13-Dec, 16:21

09:30, February 11 356 0

2017-02-11 09:30:11
Table for Three: Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow on ‘Girls,’ ‘Geeks’ and Trolls

If you ever have to tell a famous actress (and writer, director and producer) that her nipple is showing five minutes after photography has begun, hope that it’s Lena Dunham.

“Thank you for alerting me,” she said, adjusting her dress and returning blithely to her story.

Ms. Dunham, 30, the creator and star of “Girls,” which is beginning its sixth and final season on Sunday, and author of the best-selling memoir “Not That Kind of Girl,” has appeared nude frequently onscreen and has probably been asked to talk about it more than any actor in television history.

But she had more interesting (and contextualizing) matters to discuss with Judd Apatow, the writer, director and producer of such blockbusters as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40.” (Without Mr. Apatow, 49, the term bromance might not be in common parlance.) Earlier in his career, he produced the short-lived cult-TV classics “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” He is also an executive producer of “Girls,” and he helped Ms. Dunham and Jenni Konner develop the show at HBO.

Over lunch at Il Cantinori in Greenwich Village (ribollita and salmon for Ms. Dunham, minestrone and branzino for Mr. Apatow), the pair, who became friends as well as successful collaborators, spoke frankly about their relationship; the commonality of their work, exploring the intersection of sex and love; and the backlash that came after success.

Philip Galanes Tell me about your first meeting.

Judd Apatow You assume I have some Marilu Henner, superhuman memory.

Lena Dunham Well, I do! We’d talked on the phone and over email about the show. But you still have to have that face-to-face meeting. I was nervous and super-early. Then Judd comes down in shorts and high socks, like from a pharmacy, and a giant “Get Me to the Greek” T-shirt. I was expecting this suited slickster, and here’s a funny guy wearing his own merch. After an hour, he said: “Well, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to kill each other. I guess we should do it.”

JA And I was excited to meet Lena, because I really loved her movie “Tiny Furniture.” I felt a kindred spirit instantly.

PG You weren’t concerned by the ultra-maleness of his movies, Lena? All those boys with bongs and flannel shirts scared me.

LD To me, Judd’s work always seemed like it was about the male outsider experience. I related to that. Whether it was “Freaks and Geeks” or Seth Rogen’s character in “Knocked Up,” Judd was getting at many of the feelings I was talking about: feeling unaccomplished or invisible, striving to be seen.

JA I was actually like you, Philip: uncomfortable with hypermacho, sex-talking guys. I felt like Steve Carell, hiding in the stockroom while everyone else was hitting on the customers at SmartTech. I think it’s funny to show the worst of people, then watch them wake up. But with the football team, I was the Billy Bush in that equation, the guy on the “Access Hollywood” bus. Trump’s talking like a pig, and I’m not sure what to do. I’m trying to be polite, but it makes me uncomfortable, because I know it’s wrong.

LD We have an episode this season about male creative figures abusing their power. And people have asked if it’s based on my experience in Hollywood. I’m like: “No. I work with Judd Apatow.” I don’t even know what I would have to do to get him to look below my neckline.

JA One reason we got along, from Day 1, is I said to Lena: I will pitch you ideas that challenge you, but you have final say over every decision on this project. Most people don’t do that; you’re in a power struggle from the beginning. There are a lot of projects where I don’t do that. But I had a sense that Lena knew exactly what she wanted to do. Interfering with that would have been wrong.

LD Judd is also deeply collaborative in a way I wasn’t when we started. I was raised by artists who went into their studios alone and came out with their work. That was the creative process. So Judd and Jenni had to introduce me to collaboration.

JA The thing about television is that you have to do it over and over, episode after episode. You have to hire teams of writers and directors to help you make material. I’ve worked with Garry Shandling and Roseanne; I’ve seen the demands. I thought: I can help Lena build a machine to let her do her best work.

LD (to waiter): May I have a Diet Coke, please? That’s a new thing for me.

JA Don’t do it! Have you read what it does to your organs?

PG Meanwhile, I’m smoothed out on Klonopin. Let her have a Diet Coke.

LD I’m on Klonopin, too.

PG Perfect anxiety segue: You were both precocious kids. Teen Judd was cold-calling Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno for his high school radio show. And middle-school Lena was working obsessively on scripts. What do you make of that now?

