Greta Gerwig talks Mistress America, early New York days and killing it as a writer
After skyrocketing from no-budget to mainstream films, Greta Gerwig lands somewhere in the middle—and is happier (and better) than ever
By Tim Lowery|
Sitting across from Greta Gerwig in the boho-cute Crown Heights café Lazy Ibis, it’s hard not to feel like I’m in one of her movies. The 32-year-old gestures with her hands emphatically while talking about Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, citing it as a big influence on her latest film, Mistress America. Ten feet to our left, a bespectacled couple—looking not unlike extras in Mistress or Frances Ha, her two NYC-set collaborations with director (and boyfriend) Noah Baumbach—are picking apart the second season of True Detective and discussing freelance woes at a reclaimed-wood table. You can almost see the scene in one of Gerwig and Baumbach’s scripts: “Exterior, Brooklyn coffeeshop, daytime. Interior, clusters of twenty- and thirty-something creative types chatting about pop culture and aspirations over the sounds of the Stones. Cut to Greta, sipping a black tea.”
“Wait, is that mine?” she asks the waitress, who’s holding a piping-hot plate of eggs, bacon and biscuits. The waitress ignores her. “No,” Gerwig answers herself, now looking at me. The server addresses another customer and then moves to the other side of Gerwig, whose head awkwardly, dutifully follows in an affably befuddled way not unlike one of her characters. “But maybe?” The dish, finally, is placed in front of her. “Yes! Thank you! I’m so hungry. I woke up this morning and just came straight here…so, sorry for my eating.” Before I can reply, Gerwig, now with a mouth full of eggs, is, again, dissecting the movie. “Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette are just so fucking great in it (After Hours). And it has this manic energy underneath. It shows that empty Soho-ness before it became what it was.… It’s just—it’s weird. I mean, it has that feeling, like a lot of Scorsese movies, that feeling of…when a drug hits you?”
This rhythm of speech, bouncing between being razor-sharp articulate and a bit scattered (she occasionally ends statements with a pause, then a question mark and refers to her younger self as “a fucking space cadet”), is something that turned heads when Gerwig started popping up in indies in the mid-aughts. She was crowned the mumblecore It girl—mumblecore being a vaguely derisive term critics used to define largely improvised, low-budget films about early-twentysomethings—by appearing in films like Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs and the Duplass brothers’ Baghead. Attention from those shot-on-the-fly projects then led her to starring roles in films by some of today’s best directors—Baumbach’s Greenberg, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress—and one from her high school hero, Woody Allen (To Rome with Love). Hell, even the Times claimed she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation.” Not bad for someone who uprooted herself from Sacramento to New York at 18, with no ambition to become a movie star.
Gerwig has called NYC home since moving to the dorms at Barnard 13 years back and, like all New Yorkers, has had her fair share of highs and lows. “I lived for two years with six girls in an apartment that was built for three people, and it had no heat,” she says of her postgrad years. “We would sleep in our coats and in sleeping bags.” She pauses. “And it was great.” She thinks about the city—and her ever-changing place in it—a lot. “About once a day I have a feeling of, I can’t believe I live here,” she says. “I’m so lucky.” Which makes sense: Both Mistress America and Frances Ha are love letters, albeit warts-and-all ones, to the city. Both, too, revolve around Gerwig’s characters, women in their late twenties/early thirties with huge ambitions (Frances wants to be a dancer; Mistress’s Brooke longs to open a hippie-ish restaurant in Williamsburg), not much talent and lots of enthusiasm. They’re caught in a city filled with opportunities but also, as Gerwig puts it, the ability to “knock the shit out of them.” They’re the unglamorous tales of women who are losing, set in a time when the egocentrics on social media show everyone as winning.
The actor, though, sees a lot of dissimilarities between the two characters. “Frances, even in her body, she’s so, she’s literally tripping over herself constantly, and she has this sort of falling momentum to her, both her talk and her movement,” says Gerwig of the wanna-be dancer. “And Brooke is, like, a stomper. She’s got heels on, and she’s stomping around. And she’s sort of a terrible businesswoman. To me, Brooke is much more self-invented; she knows she’s giving a performance. Frances just can’t help it.” After replaying these performances in my head, I realize she’s right. They are quite different, and it’s a huge testament Gerwig’s ability to say so much about characters by they way they walk or sip a beer.
