On one episode of Girls a guy tells Hannah’s hot roommate, Marnie, “I want you to know, the first time I fuck you I might scare you a little, because I’m a man and I know how to do things.” No doubt many would-be lotharios have added this come-on to their repertoires—but some of us still want to know what it means.
Someone once said something like that to me—with the immediate caveat “I, uh, learned that from my friend who works at Vice magazine.” That made the line a lot less sexy. American men always have to go for the laugh or the excuse. A Frenchman would say that with a straight face. I think the line is meant to be a warning, in the sense of “You can’t have me right now, but when you do, it will take away any sense of you being a modern woman in control.”
Last summer The New York Review of Books ran an essay about you that described a now-notorious sex scene in episode two between your character, Hannah, and Adam, the guy she likes, in which his sexual routine seems inspired by a porn scene and Hannah gamely tries to play along. The writer praised the scene’s edgy emotional realism, saying, “So there you go: A dose of porn, judiciously applied by an extremely intelligent director, can save cinematic sex. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it on Girls.” What were you trying to accomplish? My goal is to have a sexual verisimilitude that has heretofore not been seen on television. I did it because I felt that the depictions of sex I had seen on television weren’t totally fair to young women trying to wrap their brains around this stuff. I didn’t do it to be provocative. I did it to be educational. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough not to date the Porn Guy. There have been weirdos, but not him. I think you can identify the porny guys early on, based on their behavior: They try to force you into unnatural cinematic sexual positions, or they just seem to have learned a lot of their moves from people who do sex acts for a living. A quick check of their browser history will reveal all you need to know.
Can men just not stop themselves from behaving badly?
I never chalk up anything to the gender divide and say, “Well, that’s just a male thing.” I hate the conventional wisdom that men are supposedly complete pieces of shit and it’s our job as women to put up with them. Men are just as sensitive and easily victimized as women are, but there’s not as much of an infrastructure for expressing it. That drives me nuts. We’re all humans and doing human stuff. We’d have a better world if everyone had someone they could pay for talk therapy.
How much do you enjoy making viewers uncomfortable?
It’s not interesting for me to make art about things we’re all okay with. I make art to explore our darker areas. When what I’m doing begins to feel old and tired and socially acceptable, maybe I’ll move on to other topics. Maybe future interviewers will ask me about “the time you made an action movie” or “the time you explored Renaissance life.” But right now I feel I could say something about women forever. Each stage of being female and human brings new fodder—and there are parallels to be drawn to the male experience.
Male writers are often criticized for how they write female roles. How careful do you have to be about writing your men, Adam, Ray, Charlie and the rest?
Just as careful as when writing female roles. Saying that women have been written as sassy best friends or slutty girlfriends since the beginning of time so now guys deserve whatever comes to them is not an acceptable excuse—even though it’s amazing to me that Hollywood persists in writing these two-dimensional female characters who don’t really exist. No wonder it’s hard for actresses to find parts that are meaty enough to connect with. It’s important to me to create fully formed characters who don’t feel just like good guys, villains, creeps or sluts. I want it to feel real. I want my male friends to feel just as much of a connection to my work as my female friends do.
How do you want Girls to contribute to the ongoing conversation about feminism?
On Girls I like being a mouthpiece for the issues I think young females face today. It’s always shocking when people question whether it’s a feminist show. How could a show about women exploring women not be? Feminism isn’t a dirty word. It’s not like we’re a deranged group who think women should take over the planet, raise our young on our own and eliminate men from the picture. Feminism is about women having all the rights that men have.
If you woke up tomorrow in the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, what would you do for the rest of the day?
I’d be really disoriented and wonder what had happened in the night. Which enemy had dragged me to the doctor? I don’t think I’d like it very much. There would be all kinds of weird challenges to deal with that I don’t have to deal with now. I don’t want to go through life wondering if people are talking to me because I have a big rack. Not being the babest person in the world creates a nice barrier. The people who talk to you are the people who are interested in you. It must be a big burden in some ways to look that way and be in public. That said, I probably would want to see if I could get free food at restaurants. Then I’d call a doctor and see if she could return me to my former situation.
What kind of guy has a chance with you?
When I was younger I liked men who gave me some guff. I liked badasses with hearts of gold, though they often ended up not having a heart of gold. They were a little like the Adam character on Girls. Now I’m much more into someone who is interesting and open with his emotions, has a really good sense of humor and a passion for what he does, wants to hang out with my parents and doesn’t want to stay out too late. If I can get excited imagining funny things he did as a kid, there’s a pretty good chance I’m in love with him. It’s a sad day when you stop believing in the idea of having a soul mate or having someone who understands you deeply and loves you eternally. I’m a pretty unorthodox girl, but I guess people might be surprised to learn that despite what some of the characters on the show are doing, I remain an eternal romantic with a desire to hear all the things girls like to hear said to them.
You recently won two Golden Globe awards. Is there a downside to being critically adored and the object of great expectations in your mid-20s?
Well, when you’re 26 you’re an adult, but you’re not exactly an adult. In medieval times I would definitely have been an adult, but I would’ve also been old and gouty and about to fall into a hole. But not now. The harder part is less about being adored; it’s more about being my age, having a real job and people who depend on me—and not being in service to someone else in their work. There’s a reason people are apprentices first: You get the bigger responsibilities when you’re ready for them. I feel I am ready, and fortunately I’m not drawn to behaving badly, which is good because I don’t have the option to disappear like some other 26-year-olds. If I did, you might find me eating a lot of cheesy carbohydrates, watching many episodes of a really shitty television show and sleeping in the afternoon. Of the seven deadly sins, I’m most guilty of gluttony and sloth.
