Photograhed by Ysa Perez
Styled by TJ Gustave
Make-up by Daniel Martin @ The Wall Group
Hair by Seiji @ The Wall Group
Shot at Hotel Williamsburg
Like you, Greta Gerwig is still figuring out how she ended up in the job that’s working out surprisingly well for her. Since she arrived at the SXSW Film Festival in 2006, on spring break from her senior year at Barnard, in conjunction with her first film role in Joe Swanberg’s LOL, her onscreen roles and career trajectory have traced an arc familiar to many from her generational cohort. Initially playing stumbling postcollegiate strivers in films from the loosely associated DIY movement everybody kept claiming to hate referring to as “mumblecore,” Gerwig these last few years has graduated to Hollywood comedies like No Strings Attached and Arthur, and has become something of a muse to the literate, neurotic writer-directors to have emerged from previous indie epochs. She was the secret heart of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg; she stars in the first film in over a decade by writer-director Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress, a daffy comedy about campus mores which comes out April 6; the big kahuna, Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, comes out in June. We met for lunch earlier this month, before she headed uptown to see the new production of Death of a Salesman; our conversation follows, give or take some grumbling about New York’s gentrification and what the internet is doing to our brains.
Is there any kind of trade-off as far as having been in films, at least initially, where you had some claim to authorship over them, versus now? How comfortable are you with the trade-off?
The trade-off is strange as far as—I love it some ways. In some ways it’s wonderful to have a strong author to a film, a writer-director like Whit, but. It’s frustrating when you both don’t have a voice and then there isn’t someone else with a strong vision. That’s really hard, because then it feels like I don’t know what language I’m speaking, or what world I’m in, no one really setting the tone. It’s a pleasure to be in someone else’s world and vernacular, but it is hard in terms of… I don’t know, acting in some ways is so selfless, it’s strange because actors do get a lot of visible glory, but at the same time, there are ways in which you’re really a vessel for someone else, and always in someone else’s world, and I don’t know that I’m always adequately selfless—I’m always deeply impressed by actors that give only to the character and it’s not about themselves at all, and I always struggle with that, I always feel like I’m battling between what Greta thinks—
Is it a kind of self-consciousness?
It’s more like, I mean on a very base level, it will be like: I’ll be reading a script and have an opinion about it and say, “I could’ve written this better!” But it’s… that’s not good. But I think on another level—this sounds pretentious, not pretentious, but I think it’s an actress I admire very much said it, but it’s a little elevated, but someone said, Actors are written in water. A performance disappears as soon as it appears, and even if it’s caught on film it’s gone.
I think that was Keats’s epitaph, actually.
Really? Well, an actress said this, at a moment of passion. Anyway, there is a way in which it’s fated as soon as it’s begun, so if you have any sort of author instinct, you have to kind of squish it down.
I had a question for you about writing. You wrote, initially. Do you still? What are you working on?
I shot a movie that I wrote.
Oh, you did? I hadn’t heard about that, can you tell me about it?
It’s a secret. It should be at festivals this fall or next winter, but it’s done, it’s shot, so… Still writing! It’s sort of deliberately been under the radar because it’s hard to surprise people and everyone has expectations about it.
You were doing dramatic writing in college, right?
I was doing playwriting in college. And I love the theater, so I did a lot that when I was in college, and I kept doing it after college but I got pulled into this world. I think in some ways—I mean I do love film, but I think if I had been pulled into the world of theatre, that had as many opportunities, I would have hung on—
Writing or acting, or both?
Both. It was more of a response to when you’re just out of college, it’s like a desert. It’s like, you’ve gone from—there’s a rich culture, so many opportunities, people are responding to everything you do and interested and willing to enter you and give you small amounts of funding to work on stuff, giving you awards every two seconds. And out of college, there’s nothing, you have no structure—and I’m so grateful to Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski and the Duplasses that that they were making all this work and that I could just dive into what they were doing. So much of the battle was about forward momentum, and all you want to do is be given a canvas. I love films and I love what we did but I also think in some ways it was happenstance.
