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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

Photograph: Ben Rayner Greta Gerwig

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.” Nowadays, with Frances Ha and Mistress America under her belt, she’s shifting into a new role: Greta Gerwig, the sought-after screenwriter. Not bad for someone who uprooted herself from Sacramento to New York at 18, with no ambition to make it in movies.
 
So what first sparked Mistress America?
There was a character in something else I had been writing that became the character Brooke. She was exciting. We felt like, Let's give her a movie. And we sort of started writing from there and came up with Lola's character and the whole world. And we had been watching all these ’80s movies like After Hours andSomething Wild, and we wanted that kind of story, where the square from uptown is dragged downtown and taken into a world that's kind of crazy but awesome. I think in the ’80s there was this really sharp division between, you know, the downtown people and the uptown yuppies. Very much in the same way that Franceswas present day but felt like it was from the ’60s, this film we wanted to feel like one from the ’80s. Hence all the synth.
 
What’s your writing process like with Noah?
We don't write in the same room together at a keyboard. It's more like we gather. They'll be some raw material to start with, pages that don't necessarily have a home or fit in a story. Then we'll read them out loud, 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, we'll read them out loud again. Then at a certain point when the thing starts taking shape, we'll say, "I can't crack this scene, can you have a go at it?” When I've written alone, I do miss reading it out loud, because you need so much of language and the way it works; it is quite rhythmic, and if it's wrong, it sounds wrong to your ears.

There's a confrontation sequence in Mistress at the Connecticut house that almost felt like a play. There's a lot of dialogue going on.
That's on purpose!
 
Was that difficult shoot? There are some scenes where it feels like seven people talking in one shot.
And people walking in and out of the room! Oh my god, it was really hard. 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.
 
Did you run into any walls while writing the script?
Oh my god, there was such a wall. I remember when we went from figuring out exactly what was going to happen in that house, I think we wrote like 10 different versions of it. Like there was one where Brooke prevents Mimi Claire from leaving by lying down in front of the wheels of her car. Because of Something Wild, I wanted them all to dance together in the house. But there was no way to write that in elegantly. It just didn’t fit. I watch a lot of baseball, and I always think of baseball as 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, and it's stealing bases, you're just staying smart, and an ugly home run is still a home run. You live for those moments of grace, but the reality is it's all just grinding it out.
 
Do you have a favorite team?
I can't tell you! I mean, I can, but for weird reasons, it's the Red Sox. The short story is I inherited them from Noah. I didn't really know anything about  baseball or the rules, and now I really love it, and it's a really good pace for something that takes…
 
Three hours.
Yeah, you gotta just get used to it. It's just not, it's always high stakes, and it takes a long time. I love it. I have dreams about Dustin Pedroia.
 
About who, sorry?
Dustin Pedroia, who's on the Red Sox. He's my favorite player, and I'll have dreams where we're talking, and I'll expect that he'll care that I'm interested in him, and he's like, Everyone's interested in me, I don't care. And I'm like, but aren't I an unlikely fan? And he's like, I don't care.
 
I thought Lola Kirke was amazing in Mistress. I went into it not realizing she was the co-star.
Oh no, she's the star. I mean, she's in almost every scene in the movie. In a way, I'm in the movie, but Lola is playing a character much closer to me than I am. I went to Barnard and wore a lot of giant blazers, and I was prone to idolizing people. Lola's incredibly confident and grew up in Manhattan and is scared of nothing and not shy or worshipful at all. I was intimidated by her the whole shoot. But it's a testament to what a great actress she is that she's able to melt into something that feels more, feels like more the person who would be awed by this woman.
 
What was starting at college like for you?
I had this kind of realization maybe the first night I was there of, I don't know anybody. I don't know any of these people. It was almost feeling like, What have I done, I should go back, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do here. And then you find your way.
 
And you were on an improv troupe in college, right?
I was, yeah. It was called the Tea Party before the Tea Party. The most illustrious member of this group was Kate McKinnon.We were the same class and did theater and stuff together, and we got rejected from the main improv group. So then we started our own improv group and 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 hilarious. I love improv. I would love doing it again. I really don't like it in movies.
 
Really? That’s weird…
…because I did a ton of movies like that! But everything is to the letter how we wrote it [in Frances Ha andMistress America]. I don't like it in movies. I like it as a garnish occasionally in movies. But I hate watching improvised movies. I hate watching actors trying to think of what to say, unless they're super funny, unless they're comedians.
 
You’ve been in New York since you moved here for college, correct?
Yeah, since 2002. 13 years. I love it.
 
Where have you lived?
Well, in college, I was up in the dorms. I did like one summer in Washington Heights, one on the Lower East Side. But after graduating, I lived for two years with six girls in an apartment that was built for three people and it had no heat. It was 32 degrees! And we would sleep in our coats and like in sleeping bags. And it was great. I slept on an air mattress for two years. Chinatown, the West Village. Greenwich Village. I've done some moving. But yeah, but I love New York. I think about once a day I have a feeling of, I can't believe I live here. I'm so lucky."
 
Besides your upcoming acting projects, what else are you working on?
Writing screenplays. I just finished a script that I wrote by myself that I'll be directing. And I wrote another script for a studio that is giving me financial remuneration for it. I feel the same way about writing as when I first got paid to act; it was, I just couldn't believe it. Getting paid to write, getting paid to act—people do not talk it up enough. It's much better than anything else I could think of doing.

Mistress America opens December 10, 2015.

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Mistress America

Noah Baumbach’s films are consumed with the terror of becoming, his characters often clinging to the protective embrace of college like a life preserver in shark-infested waters.

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