From left: Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, executive producer Jenni Konner, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham. Photo: New York Times
IN THE first episode of the first season of runaway hit HBO series Girls, Lena Dunham delivers a line that, for good or bad, will follow her to the end of time. Dunham's Hannah, a struggling writer, high on opium tea and begging her parents not to cut her off financially, declares boldly that she is ''the voice of a generation … or a voice of a generation''.
Given the autobiographical nature of Dunham's work, most critics thought she wasn't joking. ''I thought people would know it was a joke,'' the effervescent Dunham says when we meet in HBO's New York offices.
''I assumed that because the character was on drugs, people would understand. But apparently, no, people did not get the joke.''
The cast of Girls, from left, Allison Williams (Marnie), Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna), Lena Dunham (Hannah) and Jemima Kirke (Jessa). Photo: New York Times
In a way, Dunham has become a voice of her generation whether she wanted to or not. Girls is about the hapless romantic and professional lives of the erratic Hannah, the responsible Marnie (Allison Williams), the irresponsible Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and the innocent Shosanna (Zosia Mamet), four Brooklyn women in their 20s who date inappropriate men, live in cramped apartments and face the daunting possibility that, as college graduates, they won't get anywhere near the sorts of jobs they thought they would.
This is the opposite of the aspirational world of Sex and the City - Girls is so gritty and emotionally raw, it can be difficult viewing. ''If I can enlighten anybody about what it's like to be a young person, part of the first generation raised on instant messaging and graduating in a recession,'' declares Dunham, a Twitter and Instagram enthusiast, ''then I'll be happy if that experience is illuminated by what I'm doing.''
Unsurprisingly, Dunham is verbose, engaging and whip-smart in person. And, with her more put-together clothes and precise make-up, she's a more polished version of her alter ego.
Girls co-creator Lena Dunham has become the voice of the Twitter generation. Photo: Reuters
''I tend to think of Hannah as a version of me that has no sense of when to shut up, and exists about two or three years behind where I'm at emotionally,'' Dunham says.
''It's actually fun and cathartic to play that person and re-enact those humiliations, and sometimes she can be really evolved. I hate to talk about her like I didn't invent her, but sometimes she can sort of surprise me with her wisdom.''
Much about the character of Hannah polarises: her propensity to overshare; her inability to stop talking long after she probably should have stopped - the scene in season one in which she sabotages a promising job interview with a rape joke is particularly cringeful; her initially degrading and emotionally abusive relationship with Adam (the magnetic Adam Driver). But, ultimately, Hannah is smart, funny and endearing, and you really want her to win.
Lena Dunham: 'I'm ... playing someone who's doing a standard amount of nakedness.'
Much has been made of the fact that Dunham, as Hannah, spends a lot of time naked. That a ''normal'' woman is showing her body onscreen shouldn't be revolutionary, but it is. This, Dunham declares, is what a woman looks like. For her, the nudity is not gratuitous, but important.
''I'm just trying to play a girl with an ambivalent, complicated, interesting relationship to her body. Some days I like doing it and some days it's harder, but I just keep at it because I think that it's something that's important for us to do right now.''
This remains the case in season two. In the third episode, on in two weeks, Dunham is virtually topless almost half the time, in a sheer mesh top. Sometimes she feels ''gross'' and wants to cry when it's time to shoot a nude scene; other days she'll run around happily with no pants on. Still, she's surprised by the continuing public dialogue about her state of undress.
''Here's the thing that's interesting: Hannah is not that out-there with her body; Hannah's naked just about as much as anybody is naked. I'm just playing her and I'm on TV doing it, so it seems like I'm naked all the time, but I'm actually just playing someone who's doing a standard amount of nakedness. Just the moments they would usually cut out of a TV show - someone's changing or someone's having sex - we're there for.''
Since her rapid rise, Dunham has been unfairly maligned by critics and the public at times. Indeed, much of the vitriol seems to be a result of envy.
At 26, she already has an astonishing body of work. There was her 2009 feature film Tiny Furniture, which featured her younger sister, Grace, and mother, New York artist Laurie Simmons, and contained Dunham family conversations pretty much verbatim.
After seeing Tiny Furniture, director-producer Judd Apatow contacted Dunham about creating a series for HBO.
Then there is the fact she grew up in a privileged New York world - Tiny Furniture was filmed at the family's impressive Tribeca loft. Indeed, all the main cast members of Girls happen to have parents who are prominent in the media-arts world.
Aside from Dunham (whose father is the artist Carroll Dunham) and Kirke, the show also stars Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David Mamet, and Allison Williams, the daughter of respected NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
The perception that family connections may have influenced Dunham's ascendancy and the show's casting choices rankles executive producer and co-writer Jenni Konner.
''The funny thing about the nepotism issue is that none of them is in a position to get jobs in television except for maybe Allison, but it's not like you - as the daughter of two artists - immediately get handed a pilot at HBO.''
There have been other, more valid criticisms, of course. They include that the show lacks diversity, and that the first season had no prominent characters of colour. Dunham has gone some way to addressing this in the first episode of the second series, in which Hannah hooks up with Sandy (Community's Donald Glover), a black guy who happens to be a hipster and a Republican.
''Race was a topic we were always going to get to because we're trying to talk about all of the big issues that you deal with as a young person in America right now, and obviously race is a huge part of our social dynamic, no matter how much PC liberal-arts students don't want to talk about it,'' Dunham says. ''It's there, and it won't stop being there.''
Dunham, herself a former ''PC liberal-arts student'' who went to the arts-focused Oberlin College, also attended the very arty Saint Ann's high school, in Brooklyn, which was hardly a barrel of laughs. At the school she felt isolated, saying she was the ''chubby kid'' with ''no friends''. Still, it didn't stop her seeking out classmate Jemima Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke), who was apparently deemed a cool kid, at a school dance and asking to be friends. When I meet Kirke in Soho the day after my interview with Dunham, she says: ''[Dunham] came up to me and said, 'You're cool, I like your top, we should be friends.'' Kirke, an artist who appeared in Tiny Furniture as ''a favour'' and ended up in Girls as the free-spirited Jessa (''still as a favour'' and in a part that was based entirely on her), says she's at once surprised, and then not surprised, by Dunham's success.
''I really can't believe it, but at the same time it makes a lot of sense, knowing her from school,'' Kirke says. ''She's just a strange girl. She did the most ridiculous, nerdy things, but she was so confident. I always thought she was going to be some sort of writer, but I didn't think it would be this mainstream, put it that way.'' Things, however, are about to get entirely more mainstream for Dunham. She recently signed a $3.5 million book deal - much to the chagrin of the Gawker gossip blog, which leaked her book proposal online - to write Nora Ephron-esque essays about, yes, being a young woman in 2013.
So can she, with all her success, still relate to the struggles of the types of young women she's writing about?
''I've gotten that question quite a bit, including from my dad, and the fact is, I feel as though there are certain emotions - lostness, not knowing what your place is in the world, feeling a little bit disconnected from yourself and the people around you - that it would be great if a book deal or a TV show could solve those things, but they don't,'' she says. ''No matter what, I am a 26 year old trying to figure out what my next move is - 'Am I responsible enough to have a dog?'; 'Why didn't I take my trash out for three days?'; 'Who am I?' All of those things are still completely a part of me, and I feel like I'm able to tap into that enough that hopefully it won't become an issue.
''But I am sure that if it is, people will let me know on Twitter.''
Girls is on Mondays on Foxtel's Showcase channel.