How Lena Dunham and Kristine Froseth Created the Eccentric Heroine of 'Sharp Stick'
The director and actor delve into their new film about a 26-year-old virgin's sexual awakening.
At the center of Lena Dunham's strange, amusing, and occasionally vexing new film Sharp Stick is Sarah Jo, played by Kristine Froseth. Sarah Jo dresses like a rag doll and speaks like a mouse might. When she eats yogurt, she gets it all over her mouth. She lives with her mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her influencer-wannabe sister (Taylour Paige) in a Los Angeles apartment complex where Sarah Jo is responsible for giving tenants eviction warnings. She's a 26-year-old virgin who had a hysterectomy when she was a teenager and has already gone through menopause, but, spurred by a sudden desire to explore her sexuality, begins an affair with the handsome, goofy, and very married father (Jon Bernthal) of the special-needs boy for whom she cares. (Dunham plays his pregnant wife.)
Sharp Stick charts Sarah Jo's journey to pleasure in at times discomfiting thoroughness. Dunham, who was inspired by her own surgery following endometriosis, follows her through her initial infatuation and heartbreak as she starts to take a more clinical approach to sexual know-how, eventually landing somewhere adjacent to enlightenment. It's a distinctly idiosyncratic film, one that seems to delight in pushing buttons. To delve deeper, Thrillist got on a Zoom call with Dunham and Froseth—whose previous credits include Hulu's Looking for Alaska and Showtime's The First Lady—ahead of Sharp Stick's July 29 theatrical release.
Thrillist: Sarah Jo lives in this space between maturity—she had an emergency hysterectomy as a teen—and extreme innocence. Lena, how did you find her in the writing process? And how did that evolve once Kristine came on board?
Lena Dunham: I was writing the film while I was watching a lot of films from the '70s with female protagonists, thinking about the way that those characters were both allowed to be sexual but also not really have any agency over their sexual power. They were overly wise-cracking and mature while also not necessarily being able to actually take any ownership of their lives or their bodies. And I started thinking, "What if we were to reverse all of those tropes?" Some of the most interesting things that you get to do in your writing is take aspects of yourself and metastasize them so that they become much larger. I talked to Kristine about this: Despite being around worlds like the art world or Hollywood where people trafficked in certain kinds of extreme knowledgeability, I always had a little bit of a naivete and a gullibility that sometimes served me well and sometimes served me less well.
Then it really was one of those things where it was like this fully birthed, half-fairy tale came out in my head. This character was almost like a little bit of a cartoon princess turned sideways. I had very distinct ideas in my head about who was going to play the other characters, but I knew that Sarah Jo was going to be someone I didn't know yet. Meeting Kristine, the clarity with which she spoke about the character was really amazing, and she's so disarmingly intelligent. She stepped on set and had this completely new take that brought an entirely other dimension. Her ability to both really believe and suspend her disbelief and to make the character really real while also living in the fantasy was such a gift to me as a director. I just texted her last night, "You are my full-on muse."
Kristine Froseth: I love you.
What films were you watching, Lena?
Dunham: I was thinking about everything from Looking for Mr. Goodbar to Barbara Loden's Wanda to movies like Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, where you get to see these tragic women step in and step out. It's interesting because in Mikey and Nicky, the women who get one scene are more fully realized than women who get whole movies now, but there's also all these really complicated sexual politics steeping all of those movies.
Kristine, how did you think about Sarah Jo after reading the script?
Froseth: Honestly, everything is on the page. Lena writes it. It's so visual. The character description of what she was wearing and the relationship she has with her family, it's all there. So, I just have to take that and try and connect with it. I mean, I really resonated with Sarah Jo for several reasons, so that was an easy connection there. Luckily, Lena is so kind and she spent hours going through the script with me because I love to dive in and get really nerdy about it. But I tried to just start meeting Sarah Jo where she is. And it's such a discovery where we're meeting her at a time where she's challenging her life and having this awakening with her identity, with her medical trauma, and also just figuring out what desire means to her, what love means to her. She's having so many different awakenings.
Dunham: Kristine will come in with notes—it was like a high school binder. I loved it because she would really ask, like, "What does this line mean?" Those are things that, as a writer, you don't get asked or even challenged on very often. It was such a quick shoot, and it would've been so easy for her to just speed through it and keep moving. And she just attacked it like it was The Odyssey, and I felt so lucky.
How did you come up with her aesthetic and body language, down to the way she eats yogurt?
