watch?
[WARNING: GOOD WIFE SPOILER AHEAD]
"Kerry Washington’s character on Scandal, obviously. Olivia Pope. I find her amazing. I also just started watching How To Get Away With Murder and when Viola Davis rips off her wig and wipes off her makeup I was like, 'Now I’m in.' I think the way The Good Wife has dealt with Alicia Florrick has just been incredible. They did a truly beautiful job mourning Josh Charles’ character. They really let her mourn in a true way that was amazing.
"But, right now it’s just all about The Comeback and Valerie Cherish. I had started re-watching in prep for the new season and I’m realizing how brilliant every line, glance, and joke was. I could follow Lisa Kudrow around all day every day and watch her be Valerie Cherish and be the happiest person on earth. I think she is one of the most nuanced characters ever, in fiction."