What’s your grocery checkout aisle routine?
I cannot get out of the market without six trashy magazines and seven packs of gum. I wish I could resist those things. Oh, and sometimes a Cadbury Creme Egg, if it’s in season.
Now that you’re so admired, who’s hitting on you?
Sometimes when we’re shooting the show, extras don’t know that I’m the director. They’ll come up and say, “How long have you been working as an extra? Want to walk over to the craft services table?” I’m always flattered when that happens because there are a lot of very beautiful girls around in short skirts, and they chose me. Unless they’re pretending they don’t know who I am. Otherwise, despite all the attention I’m getting lately, I definitely haven’t had any Ryan Goslings saying “I love the way your mind works. Can I take you to dinner?” Maybe it would happen if I looked like a Victoria’s Secret model for one day. Now I understand how I could use that.
How did you learn about sex, and who taught you?
I think I was five. A girl at school explained it to me. I didn’t believe her because it seemed so barbaric, so I went home and asked my parents if it was true. They sat down together and explained sex to me. My parents were sensitive. They said, “Your dad and I did this so that you could get made.” They gave me the male and female perspective. That was the traumatic part. I remember thinking, I don’t want to learn this, and I definitely don’t want to learn this looking at the faces of both of you. I wish one of them had taken the job and come into my bedroom alone. But I asked. It was because Amanda DiLauro told me, so it was really her fault.
Girls is set in Brooklyn. What does the media get wrong about New York’s hippest borough?
I don’t live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as my characters; mine is slightly more old-people-y. But I’m a Brooklyn girl and love it. The first time I watched 2 Broke Girls, another Brooklyn show, I liked it, but there were people in Williamsburg saying, “You can’t go out in that jacket in Brooklyn. You’re going to get robbed!” Many parts of Brooklyn are tony suburbs of Manhattan, but the most interesting thing is the push-pull and the collision of young meets old, historic meets new. Most people don’t look at that. Also, not everyone has a handlebar mustache.
In your breakthrough independent feature film, Tiny Furniture, your character, Aura, has hot, clumsy sex in a drainpipe on a construction site at night. Why a drainpipe?
New York real estate is rough. When two people who want to have sex don’t have a place to go, what are their options? I was trying to think of both a comedic and a sort of dark place for people to engage. The funny thing is it was such a cheap movie and the pipe was the most expensive part of our entire operation. We needed a place to put the pipe where we could light it properly. We had the pipe built in an iron yard. I had a big sewer pipe in mind, but they built one from a piece of scrap metal that wobbled around. When I noticed that I thought, We’re done for. Everything is ruined because of this stupid wobbling pipe. Cut to: People wound up being amused that the pipe had a certain amount of give and jiggle.
What’s the millennial generation’s rule for how many times you can sleep with someone before one party or the other starts to feel it’s no longer casual?
What an interesting question. I’m the worst. I could hate somebody and then if I slept with them once, I’d be planning our wedding in my head. Even though I knew they weren’t fit to shine my shoes, I just couldn’t separate those two acts very well. And yet, I know people who have been sleeping with each other for years who aren’t anywhere near dating, and I know people who have had sex with someone once and rent the U-Haul van to move in. Millennial men and women could stand to know that not everyone wants just casual affairs, even though there’s a lot of pressure to have sex and not care—and when you’re a woman it’s supposed to be a triumph when you can do that. I try to never push that methodology on Girls. I believe people want to be connected in an intense human way, but it’s getting lost in the shuffle. So there’s no rule, but most of my girlfriends start to get squirrelly about it and wonder what’s going on 10 dates in.
Who do you dream of directing in a nude scene?
I don’t want them to date in real life, but I wouldn’t mind putting David Strathairn and Rooney Mara in a room together and seeing what happens when they have sex in a movie context.
One of the louder criticisms of Girls is that it takes place in a narrow world of young, urban, middle-class white women and is thus not suitably diverse and representative of your generation.
I think that’s a valid criticism, but we can’t let that erase someone’s ability to tell a personal story. While being racist and promoting inequality are crimes that should be punished, the sin of writing two Jewish girl characters and two Waspy characters feels less egregious to me. I’ve tried to be elegant about it and receive the criticism, and I understand what’s hard about it. At the same time I’m like, Really?
What’s in your purse that would surprise us?
I still keep a paper date planner, which seems pretty old-school. I always have a novel. The stray-vitamin situation is pretty out of hand. But most surprising? A spoon. I’m always dragging one around. It’s a metal spoon. A plastic spoon makes sense. A metal spoon from your house makes it look like you’re going to commit a spoon murder.
From which TV character should Hannah take love and relationship advice?
Mary Tyler Moore. Even though she’s perpetually single, she has a positive attitude about it and doesn’t psycho out on people. She believes she’s gonna make it after all. She’s a pretty good example of chipper, appropriate single-woman attitude.
What’s the one interview question you don’t want to be asked anymore?
If I could abolish one question, it would be “Why are you naked on TV so much?” I don’t know. Use your imagination.