This week marked the premiere of Industry, a stylish HBO drama set on the trading floor of an English investment bank. The series stars Myha’la Herrold—a Carnegie Mellon graduate in her first major television role—as Harper, a 20-something American inductee with sharp instincts and a shadowy backstory.
Neither Herrold nor Lena Dunham, who directed and executive-produced the first episode, claim to know much about the machinations of finance; more to the point is how young people at the beginnings of their careers hold up in strange, new environments where the stakes feel dizzyingly high. (Dunham cannily describes the show as “Melrose Place meets The Wolf of Wall Street.”) As different as they are, Herrold harbors a deep fondness for Harper and her particular journey at Pierpoint & Co.—fake transcripts, drug-addled nights, questionable sexual decisions, and all. “If my life had looked different, I may be exactly like Harper,” she says. “I deeply, personally, intrinsically understand her thought process because we have the same set of challenges: humble beginnings, being mixed [race], American, in this new place, having to prove her worth without any extra shit—no privileges.”
On a recent evening, Dunham and Herrold convened over Zoom to discuss the show, artistry, seeing themselves on billboards, and loving Rihanna.
Lena Dunham: You’ve had other jobs, but this is the first time the world is seeing the totality of your range, talent, and full Myha’la-ness. What does it feel like to have Industry coming into the world?
Myha’la Herrold: I feel overwhelmed with enough feelings that I can’t exactly name them all. Anticipation, excitement, relief…I mean, relief is a big one because it’s one of those things where you’ve finished this massive thing and then you go into the normal world and then lockdown world, and you’re like, Did that shit even happen? But I think mostly I’m just really proud. I saw the billboard in Times Square the other day—I looked at it, and I was not expecting this to happen, but I started crying. I was completely overcome with emotion, but I was just so happy. When I thought about what my life would look like, I never imagined, Oh, someday I’m going to do something and then my face is going to be massive in Times Square. I just didn’t think about that.
It made me really emotional when you told me you were going to look at the billboard because I remembered when Girls premiered in 2012 and we all went and looked at ourselves in Times Square. I said to my brother at the time, “Please don’t ask me what it feels like to be on a billboard because I can’t explain it to you.”
Also, this might be the Clicquot that I treated myself to tonight, but I also think there was something weird about me looking at me, right into my damn eyes, and being like, Go ahead, bitch! It was me saying congratulations to myself.
I always remember this thing you said on set—you were like, “Listen. I hope everyone else is doing their job, but I’ve taken out insurance on myself and I know I’m doing my job.” It was your first time traveling outside the U.S.; you literally showed up in Wales with your cat and were at work five days later. What do you think gave you the confidence to embrace this character and drive at it so hard?
Honestly, it had a lot to do with this project. I loved all of these characters, and I identified completely with Harper. It wasn’t necessarily that I was cool as a cucumber. I had told myself already, You have to do this well, you have to do it right. That’s what it deserves. And I wanted desperately to do a good job for other Black women who want to do this kind of thing. For myself, for you, for my mother, for my friends who are about to watch me do some shit…I had to do them proud.
Harper shows up to London as someone who has had a different education from every other character. She doesn’t come from one of those fancy British schools; she’s American, she’s a Black woman, she’s tiny in this towering office. And Harper’s story of being an outsider who lives with imposter syndrome, who has that same feeling of I literally do not have the option not to nail this, is at the heart of the entire script. Do you want to talk a little about the parallels between you and her as a character?
I love this question because I think somebody who knew me personally and sees the show is going to say, like, “Oh, my God, you’re nothing like her. She’s wild and does some backstabbing shit, but you’re so nice.” But the thing is, if my life had looked different, if I had not had the people in my life to teach me certain things—my mother, the rest of my community—if my life had looked different, I may be exactly like Harper. I deeply, personally, intrinsically understand her thought process because we have the same set of challenges: humble beginnings, being mixed [race], American, in this new place, having to prove her worth without any extra shit—no privileges, you know what I mean? But Harper has a different set of tools. What she has is, I know numbers, and I know people in this world respond to money, so what I can do is manipulate their situation because I’m good at that. I completely understand where her mind goes.
Because the script [by showrunners Mickey Down and Konrad Kay] is so dense and because England is so rife with really complicated issues around class and race, it opened up incredibly interesting conversations every single day that really gave me a sense of what a radical mind you have and how committed to social justice you are. How do you think about using your voice, as someone to whom social issues are incredibly important?