If Frances Ha is decidedly Frances’s movie—every plot point revolves around her—the down-on-her-luck mistress in Mistress America shares the movie with Tracy (Gone Girl’s Lola Kirke, in a knockout performance), a college freshman at—you guessed it—Barnard, who calls up her 30-year-old stepsister-to-be, Brooke, and gets swept up into her wilder side of NYC. “Oh, no, she’s the star,” says Gerwig of Kirke (who is the sister of Girls’s Jemima Kirke). “I mean, she’s in, like, almost every scene in the movie. But Lola is playing a character much closer to me than I am,” she continues. “I went to Barnard and wore a lot of giant blazers, and I was prone to idolizing people. I had this kind of realization maybe the first night I was there that I don’t know any of these people. What have I done? Should I go back?” Kirke, despite nailing the frustrations of 18-year-old collegiate life, doesn’t share a lot with Tracy. “She’s incredibly confident, grew up in Manhattan, is scared of nothing and is not shy or worshipful at all,” Gerwig says, before laughing. “And I was intimidated by her the whole shoot.”
Yet intimidated isn’t the first word that springs to mind when thinking of Gerwig’s career, which shows a lot of dogged persistence and brave choices. That fighting sensibility dates back to college, when, after not making the improv-comedy team, she hooked up with fellow student (and current SNLer) Kate McKinnon to form their own group. “It was called the Tea Party,” she says, “before the Tea Party. We would hold our shows at the exact same time so that people would have to choose who they wanted to be friends with more. It was pretty hilarious.”
As school wound down, Gerwig went the route of a lot of liberal arts grads (she studied English and philosophy): In 2006, she applied to grad school to pursue playwriting, her goal. “I got rejected from all the schools I applied to,” she says. “Every single one. NYU, Juilliard and Yale were all like, ‘No, thank you.’ So I was just going to apply to jobs like working at the box office at BAM or something.” But then, around this time, a seed in the indie-film world she’d forgotten she’d planted bloomed. A few months before Gerwig’s grad-school-application stress, her boyfriend at the time asked her if she wanted to contribute confessional voice messages and intimate selfie videos to a project his pal, then unknown Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg, was putting together. She agreed, and the film, the no-budget LOL, which followed a group of young dudes dabbling in chat-room relationships (remember chat rooms?), came out. Nobody really gave it a second thought, including Gerwig.
But that on-a-lark decision to shoot a few short vids of herself started paying off. “I met Joe after that movie was done, and he said, ‘Would you be interested in moving to Chicago after you graduate and making a movie with a group of people?’” recalls Gerwig. “So I said, ‘I’d love to,’ and moved to Chicago that summer. I lived in a house with Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg and Kent Osborne, and we made a movie.” That movie was the coming-of-ager Hannah Takes the Stairs, and it was the first time I—and a lot of other people—ever heard of Greta Gerwig, who played a temp floating between romances during her summer after college. Gerwig stood out, not least of all because her character connected with young filmgoers in a way twee-lost-youngster indies like Garden State didn’t. She reminded them of friends they knew, who were self-deprecating, smart and pretty clueless when it came to the whole acclimating-to-the-real-world thing. And her mannerisms—making and losing eye contact, awkward giggles, harnessing an endearingly off-center energy—had a weird way of sucking you in.
From there, Duplass asked her to be in the shaky-cam, horror-comedy Baghead, Swanberg enlisted her to lead and cowrite the long-distance romance Nights and Weekends, and Ti West nabbed her for throwback horror flick The House of the Devil. “We were just making the films we were making,” she says, noting that, through gathering with other low-budget filmmakers at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin in the late aughts, a sort of scene started to develop. “We were all sleeping on the floor of some guy’s apartment,” she says of those trips to Texas. “We all had no money. And that was where I met the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, and Lena Dunham, who I shared a studio with.”