This makes another good segue, because the film that we’re promoting, you and I, Damsels in Distress, which I love, and which we’ll get to—
Yay! I love it so much.
Well, let’s talk about that. We’ll go back to college. It’s just so virtuous and credulous and you’re playing somebody’s who’s discovering all these belief systems and internal logics for the first time. I think it’s just such an openhearted movie about… I guess, generousness of spirit.
She’s the most sincere liar, too. She’s a terrible liar, but she completely means it the whole time. It’s such an odd character, such an odd group of characters—and movie. Watching it, the first time I watched it was in Venice at the film festival, and the strangeness was heightened by the fact that it was mostly an Italian audience, the jokes don’t totally work for them or they would work a little later because of the subtitles, but when I was making it I really believed in Whit’s world. It all started sounding really rational. When I originally read the script, it seemed that it was heightened and satire and I started making it—
He means everything, I think.
He means everything. It’s totally sincere on his part. He’s not making fun of these people and he’s not making fun of their ideas, or what they’re going through, and, I don’t know, there’s this quality he has in his filmmaking that it’s hard to put my finger on that I really really like. It happens in Last Days of Disco and in Metropolitan I think the most. But there’s something that happens towards the end of the movie in his movies, people are often just sort of… forgiven.
A Brief History of Greta Gerwig, in Pictures
He has a remarkably inclusive worldview, I think. I like that he writes about these very circumscribed social microcosms where you don’t really have the option of not socializing with somebody because of personal animosity or romantic rivalry and then by the end everybody is sort of reconciled to each other.
I think he likes all his characters, I don’t think he writes bad people. Even the people who are difficult, like Violet, or the Kate Beckinsale character in The Last Days of Disco, he likes them. He’s generous with all of them.
Is it interesting, because he’s I guess 60 years old now—
He is? Oh my goodness, I didn’t know.
Well, I was interested because it’s a much different perspective on this age bracket than many of the films you’ve made with people who are much closer to you in age.
I know. It’s a much more interesting perspective.
It’s what youth looks like I suppose to somebody else, for once.
I don’t think—you know it’s funny, but I never really thought about it as a movie about young people. I think in his world adults behave the same way. I tend not to look at like, this is about young people—I mean, most things are about young people, so it’s hard to…
Yes, but I mean there’s things specifically—
Well not even college, but the way that somebody like your character repeats things and the way your character tests out everyone else’s formulations. It seems at least sort of formative or tentative. Not to get sidetracked into arguing…
No, I just thought it was interesting that I never really thought of it like that. I mean it just seemed so out of time, in a way. I guess it didn’t have that “this is how young people live today” feeling, which, some of the other movies I’ve done feels like that. It felt like it was about young people in a world that never existed.
How was it working with a group of younger and, at this point, lesser-known actresses for the most? I guess that’s fairly a fairly recent development for your career right, at least in terms of larger films.
It is. They were great. I mean, it was sort of like, actually most of us were around like 27 or 26 when we made it. Annaleigh Tipton’s younger, but everyone else was sort of—me and Aubrey Plaza and Megalyn and Caitlin were all sort of… it was actually kind of nice in that way, acting like you’re in college after you’re out of college, only Analeigh was actually college age, but the idea of being the known element is utterly absurd still to me. But I would say more than being sort of a whatever-that-means known element, it’s the first time I’ve ever been number one on the call sheet. It’s different the way that you feel in a movie. Because even if you’re a big part but you’re not the biggest part you still come in and do your work, but you’re not setting the tone for everyone. And actually doing that was a challenge, I loved doing it but it’s terrifying because—it must be, this is an unfair comparison, but it must be sort of what it feels like to have a child, where you realize, “Well, my parents never knew what they were doing. You just… can have a baby.” You always feel like, when you’re lower down on the call sheet, the person who’s number one seems that they must have some secret knowledge that you don’t have. But for the most part they don’t, everyone’s just acting every day.
