Q&A: Lena Dunham on medieval romp ‘Catherine Called Birdy’

TORONTO (AP) — Lena Dunham estimates her career is now a “tween.”

It’s been 12 years since Dunham’s feature film debut, 2010’s “Tiny Furniture.” (She was just 23 when it premiered.) In the time since, she’s packed in just about every aspect of show-business experience. She’s been hailed as “the voice of a generation” for the zeitgeist-grabbing “Girls.” She’s been a lightening rod politically and often a magnet for controversy. She struggled with sobriety. She’s fought chronic pain and in 2018 had a total hysterectomy for her endometriosis.

Dunham, 36, penned a 2014 memoir at the height of her “Girls” fame. But she’s experienced enough ups and down since then that she’s preparing a second memoir, to be published next year.

“It’s funny because the book I wrote when I was 27 is much more know-it-all than the book I’m writing now,” Dunham says. “Even at 27, as I was skewering 27-year-olds, I couldn’t avoid being that 27-year-old who was talking as if I had, like, a Shirley MacLaine-age career and was full of sage advice for people. And I look back and I’m like: ‘What was she saying?’”

But after the turmoil of her post-“Girls” years, Dunham has returned with not one but two films in 2022. Last month, she debuted “Sharp Stick,” about a 26-year-old woman’s sexual experiences. On Friday, her latest, “Catherine Called Birdy,” opens in theaters before streaming Oct. 7 on Amazon Prime Video.

Adapted by Dunham from Karen Cushman’s 1994 young-adult novel, “Catherine Called Birdy” stars newcomer Bella Ramsey as a spirited 14-year-old in 13th century England whose comic schemes attempt to foil her father (Andrew Scott) from marrying her off for a dowry. It’s funny, poignant and one of the best things Dunham’s done — a medieval coming-of-age romp made with 21st-century flare.

“For better or worse, I cannot say that I had something different in my head than what came out,” Dunham said in a recent interview ahead of the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

Dunham is currently prepping a TV project that she hopes to make next year, something she compares to her passion for “Girls.” But, for now, the warm reception from critics and festival audiences for “Catherine Called Birdy,” Dunham said, was gratifying: “I’ve now had a career long enough to know how unusual it is.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AP: How did your sensibility mesh with the book’s?

Dunham: The thing that connected me to the book was her voice, her sense of humor, her sense of the world, her blind spots, her sense of justice. There’s also all kinds of things she misunderstands about the world around her. Those are the kinds of characters that have always interested me. In a way, she was the proto- character for me. She was my first time reading a book — besides Eloise — about a little girl who was complicated and thorny and made bad choices and made good choices. So, in a way, it’s like I got to make a movie about the heroine that influenced all my other heroines.

AP: How would you describe your post-“Girls” experience? Before these two films and last year marrying musician Luis Felber, you were less in the public eye while dealing with health issues and other troubles.

Dunham: Leaving an experience as intense as “Girls,” it’s so important to take a moment. I just needed to take the time to redefine my relationship to myself, my family and my work. And so the last five years, it was nice because I had the opportunity to work pretty steadily, but in a way that was more quiet. So it was writing screenplays or directing a pilot that wasn’t distinctly mine, like “Industry,” or producing another show like “Generation.” Doing “Girls,” I realized how counterintuitive public exposure can be to keeping your creative spark going.

AP: So what changed? You had been living a quite open life.

Dunham: I just realized how the work was the most important place for me to channel my voice. I was coming of age professionally when social media was just starting. We didn’t yet really understand the full effects of the pitfalls of that. Now it’s much clearer to me that the work is the place to put the feelings, the opinions, the emotions. You get the chance to be really noisy, but in this way that’s very focused — if you’re a noisy person, which I have been.

AP: As an outspoken feminist, you also became a favorite target of the right wing when you were still in your 20s.

Dunham: It was a complicated mix of factors, whether it was the moment that we were in politically or how people — let’s just say across the aisle from me — responded to certain things. The biggest thing for me was realizing that I didn’t have to be a spokesperson and that I could just go inward and think about the things that I could make that no one else could make. But, yes, it was definitely a time when being a woman talking about any aspect of your identity on social media could create certain kinds of unexpected firestorms. I was often saying things that felt so obvious to me and didn’t feel controversial, but clearly that wasn’t the case for other people. But I’m just really grateful to have really rediscovered my passion for what I do. This movie allowed me to channel so many of my frustrations about the current political climate into a story that had nothing to do with the current political climate.

AP: Given that the release of you movie follows the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it must strike you as surreal that your 13th century movie could be considered timely.

Dunham: To realize that a thousand years ago the conversation around bodily autonomy was not that different than the one we’re having today is definitely intensely sobering. That a time where politics and religion were so enmeshed and they forced themselves on the bodies of certain people — to think that remains a reality should be a wake-up call for all of us. And, of course, I know that my movie is certainly not going to reinstate Roe. What is is going to be the kind of resistance that the character in this movie shows, which is this kind of continued, sustained “No” against the rules that are placed on her that she recognizes to be unfair, even when she’s sort of being gaslit into submission by the people around her.

AP: You emerged as a fully formed filmmaker in “Tiny Furniture” but “Catherine Called Birdy” has such a light, confident touch. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a filmmaker?

Dunham: I started really young and it’s just this continuing education about — for lack of a better word — the craft. When I stepped onto the set of “Birdie,” I had a really clear sense of what I wanted to do and a really clear sense of how we could do it. That was very different than certain days on “Girls” where I thought, “How am I going to stage this scene and what the heck is going to happen?” There’s certain technical aspects of the job that I feel much more comfortable with. It used to be that writing was my way into directing. I loved to write stories and I was sort of just directing as a way to safeguard them. With this movie, I feel like a director for the first time.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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