Lena Dunham on Sharp Stick, Her Most Healing Film Yet
Dunham masterfully directs, co-stars and writes another poignant coming-of-age tale opening nationwide on Friday, August 5.
In Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham’s second film since 2010’s Tiny Furniture, the auteur directs, co-stars, and writes a dramedy exploring female sexual empowerment and self-discovery. Swedish actress Kristine Froseth stars as Sarah Jo, a stunning, socially awkward caregiver for children with special needs. At 26, she lives a sheltered existence on the outskirts of Hollywood in an apartment she shares with her mother, Madelyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and TikTok influencer sister, Treina (Taylour Paige). The two regale her with candid stories of sex and heartbreak, and uninhibitedly dole out (occasionally misguided) love advice.
Inspired by their sexploits, Sarah Jo clumsily yet voraciously pursues her first romance with her married employer, Josh (Jon Bernthal), and the two begin a whirlwind affair. When his wife Heather (Lena Dunham) catches wind of his infidelity, Josh abruptly calls off the romance, leaving Sarah Jo brokenhearted—but determined to continue her journey of sexual education. The story unfolds as she quite literally checks boxes off her sexual to-do list: taking cues from pornography and practicing her newfound prowess with strangers she meets on hookup apps.
Shot over the course of just two weeks in the middle of the pandemic, the film is meant to empower and inspire, while rendering any shame associated with female sexuality obsolete. “[Directing the film] was so healing for me and reminded me on a very base level why I do this,” Dunham tells me over the phone from New York. Below, she reveals more details about the freedom that comes with “not giving a fuck,” how Sarah Jo was a stand-in for her own psychic experiences, and the golden piece of advice that Nora Ephron gave her.
I read a quote of yours outlining your intention for the film which was “to turn the idea of the likable female protagonist on its head.” Can you tell me how you did this with Sarah Jo?
What’s always been the most interesting to me are female characters who exist outside of the tropes that we’ve always seen—whether it’s the badass with the gun who secretly wants love or the woman who worked so hard but has to eat Chinese food in her house at night. The problems we give women always fit into a fenced-in area of the problems we feel safe giving women. And I think what makes Sarah Jo interesting is how she’s incredibly naive, almost like a Disney princess, but she also does things that most people would consider “bad,” like sleep with a married man or go on a sex app, or have encounters in a bar. She’s allowed to have sexual pleasure, allowed to have agency.
I’ve spent so much time in my career fighting with the idea of what likability means and what actions we have to perform in order to prove we’re “good women.” We can exist outside that frame.
What made her likability even more interesting for me was how you root for her, but also cannot help but feel frustrated by her naïveté at 26, especially surrounded by two sexually evolved family members.
I felt it would be a very specific choice to have Sarah Jo be naive and not sexually evolved because she was chubby or funny-looking. The people who we think of as coming into their sexual agency late [do so] because they’re in some way not desirable. So the idea that Sarah Jo was arrestingly beautiful but hadn’t led with this quality her entire life and in some ways was unaware of its power was definitely a decision. Kristine brought so much to that because she used her performance to subvert her mythical beauty. So while she looked like a sketch you would do about a rosebud of a woman, she was actually able to perform this freaky strangeness that turns that on its head.
Her journey of sexual awakening was also interesting to me because it was fueled as much by her curiosity as by her fear of sexual inadequacy, concerned that men would leave her if she wasn’t good at sex. So as excited as I was for her, there was also an inherent sadness to her journey because I felt it partially came from a place of insecurity rather than sexual empowerment.
Absolutely, because I think that part of the journey she’s on is deciding when sex is for her and when it’s for other people. I don’t think people necessarily recognize Sarah Jo as a vehicle for experiences that I had, because we look so different and operate so differently in the world, but a lot of Sarah Jo’s confusion and a lot of the stuff she’s grappling with is stuff that I dealt with until an age I thought I was way too old to be dealing with it. Girls makes it very clear that I was asking questions like, Is there a way to have satisfying sex that makes you feel whole but doesn’t fall into certain traps of empowering men in a way that is unhealthy? Sarah Jo and I take up very different kinds of space in the world in terms of what we look like and how we broadcast.