It’s. I suppose, analogous to pretty much anything that people in our age bracket are experiencing in whatever field they’re in, by now.
Or it’s creepy when you realize that people I went to college with are now out of medical school, or out of law school. And it’s like, “She’s my fucking doctor? I did E with her at four in the morning on a roof!” But now they’re becoming the people… There’s this Joseph Conrad novella called The Shadow Line, it’s about being 27, when you cross this “shadow line,” from boyhood into manhood, It’s about this guy who takes over a ship when the captain dies, and stuff happens, and he’s all of a sudden given, he’s become the captain of the ship, and it’s happened in a second, and he realizes he’s crossed the shadow line, and now he can’t go back. It’s great, it’s not that long, but it’s so good, it’s so good, and it ends with him talking to all these old sailors—or it’s framed so he’s telling the story of when he was 27, and he’s old now. And old in Joseph Conrad stories is, like, 50. It’s so sad, it’s so sad, and he’s talking about being young and he sort of says, like, none of us knew that was going to be the happiest we ever were.
I went back and reread an interview you did with Lena Dunham where you talked about wanting to work with Woody Allen, about how he “had an erotic renaissance with Scarlet Johannsson and he can have a neurotic renaissance with” you.
I guess I did say that.
And I was wondering, now, how it came about? And how the experience was, in comparison to what you expected.
I think if you had a moment that you’ve been anticipating and can’t believe that it’s happening and you’ve been building up your whole life, you almost can’t experience it while it’s happening, so it was amazing, but it also had a very dreamlike quality and I also feel like I want to do it again. I want to go back and do it again, I want him to make another movie... I had a great part, but it was also very much an ensemble and I wanted to spend 24 hours a day with him. I think it’s always a struggle to be present in your own life while it’s happening, especially while good things are happening—but yeah I watched the documentary about him a couple of months later and I didn’t feel like I had had that experience, it still felt removed to me. Maybe if I see the movie, it’ll feel like that.
As a director, is he particularly—not demanding, but specific?
Yeah, he’s specific. It’s funny, people always say he doesn’t direct, but he really does direct, in my experience. He gives you freedom with the words—oh my gosh, doesn’t that dessert look really good? I might get it—he says, “Oh, say whatever you want to say,” but he’s looking for a sound, I think he’s looking for something that sounds naturalistic to him. He’ll push it until he hears what he wants, which is, you know, that’s what good directors do.
That’s interesting because you see a lot of sort of open-ended takes where there’s enormous of variety in terms of style or vocal mannerism. It seems like an interesting contrast between him having very specific standards and the results on screen often looking very relaxed.
It’s pretty amazing to me that still makes a film a year. It’s odd that—I think that there’s two different kinds of actors, I think there are actors who fell in love with acting, and I think there are actors who feel in love with writing. And I think I’m an actress who fell in love with writing more than even acting, and with Woody Allen and other people… I love participating in them, as writers. But the same time, part of me, I think that’s why I write too. Part of me is like, “Was I responding to wanting to be them, or be part of them? Did I want to have my own experience of doing that do I want to be part of their experience of doing it?”
Do you have a sense when you’re working with other performers—do you feel that most of the performers you’ve worked sort of give in to the script. Do you feel like you’re in the minority or the majority?
I think it depends. I think a lot of my favorite actors are ones who are in love with acting, and maybe I’m just self-loathing. But I think a lot of my favorite actors, I think they’re the ones who can take mediocre material and elevate it. Because they’re so in love with acting that they can do that. I don’t know. I’m not quite sure I think that there’s a good number of actors that I love who know struggle with it too. Gene Hackman is one of my favorites, he has nothing good to say about acting, pretty much.
That’s his persona, too.
