Back Stage: How would you describe your film?
Lena Dunham: It's a pretty relatable story. It's about that moment when you first get out of college and you're trying to figure out who you are in relation to the world, in relation to your family. You're not someone's child anymore; you're also not adult. It's about the in-between places, and it's about somebody's search for a sense of self.
Back Stage: Why was it important for you to create your own work?
Dunham: I think I'm best as a performer when I'm just doing my own work. I can only really hit the emotional pitch that I create for myself. There are two actors in my movie, David Call and Merritt Wever, who are amazing. You give them anything, and they have these incredible skill sets that they can apply to a part. That's not my situation. I don't think I'm a particularly versatile performer, but I really enjoy doing it.
The parts that I'm the best at are the parts I make for myself. The other thing is I'm a pretty normal-looking girl. It became pretty apparent to me early on in my life that the parts that I was going to get are, like, a sassy best friend who loves to eat cheese or something, and those aren't the parts I would necessarily want to play. It's important to me to write parts for myself and to write parts for other women that don't feed into those stereotypes.
Back Stage: What advice do you have for other actors looking to write and direct?
Dunham: I think if you have a story that you want to tell that you feel like you're uniquely suited to perform, you should do it. The hard thing about being an actor is sitting around and waiting for somebody to give you work. I've never had that. I've had other challenges: The challenges that come with being an independent filmmaker are very real, but I never felt like I was waiting for somebody to give me a part that jived with me. If there are actors who have a story in their head and they have a part they feel like would be their dream, I think it's a very great time in which we are technologically to be able to create that role for yourself. Especially if you're a working actor—you probably know a lot of people who are in a similar position, and I think creating something with other people who have similar dreams and frustrations is always positive.
Back Stage: What do you think actors, in particular, will take away from your film?
Dunham: I feel like when I cast actors who understand the part, one of my biggest joys as a director is to give them freedom. I think my film is really an example of writing strong characters and then entrusting those characters to actors: Basically, they're children that you let an actor adopt. I think actors, when cast in parts that work for them, have such amazing instincts. I think my movie's really an example of putting a lot of trust in performers. Even though it's not improvised, it's a really collaborative experience because I really trusted the instincts of the actors I was working with. I hope when actors see that, they'll pick up on the fact that it was a really comfortable environment.
Back Stage: I understand you cast your mom and sister to play your character's mom and sister. How did that come about?
Dunham: I'm really close with both of them, and I love what they look like, how they talk. They have so many qualities that appeal to me. I love their presence, so I wrote the film with them in mind, and it was sort of this grand experiment. Us all acting like a family, it could be argued that it's not really acting at all, but they were amazing. They were total pros, and I was very proud of them.
Back Stage: As a director, what was your approach to working with them—and the other actors?
Dunham: There's a certain kind of gentle approach that I have to working with actors, just because I know what it's like to be directed. It's scary, it's intimidating. So when I work with actors, I'm really sensitive to that. I would say with my mom and sister, I could be a little bit less sensitive. At the end of the day, we all live together; I know they're not going anywhere. I think they would say that they'd see me be so sweet and coddling to actors and then tell them, "Just do it again, but not stupid this time." [Laughs.] They were like, "Hey, why aren't you being so nice to us?"