Stepping into your sexuality with any semblance of authenticity is hard when we’ve been inundated and conditioned by porn, media, and imagery telling us what to feel, how to have sex, with whom and when. Not only is she exposed to all of this, but she still manages to live under a rock—in Hollywood, no less.
I didn’t read all the reviews, but a lot of people were frustrated by the concept that she could be in that family and space and not know [about sex]. I also feel like people didn’t want to say something you’re not allowed to really say anymore, which is, how can she look that way and not know? The fact is, you can look any way and not know, because as women in this society, it takes so much time to understand the role that you play. So many of us are living in resistance to what we look like because we’re defined by what we look like; I wanted to show that three women can live in the same family and have different relationships to their bodies.
My mother is a beautiful 5’10” swan who has never struggled with her weight. My sibling is a trans man who has been defined by his body in very specific ways, and I’ve been defined by mine. All three of us were in Tiny Furniture together and, in a way, I continue to explore this theme [with Sharp Stick]. It’s not a coincidence that I keep writing these families of fatherless women, because while my father was incredibly involved in our lives, I still feel like the three of us formed this triumvirate. I also wrote this script in a sort of fever dream of Covid, so these questions I was asking didn’t come to me until later.
Speaking of penning the script, I’m curious as to how this project came to be. You’ve had a rough go of it since Girls, between a hysterectomy, rehab, a breakup, and a bad case of Covid.
My mother definitely wishes that I would have kept some of that private, but the reason I didn’t is because of the kinds of conversations you and I are having—that you can be living your dream, impressing yourself creatively while battling these forces from within and forces from without. People would imagine that during Girls, I was on top of the world. But without even knowing it, I was so involved in this dance of people’s responses to me. And in the five years since, all of the things that you named have allowed me to creatively not give a fuck, and that is the most freeing space I’ve ever been in. So it’s not a coincidence that I was able to make a film that actually expressed sexual pleasure and not just sexual degradation after the experience of empowering myself by no longer being in such extreme chronic pain—the experience of removing the guardrails and protection of chemical intervention and by changing my relationship to men.
I’m curious what you mean by “changing your relationship to men.”
It’s interesting, because I think people thought me being naked on Girls was a “fuck you” to male expectation. But actually, I was very naive, and didn’t yet know what a negative response people would have to my body. I suddenly received a very, very public response where, although some people were supporting it, there was a lot of extreme negativity around what I looked like. I suddenly felt like I was working harder than I ever had to broadcast myself as someone you would want to be with. And I was in terror about revealing myself of being as undesirable as I was being made to feel. In the process of all these shifts in my life, I was able to recognize that I only wanted to be with someone who appreciated the way I took up space. I also became very comfortable with the idea that there wouldn’t be a person like that, and my life might be defined by different kinds of relationships, because I wouldn’t find somebody who felt like they could handle what I was bringing to life.
This is not a knock on anyone I’ve been with, because I don’t think I was able to articulate who I was and what I needed in my twenties—and this film is very much about articulating who you are and what you need. I don’t want to treat my husband like he is a savior because I don’t think any relationship saves us from ourselves. But a piece of advice that I got very early on from my mentor, Nora Ephron, was, “You’re going to meet the person you’re going to marry when you’re a fully formed version of yourself and they are able to meet you there and accept that.” And I remember thinking, I guess I’m a fully formed version of myself… now? And of course we’re always developing, but by the time I met someone who I could actually make a decision to really share a life with, he had full information about who I was and how the public had responded to me. There was nothing I was hiding and nothing I could live in shame about, and meeting someone who was able to accept all of that and walk the path with me was really life-changing.
That’s really beautiful. I hope I meet my “person,” as you just described.
You will. I literally say to everyone: if it can happen to me, it can happen to you.
It’s interesting that Sharp Stick went into production when you and your husband, Luis Felber, had just met, meaning you conceived the idea during lockdown. Not to mention you’re a self-described bed creature, just like me—I sleep with crumbs almost every night. How did you find motivation amid the global chaos?
Oh my god, I was just writing about this in response to [another] interview question. Now that I’m married, I try to be more conscientious about how I take up space in the bed. Right now, it’s two dogs, a cat, crumbs, books, and my husband constantly trying to smooth it all over.
