Lena Dunham is deconstructing femininity right across the table.
Having spiffed up for some behind-the-scenes featurettes for her upcoming HBO series, "Girls," Dunham has relaxed into her seat at a Tribeca restaurant not far from where she grew up. Shortly after shedding her overcoat, she pulls off her fake eyelashes, too, apologizing for her manners and lamenting the forthright revelation of a women's "secret" to a member of the opposite sex.
"There's a certain point when I've had them on all day, I just want to be free of them," she says, laughing. "I want to be naked but for my own lashes. It upsets your friends if you pull them out and just hand them to them."
Inhibition and a comical preference for naturalism run deep in Dunham and her work (two features, a few Web series and now the TV show), which is heavily personal. She made her breakout film, 2010's "Tiny Furniture," for just $25,000, starring herself, her mother (the photographer and artist Laurie Simmons) and her younger sister, Grace. (Her father, painter Carroll Dunham, typically abstains.)
"In many ways, my work acts as my journal," she says. "When I had a journal as a kid, I was constantly leaving it open, hoping somebody would find it. I just didn't understand the purpose."
Not yet 26, Dunham has already been profiled by the New Yorker, had "Tiny Furniture" released on DVD by the esteemed Criterion Collection and attracted the interest of comedy producer and filmmaker Judd Apatow, executive producer of "Girls."
"Girls," which Dunham wrote, stars in and produced, premieres Sunday, April 15, but it's already captured the zeitgeist, sparking a dialogue about 20-something adulthood, femininity and sexuality. The show follows four young women (Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet) in post-collegiate drift, struggling in a difficult New York job market, chafing at conventional ideas of womanhood and dealing with male counterparts on a different wavelength.
"It feels as though it's the right time for this show," she says. "Women want a show like this. This generation wants a show like this - not to overstate our mission."
Dunham is the subject of op-eds and the topic of considerable blogosphere debate. She's been lauded for inverting the usual representations of female bodies by having no shyness in portraying her, as she terms it, "not exactly model-esque body" in unflattering sex scenes.
Most recognize in Dunham the genuine article: an uncommonly mature storyteller with instincts for autobiographical filmmaking and portraits of her self-absorbed 20-something generation. In a memorable scene in the first episode, Dunham's character, having arrived in New York an aspiring writer, tells her parents that she believes she's the voice of her generation, "or a voice of a generation."
It's particularly fitting because it's both true and a self-parody - a balance of sympathy and critique for Millenials that runs throughout "Girls."
"That's just always what's made the world feel manageable is to be able to share my experiences with like-minded people," she says. "And sometimes I end up sharing them with not like-minded people, too."
Dunham grew up in a family of artists that moved from Soho to Brooklyn Heights to Tribeca, while alternating time at a country house in northwest Connecticut.
"Witnessing (my parents) going into the studio day after day, it was just like: 'Oh, that's what adults do, and furthermore, that's what people do,'" says Dunham. "I've learned since that there's many other ways to skin a cat, but in our family, it was always the primary mode of expression."
Simmons, whose work explores female representations through photographs of dolls, miniature interiors and her family, sees her daughter's work as a "continuation of this sort of female-centric world filtered through her kooky brain."
As an undergrad at Oberlin College in Ohio, Dunham began plying her interest in storytelling to filmmaking - "and I was just completely addicted," she says. Dunham made her first film, "Creative Nonfiction," about a screenplay-writing student, and an Internet video, "The Fountain," in which she baths in a campus fountain.
In "Tiny Furniture," Dunham's character has returned home to New York (her parents' actual Tribeca home) from college. There, she wrestles with who she is and her place in the world, themes carried over in "Girls." Though structured by awkward encounters with boys, the film ultimately hinges on the mother-daughter relationship.
Enthralled by the movie, Apatow realized Dunham was someone worth meeting once he saw her name again and again in the credits. In guiding "Girls," Apatow (who made the quickly cancelled "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" before focusing on writing and directing films) has returned to television, he says, "to get her through this experience without getting crushed by the machine."
"It's probably extended by creative life as I go into the first stages of exhaustion and generally running out of gas," says Apatow. "She's so energized and in her moment. Unlike me, she didn't have any awful experiences trying to get movies made or have them turn out weird, TV shows get canceled. So she's just a ball of good energy."