Girls Director Richard Shepard on Fake Penises, Matthew Rhys, and Why He Loves Stand-alone Episodes

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Lena Dunham as Hannah, Patrick Wilson as Chuck. Photo: HBO

This week’s episode of Girls, “American Bitch,” is creator Lena Dunham’s parting gift to director Richard Shepard, who helmed 12 episodes of the HBO series. Essentially a two-character short film starring Dunham and guest star Matthew Rhys, it mirrors other stand-alone episodes that Shepard also directed: season two’s “One Man’s Trash” and last season’s “A Panic in Central Park.”

In “One Man’s Trash,” one of the series’ most polarizing episodes, Hannah (Dunham) has a fling with a lonely doctor, played by Patrick Wilson, who reveals to her how lonely she is, too. “A Panic in Central Park” reunites Marnie (Allison Williams) with her ex Charlie (Christopher Abbott) on a wild night in Manhattan.

“American Bitch” pits famous author Chuck Palmer (Rhys) against Hannah, who wrote about Chuck after several college students accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. The episode takes place in Chuck’s fancy apartment where he offers his side of the story, which leads to a debate about consensual sex and power imbalance. The characters seem to reach a point of understanding, until he shows his true colors in what will go down as one of the series’ most shocking moments: After asking Hannah to lay down next to him, Chuck plops his penis onto Hannah’s thigh. She touches it briefly, then freaks out.

A writer-director who won an Emmy for directing the pilot of Ugly Betty, Shepard got his big break when he directed The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan, which led to directing pilots for Criminal Minds, Ringer, and Salem. Girls is the only series he has worked on from start to finish. Shepard spoke with Vulture about the challenges of directing a dialogue-heavy episode, working with Rhys for the first time, and where they found that all-important penis prop.

Tell me about the casting of Matthew Rhys.
For this role, it had to be a great actor, but also someone whose baggage is positive, if that makes sense. I think that Matthew is one of those actors who you just like. Certainly on The Americans he plays a character that is tough to like sometimes, but you love him and you care about him. I really wanted someone of that caliber, where if we have the right actor, we will go along with Hannah’s journey and by the time they get into his bedroom, we will believe that that could happen. I wanted to make sure the audience wouldn’t just say, “Run out of there!” I was hoping that it would make it more uncomfortable and more complex than that. Our script supervisor on Girls was also the script supervisor on The Americans and she would not stop talking about what a great guy Matthew Rhys was. So when this role came up, we thought we should go after Matthew Rhys since we already knew he’s a nice guy.

Let’s talk about the prop at the end of the episode. It was a shock when he rolls over and there’s his penis.
I have a picture of a box of penises! It’s actually very hard to find a not-fully-erect dildo because, usually, they’re fully erect. What we wanted was a three-quarters-erect penis. It’s actually much harder to find. We ended up getting it from a medical supply company for people who have surgery — gender-reassignment surgery or other surgeries — and they make these semi-erect penises. Our prop people came with a box of penises, and one day at lunch Lena and Jenni Konner and I got to pick Matthew Rhys’s penis for him. He, of course, had final penis approval. It looks pretty darn good, doesn’t it? It doesn’t look fake.

It was a surprise to say the least. But then Hannah touches it and it’s maddening. Tell me about the debate surrounding that choice.
Lena wrote this script and we talked a lot about it. I wanted to bring, as I do, a male point of view. Hopefully not a sexist point of view, but being the oldest man working on Girls, I do get to bring a different point of view. We had a lot of discussion, up to and including the idea of whether she would touch his penis or not. For me, it was deeply important that she do that. It complicated things in a very real way — this idea of power and what people are supposed to or are expected to do, and how that can be manipulated in such terrible ways. For me, it was very key that she does touch it. Society has brought up people to think if this presents itself, this is what you’re supposed to do. She almost falls for it, and then, of course, realizes this. In my mind, his character’s doing it not so much to be pleasured but to prove that he can do it. Which is why he’s got that smile on his face in the last scene when his daughter’s playing the flute, because he’s won.

What Lena Dunham might have done in that situation is different than what Hannah Horvath would’ve done. I do think you see the difference in that. This script, there were some discussions, but in general, this is very close to her first draft. We were very lucky to have an entire day of rehearsal, which doesn’t sound like much, but in television, a day in rehearsal is a real big thing. It was just Jenni and Lena and Matthew and me in that apartment, going over every scene, every word, every piece of blocking. When we got to filming it, we could really focus on the text and all the other meanings underneath it.

The last shot is Hannah walking away from the building as all these women walk toward it. Was that scripted?
That was my idea — I’ll take credit for it, goddammit! I wanted to show that just because one person sort of escapes, if you’re not changing anything, more people will be victims to it. That was the point and I really I love that ending. I love the whole episode because somehow Lena is able to take a subject that she’s very passionate about and bring it into the Girls universe without it feeling completely alien. Yes, this is a different episode than normal, but I think you buy it as part of what the whole six seasons of Girls have done.

