Lena Dunham is a rare breed in Hollywood: a phenom who at 25 has already notched a list of accomplishments filmmakers twice her age would kill for. Two years ago, she coldcocked film critics with Tiny Furniture, a mesmerizing look at hipster ennui that she wrote, directed, and starred in. So impressed were the execs at HBO that they subsequently offered Dunham a blind script deal an offer to option anything she wrote, sight unseen. It was the kind of cherry gig typically reserved for A-listers like Judd Apatow, who, incidentally, swooped in to produce the venture. Their collaboration spawned Girls, a winning half-hour comedy about a group of 20-something girlfriends adrift in New York City, premiering on HBO April 15. Call it Sex and the City for the American Apparel set. In fact, that glitzy series served as an inspiration for the grittier Girls, which, Dunham says, is about young women "who grew up watching that show and came to New York with Sex and the City as their paradigm and how much harsher their wake-up call was because of that."
Raised by successful artists, Dunham spent her early years drawing and selling her artwork to her parents and their friends. "My parents were very supportive when I was growing up and have been all the way through," says Dunham, as she tucks into a bowl of oatmeal and herbal tea at John O'Groats, a popular diner in Los Angeles. "They always said, 'We want you to do what satisfies you creatively.' But they were also keenly aware that not everyone is able to make a living as an artist and that I was going to have to figure out another way to support myself." That down-to-earth advice kept Dunham both humble and hungry. After graduating from Oberlin College, she worked in a children's clothing store and wrote at night. "I would go to work from 9 to 6, go home, nap for two hours, then write from 8 to 2 a.m.," she recalls. "There was an urgency to what I was doing. That's where a lot of the creative ideas I am still working with began."
She made Tiny Furniture for $50,000, casting her real-life mother and sister as her on-screen family. Her transition to television has been enviably smooth: "I didn't have to wait six years to get my show on the air, worry that someone else had a similar idea, or wait around for notes that took my voice out of the show. When I asked Judd [Apatow] how to write a pilot, he said, 'Just try it.'" This past year, Dunham says, has been a massive education for her; she still admits to "nodding and smiling, then secretly Googling" things she doesn't understand.