“It was just really invigorating,” she says, making it seem like it was, literally, a group of friends coming to together to make something just for the enjoyment of making it, with no sights set on bigger budgets or Hollywood or actual careers or even screening outside the festival circuit. Looking back on it, it’s pretty crazy to think about that roster of talent as kids scraping by. It’s almost a who’s who of young American filmmakers who are continuing to blow up. “In the sense, I was meeting my people,” she says between sips of tea. “And I feel very blessed that that happened to me in the way that it did.”
Meeting her people continued when Baumbach, who, impressed by the work Gerwig had done with Swanberg, cast her opposite Ben Stiller in the comedic downer Greenberg, sparking the collaboration the two now have. The move to Baumbach’s bigger (but by no means big big) budget world—in which she held her own and even outshone Stiller, in which she was suddenly being produced by kingpin Scott Rudin—also meant she was on the mainstream’s radar, which led to starring roles in the remake of Arthur alongside Russell Brand, canceled CBS series How I Met Your Dad and the rom-com Lola Versus. Greta the Hollywood star felt like the next logical step.
But sometimes logic’s overrated. Frances Ha, Mistress America and the idea of Gerwig as a full-fledged writer—not next-big-thing actor—is a far more interesting prospect. “I like characters who are driven by something that’s a little on the other side of healthy,” says Gerwig, now finished with the eggs, animatedly dissecting her characters. “If Brooke had just been a little dumber and had just a little less integrity, she could have made out pretty good. But she had just enough to really fuck her. There’s something about that I find so heartbreaking.” It is heartbreaking—and Gerwig’s portrayal of her is among her best work—but that’s not to suggest the film is in any way dour. It’s more like a classic screwball comedy, packed with rapid-fire, witty dialogue with overtones of those ’80s fish-out-of-water New York movies Gerwig likes so much, like After Hours, Desperately Seeking Susan and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, a film she hosted a screening of at IFC in July. “It’s completely off-the-rails,” she says of that movie. “By the time Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels are dancing to the Feelies at that weird party, you’re just like, I don’t know what’s happening, but I love it!”
Gerwig actually wanted to include an homage to that Something Wild scene in Mistress, when Brooke, Tracy and Tracy’s college pals confront Brooke’s ex. “I wanted them all to dance together in the house, but there was no way to write that in elegantly! It just doesn’t fit,” she says. So the scene stayed, but the dancing didn’t, but it’s still an impressive sequence: Characters are caught in different quibbles, walking in and out of the same shot, yelling at different people one after the other. “Oh, my God, it was really hard,” she says of shooting. “I mean, I don’t remember exactly how many days we were at that house, but it felt like we had never been anywhere else in our whole lives by the time we were done.” (Baumbach is known for doing many, many takes.)
As for her writing process with Baumbach, whom she lives with in Greenwich Village, Gerwig says, “We don’t write in the same room together at a keyboard. It’s more like we’ll gather. There’ll be some raw material to start with of pages that don’t necessarily fit in a story, and then we’ll read them out loud and then talk about what the story is, what the world is, what the characters are, and then we’ll each go away and generate more pages, trade, read them out loud again, talk through it more, and then at a certain point where the thing starts taking shape, we’ll start saying, ‘I can’t crack this scene. Can you have a go at it?’”
She compares it to America’s pastime. (A Red Sox fan since she started dating Baumbach, she confesses to having dreams about Dustin Pedroia, in which she tells him he’s her favorite and he blows her off. Weird.) “Baseball is a good metaphor for writing, because sometimes it’s beautiful and you get a home run with the bases loaded, but most of the time, it’s just ugly. You live for those moments of grace, but the reality is it’s all just grinding it out.”
And Gerwig loves the grind. Although she’s had a taste of the mainstream, becoming a star isn’t the goal. Instead, she shows a clear love for the idea of being part of something, working with friends and “really having a sense of ownership, not just staying in your trailers.” Which might explain her upcoming projects—ones, like Mistress, that she’s creating whole-cloth, including a script she wrote solo that she’ll be directing and another one for a studio. (She won’t be acting in either.) “I feel the same way about writing as when I first got paid to act. It was—I just couldn’t believe it. You know, people do not talk it up enough. People start saying, ‘Oh, when you get there, it’s a job.’ It’s not really! It’s much better than anything else I could think of doing.”