[This story contains spoilers from Camping‘s second episode, “Going to Town.”]
Lena Dunham isn’t starring in her Girls follow-up Camping, but the writer and executive producer of HBO’s eight-episode limited series still found a way to incorporate some of her personal experiences into the show.
Camping viewers discovered at the end of the first episode that Jennifer Garner’s lead character, Kathryn, had her uterus and both of her ovaries removed. And they learned more about her health issues in episode two, as Kathryn revealed during a hospital trip that the “complete hysterectomy” was her tenth procedure under anesthesia. She now has “phantom periods” and “tissue issues.”
She’s also hinted at her chronic pain in both episodes, saying in the premiere that her Instagram account is in part for women with chronic pain and in the most recent episode, which aired Sunday, that she’s “physically,” “not fine.”
“I’ll struggle through. I’ll live a vaguely normal life, but I am not fine,” Kathryn tells her son.
Dunham revealed earlier this year that she had a hysterectomy and last week she had her left ovary removed, both due to her ongoing health issues. She’s also posted on social media about her own struggle with chronic pain.
And she says she channeled her own suffering into the script.
“Kathryn is a character who has a lot of me in her,” Dunham tells The Hollywood Reporter of Garner’s role.
She adds, “I was in so much pain when we were writing this. There was no way around that. We wrote it as I was coming into and out of my hysterectomy. To be totally honest with you it was all I could think about, so I needed to find a way to tell that story that was honest. … What I wanted to say is that it is so unbelievably isolating to be a woman in chronic pain. There are things about it that are funny and there are things about it that are painful and there are things about it that are beautiful and silly and all of that and I feel like Jen conveyed all of that.”
As the series goes on, Konner says, viewers will see “how Kathryn became Kathryn.”
“I think Kathryn has always been controlling and has always been Type A but I don’t think she’s always been miserable, and as the series goes along you start to see glimpses of who she might’ve been,” Konner says. “So I think the chronic pain has played into who she is now, because it would. You know, it’s so hard to feel those things all the time and still be in a good mood and still want to have sex with your husband while you’re in so much pain. I think she wasn’t like that before. She always planned the camping trip; it’s just she wouldn’t freak out if someone didn’t do the thing she wanted to do.”
Both Konner and Dunham explain that in adapting the series from the British version, written and directed by Julia Davis, to a U.S. edition, they were more “going from British to Jenni and Lena” as they kept the concept, structure, plot points and jokes from the original series but incorporated some of their personal experiences.
“We felt like there was a story to tell that was a little bit different and belonged to us so we made changes,” Dunham says. “We wanted to write characters that we thought we knew and we made changes that made sense to us. It was a real act of love, that original series. We wanted to pay homage to it while also creating something that felt unique and felt like our own. We wrote some other people that we knew, but there are some direct correlations to me. There are direct correlations to relationships in our lives.”
Another personal story that factored into the series was co-stars, and real-life couple, Brett Gelman and Janicza Bravo’s. Gelman told Konner and Dunham an anecdote similar to the scene that plays out in episode two in which Chris Sullivan’s Joe calls Bravo’s Nina-Joy “little chocolate,” a remark she’s offended by. She tells her husband George (Gelman) what happened and he lashes out at Joe with a rant mentioning the KKK and a “race war” in the U.S.
“Brett and Janicza have this dynamic where he perceives things to be micro-aggressions against her,” Konner said, “He [once] got really mad at someone on her behalf so it was sort of based off that, like this idea of a strong woman and her husband who loses his shit when he perceives something as bad.”
Gelman explains his character’s response: “He lashes out because he has a lot of pent-up rage and a lot of pent-up bad feelings about himself. He projects that victimization of her onto himself in a sort of selfish way in that moment. … I don’t think that what he says to Joe is wrong. I think that’s true. I think the manner in which he does it and the reason he does it is problematic, because he doesn’t listen to her and she doesn’t want him to do that and she was the one who was victimized. You’ve got to listen to the person that it’s actually affecting. … George has a good intention but is not equipped to deal with … race. And I think that’s something that is a problem within the white liberal male community — there’s a lot of talking and not enough listening and taking the lead from who it’s actually affecting.”
While the exchange brings real-world issues into a largely apolitical series, Konner says, “If you’re writing a series about women-on-women crime and women being cruel to each other, it has political undertones even though we’re not talking about how the world is falling apart this week.”
She also points out that any real-life political issues brought up in the show, would have been outdated and “nothing compared to now.”