Dunham: The yogurt's really amazing. It was in the script that she ate a lot of yogurt, but the first time Kristine actually ate the yogurt, I fell out of my chair because I didn't know that there was such a funny way to eat yogurt and suddenly it became this amazing detail that reflected her hunger for life and her hunger for experience. Her hunger was all in those bites that she took, and also the way it contrasted with the much more gentle and specific way her mom and her sister ate. But, in terms of her aesthetic, I was thinking about little '70s cartoons, like Holly Hobbie and Strawberry Shortcake and when you have a sleeping bag with one of them on it and you're like, "What if that sleeping bag came to life and was an outfit?" There was some character descriptions that discussed what she was wearing, but something amazing that Kristine did is she made a full mood board that was able to give to me and Katina Danabassis, our costume designer, and it was so deeply helpful. I was like, "Kristine, you came of age in the 2000s. How do you even know what this is? Did you time-travel and come back with references?"
What was on your mood board? Why did you want to make it?
Froseth: I honestly wish I had a good answer for it. I just was on Pinterest for hours, and I was just finding these things that just clicked. It's not something I can necessarily explain—it just was. I just feel like she very much goes off of how she's feeling, and it's just colorful, it's just intuitive, I guess. And to me, it just felt like this is how Sarah Jo would eat a yogurt.
Dunham: One day a Holly Hobbie mug showed up in my mail, and I was like, "Who would be amazing enough that they would send this to me?" I couldn't find the note. And then I was like, "It was Kristine." I basically started to cry because it's the greatest thing I've ever owned. But also I just couldn't believe that she had understood it. I mean, I was like, "How are you not just referencing Lizzie McGuire? You're so young."
Froseth: Too cool. Sarah Jo's cool in her own way though.
Dunham: She's really cool in her own way. And the other thing is like, I have a very cool, chic mother who always was looking great in a Issey Miyake suit or whatever. I really reacted to that as a kid by basically dressing like a tiny version of The Nanny. And I liked the idea that Sarah Jo was responding to her mom's aesthetic and her sister's aesthetic with her own aesthetic because she can't necessarily assert herself verbally and she can't necessarily assert herself physically, but through the way that she decorates her world and her body, she can show she also has a uniquely loving and bright way of seeing the world that's expressed through the things that she's attracted to.
How did you think about the structure of the movie? After Sarah Jo's affair with Josh ends, there's a shift as she aggressively tries to experience different sexual acts, but it also becomes more fantastical.
Dunham: I was lucky enough with this film that I wasn't making it in a studio structure where it needed to adhere to certain kinds of ideas or beats that maybe someone who was getting behind a more traditional process would ask for. It was definitely a note that I got that the movie felt like it was divided into two. There was a romance story and then there was this second act that almost had a different tone. That was very intentional because there is this feeling when your first real relationship ends where it's like your world cracks open and something totally new happens. If we could echo that feeling and it could almost be, instead of three acts, these two very specific films that are connected by this one really specific character, then that could be a really interesting way to express that idea.
I wanted to ask about the final shot, which incorporates animation and features a disembodied pair of hands cradling Sarah Jo's face. Why did you go for that stylistic departure?
Dunham: Sometimes the final moment of a movie is so apparent to you and you know exactly what it is, and sometimes it takes a moment to get there. I won't say exactly what it was, but initially there was a different final shot of the film and it was something that made sense to me deeply in the writing. I think I realized that sometimes when you love a character so much, it's hard to know where to stop with them. I remember thinking I could make three more movies about her and I probably would. I knew that if this was going to be our last moment with her, I wanted it to be a moment of pleasure and joy. Even though it could have a complex interpretation, you can feel that it's something that belongs to her. We had used that animation earlier in the film, in the moment when she looks up at the stars and they're tripping on mushrooms, and I loved the feeling that it gave us then. And so it occurred to us that it would be possible to bring it back there. The hands coming in was actually an idea that came from my cinematographer, Ashley Connor, who I have an amazing working relationship with. There was a moment where I didn't completely understand, but she was like, "Trust me." And then there was a moment where Kristine didn't completely understand, and I was like, "Trust me." And then there was a moment where the editor didn't completely understand, and then we were all like, "Trust me."
I like the idea that everybody who watches it is going to have different experience, different questions. There's some people who've been really literal—they've been like, "I didn't know it was a threesome." It's fun to have all those interpretations, and, again, hearkening back to those films of the '70s. Obviously there's lots of amazing independent films made and lots of films that step outside of this, but we're at a very literal moment in cinema. That's one of the reasons I watched The Worst Person in the World three times. Kristine and I were texting—we were like, "What up, Worst Person in the World!" Because that moment when it stepped outside of literalism just, like, lit me up and reminded me this is why I love movies. Not because they explained things perfectly, but because they confused me.