Really, I’m just excited. The sharing of information is fucking key. I feel like damn near all the white people who didn’t know they were racist found out on Instagram this summer but then also found all these links to resources for learning about systematic racism. The internet gives us options. It gives us possibilities. It gives us easy avenues to each other. What I’m excited to continue doing is maintaining my internet presence as it has been. People are going to experience me exactly as I am, which is a person who is deeply passionate about activism. How can I not take the opportunity to share information when I know I can reach people and people might be interested in what I have to say?
Speaking of other people, it can go a lot of different ways with casts. When young people are jammed together, we know that it can be joy or it can be drama. But it seemed like you all were the love affair of the century.
We were already jazzed about the script, but man, they are just special people. From the moment I got to Wales, I was like, “Hello, you have to be my friend now because I am alone here. I have no one, and I need friends desperately!” I sort of forced a relationship on them, and then from there it actually went somewhere. We actually enjoy each other. I’ve got to shout out Julie Harkin in casting. She did the damn thing. She brought us together and also picked best friends. It’s really beautiful.
Also, it was one apartment complex. It was freaking Melrose Place in Wales.
I keep saying the show is like Melrose Place meets The Wolf of Wall Street but with really important social messages included.
But what I love about the social-messages aspect is it’s not asking anybody to feel any type of way. It’s just presenting you with situations, with happenings, without being like, You should feel this way about women in the workplace, and you should feel this way about men in the workplace. I hate it when somebody tries to tell me how to feel.
It really allows for subtlety of thought, which was what attracted me to the script in the first place. I liked that, as a director, every single day I came in on my toes because I don’t know what a big sale of stocks on a trading floor is supposed to feel like. Those scenes where you have a big moment, I was as adrenalized as you were because I was like, It seems like we’re doing this! We have two cameras, and everybody seems like they’re in the right place. I was like, Does anybody know that I don’t know what half these words mean? Okay, great. I didn’t know what the emotional thrust of every scene was supposed to be until we were in it. Sometimes I wouldn’t know what a scene was supposed to feel like until you showed me. There’s a scene in the pilot with you and Nabhaan [Rizwan], where you two are having a conversation about being two people of color in the workplace. Suddenly, something that I thought was sort of sad became sweet and flirty before my eyes.
I couldn’t help it—Nabhaan is so cute!
Eighty million people asked me this at the beginning of Girls, and I remember having a million answers, none of which are what my life looks like now. But I’m now going to ask you: If you could craft the perfect next 10 years of your life, what would they look like?
Ah! If I could craft the next 10 years of my life, I would own a multilevel brownstone with my mother in New York. We would be living together, as we should be. I would be traveling for work and doing a project at least once a year that fills me like Industry has filled me. What else would I be doing? Probably children would be nice within 10 years. And then I’d be set. Oh, and I’d want to have enough money that I don’t have to worry about money.
And you also want to write?
I’m already writing. So actually part of the 10-year plan is to finish that script that I started and to direct. I want to be just like you. Can I tell you how many fucking interviews I’ve done and said, “Lena’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. She makes me want to be a director.” I’m not kidding.
That’s the thing I want to say in this interview—you inspire me. You make me want to show up to work with passion and enthusiasm and brightness. When you and I worked together, I hadn’t directed in a few years, and you brought back so much of my passion for my craft. You reminded me why I love to do what I do. And it changed my life and impacted me forever, and I’m so proud of you.
You changed my life!
One more question. As you’ve gotten dressed for press, have you had an energy that you’ve been trying to channel?
Hopefully Rihanna. I know that’s a lot to say, but I want to look like Rihanna all the time. I want people to feel about me and the looks that I’m turning, Damn, you look like Rihanna.
Honestly, that’s within reach for you.
And really briefly, you should be embarrassed for me. One time I went to a Rihanna concert and I wore blue Fenty lipstick and blue Fenty eyeliner and a leather baseball hat and a fur coat and a leather minidress. And I looked super deranged. And then afterward, they were like, “You can go and visit her in her dressing room.” And I waited for two and a half hours in my leather minidress to meet Rihanna and then felt too tired.
Everyone was looking at me like, Who is this aging dumpling in this blue lipstick?
But also most of those people were probably like, “That is Lena Dunham, waiting to see Rihanna!” Which is fucking hilarious.
They were like, “This entire thing is a terrible comedy that we should be filming.” So I just want to say you’re doing an amazing job at channeling Rihanna.
Thank you. I’m wearing her thong right now. I’m going to take a picture and tag them because I want to be a Savage X Fenty ambassador.
I’m sure you can make that happen. That’s also part of the 10-year plan.
Well, it’s part of a shorter-year plan. We’re already putting it into the universe, and then everyone else is just going to do the actual things that matter.
Bring this back to us, universe. Thank you for your gifts. Amen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.