That’s the thing, yeah, I’m such a sucker, too, I believe personas, I believe interviews, sometimes I’ll read things, like, “That’s the truth” and my agent’s always like, “Greta, you of all people should know this is not always true.” I can’t like separate it, if I read a profile of someone… I actually think some of the best, for me, whenever I feel like uninspired, especially as an actor, I love listening to Terry Gross’s interviews with actors, she always asks great questions and she gets them talking about something they love, and listening to really smart, interesting actors talk about why they love acting makes you want to do it. I just heard Viola Davis talk about it and I was like, “Oh my god,” I was crying, she’s talking about her grandmother and what it means to be an actor and it’s really I think that’s always a good thing. I don’t know, I think listening to other actors talk about acting is the best way to learn about it.
One thing I remember vividly from Hannah Takes the Stairs was the sense that the struggle for the character that you played was about expressing herself, verbally and whatever else that implies, and the film that I thought of at the time was actually Kicking and Screaming, because it was a completely opposite tack, people talking around and around and around the same problems. And I was wondering, as you’ve started to work with directors who are known as writers of great dialogue, about the difference between performing inarticulacy and performing articulacy.
Well, I love scripts, I love lines, I love working with good ones… With Whit, the character of Violet is the most articulate character I’ve ever played. I don’t have the sense of Hannah, or other films that I made—we got a lot of shit for the way we used language, or for people struggling with what they were going to say, but I don’t know that struggling to find the right word is necessarily a sign of inarticulacy. It’s odd because I think sometimes it shows someone who cares a lot about language, because they’re struggling and can’t find the words.
Mike Nichols said something about—I actually, as a person who both acts in things and writes things, I’m not that interested in improvisation. I don’t like it that much. I don’t think it’s that useful. Most often it yields something that might be interesting, but feels like a rehearsal. And then you need somebody like Mike to go away and shape it and make it amazing and come back and execute. Mike Nichols said something, he came from an improvisational background, that there’s this quality to improv where someone says something, they’re not really thinking about their motivation or anything else, they’re just so proud to have thought of something to say. And there’s this kind of, “I just thought of this and now I’m gonna say it,” and he said that ideally all lines should feel that way too. And the biggest thing for me, with really great dialogue, is finding the words spontaneously appear for you, in your body, and they come out in the same—I think that’s what’s exciting. I think that’s what the whole struggle with acting is. In Greenberg, I had very precise things to say, but they weren’t very erudite… Often, she struggled to find the right thing to say. So sort of artificially creating that struggle…
Is that different from going through it—
Yeah. Because it has a predetermined meaning, as opposed to inventing the meaning while you’re doing the scene. I haven’t done straight improv like that in a long time. It’s an odd skill. It’s cool, but the well runs dry at some point.
Let’s talk about New York stuff. Where do you live?
I live in Chinatown. Off of East Broadway, so real deep. I love it. It feels like After Hours. It shuts down really early and the streets are deserted and it feels crazy.
Where were you before Chinatown?
I’ve lived a lot of places. Before Chinatown, I was in Chelsea, before that, I was in East Williamsburg, and before that I lived in Park Slope—we called it “Park Slide,” it was the not quite as nice part of Park Slope, by the water.
I suppose I should ask you about living in Brooklyn, and which bars you went to, and whether it’s completely ruined now—when were you in East Williamsburg?
Like two years ago, two or three years ago. Right off of Grand.
By the high school?
Yeah, they used to show the Met Opera there, which was convenient. I love Brooklyn, when I leave Chinatown I might go back, the only thing that could be hard about it is if the train’s not running, you’re screwed.
Especially in Park Slope, my experience of being there was not having enough money to go anywhere, so it was a lot of getting just really cheap like Georgi vodka, we used to buy Georgi vodka and juice concentrate. It was disgusting. And we wouldn’t even unfreeze the juice concentrate to make juice, we just let it get a little soft, we’d mix it in and maybe add a little water, but it was like fully disgusting.
Most of Brooklyn was just marked by being—it was a lot of drinking at home. My friend Gabby made up this phrase, we used to bring Naughty Nalgenes everywhere.
Greta Gerwig: Selected Album Covers from Her 1980s Pop Career
A painstakingly archived look at Greta Gerwig's pop career. (Photos by Ysa Perez)