“She’s so weird. I feel like there are no female characters that are like that. I mean, there are female characters that are manipulative and liars and crazy, but they tend to be mean or evil or bad, and Violet’s none of those things; she’s kind of wonderful.”
Reviewing her performance in the movie Greenberg, The New York Times suggested, rather loftily, that Greta Gerwig “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation.”
At the very least, she could be its tallest.
“I’m like a giant,” laughs the one-time mumblecore ingenue, recalling one of her recent Hollywood roles alongside the miniature Natalie Portman. “I’m so much taller than so many of the people I work with. I’m also like, not a little person, either. I’m a tall, broad-shouldered gal, and I think sometimes people are like, ‘You don’t belong.’”
Such fondness for self-deprecation—a recurring motif in our conversation—is a considerable part of Gerwig’s charm. It also undersells the 28-year-old actress’s particular beauty. When we meet at the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles, Gerwig, casually elegant in a wool knit cardigan over a floral dress, resembles less the gangly colossus of her imagination than a classic movie star transplanted from movies’ golden era. That this luminous presence is matched by an apparent scattered disposition only adds to her appeal.
Hollywood has taken plenty of notice—the industry loves an “it” girl, after all—but it may be a while before it finds the right place for her talent. In the meantime, Gerwig has drawn the attention of one of cinema’s most singular voices: Whit Stillman, a man who knows quite specifically what he wants on screen. The reclusive writer-director—whose so-called “yuppie trilogy” of Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) comprises a completely unique world of vanishing social mores—cast Gerwig as the lead in his first film in 14 years, the girls-college comedy Damsels in Distress.
A sparkling riff on the likes of Mean Girls and Clueless, refracted—with a dash of Preston Sturges and Fred Astaire—through Stillman’s unmistakable prism of prep, Damsels concerns an eccentric clique of college girls who, among their many extracurricular endeavours, seek to rid their campus of boorish frat-boys and start no less than a new worldwide dance craze.
“I don’t even totally know how he came to me,” says Gerwig of the famously fastidious Stillman. “But I do know that he was on the list of filmmakers that I would do anything to work for.” Anything, that is, including an impromptu tap dance at her audition; for which she provided her own shoes and outfit. Stillman had initially approached Gerwig for the role of Lily, the wide-eyed freshman taken under the damsels’ wing, but the actress instead fell in love with the group’s alpha female, Violet — an exacting style maven, dance enthusiast and advocate of social etiquette who also happens to be, well, kind of crazy.
True to Stillman’s universe, Violet is a peculiar creation you won’t find anywhere else—a sympathetic heroine who triumphs even as she splinters at the seams—and it’s one that Gerwig clearly relished. “I do think it’s telling that Violet is the biggest role that I’ve played in a film to date,” she says. “She’s so weird. I feel like there are no female characters that are like that. I mean, there are female characters that are manipulative and liars and crazy, but they tend to be mean or evil or bad, and Violet’s none of those things; she’s kind of wonderful.”
With their distinct modes of expression, director and muse do seem like an odd fit on the surface. Gerwig’s speaking voice follows an unpredictable lilting rhythm, as though her dialogue is a half-tuned radio station wandering tentatively in and out of frequency. The word she uses most is “totally”—as in tooootally, that first syllable rising skyward in an unusual Californian pitch. Conservative East Coast scion Stillman, on the other hand, is known for his precise, sometimes painfully formal dialogue; his characters often sound like they’ve digested entire volumes of highbrow texts to impress their peers. It’s enough to make one wonder whether there’s not a finishing school for actors playing in a Stillman movie.
Gerwig laughs at the suggestion. “I mean, he gently pushes you in the direction he wants you to go, but the words really take you there,” she says. “There’s also an internal rhythm and structure to the words that’s inescapable; but, it’s about finding your own way into it, because you don’t want to sound like you’re imitating the other people who’ve said them.” Indeed, Damsels does mark a gentle variation on the Stillman style; a synthesis of his rigorous affectation with the loose cadence of 21st century college kids.
It turns out that Stillman learned plenty from Gerwig and her self-sufficient experiences shooting movies on the mumblecore scene, along with advice he received from another actress-filmmaker, Girls’ creator Lena Dunham. (Stillman’s ‘90s muse Chris Eigeman also appears in Dunham’s show.) “He wanted that,” Gerwig remembers. “He was always looking for me to bolster that world and that kind of can-do, DIY attitude.”
To that end, it remains important for Gerwig—who’d set out to be playwright before getting involved with the lo-fi filmmaking movement—to forge ahead with her own work as a writer-director. She’s currently finishing a film she jokingly dubs the “Unititled Greta Gerwig Secret Project,” which she hopes to release under the radar of Internet movie-blog saturation. “I wanna have it in a festival and no one knows it exists,” she explains. “And then people are like, “What the fuck is this? Where did this come from?” Because it’s not fun when everyone’s written a million things about them and then you don’t care.”
She’s also featured as part of the ensemble cast in the upcoming To Rome with Love, the latest film by another American original: Woody Allen. “I felt like I was in heaven,” she says of working with Allen, alongside Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin in the summer romance. “It was kind of the most surreal moment.”
Few filmmakers in Hollywood are a Whit Stillman or a Woody Allen, of course—it’s an unfortunate industry fact that interesting roles remain elusive for women, especially those of the non-generic variety. Gerwig’s mainstream breakthrough in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg—in which she played Ben Stiller’s neurotic twentysomething fling—earned well-deserved raves, but the bigger parts that followed—the “quirky” best friend in No Strings Attached, the “quirky” girlfriend in Arthur—amounted to awkward, thankless supporting turns.
Studio executives aren’t the most imaginative people, and Gerwig knows that once you’ve done a certain thing, you’re a “type.” “I do get sent a lot of scripts for kind of sad, passive girlfriend roles, “ she chuckles. “I think that’s sort of post-Greenberg because everyone’s like “She’s sad and passive.” There’s a Greta Gerwig type now? She laughs again. “Rainn Wilson said that he was working on a pilot and the cast breakdown went out looking for ‘A Greta Gerwig type.’ And I thought, “What is that?! I have no idea! I don’t know. Someone kind of nerdy and tall? Smiley?”
Gerwig cringes at the self-assessment. It’s a rare glimpse behind the cheerful exterior, but as ever, she wears the uncertainty with style.
Originally published in Yen, 2012 (PDF here)