She's a Pez dispenser of laughs and wisdom who is shaping minds with every new project. We chat to the writer and actor about Girls, feminism and why she's never kept a diary.
What inspired you to make the show? The inspiration for the show was that I wanted to see women who remind me of women I know. I wanted to see an honest depiction of female sexuality and female ambition. I’m lucky that HBO let me do that in an unfiltered way. And that was really the idea that I came to them with, it was simply that I want to see my friends, who I have not seen on television before.
What are the major obstacles that you’ve faced? I’ve definitely faced a lot of obstacles both in my personal and professional life. Obviously I’m incredibly lucky to have this show and to be working at such a young age but as we all know, with attention comes negative attention and I’ve had to figure out how to process that, put it in its place and continue to do my work. And you know, my hope was always that my show and the message of Girls would be a positive one for women. That was my ultimate goal. So I hope the way that I handled criticism and continued working can also, hopefully, be a positive example for women. Because life is one big high school so I try to think of it like it’s the same way you get bullied in the tenth grade; you get bullied in your adult life and you have to continue on trying to be yourself.
How much has fame and success changed you? For me the greatest thing about the success of the show is just the fact that hopefully I’m going to get to continue to make work. And there’s not really any other job that I’ve ever… I was a babysitter, I was a legal assistant, I worked in a clothing store and I was terrible at all of it. And so this is the only job for me. And, for me, the success of the show just indicates that I’ll continue to get to do that sort of work. And in terms of the way that fame or celebrity shifts things, yes, it’s the sort of mundane details; it’s no longer quite as easy to sit alone in a diner and read the newspaper, which happens to be my favourite activity. You have to account for the fact that there is a different kind of attention and a different kind of scrutiny. As I always say to people: I never liked leaving my house that much anyway. So now there is a great excuse not to.
You recently became involved with Planned Parenthood and gave a very frank talk about sex education. What
prompted you to get involved? Well I’ve been working with Planned Parenthood for the past three years but it was only in the last year that I sort of came forward as a spokesperson for the organisation. And the reason it took that long is because I wanted to make sure that I was truly educated about them, both the advocacy work they do, the healthcare work they do, and really, the services they offer so that I could speak from an educated perspective about what Planned Parenthood has to offer American women, American families and so, once I kind of really metabolised all that information that’s when I realised, ‘Oh, this is an organisation that I feel I have to speak for’. People really try to distil it down to a conversation about abortion – pro-choice, anti-choice – but it’s about so much more. It’s about affordable healthcare, it’s about opportunities for young families, it’s about removing the classist nature of the American healthcare system and that is why Planned Parenthood is so important to me. I also love that they’re accepting of who I am. I don’t have to be a perfect spokesperson. I can make a dirty joke or take my shirt off on TV [laughs] and still be considered a viable face for that organisation and that’s meaningful to me and so I hope to continue to work with them. Next year is going to be their 100th-year anniversary and I’m part of the creative team that’s going to be figuring out the best way to share the history of the organisation with young women and people everywhere. It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever gotten to do.
Is it harder for you to write for yourself than the other characters? And do you ever tell your parents not to
watch? It is harder to write for myself because – I’m not saying this just to be self-effacing, I really mean it – the other people on the show are very gifted actors who I know can handle whatever comes their way. I love performing, but I have a very specific range. I recognise that I am not Julianne Moore or a master of transformation. It’s something very specific that I do so I have to make sure that what I write, I feel that I can genuinely deliver. Whereas with the other actors I know that whatever I hand them, they’re going to do an amazing job. I’m not worried about them. And there are often times where I get to set and I read the scripts and go, ‘What part of me thought that I could say this in a convincing way?!’ and then I have to scribble it and kind of rework it a little bit because I know that there are very specific rhythms to Hannah’s dialogue and there are very specific ways that I’m comfortable working. As far as my parents… they’re pretty resilient. They’ve never missed an episode. I’ve watched some of the most awkward episodes right along with my dad, who seems totally fine with it. And as my dad once said, perfectly, he said, “It’s not natural for a father to see their daughter having sex on TV. That goes against the order of
the natural world.” That being said, I think he is proud of the show and I know he is proud of what he thinks it’s saying about human sexuality.
