Most Powerful Women

Lena Dunham talks Girls with Most Powerful Women

October 2, 2012: 6:52 PM ET

Actress, writer, and director Lena Dunham joined CNN's Soledad O'Brien on stage at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit.

Below is an unedited transcript:

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham

STEPHANIE MEHTA:  I'm very excited about our next session.  Fortune does some things very well.  We know business.  We've got business covered.  But although we have a lot of women from media at our summit, and though we are part of a big media company, Time Warner, we very rarely get the woman of the moment at the moment that she is in the moment at the Fortune MPW Summit, at least when it comes to the entertainment industry.  This year we got it right.

I'm very pleased to introduce the creator, director, star of the HBO show "Girls."  She made quite a splash at her Emmy debut last week, arguably upstaging some of the winners, and in a rare move of corporate synergy, HBO is owned by Time Warner, CNN is owned by Time Warner, so CNN Soledad O'Brien is going to interview Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  It's so great to have a chance to talk to you, and I'm going to fill up our water.

LENA DUNHAM:  Thank you.  I'm incredibly excited to be here.  You can just like feel the good vibes coming off of this conference, it's amazing.  It's amazing.  And so many good suits, I feel like a real schlock.  (Laughter.)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Do you think of yourself as a powerful woman?

LENA DUNHAM:  I guess so.  I mean, I guess what's cool about an event like this is you get the opportunity to really consider that.  I guess I spend so much time just trying to keep it all moving that I don't necessarily revel in my powerful woman-ness, but when I'm here I think this is the kind of company I'd like to be in more often, and this is the kind of woman I would like to become.  So, I hope so.  And if I'm not there yet, then hopefully I'm on the road.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  You have talked a lot about how you wrestled with the title of Girls.  How did you come up with Girls?

LENA DUNHAM:  Every title that I came up with included the word "girls," but they were like the kind of worst, sort of most ‑‑ I love a network title just as much as the next girl, but they were sort of the worst ‑‑

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Throw out some examples.

LENA DUNHAM:  I don't know, like Fun Times Girls, Downtown Girls, Girls Like Us.  They were all going horribly awry.  And sort of the connective tissue was the word "girls."  And it was actually Judd Apatow, who is not a girl, who suggested why don't we just remove the rest of that and just go with Girls.  And it started out as our temp title, and then it was like the show could never be called anything else.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Who helped you get to where you are today?  If you had to tick off for me three people who are critical.

LENA DUNHAM:  What a great question.  It's like you do this professionally.  (Laughter.)  I would say, I would have to start with my mother, who is amazing, and who is an artist.  And the thing that's amazing about being an artist, a modern artist especially one who is really constantly working and making a living at it, is that that also means you're a small business owner.  So, her ability to sort of balance her creative life, the life of sort of supporting her vision, her business, and her life with us at home was always, even before I was aware of what a challenge that was, I think it impressed me.  And now that I'm trying to do something similar, it impresses me even more.  So, my mother was hugely important.

I would say that I had a number of incredible ‑‑ I went to an amazing school in Brooklyn called St. Anne's that's a really kind of creative hot bed.  It's a small liberal private school, and I had a few amazing writing teachers, particularly a playwriting teacher named Nancy Faalsgaard (ph), who were just consistently encouraging me to express myself in any way I saw fit.

My father who is also an artist, and who kind of offers different but complementary things to my mother.

And then I have an amazing ‑‑ since I have started making films, I've had an amazing slew of collaborators, most of them women.  Now, working on Girls, I have a producing partner named Jenny Connor, who has taught me a tremendous amount; an executive producer named Eileen Landress who is sort of the nuts and bolts production woman who sort of taught me how to handle a crew, how to hire people, how to sort of run what essentially amounts to a small corporation with some semblance of grace, and style.  And Judd Apatow has been huge.  I just named a lot more than three people.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  It's okay.

LENA DUNHAM:  But I feel like I've really been massively supported in ways that I never imagined.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Here's a quote from you, and you were talking about Girls.  You said, the parts I enjoy playing aren't really available to me, so I have to write them.  Has that always sort of been the history and part of why you've gotten to where you are?

