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Greta Gerwig's Rise as Hollywood's New Indie Queen Is Very, Very Real

To celebrate the opening weekend and amazing critical reception of her movie Frances Ha, we're re-posting our February 2011 cover story on Gerwig, written by Lena Dunham. Read below as the two indie film figures discuss rom-coms, anorexia and the difficulties of being an actress who goes against the grain.

GretaD10A023_f_mm.jpgI started out as a Greta Gerwig fan, awed by her lovely, loopy performance as the titular lost post-grad in 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs. She was as refreshingly familiar as she was Aryan and unknowable, like Grace Kelly had allowed her eggs to be fused with Gilda Radner's in a genetics experiment dreamed up by an anxious hipster. Gerwig's comfort in her own skin and her discomfort with the pained social code of the 20s male made her an instant heroine to me and a fantasy friend. Cut to September 2008. I was taking my dog for an evening walk, and we stopped into the lower Broadway office space of Red Bucket Films. There was Greta: hangin' out, fresh-faced, gesticulating wildly. I was excited by her and she was excited by my dog, and I forced the conversation to go on and on. Later we shared a cramped office space for a while in that same building, where we made an audition tape for Greta that included the line "the pterodactyl retreats!" which she delivered with surprising subtlety. It's been a true thrill to witness what some might call "Greta's dizzying ascent" and what I call "Greta kicking ass." Her self-assuredly self-effacing performance in Greenberg made Ben Stiller look like he'd just taken a ride on a tilt-a-whirl (in a good way -- he was also great, she just threw him for a loop!), and she brings a third and fourth dimension to the sassy sidekick in No Strings Attached. Every time she's on a talk show, the host's eyes seem to ask, "There are girls like this!?" And soon everybody's going to get a double dose: Arthur (in which she takes on another dude -- comedy dynamo, Russell Brand) in April, and in Whit Stillman's deeply anticipated summer film, Damsels in Distress. We met for breakfast at Odeon so I could ask her probing questions and revel in the fact that she's finally my friend.

Lena Dunham: So I decided I am going to ask you things I want to know about you, even though we're friends. What actresses' careers do you admire?

Greta Gerwig: I love Sandra Bullock.

LD: I'm crazy about her. I was looking at a picture of her adopted son the other day and was like, "That kid knows things."

GG: I'm drawn to people who seem really happy about the choices they've made and don't seem like they wish they were somebody else. I don't feel like Sandra wishes she were, say, a Shakespearean thespian.

LD: And she's not like, "Fuck that Julia Roberts." What do you think about the fact that it's hard to have the career where you get to be in, like, Two Weeks Notice and you also get to be Tilda Swinton.

GG: Oh, I love Tilda Swinton.

GretaD11007_f_mm.jpgDress by Proenza Schouler, shoes by Manolo Blahnik, glasses by Claire Goldsmith, earrings by Jemma Wynne, necklace by Valerie Maccarthy, bracelets by Boynyc, Lui Morais, Jemma Wynne and Valerie Maccartty and rings by Jemma Wynne, Natalie Frigo, Valérie Maccartty and atelier Swarovski by Joseph Altuzarra.

LD: She's the shit. But you've been in, for example, No Strings Attached, a giant romantic comedy, and you were also in Greenberg, which is not a rom-com, and the first movies you were in were not rom-coms. Do you think there's an inherent challenge in making both kinds of movies?

GG: I don't think many people have done it, but... this sounds like a tautology, no one's done it until somebody's done it. And then someone's done it. I hope I get to do tiny weird things and big normal things.

LD: I always think that the tiny weird things you've done have lent this awesome air of slight weirdness to the big normal things you do.

GG: I also feel like they're both equally representative of who I am. I love weird filmmakers, but to be honest, I really loved When Harry Met Sally. I'm not more one thing than I am another, I think it's just that it's rare for people to honor both things in themselves -- to do something completely mainstream and then graphic, simulated sex scenes.

LD: Sometimes when I hang out with cineaste filmmakers, like our friends Josh and Benny Safdie, I'm afraid to be honest and say, "Nora Ephron movies are my shit." You almost have to treat those movies like guilty pleasures when in fact they're not; they're an art form you honor in the same ways you honor the interesting, amorphous movies the Safdies are making.

GG: I think a lot of people secretly have both parts to them, and they feel like they have to pick an identity. And I think that some of that has to do with being really attached to how you're perceived.

GretaA5014_f_mm.jpgDress by Marc Jacobs, underwear by Araks, earrings by Jemma Wynne, necklaces by Zoe Chicco and Gara Danielle Fine Jewelery, bracelets by Giles & Brother, BOYNYC, Luis Morais and Jemma Wynne. Rings by Valerie McCarthy, Jemma Wynne and Mawi.

LB: Which is in a weird way kind of antithetical to being an actor. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

GG: I wanted to be a ballet dancer for a while. But most practically, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I secretly wanted to be an actor, but it didn't feel like something I'd actually do.

LD: And you were always writing?

GG: In high school I wasn't told I could write. All my friends who went to school in New York, they all had some teacher who said, "Why don't you write something of your own that's creative?" The only creative piece of writing I had ever done in high school was my college essay. It wasn't until college -- I had written a monologue in acting class, and someone was like, "That's really funny, you should take a playwriting class," and I was like, "Oh?"

LD: Had you done theater in high school?

GG: Yeah, I did musicals, the school plays, the whole things. Those were the majority of my high school memories.

GretaD11008_f_mm.jpgShirt and skirt by Prada, shoes by Roger Vivier. Bracelets by La Petite Princesse, Valerie Maccarthy, BOYNYC and Mawi. Rings by Atelier Swarovski by Joseph Altuzarra, Mawi and La Petite Princesse.