Your generation seems to admire their parents, what’s
something they oppose? Well it’s funny; I am always waiting for that moment when I rebel against my parents. I’m 28 and it still hasn’t happened, so it might never happen. At this point I may just skip it altogether. I do think that there are concerns that my mother had as a young woman that I didn’t have. Obviously my mother was growing up in a time before Roe v. Wade. She was dealing with very different restrictions on women’s right to education. That being said, I am also shocked by how little has changed. By how many of the same issues that my mother was fighting for in the seventies – wage equality, respect in the workplace – are still issues that are on the table that we are battling as women. I think the thing that confuses my parents is that, they come from sort of the free-loving hippie generation, yet they’re still a little confused by the hook-up culture that happens on the show. They’re like, “Why doesn’t anybody want a girlfriend? Why doesn’t anybody want to get married? Aren’t these people interested in having children?” Although it’s funny because I notice that my mum and her friends got into committed relationships, had kids but did it a little bit later. Whereas a lot of my friends are now rebelling by being a little more traditional. I have lots of 26 and 27-year-old girlfriends getting married and having kids which is almost a reaction to the baby boomer desire to wait to have children. So now it’s like almost more alternative to get married at an early age and pop out a few children than what my mum did, which is wait until she was 40 to have kids. It’s interesting just to see the vacillations. I’m curious to see how my kids react against me.
You’re in a relationship now, how different is that? Yeah, I have… I mean, I actually don’t think it is that… both my boyfriend and I have parents who have been married for 40 years and we both really value commitment. I would say that we are not necessarily the norm for people our age. I always say we’re like two older lesbians. We just want to be in our house with our dog and not go out to parties. I wouldn’t say our relationship is representative of maybe the average 20-something relationship but I’m enjoying it.
What is your relationship with social media like? It’s interesting, I love and appreciate the media and social media and I know that’s the reason our show has an audience, because of the support we’ve gotten. And I’m also a media maven; I want to meet every reporter, I want to talk to everybody. I’m interested in media just as a fan. But I also have to be protective of my life and protective of my family. There’s a new set of concerns, which is not wanting to let anyone in who will be invasive of the people I love. And not wanting to oversaturate the planet and have everybody get sick of my face. But in terms of social media, I love social media. I have a great time connecting with people. I’ve made friends on Twitter and Instagram. I found that it’s where I get most of my news. I love it. That being said, social media is not a safe place, especially for women. There are a lot of abuse narratives that are directed at women. The CEO of Twitter made an announcement. He said, “We’re not good enough at blocking trolls, we’re not good enough at protecting women who use the internet from violent language and hate speak and threats.” And so for me now I’m much more about tweeting out into the world and not looking at my mentions or engaging with everybody. Not because there aren’t a million great people but because ten sour grapes can really spoil the whole bottle of wine
when it comes to your experience of the internet. So I think you have to become more cautious just purely to protect yourself and protect that place inside you as a creator, that needs to be light and free in order to make your work.
