Greta Gerwig first appeared in film in 2006 with a supporting role in Joe Swanberg‘s LOL (not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus film of the same name). Today, her name is synonymous with a strong independent, feminist voice, her presence, one that cannot be ignored. Though Gerwig’s mainstream debut could be traced back to No Strings Attached, most probably know her from her eponymous role in Noah Baumbach‘s Frances Ha in which she was nominated for many accolades, including Best Actress in Motion Picture Comedy or Musical at the 2013 Golden Globes. (If you don’t know Frances Ha, make it the next thing you see.)
Since 2011, Gerwig has attached her star (both creatively and romantically) to director Noah Baumbach, giving both talents a new voice, a new approach to their projects and a new lease on life. Together, they’ve proved massively effective. They’ve collaborated again with Mistress America, a hysterical romp through millennial angst with not-so-secret dramaturgical icing [full review here].
Join Greta and I as we talk about her romantic and creative relationship with Baumbach, not utilizing improv, her resistance to modern tech and the selfie, the wisdom and bullshit of Brooke, being aware of her own humor, the perks of being a writer/creator versus being “just an actress”, the demise of How I Met Your Dad and whether she’d give T.V. another go and what’s next up.
You and Noah [Baumbach] have been creatively collaborating in the recent years while you’ve also been involved in a romantic relationship. Can you talk about working together both from a creative standpoint and how having that backdrop of a romance effects the creative process and whether that either hinders or aids in your creation of something like Francis or this?
Greta Grewig: Sure, we really loved writing together. It’s a really fulfilling experiment in a way; we wrote together quite seamlessly. We mostly don’t write together in the same room when we’re actually generating good text. We have to write separately then trade pages and read them out loud and talk through it a lot. When we’re in the process of having a draft which we’re editing and reassigning, we’ll work together, but it really is kind of a magical brain melt that happens between us and I can’t completely explain it – it’s just something about both of our sensibilities and the way they match up that seems to really work together. Almost like being in a band and writing a song. We just like doing it. It’s not that we never disagree about what the thing is or what we want it to be or how it should be shot. We tend to share a brain about the thing that we’re making but it does have a tendency to take over our lives but we both enjoy that so its not really a burden its really a joy.
Going back to the first draft of this film, what was that initial germ that spurred the creation of this? Was it the character Brooke? Was it the story?
GG: Well it was a lot of things, simultaneously. We had been watching a lot of 80s films, After Hours and Desperately Seeking Susan” and also Scruples and these are all comedies by Howard Hawkes and stuff. We were interested in making a kind of larger than life character for Brooke and then having a lens to meet her in Tracey. It’s hard to say exactly what order of everything was. Sometimes when you’re writing, especially in the initial phase, it feels like you’re fumbling around in the dark and seeing what everything is and as you write you start illuminating the room that you’re in, seeing how to arrange it. I think that everything happens all at once. You’re making the character, then the story and finding inspiration. It’s really hard to separate how they all connect. In someways, we just knew we wanted to make another one together. We knew we liked to write and we wanted to write another film. It felt like making another album.
One of the central idea to this is the idea of people being products, almost like self-promotional marketing tools – which Brooke is very one. Having spent time in New York but never actually having lived there myself, I find that aspect of the youth culture is really everywhere. Is that something that you and Noah wanted to respond directly to – this modern day phenomenon of selfies and self-hype?
GG: Actually, no. I think that it was less about, in some ways, this generation and more about Brooke’s awkwardness with using this technology for herself. I think of Brooke as a classic, small time hustler with a lot of keyholes, and a lot of lies, and a lot of connections. It wasn’t so much about technology, it was more about this person today but it was the same person from the 90s, the 70s, the 40s. It was more how she would interface with it. But I don’t do any of it, so I don’t really know.
Brooke is in many ways a kind of a satirical screwball character and yet she also is a down to earth in other regards. How do you go about creating a character who is both inherently kind of goofy and out of touch, really full of her own B.S. and yet she also feels really distinctly real and human?
GG: What I found interesting about Brooke is that she is doing a performance all the time so there’s this double layer of performance: I’m giving a performance but the character is also giving a performance. And then there are these moments where it all drops away and you see the fragile person underneath. I think the bigger the front, the bigger the back. For all of her bravado, opinions and confidence is really masking what’s a very scared person who is suddenly sensing that the steam with which she’s powered her life is going to run out. In some ways, I think because we’re so precise with the language and because we don’t allow for improv, with the changing of any word, in some ways as an actor, it’s easy to let the language carry you. When she’s even given vulnerable, simple language – and she’ll even reveal it in these small moments that are kind of in the middle of all of her play acting. The most heartbreaking line for me is she just had her meeting with the investors and she just says to Lola’s character, Tracey, “You make me feel really smart”. It’s such a throwaway line but it reveals so much about her because she’s so aggressive about, “I didn’t go to college. I’m an autodidact. I’m completely self-taught.” And then there’s this moment where she says, “You make me feel really smart” which is so revelatory. It’s said, the way we played that scene, that it’s not a moment of sadness, it’s just a moment of showing the softness underneath.
