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Lena Dunham’s High-School Abortion Play and Other Highlights From Her SXSW 2014 Keynote

AUSTIN, TX: It would be safe, even an understatement, to say that Lena Dunham and the SXSW Film Festival have some history. Her first film, Creative Nonfiction, played here in 2009 (an earlier version was rejected the previous year), and that first trip to Austin — a place which, to her, “represents magic, hope, beginnings, adulthood, freedom, triumph, and tacos” — was “the greatest week of my life. I ate tacos, I drank milkshakes, I swam in Barton Springs, I drank a beer at a backyard rock show and talked to cute guys who never would have given me the time of day in New York, because everything is bigger in Texas.” She was back in 2010 with Tiny Furniture, which won the festival’s audience award, and again in 2012 to present the initial episodes of Girls. So she seemed a natural fit to take one of the film festival’s inaugural keynote addresses, and offered up equal parts biography, confession, and advice. Here are some of the highlights:

Her most embarrassing early work: Waiting, the play about an abortion clinic that I wrote and directed in tenth grade, and staged almost entirely with girls who had not yet begun to menstruate.”

Finding out she got in to SXSW: “I almost fainted, and the joy and disbelief were so wonderful and so massive that I remember just having one of those very rare and exciting ‘first day of the rest of my life’ feelings. And I’ll never forget where I was, I was sitting with two little boys I babysat, waiting for their piano lessons to start. Actually, I was helping one with his math worksheet while the other played ‘Jailhouse Rock’ really badly. And I was so happy that I started to, like, smile and cry at once. And I listened to the message over and over, and then the little boy who was sitting next to me stabbed me really hard with a mechanical pencil. And I was like, ‘Why did you do that? What happened?’ And he said, ‘I hate to see you smile.’”

Entering the industry: After Tiny Furniture’s success, she went on “the couch and water bottle tour of LA,” an arduous process of “taking meetings” with people who are “looking for the Next Big Thing, and most of these meetings are really humiliating, as people try to peg you with those ‘this meets that’ descriptors: ‘Ricki Lake meets Tina Fey! Kathy Bates had a baby with Rodney Dangerfield! Audrey Hepburn’s deformed daughter that she kept in a cage until she was ten meets Albert Brooks!’ But one of those meetings was with HBO.”

What she learned on Girls: “Learning to deal with a crew that was larger than six people. Learning to deal with actors who weren’t my family. Learning that it’s illegal to ask someone how old they are in an audition room…”

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Things that are important to her: “I want to make people laugh or otherwise lighten their load and make it easier for them to be themselves. I want to be of service to the causes that are dear to me and be an agent of positive change, specifically for women and girls. And on a totally purely selfish level, I want to continually challenge myself creatively to grow and evolve as a writer and artist, and to never lose that sense of curiosity.”

Things she does not care about: “Unfortunately, ratings, which I’m sure HBO would like me to feel differently about, but I’d never expected to have a television show, and now that I do, I never expect to have one with blockbuster ratings. I don’t think that’s my lot in life… Republicans. I’m sure there are some really great ones, but I just, I haven’t meant them. The commenters on Deadline Hollywood. Just all of Deadline Hollywood. Male comedians saying women aren’t funny, doesn’t matter, it’s their loss.”

On opportunities for actresses: Dunham’s Girls co-star Adam Driver made headlines recently for his rumored casting in the next Star Wars movie, which follows what she calls “a bang-up year in movies, which could not be more deserved, because he’s a ferocious genius… But the girls are still waiting patiently for parts that are going to honor their intelligence and their ability. The world is ready to see Adam as a million different men, playing good guys and bad guys and sweet guys and scary guys… but it’s not ready to see Allison Williams or Zosia Mamet or Jemima Kirke stretch their legs in the same variety of diverse roles… This is not a knock on Adam’s talent, which is utterly boundless, and he’s exactly the actor who should be doing all of this. It’s a knock on a world where women are typecast, and men can play villains, lotharios, and nerds in one calendar year. And something has to change. And I’m trying.”

“The best advice I can muster”: “Don’t wait around for someone else to tell your story. Do it yourself, by whatever means necessary. We live in this golden age of accessible technology: people make movies on iPhones, people get famous on Vine, which, I don’t even know what Vine is, didn’t even exist a year ago, people get book deals on Twitter, so you can go forth and conquer… I think if I’ve learned anything from my time in a writer’s room, and hearing people talk about their stories every day, it’s that all of us are total freak shows, and our lives have been unfathomably weird if you get into the details. And therefore, the personal is universal, and everybody feels like they were launched into life on a rocket, alone. So to hear other people’s stories is the most soothing thing that can happen to us… Tell the story that only you know, because it makes the world feel smaller, it draws people to you, and I think it connects you in kind of mystical ways.”

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