Lena Dunham On Portraying Infertility On Screen In New Movie Sharp Stick

Lena Dunham in Girls
(Image credit: HBO)

Lena Dunham is an award winning filmmaker and actress who became a household name thanks to her work on HBO Max’s Girls. In the years since its 2017 finale, she’s worked on a variety of other TV/film projects like HBO's Generation. She's also been working behind and in front of the camera, including a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Dunham's about to release her new dramedy film Sharp Stick, which will arrive in theaters this weekend. And the multihyphenate spoke to CinemaBlend about portraying infertility on screen.

Sharp Stick was written and directed by Lena Dunham (with some help by Taylor Swift), and she also plays a supporting role in the film. The movie focuses on Kristine Froseth’s character Sarah Jo, who is a 26 year-old babysitter that underwent a hysterectomy as a teenager. The audience gets to hear her unique story when Sarah Jo has a long, rambling monologue about her intense medical past opposite Jon Bernthal’s latest unexpected character. I had the privilege of speaking with Dunham and Froseth about their work on Sharp Stick, where they cued me into the crafting of that particular sequence. The movie’s lead actress described what it was like sharing her character’s medical history and the fallout that comes after, saying:

I honestly think I was really blessed to have a beautiful script that I could just work off of. Everything was on the page so it was very easy to show up on the day and just bounce off what Lena had so beautifully written. As well as doing that with Jon Bernthal, who is an incredible actor and he will alway be present with you. He almost forces things out of you. It wasn’t even working to be honest. I think she is just on this rant for so many different reasons that we explored. And then just going beat for beat with how Jon reacted to that and how it makes Sarah Jo feel. And that led to her first ever sexual exploration. There’s a lot happening in the scene.

Lena Dunham is certainly a writer with a very specific voice, as seen in the myriad quotable lines throughout Girls’ run on TV. As Kristine Froseth points out, that was also the case in the Sharp Stick monologue where Sarah Jo discloses her hysterectomy. It’s a powerful moment for the audiences and characters alike, as that’s the catalyst for the character’s affair with Josh.

In our same conversation, Lena Dunham also revealed how she crafted the scene where the history behind Sarah Jo’s infertility was revealed. It’s a sequence that has a ton of layers, aside from it being groundbreaking in regards to visibility and onscreen representation. It was also a technical challenge, as Dunham shared:

That’s a long scene and really was shot in a very small laundry room. Kristine and John were incredible because it was like boiling hot, in a four by four space, and they had to do about three different stages. They had to do this moment where they first see each other and that awkward conversations, then the debate around the sex. And then literally not one sex scene but a sex scene, a break, and then another sex scene within one scene.

While Mary Jo’s infertility isn’t the main plot point of Sharp Stick, it’s an important aspect of her backstory that informs the protagonist’s motivation throughout the film’s 86-minute runtime. As such, Lena Dunham had this on her mind when writing other scenes throughout the movie. That includes a long sequence featuring the great Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Mary Jo’s mother in Sharp Stick, and she (unsurprisingly) gives a stellar performance. One particularly great scene has Leigh revealing the “origin story” behind her two daughters. Lena Dunham explained how and why this scene was crafted, and the ways its connected to Mary Jo’s medical history. As she told me,

Because the film looks at issues of infertility and what makes a family, I was really interested the idea that we’d have this nontraditional but very loving mother describing how she became to be a mother. Which is something I was personally thinking about a lot. And also it was deep in Sarah Jo’s mind as a character who had lost her fertility early. Obviously a scene that is jut one long monologue is kind of always a gamble, but when you have Jennifer Jason Leigh it’s not really a gamble.

She’s not wrong. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a legendary actress who has worked with the greats over the years. Therefore Lena Dunham was able to write and direct a long monologue for the actress, knowing she’d be able to keep the attention of the audience. And as such, the heart of the story could be further explored in a less obvious way. 

Moviegoers will be able to see Sharp Stick for themselves shortly, as it opens in select theaters July 29th. In the meantime, check out the 2022 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience. 

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.