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How Lena Dunham is Launching an Empire for Comedic Women

Lena Dunham needs to change her outfit. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the star and executive producer of “Girls” slips out of a hip pantsuit from her Variety cover shoot, and dons a comfortable jacket. The denim coat is as colorful as Dunham herself, the back festooned with ’90s pop-culture icons (a Furby) and other whimsical objects, like a pair of women’s underwear with an anarchist punk saying, “No Masters,” in pink lettering. “I think it’s my best fashion garment,” she says, confiding that she purchased it from one of her Instagram followers. “You may notice it’s covered in aggressive female symbols. My boyfriend tried to steal it, and I was like, ‘Back off!’ ”

Dunham, 28, isn’t just the face of “Girls,” she’s also an out-and-proud feminist — a trait passed down from her mother, photographer Laurie Simmons — and a practitioner of “Lean In,” the Sheryl Sandberg mantra that suggests female leaders should help other women rise up in the workplace. “When there’s an industry devoid of women, there’s a tendency for women to feel like they have to protect their spot, like there’s not enough room in town for both of us,” Dunham says. “We need to break that down and support each other, because as my dad always says, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ ”

To help other women set sail, New Yorker Dunham and her co-showrunner Jenni Konner, along with “Girls” producer Ericka Naegle, have launched A Casual Romance, a Los Angeles-based production company that will develop projects for both TV and the bigscreen “to push the ball forward on gender and sexuality in interesting ways,” Dunham says. “We wanted a place to nurture other artists.” Adds Konner: “The only men around are male interns. Not on purpose. That’s the way it worked out.”

The company is only a year old, but its offerings include the documentary short “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise,” about the illustrator behind the “Eloise” children’s books; a forthcoming doc about two tailors who stitch suits for transgender clients; and a third documentary about transgender identity, the exact subject of which hasn’t yet been announced. There are also a handful of scripted series in development: one set in the 1960s publishing world; another based on a real-life ’80s female movie producer; a miniseries that takes place in a rehab facility; and a comedy adapted from the life of Betty Halbreich, the Queen Bee of personal shoppers at Bergdorf Goodman. “I won’t play her,” Dunham jokes. “She’s 87.”

All of these TV projects are set up at HBO. Michael Lombardo, the network’s president of programming, has confidence that Lena Inc. will be around for the long run. “She will be an important voice for years to come,” he says.

Five years ago, HBO asked Dunham to create a series that would speak to her generation, with Konner in a mentor role, and Judd Apatow as another executive producer. “She’s learned faster than anyone I’ve met,” Konner says. Dunham explains that she’s better now at delegating, expressing her ideas and multitasking to address what seem like three million questions a day: “Our management style changes and evolves, but we always joke it’s pretty feminine, because we want to make sure everyone is happy and fed.”

Like most everybody in Hollywood, Dunham is aware of the disparity of numbers when it comes to female directors, writers and producers. “The statistics are pretty abysmal,” she says. “It’s our job as women who have been given a certain amount of success and visibility to pull other women along with us.”

Dunham’s quasi-autobiographical 2010 indie movie “Tiny Furniture,” which won the jury prize at the SXSW Film Festival, launched her career. She plans to soon return to directing films again, but she’s not sure if she’ll cast herself as the star. “There are so many talented female actors who are not getting the jobs they deserve,” she says. “I would love to be creating parts for those actors rather than necessarily being that actor. But you never know. Maybe ‘Girls’ will end, and I’ll miss it so much I’ll suddenly be like, let’s relaunch ‘Two and a Half Men’ with me and Jon Cryer.”

Dunham has been building an empire of female empowerment that can do for comedy what Shonda Rhimes has done for the procedural thriller. In fact, Dunham recently appeared on an episode of Rhimes’ “Scandal,” where she played an aspiring memoirist in a wig. “The prop guy gave me some of Olivia Pope’s calling cards,” she says. Dunham spent two years working on her own bestselling memoir “Not That Kind of Girl,” which she wrote on the set of “Girls” by sneaking away to her trailer for a series of pretend naps. The book was published last fall by Random House. She’d like to complete a novel one day, and contributes essays to the New Yorker, where a recent piece (“Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz”) drew hysteria on the blogosphere and charges of anti-Semitism.

“People may not know I grew up in a tight-knit Jewish family where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication,” says Dunham, the eldest daughter of two artists. “My grandfather, may he rest in peace, used to tell some Jew jokes I will not share in these pages.”

In addition to all her side jobs, Dunham is now feverishly working on the fifth season of “Girls.” She revealed to Variety that when the show returns next year, the series will pick up with Hannah after a jump in time. HBO has talked to Dunham and Konner about six seasons of “Girls,” but it’s not clear if the series will extend beyond that. “I think America has a tendency to push shows past their due dates,” Dunham says. “I like the British model — in and out.” She has thought a lot about Hannah’s fate on the series, and even has an image of the show’s final shot. “Will she be with anyone?” Dunham asks. “That’s the question. And how important is it ending up with someone, and is that the marker of success for a woman?”

If that sounds like a column written by Carrie Bradshaw, Dunham admits she’s a “Sex and the City” groupie who has seen every episode. And like “SATC,” Dunham’s show could be heading to the big screen after it wraps. But she wants to wait a decade before making the “Girls” movie (yes, it would still be called “Girls,” even with a 2027 release date). “I have fantasies of us all coming back when we’re 40,” Dunham says. “We’d want to wait long enough for something to have really gone down.” When Lombardo hears about the plan, he lets out a laugh. “I’ll have to get business affairs working on that,” he says. “I don’t know if we can hold up people for that long.”

As a young girl, Dunham drew inspiration from a wide range of women artists. Her eclectic list includes Nora Ephron, Gilda Radner, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Kate Winslet and Sarah Jessica Parker. Of Parker, she says: “I was obsessed with her because I saw ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ on Broadway. She was my passion. I printed out pictures of her from very early Internet, and stuck them all over the walls of my bedroom.”

She also worshipped Drew Barrymore. When she was 12, she auditioned to play the young Beverly Donofrio (Barrymore played the character grown up) in “Riding in Cars With Boys,” but botched her chance by telling director Penny Marshall she couldn’t smile on command. Her favorite TV shows were “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Rhoda,” and her best-loved movies were “A League of Their Own” and a certain Jane Austen remake starring Alicia Silverstone. “ ‘Clueless’ is the first movie that I saw that I had to watch 50 to 70 times,” Dunham says.

Unlike most actresses in their 20s, she has no problem using a f-word to describe herself. “The first time I identified as a feminist was probably before having a mammary, because feminism is such a big part of who my mother is,” Dunham says. She’s noticed that feminism has become a dirty label among some millennial women. “I feel like young women aren’t comfortable with that word because they haven’t been properly educated about what it means,” she says. “They’ve been sent the message that feminism is somehow unsexy, shrew-like women who feel like men should be stripped of power. What they don’t understand is that feminism is just a way to talk about equality.”

Even though she’s an empowered woman, you won’t see Dunham behind the wheel of a car. She’s been trying to get a driver’s license, but she keeps failing the test. “My driver’s ed teacher said not to pay him until I passed, so I owe him four years of back fees,” says Dunham, who lives in Brooklyn Heights but is spending more time in California for work. “He could probably buy a house.” How does she get around? “I take Uber everywhere,” Dunham says. “Or my poor put-upon assistant has to drive me to the gynecologist.” Ewww. We so don’t want to go there — unless this little TMI scene turns into an episode of “Girls.”

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