What makes Girls different from other shows about being young, female and going through a quarter-life crisis in New York City? First of all, [creator, writer and director] Lena [Dunham]’s vision is such an exceptional starting-off point. It already comes from a place of such reality and depth. We made a show about what it’s like to be in your early twenties, and we wanted to show that in all of its awkward, disgusting, uncomfortable, dark glory. We don’t pull any punches.
Your character, Shoshanna, is this Long Islandy, Sex and the City–obsessed college girl, but we don’t find out much about who she is or where she came from. Have you envisioned a backstory for her? Lena and I talk all the time about random specifics about her. Like, one day we decided she has IBS and is super ashamed of it. So yes, she is all of those things—Jappy and obsessed with Sex and the City—but I also think she’s just a very insecure, very sheltered young human who wants so desperately to be cool.
Were you friends with any Shoshannas growing up? I knew girls like her. I think it’s kind of a universal rule that girls between [the age of] 12 and whenever they decide [to stop being mean] are viciously cruel. We can be pretty evil to our own kind. I went to a strict elementary school with nuns, and uniforms that I’m pretty sure were made out of sandpaper. It was an academic, sports-oriented place. I liked to read, and wanted to act, and didn’t try out for volleyball. I was weird. The other girls would dip my hair in ink and stuff.
Joyce, your character on Mad Men, is a confident, cool photo editor who is very open about her sexuality, whereas Shoshanna feigns confidence and sexual experience. Do you feel like you’re playing the same woman, but 50 years apart? No. Joyce is an arrogant hipster of her time, whose behavior is most likely a function of some sort of deep insecurity. But Shoshanna is just insecure. I think she’s constantly looking for validation, and wears her insecurity on her sleeve because as much as she’d like to, she can’t hide it. Shoshanna just wants people to like her, or to be asked on a date.
Shoshanna is unintentionally hysterical, whereas the other girls on the show display that self-aware NYC sarcasm. Do you like playing the straight man? The straight man is super important—somebody’s gotta pitch the ball. But it’s bloody hard, too, to try and be unintentionally funny and not give yourself away. And to not step on anyone else’s punch line. For me, it’s always a game of doing as little as I possibly can and letting the writing do its job. It’s not so hard to play the straight man when you have writers like ours putting fabulous lines in your mouth. It’s hard not to help it [along], though. I remember hearing an older actor at a dinner party when I was little talking about that saying: “The hardest thing to do on stage is nothing.” It’s true.
A show about four women figuring out their lives in NYC is sure to bring about the obvious comparisons to Sex and the City. How have you and your cast mates prepared for that? We knew we would be compared to Sex and the City—same network, four girls, Manhattan. But the show truly couldn’t be more different, and I think that comes across pretty immediately when you watch it. We all love Sex and the City, we grew up watching it; it was a brilliant show. But those were women a decade-plus older than wen are, dealing with very different issues. I don’t think we felt like it was something we had to prepare for; I mean, we even give a major nod to it in the first episode. I think the show kind of speaks for itself. It’s its own beast.
You skipped out of college to start working at a young age. Do you feel like you missed something important about living out your twenties? I would have been miserable in college. I always hated school. And I always knew what I wanted to do. If anything, I feel like I have a bit of a leg up. I never went to sleep-away camp—I’m much more [regretful] about that. I’m actually not sure I’ll ever get over that one. Watching The Parent Trap always makes me cry with jealousy.