The Verge: Greta Gerwig
You wouldn't know from the first 10 minutes of Greenberg that it is -- or ever could be -- a Ben Stiller film. Blame it on Greta Gerwig, the 25-year-old indie muse making her mainstream debut in Noah Baumbach's nervy comedy. Starring as Florence, a young woman slogging through post-collegiate malaise as a personal assistant to a wealthy L.A. family, Gerwig embodies a sort of ethereal ennui before meeting her spiritual (and possibly romantic) match in Stiller's narcissistic-creep title character. The veteran actor may usurp the story in the end, but from the start -- a walk in the Hills, a drive through Hollywood, the routine of deference, servitude and resilience -- Gerwig hand-tailors the narrative with a lilting sincerity arguably never before seen in a Baumbach film. Attribute what you will to the touch of Baumbach's wife and story collaborator Jennifer Jason Leigh, but it's Gerwig's optimism and resolve that take the day. "You like me a lot more than you think you do," she tells Greenberg late in the film, daring to suggest that even when it's all about him, it's really about her. Which, of course, it is.
It's genuinely awards-caliber stuff, and all quite the professional leap for the actress, best known to date for her microbudget "mumblecore" trifecta Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghad and Nights and Weekends (the latter of which Gerwig co-wrote/directed and starred in with Joe Swanberg). She spoke to Movieline recently about making that leap, getting Florence out of her system, and why all that nudity of hers really isn't that big a deal.
You're from Sacramento, right?
Me too! As is your co-star Brie Larson. Sacramento represent!
Right! But... [Pause] She's from the suburbs.
OK, so you're more midtown? Downtown?
Yeah, East Sac. What high school did you go to?
Foothill. [Pause] Suburbs. [Laughs] No, no, no. It's just that there's so much Sac City Unified School District Pride.
Well, we both got out eventually. What route did you take?
Well, I went to college in New York. I went to Barnard College; I really, really wanted to go there. I wanted to be an actor, and I'd wanted to go to Julliard or NYU. But my Mom wasn't so keen on conservatory. So she wanted me to study something not acting. But I wanted to be in New York, because I figured if I was in New York I'd have work and theater. And I spent all my summers in New York. I spent a lot of time working in theater companies. I worked as a stage manager in Vermont for summer stock. I worked as a lighting person for Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater Company. I was very into all aspects of theater. Then my last year of college I fell into this group of filmmakers who were working super-low-budget. And it was really appealing because I was coming from the world of theater but then a little bit of sketch comedy and improv. It was just an incredibly exciting thing to be making things. So I graduated in 2006 -- four years ago in May, which is crazy.
But I kept putting the "pause" button on my life. I kept just getting by -- just making ends meet. I kept auditioning as just a regular actress in addition to making these smaller films. Luckily the smaller films got attention, although we didn't know that they would. It's weird, because you reconstruct narratives backwards. But at the time I just kind of leapfrogged from one thing to another. It was very fortunate that this happened.
You've mentioned that the Greenberg script "spoke to my deep love of movies." What did it say?
Oh, I love Noah Baumbach's movies. He's a true cinephile. He's really engaged with what films came before him, what he's referencing. There's almost nothing that he does where he hasn't thought about every aspect. He's a true auteur. As far as American film goes, he's one of them. And I'm incredibly honored to be part of that tradition and that trajectory. Also, it was an incredible thrill to be on set with these people, whether it was the costume designer, Mark Bridges, who did There Will Be Blood, or the makeup artist who does all the Coen Brothers' movies. It just felt like I was steeping into this world of serious but large-scale cinema that feels like some equivalent of having done a Howard Hawks movie or a Roman Polanski movie. It felt really interesting.
Greenberg is obviously a breakthrough in a professional sense, but it also feels like a breakthrough in a character sense as well -- as though Florence was a role that you needed to get out of your system. Is that an accurate read?
It is. It's strange because when I read the script the first time -- which was also just really exciting, to get a script like this -- it would be like getting a Wes Anderson script. You just know on the page it's going to sing. David O. Russell, or someone like that. I just knew who she was instantly because the writing was so good. I just needed it and wanted it in a way that was a little frightening. I just felt so much for Florence. I still feel a lot for Florence. And it's an honor to be the person that gets to not only play her, but protect her.
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