The Conversation: Greta Gerwig
Written by Bwog Staff
The final issue of The Blue and White will be on campus next week! While anxiously awaiting it’s arrival, we humbly offer you this excerpt to tide you over.
In her Senior Wisdom, Greta Gerwig, BC ’06, offered this piece of hard-learned advice: “I’m a douchebag if I say I go to Columbia.” Since graduating, the 2004 Varsity Show star and Tea Party improv alum has worked with some of the truly great luminaries of contemporary film, from Woody Allen to Whit Stillman. She was described by the New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, as “the definitive screen actress of her generation.” Gerwig is charming, natural, and remarkably level-headed about her success. She took some time to chat with managing editor Anna Bahr about harsh critics, getting stuck with the “Hollywood’s indie darling” brand, and why Los Angeles sucks.
The Blue and White: I feel like you’re at Barnard all the time. I saw you speak at the opening of the Athena Film Festival a couple months ago and there were rumors of Frances Ha being shot here in the fall…
Greta Gerwig: I shot something at Barnard in the fall but Frances Ha was all done up at Vassar. You saw me speak? Oh my god I was terrified. I don’t know why I guess I don’t usually speak in front rooms like that.
B&W: What is it like coming back?
GG: I loved Barnard. I loved going to school there. It changed my life, which sounds like I’m overstating it, but I’m not. Barnard College and The Varsity show were the two formative things in my life. V-show especially in terms of the people I met and that uniquely collaborative spirit that translated into what I was doing later. I thought they were the funniest coolest people ever and I wasn’t as funny or as cool as they were. I was an okay singer and an okay dancer and was okay at being funny and cool.
B&W: Do you ever miss it? And by it I mean being back in school?
GG: Two years out of college, yes I missed it. But not now. There is definitely a time when you stop talking about your life in terms of college and it stops being the kind of thing you invest in. It’s a nice thing to be able to frame your existence around something new. I love Barnard and will always participate in it and support it but I’m happy to have distance from that part of my life.
B&W: I’m curious about how Barnard, or, more specifically, going to a women’s college, has informed how you choose your roles.
GG: I loved going to a women’s college. I went to an all-girls high school too, so I’m all about lady-schools. On one hand, actors do make choices based on their artistic leanings and personal attractions to roles but on other hand I have to work to make money. And I get where I get. So, if I were to design a career that were to reflect my feelings about women, I might not necessarily have [worked on all of the films] I have done. But I do try to do films that portray women as dynamic humans not just vipers. And I would like think that has more to do with having gone to college in a metropolitan area and thinking about these things just as a person than from having attended women’s college. What comes from Barnard is that I feel an obligation to write and create my own work, to develop my own voices and stories, and not just speak words written by someone else. All the pressure I feel to be the author not the mouthpiece—that’s Barnard.
B&W: It’s interesting you say that, given that you wrote the screenplay your most recent film, Frances Ha. It must be an impossible challenge to transfer a person you created, whose brain you know so intimately, to a character on screen whose entire life story you have to show to people who don’t know her in two hours…What’s different about performing a character you wrote?
GG: Well, I wrote it with Noah [Baumbach]. People think I only wrote it. I wrote a bunch of characters too. I didn’t just write it for myself. I had to not think about playing it in order to write it. It’s terrifying to constantly have your own inadequacies as an actor at the forefront of your mind while writing because then you won’t write anything because you’re just thinking of the ways you’ll mess it up. So I was just trying to write characters that true and interesting and trying to tell a story and then deal with the acting later.
GG: It is hard. It is difficult. You know, stand up comedians write their own material all the time and can get heckled and be funny about it, but comedy is built into what you’re doing. What I’m doing is not always meant to be funny. The big thing that helped was the other actors. Casting other people you think are right. Because I’m a big believer in that you find your performances through the people you work with. You need them. That’s your only access to the laws of the scene—it’s through the other person. You don’t build a character that’s separate from the people you’re doing it with. You build on your own [character] and then bring yourself to the scene in the most open way possible. [The film] ignites when you start acting with the other person. That made it a lot easier because you have this amazing lack of self-consciousness. You’re not acting in a bubble.
B&W: I would imagine that criticism is far more affecting when it’s for a piece that personal. How do you steel yourself for something like that?
GG: Having written it, you care a fuck of a lot more. It’s like night and day. I mean, on some level you’re not responsible for a project you don’t write and didn’t direct. It’s someone else’s work. But when you write it, it’s your blood and marrow on the page. When people try and give me suggestions [on characters] and are like “What about this thing?” I’m like, “Don’t talk about my people like that. I wrote that.” I’ve collaborated on other peoples stuff before—I’ve co-written other films but those films never felt as much a part of me. This project was the best I could possibly do. This is my best material. This is not an experiment. I gave it absolutely everything. This film took so fucking long to shoot, so fucking long to write. If you don’t like it, I don’t have anything better.
B&W: In that same vein of ownership over your work, it must be strange to be associated with movements that you are not directly the creator of. One day you’re associated with mumblecore and then it’s New Sincerity and then you’re called, like, “Hollywood’s indie darling.” Do those associations change your self-perception and the choices you make in roles?