LENA DUNHAM:  You know, I think it is.  And I think it was hard for me to acknowledge that acting was something that I wanted to do, both because there is a little bit of the perception that it wasn't sort of an intellectual pursuit because of the fact that it didn't necessarily feel like there was going to be a place for someone who looked and acted like me to play anyone besides someone's sort of like a sassy best friend who can't stay away from the buffet, and because I loved writing and directing, it seemed like why would I not just hire the person who looks right and knows how to do this job.  But I always wanted to act, and I would always get like a horrible part in the play, but it was like as the bouncing ball, or like ‑‑ I was always being asked to play a man, which was really stressful.

And so, I think that when I first started acting, I did it almost out of necessity.  I thought, well, I don't yet have the means to hire the kind of actor I'd want, so I'm going to stick myself in until somebody better comes along.  And then it wasn't really until I finished the first season of Girls that I thought, oh, I love doing this, and it's a part of my expression.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Do you worry, I mean, Girls and most of your work is very autobiographical, if not exactly it's a twist of.  Do you ever worry about revealing ‑‑ you're naked a lot in Girls.

LENA DUNHAM:  I am.  I really am.  And I do.  I have moments when I go like, well, there may be a time when like my child is wondering, because the thing is what I want to explain to my daughter is, you shouldn't probably be naked on television.  Most situations it's not a good idea to be naked on television.  I like doing it because I'm my own boss, I'm writing it, I'm directing it, I'm producing it.  If somebody else got me to ask me to be naked on television, I would tell them to go fuck themselves.  (Laughter.)

So, I think that aside from that, I think that the specificity of my situation, it's like I hate American apparel ads, I think they're disgusting.  I think that they're part of the problem.  Yet, I'm more naked than that and think it's part of the solution.  So, we can contemplate that later.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  It's actually very consistent.  The show is about girls who are young women how are contradictions.  They're smart, and they do incredibly stupid things.  They're so ‑‑ they're ambitious, but never really about their jobs, a lot about their relationships.  They know the choice to make, and they almost invariably make the wrong choice.

LENA DUNHAM:  You sound like a better version of the pitch that I made when I went to HBO.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  You had a lot of comparisons to "Sex In The City."  Obviously HBO was part of that.  Did that bother you?  Did you embrace it?

LENA DUNHAM:  I found it exciting, because that show obviously opened up ‑‑ that show is incredibly successful both sort of I think artistically and in terms of its popularity and its reach.  I think that I was excited, because that's the show that sort of opened up, I think, the kind of dialogue that my show is trying to continue.  I don't think there would be a place for us on television if it weren't for "Sex In The City."  But, I also felt like the minute people saw it they would understand the difference.  Those comparisons really lessened once the show was actually in the world.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  So, when you talk about contradictions, is that ultimately what the show is about, sort of that age that's just a massive contradiction?

LENA DUNHAM:  It's a huge part of it, and I think it's also about something that I hope is that it's not just about the moment between college and real life.  It can be about the transitional moment at any point in your life.  Like nothing makes me happier than when someone comes up to me and says, my kids just left home, I'm 60.  I want to make a career change.  This show speaks to me.  The idea that it's for any moment of sort of lost-ness and trying to grapple with sort of what you have to offer the world, because I think even though these characters can seem sort of pessimistic, or narcissistic, what I find sort of uplifting is their really firm belief that they have an ability to give something to the world, and to change the world, and that they want their voices to be heard.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Even in the face of everything sort of saying you don't.

LENA DUNHAM:  Exactly.  Even in the voice of everyone, I feel like the men on the show are constantly shutting them down, like there's so much ‑‑ I feel like my character, Hanna, is constantly being told by every boss, by every boyfriend, you don't know what you're talking about, enter the real world, get your head on straight.  And even though some of those may be valid criticisms, her refusal to listen makes me love playing her, and makes me love writing for her, and makes me think that despite what a mess she is she has some kind of lesson to teach.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  An heroic characteristic?

LENA DUNHAM:  Yes.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  The critics of your show have said it's elitist.  They've said for four young women in New York City there are almost no people of color who they interact with, which for New York City would be very unusual.