JA On the healthy side, my grandfather was a record producer. He was a real hustler, raising money, selling the records himself. So, that’s what you do: You make your own opportunities. But there was also an enormous amount of conflict between my parents.

LD You should read his eighth-grade poem “Divorce.”

JA I felt nervous as a kid. I thought: “My parents are getting a divorce. I have to figure out how to take care of myself. I have to get a job.” So, I developed this healthy and really unhealthy hypervigilance and anxiety.

PG Was calling older comics about looking for father figures?

JA No, it was more like an education. Listening to Richard Pryor and George Carlin talking about what it means to be a human being. That comforted me. I loved knowing there were people out there turning pain into joy.

LD And I was just imitating my mom. One of the earliest things she remembers me doing is picking up a fake phone to make a lunch date. My dad converted his closet into a little office for me. I would come home from school, write a few letters to friends from camp. Then I had regularly scheduled calls with each of my grandmothers (one at 4 and one at 4:30) that I would make from my office.

JA What age?

LD Starting at 7 until I went to college. I didn’t have any friends.

PG That surprises me.

LD I went to superprogressive New York schools, and people think it’s all kumbaya. But kids were very aware of their parents’ socioeconomic status. Who had the good clothes, who had the good hair. There were kids of color, but there was also a division of who was on scholarship and who wasn’t. It wasn’t a magical accepting environment. It was like throwing kids into some Truman Capote, social-status hellhole and hoping they’d make it out. I didn’t have what it took to compete.

PG And this was before 24/7 internet. We just had to make it to 3:15 p.m., then we went home.

JA And I could write to Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and tell them both they were my favorite talk show hosts.

PG Do your childhoods explain the consistent work posses that you’ve assembled — Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, Jenni Konner and Jemima Kirke?

JA When I moved to California and started doing stand-up after high school, I met hundreds of people just like me: same dreams, same references. But it’s rare to meet people that you’re in sync with about the work and who work in ways that are healthy and productive. There are great people who are nightmares to work with.

LD I think about it like dating in your 20s. Your friends go, “Why did you break up with that guy?” And you’re like: “He’s nice. But he doesn’t bike.” That’s fine when you’re 26. But wait until you’re 41, and you remember that perfectly nice boyfriend you broke up with because you thought there’d be someone better who also biked. My boyfriend and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but I feel blessed to have him by my side in this complicated world. And I feel the same about the people I work with. It’s like there are a million fish in the sea — and no fish in the sea.

JA There’s a creative falling in love.

LD I don’t want to embarrass him, but if I could stuff Judd inside my womb and protect him for the rest of time, I would. I’ve called him about everything: every problem with my mother, my boyfriend, every time I screwed up with the press. He’s taken my calls when he’s driving his kids to school. That’s sacred. It’s also rare to have healthy intergenerational relationships between men and women. Basically every woman I know who’s had a mentor told me: “Yeah. He touched my butt.”

PG Maybe the rarest thing is that you both cut through the cultural noise, the superheroes, the lousy “Housewives” ——

LD Though I am wearing a fake ponytail. That’s pretty “Real Housewives.”

PG People paid attention to your work.

JA It’s miraculous. And I always appreciate it, because I’ve had shows that I cared about that were canceled almost immediately. When we were working on “Freaks and Geeks,” we were so nervous about getting canceled that we shot the series finale in the middle of the first season for fear we wouldn’t get to finish the story.

LD And you did.

JA But there’s a lot of terror behind that. Then the show goes away, and you’re heartbroken. I’ve spent the rest of my career pretending I’m still working on “Freaks and Geeks.” That’s how powerful it is. I have a new show with Pete Holmes, “Crashing.” It’s going to be on after “Girls.” But there’s no guarantee it’s going to last six years. We were lucky to know, early on, that HBO loved “Girls.”

LD Before the first season even aired, they said to us: “You’re never going to get canceled. Just do it.” That will never happen again in my career.

PG What surprised you about how the show was received?

JA I’ve been through this a bunch of times. I knew what would upset people before it ran. But I wanted to talk Lena through it so she wouldn’t be surprised or bummed out. I wanted her to feel great so she would keep writing.

LD And it worked.

JA When the joke of the show is immature kids who are smart and self-entitled, I knew there would be people who wouldn’t get that Lena was in on the joke.

