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Girls power: why Lena Dunham is modern TV's greatest talent spotter

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Allison Willliams in Girls
Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Allison Willliams in Girls Credit: HBO

This article has an estimated read time of seven minutes 

Lena Dunham’s brand of tone-deaf candour and casual if exhaustingly demonstrative ignorance has long made her a vaguely toxic public figure. But even though she has retreated behind the scenes in the years since her polarising comedy-drama series Girls went off the air, she remains a powerful presence across the pop culture landscape. Her fingerprints are all over modern television.

Her tone and point of view can be seen in the confessional 20-something intimacy of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and the spirited frankness of Issa Rae’s Insecure, and have been reimagined in the form of equally directionless animals in the acclaimed new Netflix animated series Tuca & Bertie.

But nothing she has left in her wake has been as hyper-visible as the faces she helped propel to fame. In 2019, you can barely watch a movie or a TV series without spotting a former Girls cast member, many of whom have become so embedded in the fabric of modern entertainment that it’s often easy to forget from whence they came.

In truth, Dunham has in one sense of the word birthed many of the most interesting young American actors working today. And probably deserves a lot more credit for it than she’s so far received.

For several years, Adam Driver’s cinematic ubiquity has understandably overshadowed the less starry but equally impressive work done by many of his former costars. But 2019 looks set to blow that up, with a large proportion of the show’s cast, among them Christopher Abbott and Allison Williams, taking starring roles in interesting and high-profile projects. For all of Dunham’s chronic wrong-headedness when it comes to a variety of subjects, she has an incredible eye for casting.

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet in Girls

Driver broke out early. While Girls was still on the air, and he was playing the appealingly aloof love interest for Dunham’s Hannah, filmmakers were already drawn to his fascinating ineffability, and his unusual interest in actorly transformation. In projects like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and the new Star Wars trilogy, he can be both goofy and frightening, ludicrous and intense, and as convincing in roles calling for stoic heroism as he is playing architects of intergalactic cruelty.

2016’s Paterson, his first starring role, proved his melancholy humanity (and his newfound existence as something of a muse to Jim Jarmusch), while his deadpan work in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman justifiably scored him an Oscar nomination earlier this year. And the roll call of directors he has worked with elsewhere is staggering considering he’s only been active since 2012 – Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Terry Gilliam and the Coen Brothers are barely scratching the surface of his A-list collaborators.

It is unlikely that anyone from the Girls set will match Driver’s ability to effortlessly slide between auteurist independent film and ludicrously expensive Disney blockbusters, but it’s not quite as far-fetched a scenario as it once seemed. Currently gracing billboards across the country is Christopher Abbott, one-time Girls love interest, who is the star of George Clooney’s miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Lena Dunham in season 1 of Girls Credit: HBO

Despite being surrounded by A-listers like Hugh Laurie, Kyle Chandler and Clooney himself, Abbott is reportedly “transfixing”, and scarily believable as a man wearing the terrifying, often surreal oddity of war across his face like a mask. Abbott has been spectacular before, most notably in the little-seen addiction drama James White and in his a brief but impactful cameo in Natalie Portman’s recent pop fantasia Vox Lux, but Catch-22 marks a rare mainstream starring role for the actor that is more than earned.

Elsewhere, Allison Williams, who played one quarter of the show’s four main Girls, has emerged as one of the show’s most surprising graduates. As the eternally embarrassing Marnie, Williams was always the most subtly self-involved of the Girls cast, messy in an ordinary way and frequently owning up to her unpleasantness, but it often made Williams appear the least interesting actress on the show. And certainly not the kind of actor whose post-Girls work would single-handedly rest on her ability to be many different people all at once.

2017’s Oscar-winning Get Out, her cinematic debut, played on her pre-existing image as a vaguely dull daughter of privilege (her father is US news anchor Brian Williams), before pulling the rug out from under us and turning her into something altogether stranger and more destructive. And The Perfection, her macabre Netflix psycho-thriller that has slowly built a cult following in the weeks since its release last month, works so well because of what we expect of her post-Get Out.

In its early stages, Williams appears to be replicating her Get Out role with almost eerie specificity, right down to her character’s fixation on ruining the lives of innocent black people. But, as in Get Out, it’s in truth a bluff. Where The Perfection ends up going, and there are an almost unbearable amount of twists to get through before the final credits roll, results in a tour de force performance from Williams, that oscillates effortlessly between menace, terror and heroism. She exits the film a genuinely exciting actress, her choices indicative of a performer who endlessly gravitates towards challenges and surprise.