Brooke is constantly going around passing along these wisdoms of hers, most particularly to Tracey. Although sometimes, many of those wisdoms aren’t really so wise, but then again, other times she is making good points. Can you pinpoint what are some of her most astute points of wisdom that she passes along? And then some that you think are the most B.S?
GG: I think what she says, “Remember this truth: it’s always the people who don’t have jobs, and don’t have anything to do that are always fucking busy.” I think that’s true, that’s that very truthful. It’s always people who have way too much to do that have time then the people with not a lot on the docket, you can never get them to go to lunch with you! I would say that’s true. She said so much in the movie, it’s kind of hard for me to recall all of them. She’s a character that every third thing out of her mouth sounds like a lie; some of it turns out to be true so you’re never quite sure whether she’s bullshitting you or not. I think she’s not right about everything but she’s right about some things.
Michael Chernus’ character at one point says to Brooke, “You’re funny because you don’t know you’re funny.” Is that how you would characterize yourself? Or are you acutely aware of how funny you are?
GG: I would say I, Greta Gerwig, know I’m funny but I also feel as an actor when I try to “be funny”, I’m not funny. But when I try to play the scene as real as I can, there’s humor there that will come to light. I don’t think of myself as a comedian or even a classically funny writer but that being said, I value comedy tremendously. I don’t think it would be possible for me to make something or write something that didn’t at least have a little bit of humor in it because it’s one of the main ways I love the world.
Going off that you’re very much an indie girl. You’ve never thrown your hat into any kind of big budget summer blockbuster effects movie. Is that a conscious, deliberate decision where you want to be doing the more serious films or would you see yourself being open to something like a superhero movie or some big tentpole flick?
GG: I would be open to doing a bigger film but at the same time I think, for me, one of the guiding principles of what I try to do to make my career as I have tried to make it, I always have a sense of what I would drop everything for and I think the thing that I would drop everything for is my own work that I write and that I make. Its not that I’m not interested in those things, it’s just that they don’t come first.
So I assume that you find so much more creative freedom and room to express yourself when you are working on projects that you had a hand in writing. Do you also like to duck back and be just an actress? Do you find that you need the balance of the two or would you rather have creative responsibility on pretty much everything that you’re working on?
GG: When I’m working on a film or a play that has a great writer behind it, I love to be an actor and I find that it pushes me and challenges me and it’s exciting and I discover new things. But I think I have come to a place that I am more interested in my own writing and my own creations and not just as an actor but also as a producer or someone who is behind the camera. Acting is a tremendous amount of fun. I never want to stop acting but I think it’s more about, for me right now, because I’ve developed and grown to do what I like. The little bit of work I’ve done behind the camera has taken more of a front seat.
A movie like Mistress America really depends on finding an audience. Who do you perceive the audience for this film is?
GG: I hope it’s everybody. I hope everyone comes to see this. In a way, I’m not sure. I never make films with an eye to what the marketplace is like. I try to make films that I think have integrity and that I think have value and tells stories that I’m interested in telling and I just pray to God that people just want to go to the cinema.
Television has become a new gold standard for independent voices and you have a lot of massive creative talent moving over to television because of the creative freedom that it extends to directors and writers and whatnot. I know that you worked on a pilot for “How I Met Your Dad” series that did not go on to be picked up but do you see yourself trying to invest in another television show?
GG: Possibly. I think there’s tons of interesting great work being done on television. I really feel that the different writers and directors are being given free reign in the way that they are. For me, the way in which film put distinct parentheses around the world is not something I’m wanting to give up at this moment. I am interested in television and long form narrative but I think that right now, I’m just interested in engaging in film and cinema. I think it’s a durable form. I remember hearing that someone was talking about albums, it was a musician talking about albums, and how albums have almost become less important because of the way people listen to music. They’ll buy singles and then buy the one song. It’s about making the one hit instead of making an album. He said an album is a durable form and when someone invests in that form and really puts together an album that takes the form seriously, its not something that will go unnoticed. I think there really is room in the world for lots of different ways of expressing things, whether it’s a single or an album or a television show or a film. I don’t really see it as a hierarchy of art forms, it’s more of what form you want to invest in. I think for me at this point, I’m just more invested in film.
So what is your next project?
GG: I shot a film with Todd Solondz. I was acting in it, it’s really great and he’s such a great director. That was a good deal of fun. And I’m shooting Mike Mills‘ new movie in the fall. And I have written a script that I will be directing in the spring.
Are you going to be collaborating with Noah on that as well? Or are you taking the reigns?
GG: It’s all this guy. It’s all me. So if it’s real bad, you know who to blame.
Can you tell me a little more about that?
GG: Oh boy. It’s still top secret.
For more Silver Screen Riot interviews, check out more of our “Talking With…” series here.