These stand-alone episodes feel like little plays. It’s just two people going back and forth.
To me, “One Man’s Trash” and “The Panic in Central Park” are one-acts or little short films. They exist in the larger world of Girls, but they’re also hermetically sealed. One of my favorite parts about “One Man’s Trash” is that no one sees Hannah walking to Patrick Wilson’s house and no one sees her again until she’s gone from it. So there’s this idea, when we’re in our twenties and we have this incredible experience and no one witnesses it, did it really even happen? I loved that. “Panic in Central Park” does a similar thing, in that no one in Marnie’s world witnessed it. Charlie did, but no one else did, and so she’s had basically a life-altering experience and no one witnessed it. It’s the same case with this Matthew Rhys one. There was a very deliberate decision to start the show with Hannah walking down the street and end it with her leaving the apartment.

What was it like working with Matthew?
Well, I’ll tell you: Kim, our script supervisor who recommended him and said he’s the nicest guy in the world, wasn’t wrong. He really was just lovely. There was, in fact, a lot of laughing while we were making the episode, which was very key to me. It had a very intimate feel. I really wanted to help the actors feel as connected as they could be. But it was a tough one. It’s tough to film so much dialogue. Technically, it’s easy because you don’t have to have these complex shots that take forever, but at the same time, all you really have is the acting. There’s not a lot of other things going on, and so one of my concerns was that if we’re gonna do basically a five-scene play in this apartment where they’re sitting in every single scene, then you better be focused on the performance because we can’t cut to Alex Karpovsky [who plays Ray] doing something funny at the coffee shop.

Until the end, both characters present points of view that make you think.
It’s useful to see both points of view, but at the end of the day, if it was ultimately about a level of power, then what Matthew Rhys’s character does is a spit in the face to everything that came before. He is saying, “We may have a logical debate, but as a man, I have more power over you because of what society has set up.” And he proved it. This is a big topic that we’re obviously, as a society, talking about a lot right now. We just had a woman’s march that was extraordinary. I was thrilled to be a part of it. The timing of this episode seems particularly interesting.

“One Man’s Trash” and “The Panic in Central Park” had more movement than this episode. What challenges did those present that were different from “American Bitch?”
First of all, there’s a little bit more blocking and movement because there’s sex and this other stuff. But the thing that I love most about them was the emotional connection between the two people in each story. They were both romances that went bad. There was a true beating heart in both stories. One of the things that was challenging about this Matthew Rhys episode is that there’s not any romance. There’s no emotional beating heart. There’s the emotional debate, and there’s the emotion of conditioning your experience, but there isn’t a romantic element and there’s not an emotional element tied to that. That’s why “American Bitch” was far more difficult than either of those two episodes.

First of all, there’s a little bit more blocking and movement because there’s sex and this other stuff. But the thing that I love most about them was the emotional connection between the two people in each story. They were both romances that went bad. There was a true beating heart in both stories. One of the things that was challenging about this Matthew Rhys episode is that there’s not any romance. There’s no emotional beating heart. There’s the emotional debate, and there’s the emotion of conditioning your experience, but there isn’t a romantic element and there’s not an emotional element tied to that. That’s why “American Bitch” was far more difficult than either of those two episodes.

Did it surprise you that “One Man’s Trash” had such a polarizing reaction?
It’s funny because I literally had the debate with my mother. My mother is 83 years old and a very liberal New Yorker. She was like, “I’m not sure that I believe Patrick Wilson would be with Lena.” I was like, “You know, I have no problem believing that.” I was recently divorced when we did “One Man’s Trash” and I was like, “If a bubbly, effervescent, lovely human being knocked on my door, I would be very happy.” I think it goes down to some level of sexism, you know what I mean? Who understands why anyone is together? Why anyone would choose anybody? To me, it was very clear: Patrick Wilson was sad and lonely and here comes this girl.

What is amazing is that, halfway through the second season of Girls, this is the first good sex that Hannah ever has in the show. It’s the first time that she orgasms. It’s the first time that she is pleasured without humiliation. It’s extraordinary, and I loved that. I felt a deep connection between them, but at the same time, Hannah was immature so she talks her way out of it. I love that and I love their connection and I love the loneliness of that episode. There’s a loneliness involved as well in “A Panic in Central Park.” If Marnie ran into Charlie after having a great day with Desi, that episode couldn’t have happened. It only happened because she was realizing she was in a marriage she didn’t want to be in, and that opened up the possibility for that relationship to happen and that episode.

What do you remember about shooting it? It seemed like a great adventure through Manhattan.
You know, I loved it. We got to shoot all over. We got it hand-held on the street. When you’re in love, you almost feel like you own the night. When you’re in love, you feel like you could rob a bank and get away with it. You feel like nothing could hurt you, you can’t get in trouble, and so that’s what I wanted Marnie and Charlie to feel. I wanted them to have this feeling that they could do anything that evening. Both actors were so game.

Last question: After all is said and done, who’s your favorite girl?
You obviously know that I’m never gonna answer that in any way!

How Girls Picked a Fake Penis for Matthew Rhys