Olivia Bee for The New York Times
Zosia Mamet, who plays Shoshanna on the HBO series “Girls.”
Zosia Mamet was in upstate New York shooting a movie in 2010 when she received a call: the producers of “Girls,” a new TV series on HBO, created by some up-and-coming writer-director type, were eager to have her read for a part on the show. The series was going to be about three 20-something women — a lost and awkward aspiring writer named Hannah (who would be played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham); her strait-laced, perfectionist roommate Marnie; and her saucy, libertine friend Jessa — all trying to make it in New York.
Mamet, center, with Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke, in “Girls.”
Mamet had never heard of Dunham, but her agent also sent her Dunham’s breakout film, “Tiny Furniture,” and after watching it, Mamet decided, “I have to work with this person.” Her agent told Mamet that the show’s producers wanted her to read for a secondary character: Shoshanna, Jessa’s cousin. So in an old barn, fighting off a cold that was blossoming into full-blown pneumonia, Mamet recorded an audition tape. “I did my tape in one of my father’s oversize sweaters and no makeup and dirty hair,” she says. “When I get really, really sick, underneath my eyes gets red, my nose gets red. I kind of look like a junkie.”
Jennifer Euston, the show’s casting director, had, by then, auditioned more than 100 actresses for various parts on the show. “We were reading every girl on the planet,” she says. “We had hired people in L.A., Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto and New York.” Jenni Konner, one of the executive producers of “Girls,” liked Mamet after seeing her on “Mad Men,” and Euston, who had seen her on “United States of Tara,” agreed. Euston considered Mamet to be one of those actresses that she and her casting friends like to call a transformer: someone who can “naturally transform into this different character.”
When she saw Mamet’s tape, Euston was dazzled. “She was funny. She brought the character to life. Everything from the quality of her voice to the cadence and rhythm of how she read her lines. We had only told her that she was going to be Jessa’s cousin. She didn’t really have a lot to go on.” Euston sent the tape to Dunham and Konner, who shared her assessment. Mamet was offered the part.
Then she was summoned to New York for a table read. She slept on a friend’s couch the night before the read, still sick, and taking doses of cough medicine and NyQuil so she would be fresh for the reading. It didn’t work. She was a wreck. She says now that she doesn’t remember a single moment of it — “Those cold meds are nothing to mess with, let me tell you” — except when Judd Apatow, another of the show’s executive producers, came over and introduced himself.
She left the reading despondent. “I called my agent and said, ‘I think I may have lost this job, I’m so sorry.’ ”
Her performance had done just the opposite. The part of Shoshanna, Jessa’s virginal, quirky, “Sex and the City”-obsessed cousin, was supposed to be a secondary role that could well disappear after the pilot. “She definitely shifted my original conception of the character, which was a much more tangential girl, whose main job was to illuminate how un-‘Sex and the City’ this world was,” Dunham wrote to me in an e-mail. “But Zosia’s read — her odd intonations, her roiling insecurity — gave me the sense that Shoshanna could be something much larger.”
A few days later, Mamet’s agent called to tell her that she still had the job. And there was one other bit of good news: HBO wanted to revise her contract to make her a series regular. Just like that, “Girls,” the show about three girls trying to make it in New York, became a show about four girls instead.
Two years after that phone call, and just two months before the January 13 premiere of the second season of “Girls,” Mamet met me in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan, where she was staying while in town (she recently moved from L.A. to New York, but her new apartment wasn’t furnished yet) to participate in a charity event called the 24 Hour Plays.
She was wearing striped pants and a loose sweater, and her long hair was parted in the middle. As we spoke, she occasionally seemed to retreat behind that long, straight hair. Her most striking feature is her eyebrows, which are epic and untouched. She wears a lot of rings and has a few small tattoos on her hands. Her first tattoo, on her ankle, came a year and a half ago at the hands of her co-star Jemima Kirke. She has since added a few more, including a small one of an anchor on her hand because she loves the water and dreams of one day living on a boat.
“I have a ship’s bed,” she said, “which totally plays to my obsession of, if I were not an actress, I would be a pirate.”
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a regular contributor to The One-Page Magazine. This is her first feature article for the magazine.
Editor: Adam Sternbergh