I was spending the summer living in a friend’s house by myself with my dog, Ingrid. Because I’m high-risk for Covid and because I’m immunocompromised, I was only seeing a therapist—no one else. Later, I had coffee with my friend, Janicza Bravo, who’s one of my favorite directors, and she was like, When's the last time you watched Looking for Mr. Goodbar? And I was like, that would be, never. I started a journey of revisiting some of my favorite films from the Seventies,specifically starting with that one, and thinking about the way female characters were allowed to project this certain kind of complexity.
It was one of those things where I woke up one day and there it was—and that doesn't happen. The last time that happened to me was Tiny Furniture. I always feel like you have to follow that instinct. Your representatives are never thrilled when you call them and you’re like, I’d like to make a movie for zero dollars in the middle of Covid that will either make people perturbed or repulsed. The movie came together really quickly. It’s a very rare experience to have somebody say, “Just express yourself.”
You’re known to weave your own life experiences into your characters. In what way was it healing for you to make this film?
I had talked a lot about my body, but never about my chronic illness through the lens of a character. After my hysterectomy, I almost felt I had this second puberty of trying to discover and understand my body; I was like, what if there was a character who experienced this earlier and it had defined her first puberty? That was the way we entered. And also, the idea of scars—I had to re-find my body with all of these scars on it. What would it look like if you spent the most formative years of your life with these scars on you? I was also trying to give Kristine a sense of what her character would have experienced, and I had to explain what my pain felt like and what it felt like to then have my body go through this very radical change.
Part of being a director is working with the actor to conjure this emotion. Jennifer asked me, “Can I have an understanding of what it was like for your mother to deal with your illness, how she responded and what it was like for her to see you in that kind of pain?” The curiosity these women had about my experience, and to be able to hand it over to them to express, was really beautiful.
I think any time you’re able to express an experience, and have people mirror it back to you in a loving and tender way, that’s healing. The reason I make art is so that you express an experience and have it mirrored back to you.
I love that Jennifer asked that. There was a gentleness she had with Sarah Jo that she did not with Treina.
Jennifer is an icon and seeing her at work made me realize what it means to be an actor. I was like, I’m definitely not an actor. What I loved about her relation to that character is, some people would judge the way Marilyn mothered, and Jennifer completely embraced it and thought, This is a woman who adores her daughters and is desperate for them to feel the most in their bodies that they possibly can. Marilyn is very different from my mother, but also has a lot of that implicit wisdom.
Was there a particular challenge you faced while making this film that you haven’t encountered before on other projects?
I knew the ways I’d felt, even when I was directing myself—overexposed, or scared, or not seen. I worked with an amazing crew on Girls , but sometimes just the fact of having to enact these scenes, even though I wrote them, was anxiety-inducing under the best circumstances. Now, at 35, all I wanted was to create an environment that allowed people to talk about sexuality that was actually safe. I have to give credit to Jon Bernthal—I always joke that he should give a class on how to be a man in a sex scene. He is so gentle and so thoughtful, he could literally have a side hustle as an intimacy coordinator.
I feel like there’s always been this anxiety I’ve had with directing men, this fear that I wouldn’t be strong enough or tough enough or show them what a boss I was. I feel a lot of female directors have this self-consciousness about being able to match or show up to the way the guys do it. Jon let me be exactly the director that I am; he heard me and I didn’t have to be loud, scary, or dominate. He was coming right off the set of King Richard and he could have been so tired. Instead, he just held us all up. I used to joke that if I could direct shows with only women in them, I would. And now, I love directing men because [with] Jon, I didn’t have to yell through a megaphone.
Why do you think the resounding sentiment around you and your career is one of controversy?
It’s really interesting you ask, and of course, I’ve spent time thinking about this and trying to understand it. But the biggest thing I’ve realized is that I don’t need to understand it. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing. I could reflect on why people found me annoying in pre-school and middle school, and there are things in my career I wish I had handled differently. But by continuing doing it and by continuing to be myself in the most genuine way I can, through what I make, hopefully I’m showing it moves beyond people’s perception of you.
I do this podcast with my best friend called the C-Word. We look at why people react to certain women in the way that they do. And what I’ve realized through doing the show is that women continue to try to explain themselves and go, “Don’t worry, I understand now, don’t worry, I won’t do it again, please like me, I fixed it.” And I don’t want to do any more of those articles or interviews that are like, “Lena Dunham’s back and she finally understands this time.” Because really, all I want to do is just make things.