GG: Not at all. It always happens after the fact. You make what you’re making and you make the best possible choice based both on your artistic leanings and your economic reality and later people say, “Oh you’re part of this thing or this thing,” but there’s no way to anticipate the analysis of what you’re doing. I think when you start learning about [it]—that’s when actors can start going a little crazy. And you can see it in their work. They start trying to anticipate a reaction or game the system or feel out what will be their position in the history of what film is. Once you start down that road you’re sunk. Because it’s something other than the thing that you’re doing, that you care about
B&W: And yet, as you say, there are economic realities as an independent film actor. It must be difficult to just roll with your aesthetic or artistic ideals.
GG: It’s definitely possible if you live differently than I do. I don’t live extravagantly. But I want to have a gym membership. I like to go to the theater. I like to go out for drinks. You can make whatever you want if you want to live on a bare minimum. But I make choices also based on what I want in the world. Which includes drinks. But, yeah, sometimes you just need a job. You have to work a certain number of days on a union shoot to get your health insurance.
B&W: I wanted to ask you about Greenberg. I’m from Los Angeles and, as unrealistic as I found Ben Stiller’s walking the vastness of the whole city, I loved that the film showed Los Angeles without those, like, mandatory shots of the Hollywood sign. For me one of the great moments in that film is when Florence [played by Gerwig] is talking to the people in the car behind her to let her into their lane. I have definitely had days in LA where I have only spoken to people in different cars than me. That’s a special kind of lonely.
GG: I love that movie so much. It was a huge thing for me to get that movie. It changed my life. I loved the character of Florence so much and I was desperate to play the part and was so glad I got it. But one of the things I learned from her is that people wear their cities in their bodies and on their faces. Her particular isolation and depression and vulnerability has to do with the way Los Angeles makes its citizens transport themselves. They are all so separate. If you put that same character in New York she would have been a different person. She would have carried herself differently. She might have still been depressive, but she wouldn’t hunch in the same way or speak softly in the same way. When we were shooting in LA, I went there early and I spent time there working as a personal assistant for people and I experienced the feeling and melancholy of LA—and the unexpected beauty. By the time we were shooting I felt like I understood it for my performance.
B&W: You’ve talked a lot about how special it was to work with Woody Allen on To Rome with Love and your fandom for his films. If there’s one thing he’s famous for it’s capturing that specific ‘70s New York intellectual art-scene aesthetic. How did your reality of the city match up to his?
GG: I love New York. Films were a huge part of wanting to live in New York City. Particularly [Allen’s] movies. Woody Allen makes movies about Woody Allen. It’s not as if my reality matches up to Manhattan. But I do think I have thought out and have nourished the 70s New York he’s depicting in terms of choosing a variety of friends and artists and going to museums and dinner and the theater and being critical and funny and bright and engaged. And walking everywhere. That feeling you have of living in the world around people who make you excited—that’s always what I’m attracted to in his films and that’s what I’m attracted to in life. I’ve found it it helps that I went to school here—you don’t have to be alone when you first get here. There’s a sense of community. I’m always looking for that vaguely Upper West Side therapied life.
B&W: And? Are you getting closer?
GG: I live downtown. So not there yet. But I do know a lot of people on the Upper West Side. Definitely getting closer.
B&W: You mentioned feeling a distinct sense of community when you came to school. I feel like Columbia can often be a really difficult place to find community. No shared space, lots of distant groups of people… Did you feel comfortable here right off the bat?
GG: Not really. Not until my sophomore year. After freshman year I got a nannying job and I stayed over the summer. That was hugely important. It changed everything. Freshman year I had a good time but I was scared I didn’t know as much as everyone else—that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else. I think everyone feels that way. I had friends but I didn’t find my groove totally. I would leave campus but I didn’t see the city as much as I wanted to. So that summer I lived in a living room for $400 a month and worked as a nanny where my hours were 10-6 and the rest of my time was free. And I walked the shit out of the city. I had friends on the Lower East Side and I would walk the length of [the East Side] constantly. And in the summer there’s so much free shit. Like music in Bryant Park—all this great stuff. Though I was lonely, I was connected to what the city had to offer. I was a part of the organism of the city. And by the end of it I thought, “I’ll never be lonely again.”
B&W: Yeah every part of the structure of LA makes that feeling impossible. There is no cohesive organism.
GG: Right. it’s more disparate… It’s hard to feel like there’s anything you belong to in LA. I never feel successful there. In New York everything is possible. In Los Angeles nothing is possible. I remember my favorite moment was taking the red line to Times Square and then transferring between the 1/9—it’s just the 1 now—to the 2/3. Everyone was walking together and you just feel like you’re the center of everything.
B&W: It’s amazing to watch the types of people shift between lines and cars. That synchronized chaos is so awesome.
GG: Yeah, totally. It was great. Getting to know the city that way grounded me. After that I had a better base to get involved sophomore year with Varsity Show and I found my people. I was writing plays. I found a different group of girlfriends. I still see the Varsity Show people all the time.
B&W: I would be remiss if I didn’t finish the interview with repeating the most important question in Bwog’s Senior Wisdom list. In 2006, you were asked if you would rather give up oral sex or cheese. You said cheese. Now that you’re a little older and a little wiser, are you sticking to your guns or do you want to change your answer?
GG: Do you guys still ask that? Jesus. Uh. [laughs] I don’t know. I think I probably chose that the first time because I thought it was sexy. But there is no sexy answer to that question. I don’t know what my answer is now but at least I know I feel comfortable enough to not have to answer just based on what’s sexy.
B&W: That’s the pinnacle of maturity.
GG: I feel so proud.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.