Interview: Greta Gerwig on Damsels In Distress

Ahead of Whit Stillman’s first movie in more than a decade, Greta Gerwig tells Stephen Applebaum why she couldn’t resist a return to her indie roots

Ahead of Whit Stillman’s first movie in more than a decade, Greta Gerwig tells Stephen Applebaum why she couldn’t resist a return to her indie roots

A WHILE ago, Greta Gerwig drew up a list of directors she would “do anything for”. Shortly afterwards she got a call from her agent saying that one of them was making a movie and there were parts she could potentially play.

The news was made surprising by the fact that the filmmaker was Whit Stillman: the 1990s indie darling who attracted a cult following with three sharply written comedies of manners – Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco – and then dropped out of view. Although his influence continued to be felt in the work of Wes Anderson, among others, the man himself remained absent. “He hadn’t made a film for some time,” says Gerwig, with considerable understatement.

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    A meeting with Stillman over breakfast in New York, and an audition in which she charmed him by spontaneously tap-dancing (“It’s good to over-sell yourself,” she says) led to Gerwig being cast as Violet, in his first film in 13 years, Damsels In Distress.

    The offbeat and sometimes baffling college comedy has returned Gerwig to her independent roots, following excursions into the mainstream with Arthur and No Strings Attached. Her appearances in these had been made possible by her acclaimed performance as Florence, the vulnerable object of Ben Stiller’s affection, in Noah Baumbach’s wry black comedy, Greenberg.

    Before Greenberg, Gerwig had been the poster girl for a critically divisive group of small and unassuming independent movies known, often pejoratively, as mumblecore films. She sometimes wrote them as well as acted in them, although she never really seemed to be doing much of the latter. In Hannah Takes The Stairs, LOL and Nights And Weekends – all three of which she made with Joe Swanberg – she was, and still is, refreshingly real. And she is just as unaffected in the flesh, offering no signs of having been micro-managed by publicists.

    In conversation, the 28-year-old shifts between hesitation and urgency in a way that occasionally gives her an air of uncertainty. Her demeanour is laidback, but she clearly has ambition and drive. The youngest of three children, she danced until her “genetic inheritance came up against what is needed in the dance world, especially ballet”, at which point she announced, around the age of 14, that she wanted to act.

    Raised in Sacramento, Gerwig says: “I wanted to go to drama school but my mother said, ‘No, I’m not going to pay for you to learn how to feel.’ But I had applied to schools in New York, and I got a scholarship to go to one, so I thought, ‘If I can be in New York then I can work in theatre and a lot of different things.’ ”

    She studied English and philosophy at a women’s liberal arts college, Barnard, and acted in a number of college plays while honing her skills as a playwright. After graduating, she met Swanberg, and drifted into film.

    “So I kind of made my own way,” she says, more as a point of fact than as a boast. Indeed, when we met for the first time, during a press call for Greenberg, Gerwig admitted that neither she nor her parents could believe her luck. “But I think it’s quite spectacular for someone who grows up quite far away from knowing anyone who’s an artist or a director or an actor, and learning that you can do it,” she said.

    When she returned to New York from shooting Greenberg in LA, Gerwig “had trouble coming down” and fell into a depression. It was the first time she had worked on a project for 14 months, and the cast and crew had become like family to her. “It felt like Dorothy coming back from Oz, it had that sense of loss,” she recalls. “I had never gone through that before, and I couldn’t find another family that I wanted.” Scripts came her way, she says, but “I turned a lot of things down, because they were bad. I think when you do a film you love a lot, you’re just kind of loathe to do a horror film where you’re tortured while wearing a bikini.”

    She hung on for better work, using writing as a way of keeping herself “sane”. “I miss acting terribly, and acting, I would say, is my first love. I think it really pulls me like a deep crush. But writing is good to have on the downtime.”

    Perhaps because she’s used to creating her own worlds, her favourite filmmakers are ones with a “very weird vision,” she says, “because it’s like you’re sinking into their consciousness.” She definitely felt this way with Stillman, although at first she didn’t like Violet, the condescending leader of a group of do-gooder college girls who try to help suicidal students by casting them in musicals, and whose big dream is to change the world through dance.

    “When I first started reading the script, for the first 40 pages I thought, ‘She’s insufferable. She’s horrible. She’s mean and she’s crazy.’ And then by the end I loved her. Because she genuinely doesn’t conform and she’s trying to help people, even though it seems totally misguided, like she’s making fun of them. But then doing it for 14 hours a day, every day, for a couple of months, I started to really agree with her. How sad can you be if you’re in a musical and you are wearing a wonderful dress or a suit and tie?”

    Stillman’s dialogue also proved problematic. “It sounds so particular and so not how you speak, but Whit doesn’t see it that way. He thinks it’s naturalism. He would come up to me after takes and say, ‘Well, just say it how you’d say it,’ and I would say, ‘Whit, I would never say this. No one says this.’ ” After a couple of days, though, she’d become attuned to the rhythms and speech patterns, she says, and Stillman’s words “stopped sounding strange coming out of my mouth... It’s like you’d climbed into Whit’s brain.”

    The set was very much Whit’s world too. The filmmaker was rarely seen without a sports jacket and tie, and would react to actors swearing by looking horrified. “Usually, people curse like sailors,” Gerwig says, “but he doesn’t like cursing. So it was a very proper set.”

    Having ticked one director off her “actor’s bucket list”, Gerwig quickly got to fulfil another dream by working with Woody Allen on To Rome With Love, his follow-up to Midnight In Paris. Growing up, she’d fallen in love with New York through his films and longed for a life like Annie Hall’s. “I dressed like Diane Keaton,” she says, “and I read books that he mentions. There is no one who has influenced my life’s trajectory more than him so it was surreal to meet the person you realise you’ve based most of your life’s decisions around.”

    To Rome With Love is expected to debut at next month’s Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, Gerwig has a number of projects on the go, including ones that she’s writing and directing herself, “under the radar”.

    “Whenever I think, ‘Oh, I will never have to make my own stuff again,’ I realise it’s always better for me to kind of get involved in making my own films. It’s where I found my love of it.”

    • Damsels In Distress is in cinemas from 27 April