Allison Williams in The Perfection Credit: netflix

There are others, too, if not quite as high-profile as Driver, Abbott and Williams. Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke, the remaining two in the show’s central quartet, have had quieter post-show careers, but have unmistakable charisma whenever they pop up unexpectedly in something.

Most recently, Mamet’s oddball, otherworldly allure in Under the Silver Lake was powerful enough to inspire Andrew Garfield to further tumble down a rabbit hole after her, and Kirke’s hipstery magnetism in her enjoyable if underwritten supporting role in the Jonah Hill/Emma Stone miniseries Maniac.

And it’s certainly arguable that Richard E Grant’s re-emergence in US cinema, capped by his Oscar-nominated turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, only came about as a result of his recurring role as a struggling addict involved with Kirke’s Jessa – a role Dunham offered to him as she loved his performance in Spice World.

What’s interesting about the current ubiquity of the Girls cast, and nearly three years after the show came to a close, is that it’s not especially common. In the pantheon of incredibly successful HBO series, among them The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, few of their stars earned significant plaudits, or roles of comparable quality, to the series that made their names once they went off-air.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman

And even the cast of Game of Thrones, that most unavoidable of modern TV series, currently have a question mark hanging over their heads in regards to future success. Emilia Clarke seems set, at least for the time being, but the rest have the aura of “comic convention regulars”. The dismal box office for X-Men: Dark Phoenix won’t particularly help Sophie Turner, either, despite her glorious presence on social media.

Girls, however, felt different. Casting director Jennifer Euston has spoken about her vision for the show’s ensemble when it was in its early stages, deliberately seeking out actors who had interesting faces and looked like ordinary people. “I just wanted to cast people that didn’t look like actors,” she told Variety in 2017. “People who looked like people that I would see on the street every day. They could be people who never had a big opportunity before but were still trained actors.”

She continued, “At that time it could still be hard to cast people of colour or people who were not conventionally beautiful or weren’t the skinniest people or the youngest people. And those people were my wheelhouse because I live in New York, and I go to theatre, and those were the actors that shined on a stage. Those were the actors I loved and the actors I saw.”

Christopher Abbott in Catch-22 Credit: Hulu

It also meant hiring actors more adept at transformation, with an eagerness to play in different sandboxes and work with interesting people, in a way that mark stage actors as particularly distinct from those who make their name on screen.

And while it may be easy to roll your eyes at Euston’s stance on “ordinary-looking people”, there is an odd beauty to much of the Girls cast. Driver is an unusual-looking, atypical leading man, with a face that can be both classically handsome and intriguingly messy, while even Williams, the most conventionally pretty of the main quartet, has an angular, slightly inscrutable face, with its own mystique that has served her well in the years since.

If anything, the casting on Girls spoke to a shift in how American television prioritised good looks. The Nineties produced an unhealthy merging of the acting and fashion industries, resulting in a wave of young actresses who were expected to emulate the looks and frames of women only selected to front fashion campaigns and makeup lines because of their otherworldliness. And that ethos carried over into the Noughties, particularly on series that were equally as interested in narrative drama as they were pure aesthetics.

Jemima Kirke and Adam Driver in Girls Credit: Girls

It’s not entirely better today, with male celebrities often expected to transform their bodies to unnatural, oddly beefy standards in a way that they once didn’t have to. But there is undeniably more physical diversity on television than ever before, with Girls one of its most high-profile proponents. It may have missed the boat entirely when it came to race, but few could argue that it didn’t represent a range of body shapes and physical appearances, in a way that American television about young people never truly had before.

Lena Dunham occupies a strange place in pop culture today. Her work is still respected and influential, but Dunham herself even more polarising than she once was. Her recent step away from the limelight, working exclusively behind the scenes on the maligned mini-series Camping or writing the script for a Steven Spielberg-produced Syrian refugee drama (oof), has been smart, but it might not be her strongest fit.

Maybe her true calling isn’t in darkly comedic and polarising drama, but in finding the next generation of actors you’re guaranteed to become obsessed with? It’s so far the only thing she’s done that no one has ever had a problem with.