LENA DUNHAM:  Yes, you know when I heard those criticisms the first ‑‑ my first feeling was just the idea that the show would make anyone feel isolated when what its purpose was to make people feel like, sort of flaws and all, their stories deserve to be told.  And so I really took those criticisms to heart.  I didn't necessarily try to defend myself, because it was a valid perspective.  I just sort of said I've done 10 episodes about four characters who are really close to me.  I'm half Jewish half WASP.  I wrote "Two Jewish Girls And Two WASPs," like I was writing almost it was like each one was a different facet of my personality.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Was it hurtful.

LENA DUNHAM:  It was when it became personal, because there was a lot of you were raised in New York, you've never met a person of color in your life.  And it felt like it was attacks on myself, attacks on my family, that felt I really did try to block a lot of it out for that reason, but at the same time you can't block all of it out, because all I want is to make women feel excited, and included by their show.  And so in the second season there are a multitude of new characters who enter.  Some are people of color, some are not, some are Caucasian, because I went to the actors who I wanted to work with and told the stories that seemed vital and exciting and I hope that it ‑‑ I don't care about satisfying the critics, but I care about satisfying my viewers.  And I know I have viewers who are women of color who want to see themselves reflected on screen.  So, that's what matters to me.  It doesn't matter to me to sort of satiate people who are looking to sort of kind of put destructive energy onto the world, not to sound like a hippie.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Do you feel when you look at your career, do you feel like you've planned it, or do you feel like it has sort of come at you?

LENA DUNHAM:  In some ways it's amazing, because I never felt like I was planning as I went along, but yet I find myself very much where I want to be.  So, it's interesting to think that sort of the little choices that we all sort of have this compass in ourselves that's sort of pushing us in the right direction.  And the little choices that we didn't even know would matter.  The choice to make this web video with these three interesting women, the choice to submit your film to this festival rather than that festival, the choices that feel instinctual and tiny and basic are the things that are setting us up to sort of have the life that we want to have.  So, it's sort of amazing for me to look back and to realize that I'm where I want to be without a tremendous amount of what felt like calculation.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  What is failure to you and what would be success to you?

LENA DUNHAM:  It's very easy for me to say what success is.  I think success is connecting with an audience who understands you and having a dialogue with them.  I think success is continuing to push yourself forward creatively and not sort of becoming a caricature of yourself.  I think success is figuring out a balance between a really rich, intense, fulfilling work life, and the kind of personal life that makes that work life possible and that makes that work life meaningful.  I think failure would be the opposite of those things.  I think it would be becoming too involved with sort of the traditional markers of success.  I think it would be stopping my sort of pursuit of new forms of expression.  And I think it would be putting something out in the world that didn't feel honest and exciting to me, because I really feel firmly that even if I sort of put a show out that was some kind of commercial success and I didn't feel like it was sort of sending the message out into the world that felt essential to me, it wouldn't feel like a success to me at all.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  At 25 you were a show runner, which is unusual, if not completely insane and unheard of in Hollywood.  Do you feel a pressure to represent young women?  I mean do you feel like there is this added burden of, I've been given this great opportunity.  A lot of people are watching and if I'm successful I'm not just successful for me, and if I'm not successful I'm not just failing for me?

LENA DUNHAM:  I definitely had those moments.  I definitely had moments where I was like I don't want to do anything that's going to make them think this is why we don't give shows to 25-year-old girls.  I was like, that's why I don't have a small dog that I take to set with me.  I'd love to have a small dog, but I don't think it would be good for all of us if I were to carry a small dog to set with me.  So, those are definitely the moments where I think to myself it's hugely important to me to sort of represent seriously and sort of that's why ‑‑ I always think about that line from "League Of Their Own," like there's no crying in baseball.  I do a lot of repeating to myself, there's no crying in baseball.  But, then you also have to be comfortable sort of revealing your vulnerability and showing the people around you what the challenges are, because the fact is that I hadn't had the level of experience that a lot of show owners had.  I was in a position where I had to really push to be taken seriously by certain kind of older male crewmembers, or comedy writers that you run into at a party.  So, it's a constant give and take.  But, I definitely had those anxieties and I think only now after having finished the second season am I starting to feel like there's a chance I might actually know what I'm doing.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN:  Lena Dunham it's nice to have you.

LENA DUNHAM:  Thank you so much.

Thank you.  (Applause.)

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