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New HBO Max comedy navigates identity, money and 'The Sex Lives Of College Girls'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: A new comedy on HBO Max is called "The Sex Lives Of College Girls." But it zooms in on a lot more about the lives of four freshman roommates - money or lack thereof, identity, social status and, of course, school.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Morning.

PAULINE CHALAMET: (As Kimberly Finkle) Morning. Happy FDOC.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Huh?

CHALAMET: (As Kimberly Finkle) First day of classes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, right.

KURTZLEBEN: That's eager, naive, big-hearted Kimberly Finkel, who's one of the main characters. The show is co-created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble. And it stars Pauline Chalamet as Kimberly. Pauline Chalamet joins us now from Los Angeles. Pauline, welcome to the program.

CHALAMET: Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: So let's start with the basics. Tell us about Kimberly. How does the world she's coming from compare to the one she finds herself in at the school?

CHALAMET: Well, Kimberly comes from a small town in Arizona. She comes from a middle-class, working family. And she's kind of used to being a big fish in a small pond. She's someone who excels at school, who takes school very seriously and who managed to work her way into one of these private, elite liberal institutions. And she gets there and is, all of a sudden, a very small fish in a very big pond and is kind of forced to confront all of these different social dynamics that are at play when you first get to college.

KURTZLEBEN: And we have a clip from the show that illustrates this disparity a lot from her hometown to this college. This happens when another student throws trash on the ground in front of Kimberly and her co-worker at the campus coffee shop where they have work study jobs. Let's listen.


CHALAMET: (As Kimberly Finkel) Not everyone on this campus has money. Some of us have to work these jobs because, even if we didn't know it until we got here, we're kind of poor. So yeah, maybe I don't have the newest iPhone. And maybe I don't know what couscous is. But I'm still a (expletive) person. And so is he. So treat us like we (expletive) matter, OK?


KURTZLEBEN: What does Kimberly learn about herself through her experiences? How does she grow during the show?

CHALAMET: Well, I think during the show, at first, she's kind of - she feels really out of place. And I think quickly, she's forced to confront that not coming from an incredibly privileged background actually is a force in and of itself, that sometimes having to work alongside your studies is actually grounding you in the reality of the world much more than just - you know, I always say that college is kind of, like, purgatory because you're a child, but you think you're an adult. And a lot of the time, you know, parents are helping you pay for this, but you're also asserting your independence. So you're really just, like, this, like, no man's land. And I think when you have to work, when you're in school, you're forced to be grounded in the reality of what waits for you once you graduate.

KURTZLEBEN: We've talked about a couple of the other topics that this show tackles - academics, economics. But we haven't gotten at the topic of the title, sex. It seems like there has been an uptick in the last few years in movies and TV shows that deal frankly and often comedically with young women and sex. There's "Booksmart." There's "The Edge Of Seventeen." Why do you think that there is that uptick?

CHALAMET: Well, I think that we're in an age right now where we're starting to reframe how we look at sex, how we talk about sex, what sex is. And I think that as we enter an age where we start to listen to women more generally, this also means taking into account the experiences of teenage women and young adult women whose, you know, first sexual experiences tend to not be as well, let's say, showcased out in the world.

KURTZLEBEN: Are there particular themes or ideas that the show was able to get at via sex?

CHALAMET: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that there are many. I mean, I know, for instance, there's, you know, hiding certain things about your sexuality or sex generally - right? - thinking that everybody's doing it one way. And you're wondering if you're doing it right. And in that, you don't share that much about it. You keep it to yourself. Then there's the idea of being incredibly extrovert with all of your sexual endeavors because you think that everybody is, again, doing it a certain way. And you're trying to fit in. I think also, it's very hard as you start your sexual endeavors, let's say - it's - to kind of realize that communication is super important. And I think that it's something that we forget to emphasize, that the communication is something that is just as important as the act in and of itself.

KURTZLEBEN: Let's change gears here. You also grew up in a pretty artistic family. As I understand, your mother was a dancer.


KURTZLEBEN: Your brother Timothee is an actor. Do you see their influence and what you're drawn to as an artist and vice versa?

CHALAMET: I think part of what's so great about the arts generally is that everybody will find their own way into it. I'm really grateful to my mother. I went to so many Broadway shows growing up. And that was really her thing. She was a musical theater dancer. And she really loved bringing me to go see different musicals. And that inevitably influenced who I am today.

But I think that I personally had a very roundabout way to getting to where I am today and realizing what kind of stories I want to tell. I, for a very long time, didn't really think I wanted to be an actor. When I got to college, I studied political studies. And I really thought I wanted to be a journalist or a lawyer. And, eventually, I kind of was coming off this train of having read a lot of feminist literature and kind of opened my horizons. And I realized that I was interested in tackling this industry from kind of my own personal experiences. And I wanted that to be my way in.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Pauline Chalamet from the new HBO Max series "The Sex Lives Of College Girls," out November 18. Pauline, thank you so much.

CHALAMET: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.