OBERLIN — The first stop award-winning director and actress Lena Dunham made when she returned to her alma mater was Agave Burrito Bar and Tequileria.
“I stopped and ran in, and everyone’s so cool with their knit hats, and I saw a girl in, like, an old ironic Guns ’N’ Roses T-shirt. I feel so old and lame,” she said, laughing.
The 27-year-old actress fit right in on campus, however, joking with Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov and former teacher and mentor, David Walker.
Dunham graduated in 2008 from Oberlin College, where she studied creative writing before returning to her hometown in New York to pursue filmmaking. With her recent success with the HBO television show, “Girls,” — a show honored by the American Film Institute as one of the best TV programs of the year — Dunham returned Saturday to speak with students at Finney Chapel.
Walker discussed Dunham’s recent success with the show, which debuted in April 2012, but he also discussed some of Dunham’s little-known works.
“When you were at Oberlin, you started out making subversive, guerrilla-style videos … One of them was called ‘The Fountain,’ in which you stripped down to a bikini and bathed and brushed your teeth in the fountain beside the art museum until a security officer came and told you to stop,” he said. “And another one called ‘Hooker on Campus,’ you dressed up in fishnet tights and wandered around campus asking other students if they’d like to have a good time.”
“Which, by the way, is how I got my boyfriend which I had for my whole senior year,” Dunham interjected as students laughed.
While Dunham may not have received an Oscar for her portrayal in “Hooker on Campus,” she said the experience allowed her to experiment with filmmaking and storytelling.
“To me, what was amazing about Oberlin was the way that my teachers, my friends, the community embraced the fact that that could actually be an art project and an exploration,” she said, adding that the projects were screened between two documentaries at the college.
The projects were Dunham’s first foray into exploring issues of gender, sexuality and the media’s conception of female bodies, which play a major role on “Girls.”
Shot in New York, Girls is a “comic look” at the humiliations and triumphs of a group of girls in their mid-20s. Dunham said she wanted to create a show that embodied her friends and their experiences — something that she hadn’t seen on television before.
“Girls” began after Dunham was contacted by film producer Judd Apatow, who emailed her asking to collaborate on a new show. Apatow had watched Dunham’s feature, “Tiny Furniture,” which received an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.
Dunham said she wanted to create a show unlike anything shown on television, and HBO was on board. Her character, Hannah Horvath, was a mesh of the personalities of her friends, as well as herself, Dunham described.
“I don’t feel like I’ve seen a show about people who are my age,” she said. “I have all these friends who are incredibly self-aware, yet … they’ve been to therapists since they were 10, they only communicate via text message, they take too much medication. I was just kind of describing a genre of person that we probably all recognize, and I was thinking, ‘I haven’t seen those girls.’ ”
Marjolaine Goldsmith, who attended Saturday’s convocation, said she’d like to see more TV shows like “Girls,” which don’t portray typical Hollywood starlets.
“I think what she makes allows for women, not necessarily to have a voice, but be though of in a new way,” she said. “I think she complicates them, and I think her characters aren’t anywhere else on TV.”