LD People basically thought they were watching “The Hills,” and the four of us were actually these characters. I mean, nobody thought Larry David’s show, about white-male privilege and Jewish neurosis — which I love — was about Larry. But the noise and anger around us — because we’re young, female, for a million reasons — obscured people’s ability to see it as commentary.

JA Some people won’t get certain things. And that’s fine. There are other shows for them to enjoy.

LD But my first instinct was, and still is, to get out in front of criticism. I called Judd once, weeping, from Denmark, when I was on my book tour. There was a scandal around a sort of willful misunderstanding of a chapter. He told me the right people are going to understand, and everything else is just noise. You’re just going to drain your creative energy, standing out there fight, fight, fighting. And it freed me.

PG It shouldn’t surprise me you’re so attuned. You both work at the intersection of sex and love. But gender makes such a big difference.

LD I remember sitting down with Judd at the beginning, telling him the stories of my life. I was in a relationship that I now recognize as emotionally abusive and sexually horrifying. And Judd said: “You have to write this down, but you also have to stop doing this. Let’s write it as your way out.” I hope this isn’t too much, but both of us write a fair amount of jokes about being bad at sex.

JA I use the phrase “hit and miss.”

LD And I’m probably the most neurotic sexual partner you could inherit. Anyone who dates me is not getting some dreamy 30-year-old. They’re getting someone with so much baggage that they can just watch “Girls” to find out. But Judd and I always connected about honest portrayals. I remember the second sex scene I filmed, where Adam is calling her a prostitute and moving her into all these positions. And Judd was my rock. He came and whispered notes in my ear: “You look like you’re being murdered. We have to understand why she’s here, and why she wants to do this.”

PG Which makes the outcry about nudity crazy. More interesting questions are afoot.

JA Exactly. The power dynamic was what we found interesting. Trying to understand why she might demean herself, or why he felt the need to express himself that way. And there weren’t always clear answers. Which is different than the terrified boys in my work. They’re funny because they’re overcompensating for their fear by bragging about their accomplishments. But they’re not aggressors in any way.

LD I’ve always thought that if our characters met, if Seth from “Knocked Up” met Hannah, they’d both be so deluded that he’d think he was supposed to be dating Britney Spears, and she’d think she should be dating Taylor Kitsch. They’d miss a connection because they were looking down on the other.

JA That makes sense. And there’s always a reveal in those movies: They’re smarter than you think, and they’re kind. They just don’t know what to do with it yet.

PG I confess the sexism rap against your work never made much sense to me.

LD It’s insane. You want to talk about sexism. Really? You want to talk about Woody Allen like he writes the greatest female parts of all time and then go after Judd Apatow? Enjoy yourself.

JA I always thought that came from people who didn’t watch the movies. There were a few “think pieces” from people who didn’t get the joke. To me, it was pretty obvious.

PG And Lena got backlash — and a lot of love — just for being on TV.

JA More positive than negative.

LD Our fans are amazing.

JA We had a long talk about this. Lena was saying it’s exhausting to have that kind of vitriol sent your way — not just criticism, death threats and rape threats. Last night, I tweeted something about getting used to protests when you have a president like so-and-so. And suddenly, the comments are all: “Jump into the oven, kike.”

PG That doesn’t make you need to lie down?

JA It definitely does. But remember: People had slaves not that long ago. The Holocaust happened not that long ago. The type of people who are comfortable with that always exist. They’re just waiting to be woken up and used. It happens everywhere. And social media has given voice to people who used to just yell at their grandmothers. We have no idea how many people that is. It could be very small.

LD But just like there’s no long-term study on the effects of antidepressants, we also don’t have a study about prolonged exposure to internet threats and negativity. So I don’t know what it does. Will it strain all my capillaries so I fall over at 45, or does knowing that I move through the world with the love and support of people I care about counteract it?

PG Now that the final season of “Girls” is upon us, will you disengage for a spell?

LD I’m going to spend the rest of 2017 giving myself some space to write and think. Obviously, I’m going to remain engaged with the issues that affect our country. But I don’t see myself on a talk show for a while. And I get this last season to feel proud and happy and honored to have made this show with my wonderful cast mates and friends.

JA It’s a giant transition. Like Fonzie taking off the jacket. The important thing is to continue expressing yourself. Some projects get a lot of attention; some don’t. But the thing you see, 20 years later, is that the ones you’re proud of, the ones that have most meaning for you, may not be the ones people came to the most.