When it comes to playing someone who’s falling apart, Greta Gerwig’s got it all together.
Gerwig – an increasingly visible muse for indie auteurs (Whit Stillman’s “Damsels In Distress,” Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love”), who’s also make inroads into the mainstream (“No Strings Attached”) – has found one of her most endearing roles with “Lola Versus.” Playing a twentyish New Yorker whose fully mapped-out life suddenly/painfully/hilariously self-immolates, leaving her shell-shocked and careening through an uncertain landscape of dating, love, sex and self-esteem.
But while her character is in constant free fall, Gerwig reveals herself as a model of grounded messiness, admitting to PopcornBiz in one breath that she knows all about crises of confidence and revealing just how insightfully she’s able to reflect on her industry in the next.
What was the first connection with Lola for you, the thing that made you feel like you could play her?
When I read the script I felt that I knew what the formula was that they were working with: I made the assumption that she would end up with [the guy it seemed] she was supposed to be with. It just became apparent while I was reading it that she was going to make a ton of mistakes and that it wasn't following a formula. She was this incredibly dynamic, crazy, selfish character that's dealt a rough hand, and then proceeds to make a bunch of bad decisions and make a mess of everything. All of it seemed so fun and dynamic and exciting and she was really pushing the story forward. As a woman you don't see a lot of movies like that – that you don't write yourself. If you write it yourself, you can write whatever you want, but most of the time the things that are offered to you, you usually have to stand by some big dude who's doing all the cool stuff. Then you get to chime in occasionally. So it was really fun.
Did you relate at all to that messy young adulthood that she was going through?
Yeah. I really did relate more to the messy young adulthood. When she starts the movie everything in her life is totally figured out and she knows everything and she's hitting all the marks that she's supposed to hit to be happy – or so she thinks. I relate to the mess. I'm totally more on the mess side. I feel like I'm always kind of crying and falling apart and not knowing, and I think that part of that is that I'm an actor and I make movies and everything seems uncertain all the time and there is no clear path and everything seems like it could go away tomorrow, which makes you both incredibly grateful and also incredibly neurotic. So I didn't have to look far to find that part of myself that was messy. But in a funny way--I'm much better at dealing with a mess, because I'm there all the time. So in a way, I had to create a character that was terrible at dealing with it – like, she hated it! She hated the feeling of being untethered and not knowing where she was going, that that was not something that was familiar to her or comfortable for her. So I had to create a kind of more uptight character that could then fall apart. I'm good at being all crazy.
Have you ever been in a dynamic like this, involved in a tight-knit group where eventually partner-switching starts to happen and then there's splintering in the group?
Amongst my friends that's never quite happened – amongst my girlfriends. Amongst my friends who are boys, they HAVE traded girlfriends and it's really weird. That is true. In New York the film scene is so little that everyone ends up dating each other. That's true.
How do you compare your studio film experiences to your indie film experiences and how do they play off of each other?
I think each movie is its own beast. Even in the smaller range, comparing 'Damsels In Distress,' which is a very small movie, to other small movies, that's totally different than, like, a 'Baghead' experience even though they're both tiny movies. I think the biggest difference, I find, is that there's more oversight in studio movies and more people looking over your shoulder and more voices to account for. There are people who need to be heard, because they run these businesses and they're putting up the money for it and they're the ones who stand to lose a lot. It's just being aware of those voices more. Whereas with 'Damsels,' we really just got totally free range – Whit [Stillman] got free range. He had a small budget and we went and made it and I don't remember seeing anyone on set telling us to do anything differently or looking at costumes or looking dailies or worried about that. I like both. I think a great producer is an amazing thing to have and can really push a film in a great direction. It's not that oversight is inherently bad. It can be great, but I think the difference with studio movies is built in and you don't get to choose that.
You mentioned that this film is a genre-buster, that it plays against what's expected. Is that what has to happen now for films to feel fresh and engaging, because audiences are so hip to the way that genres play by certain rules?
It's hard, because I'm not sure. I think about this a lot, actually. I think that in some ways when you watch a lot of films there is, because of genres, you know how they end. That doesn't necessarily reduce the pleasure of watching them.
Sometimes it increases it, right?
Yeah, and I don't think with the comedies of the '50's or Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges that the people in the audience really didn't think that they weren't going to get together at the end. I think that they knew that those characters were going to get together. The pleasure was in watching how it happened, getting those actors together and how charming they were or how it was going to work out. In 'Bringing Up Baby' or something like that, you always knew that they were going to be together. So the pleasure becomes about something else, but I do think that there's something to subverting a genre right now that people are really getting a kick out of. I think it goes both ways. I love things like this. Why I loved this piece was that I loved how much it subverted the genre – but that being said, I love a well-executed genre movie. I think that's why people love, like, 'True Grit.' That's just a Western movie – and it's a remake of a Western – but it's great.
And the quirks aren't all that far afield from the John Wayne version.
Yeah, and I think that people took real pleasure in it, because it was straightforward in a way. I think there's room for that. In some ways I think it's a much harder hat trick to execute something known really well – I think that's a harder cat to skin. I think because of that most of the rom-coms, and stuff like that that you read, are just so saccharine. I think what I object to, more than them being kind of generic, is the fact that the characters are totally one dimensional and not interesting. Especially the women, they tend to be just flat and really liking Gummy Bears, which is not a character trait.
When you name-check someone like Lubitsch I know you know your cinema history. When you look back at the industry do you feel that you're filling a niche today that someone else filled back then?
I'm not sure. I think there's often a pretty wide gap between the way that you see yourself and the way that you are. I mean, I think the actors that I admire and look up to and love as actors in a kind of visceral way, they're all manly men. I really love all the Robert De Niro and [Martin] Scorsese stuff. I love 'King of Comedy,' and obviously, 'Raging Bull' and 'Taxi Driver.' I love Gene Hackman. Those guys are my guys. I love them. I think about them and they're the people that I want to emulate as an actor, which sounds strange because I don't think that I'm filling the Robert De Niro gap right now. I don't know why those men, particularly, but those are the ones that I'm drawn to. I have no idea what gap I'm actually filling in movies. I'm much more interested in movies themselves than me in them. That sounds falsely modest, but it's true.
I'm sure that has to do with a style of movies you're attracted to, that '70's era where men were still leading the movies.
Yeah. Maybe I need to look for some lady parts like that.