In America violence is so acceptable on television but
nudity isn’t. What is with America and sexuality? I will never understand why excessive violence is okay to show to people, to show to children, but healthy human sexuality is not. That is one of the great mysteries of our culture to me. It’s a certain kind of puritanical approach that is very specifically American because, you know, when I go to Europe one of the things that I love... When I go to France, nobody is asking me, ‘Why are you naked on the show?’ It’s like you’ve got full frontal nudity in your commercials and no one gives a shit. The movies that I love, the movies that have inspired me, are some of the great films of the seventies – whether it’s Cassavetes, Paul Mazursky, or Hal Ashby – where people’s nudity was casual and people were living as they really lived. And that’s what I wanted to capture in this show. So to then have it treated like it’s explicit… It’s funny, someone made a porn parody of Girls and everyone thought I would think it was funny. And I didn’t; I was angry. And the reason that I was angry was because, to me, to reduce Girls to pornography is to completely miss the point of what it is we are trying to do. Much of the nudity on our show is not sexualised. It’s just what it means for a human to exist in their life. It’s like when I’m alone in my bedroom I don’t go like this when I change my shirt. I am naked with myself and I want to see that in all its glory on television. When I hear that on ABC they are not allowed to show thrusting during sex but they can show a beheading, I think there is something seriously wrong culturally. And I don’t know what the best way to fix it is besides to continue to promote anti-violence and call attention to just what’s so wrong about that paradigm. You are definitely a product of modern times; you believe in individual differences, but how do you find hope and patience with people who have different ideas to you? Yeah, something that I think we are working towards, not just in America but everywhere, is acceptance of each other’s beliefs. Of the differences between humans. I mean, we are all doing our best to get through life and that involves embracing a set of beliefs that are meaningful to us. Whether that’s Christianity or whether that’s having an open sex life. I think where we run into trouble is when people attempt to control each other, attempt to control each other’s beliefs and thoughts and ideals. Something I often say about feminism is that, to me, a big part of feminism is giving other women the space to make choices that you wouldn’t make yourself. It doesn’t mean we all become robot clones of each other. It means we are all free to act as we want to. And, you know, I’m not going to speak to any specific sort of religious wars or terrorism but I will just say that so much good could come from acceptance. That we are all doing the best we can and getting through life with a set of beliefs that is the most helpful to us.
It seems like a lot of millennials are rejecting feminism. What
are your thoughts on that? It’s funny, whenever someone tells me that they are not a feminist, my first reaction is, and I stole this from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that I don’t think they know what it means. Feminism is not saying, ‘Let’s create a plan where men are our slaves and we are going to walk around in loin cloths with spears and rule the earth.’ What feminism means is that you believe that everybody should have equal opportunities. It means that you believe that no human deserves more than any other human. And so it’s all encompassing; if you believe in racial equality, if you believe in religious equality, then you are also a feminist, you believe in equality. I think that journalists have been trying to almost trick young actresses into saying that they are not feminist, but the fact is they are asking these 14-year-old girls if they are a feminist and maybe they’ve been told not to say they’re feminist because it’s not sexy, it’s going to isolate your audience or they’ve never been taught what it means in the first place because they’ve been in Los Angeles since they were 11 working for Disney. So they don’t know [laughs]. I’m sick of these journalists who are trying to get girls to say these things and then afterwards they go, “I don’t even know what I just said because no one has ever taken the time to educate me.” Feminism isn’t something you learn about in elementary school. It’s something you learn about when you have a really devoted teacher and for me that teacher was my mother and her friends.
Growing up did you keep a journal? I was never that girl who kept a journal. Partially because I never understood why you would write something that other people wouldn’t see. So whenever I would write a journal I would leave it open and then hope my parents would find it. I was that kind of jerk who just wanted attention. I wrote a lot throughout high school; I wrote poems, I wrote stories, I wrote plays – I went to an incredible school in Brooklyn, called Saint Ann’s, where they had students writing plays, directing plays, creating literary magazines. We were given the full range of opportunity. I was the editor of the alternative school newspaper. I got these incredible opportunities to exercise my muscle as a writer. So by the time I got to college I’d had the time to get to do all these things – take poetry class; I’d been in poetry class for the last ten years when a lot of kids where taking their first poetry class. I’m not saying I was better than anyone else, I’m just saying that I had been given this amazing gift of an education seriously as an artist, as a kid. So I hope when I have children I can find a similar environment. I mean my school was so crazy; we had a puppeteering class where you would build your own puppets and then we would have a parade at the end of the year with everybody. My sister got on the front of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper because she made an Eiffel Tower she could stand inside of with two arms [out] and was holding a baguette in one and the other was holding a wedge of cheese. So we were given almost too much creative freedom.
Girls season 4 is out on DVD on 9 December.