LD: That's interesting because even when I first met you, and you were already an actress, I would never have been like, "That girl is an actress." You never referred to yourself as one.

GG: I have always felt like I'm acting because I love it, but I don't particularly have any right to be doing it.

LD: I have two parents who do creative things, so it's easy for me to think that's an appropriate job. But there are a lot of people who don't think so, and so it feels masturbatory and like it's not a real profession.

GG: I think sometimes when you tell the narrative of who you are, you get attached to something that's not entirely true. On the one hand, I can say I didn't know any artists growing up, and nobody told me I could write, and it wasn't until college that I got exposed to things, but that wasn't totally true. There was another side to it; I didn't grow up in a cultural wasteland. My parents were taking me to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I knew about Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams when I was 12. We watched Monty Python and Woody Allen. It wasn't like I grew up in the sticks.

GretaD10022_f_mm.jpgShirt and skirt by Prada, shoes by Roger Vivier. Bracelets by La Petite Princesse, Valerie Maccarthy, BOYNYC and Mawi. Rings by Atelier Swarovski by Joseph Altuzarra, Mawi and La Petite Princesse.

LD: Was there a moment when you made a jump to being like, "I am an actress and this is what I do?"

GG: I still don't feel like I have committed myself to it. I love it and I'm super-grateful for it, but I still don't believe that it's really happening. I sounds so weird to say. I told my friend Sarah, I have a very real, constant fear that I'll wind up living on the street. She was like, "That is not an appropriate fear for someone in your position to have. And even if nothing works out, you won't be living on the street."

LD: It's not an appropriate fear, but it's a good motivating factor.

GG: I'm expecting someone to come up to me and say, "Party's over, kid. Pack it up. It was fun while it lasted."

LD: Do you think that the fact that you write informs your work as an actress?

GG: Yes, when I'm writing, it makes me less precious about my acting, which kind of makes my acting better. But it can inform it negatively. Because sometimes you need to turn off your brain that says, "Why would I say that?" and just say, "I'm saying it!"

LD: The sort of directors who have thus far been attracted to you have been very literate, with a kind of poetry to what they're doing. Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, there's something almost Shakespearean about that movie. And Noah Baumbach, there is a really specific rhythm and poetry to his lines. So being a writer and feeling the cadence is important and almost essential. Do you feel like directors have allowed you to be a real architect of your characters because of the first movies you did, like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends? You were a writer and, in the case of the latter, a co-director.

GG: I think people have given me more freedom, and I feel like I have gotten to participate in discussions in ways that maybe other actresses haven't been able to. I've had producers, executives, say things that I'm sure they don't say to other actresses, like "You don't look pretty in this scene. It's not testing well."

LD: They're probably like, "You're smart, you'll get it." They don't think it's gonna send you into a pit of anorexia and self-hatred.

GG: It makes me feel very honored in some ways, but then it also contributes to the feeling that I'm not really an actress, the fact that I'm doing this is fake and I really should be doing something else.

GretaC8020_f_mmShadow.jpgTrench coat by 3.1 Phillip Lim, dress by David Szeto, shoes by Miu Miu, sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith. Earrings by Luis Morais, necklaces by Giles & Brother and Valerie McCarthy, bracelets by Giles & Brother and Flutter by Jill Golden. Rings by Natalie Frigo, Valerie McCarthy and Paige Novick.

LD: I get some of that, too. If the first projects that people have ever seen you in involve a high level of apparent honesty or a low level of vanity, people somehow feel you're immune to that type of criticism.

GG: And I'm not immune. Nor am I crazy hung up on it. But I'm certainly not dispassionate about it.

LD: But being told you don't look pretty in a scene and it's not testing well, that could make a person crazed.

GG: Yeah, maybe you feel like this too, but I sometimes feel like I'm the only actress having the sort of experience I'm having.

LD: One of the girls in my show [HBO's Girls] told me, "You're my first friend who's also an actress," and I was like, "I'm not an actress." I had this weirdly intense response. The first thing I ever did, I looked totally like myself, I acted totally like myself, so the expectation of me isn't one of glamour or adult sexuality.

GG: Like my roommate Sam was telling me, I should just go on these talk shows as Greta -- in jeans, Vans, an army jacket. And I was like, "That's Greta at home. That's not how Greta would dress to be on Letterman or Fallon." But there's sort of this assumption that I don't care about that sort of stuff, and I'm like, "But I do, I do care about this stuff!"

LD: Maybe people feel like if you're a quote-unquote "smart girl," you don't need to be protected in the same way, and you're not concerned about the same issues. This all feeds into the resistance to calling yourself an actress.

GG: I used to wish that I'd wake up one day and know that acting would fulfill everything I ever wanted. Acting is such an important part of expression for me, but I also feel it is not "it" for me. And the other stuff is just as important, and I know maybe that sounds greedy, it's hard to be honest about it because...

LD: Because you feel there are so many people who it is "it" for? You don't want to take up that space?

GG: Exactly. I've not dedicated my life to theater or acting or solely to writing...

LD: And sometimes it feels like there's a stigma to that. I've gotten questions in interviews like, "Do you feel like you can do all those things at the same time, really?"

GG: Maybe it's because we're women and, as Lacan said, "We are all things." I took all this Lacanian theory in school, and I feel like it's a masculine trait to pick one thing and excel at it. Women have a lot of sides to them and are more likely to do different things at different times. Like in Julie & Julia, a movie I love, Julia Child didn't cook until she was 40.

LD: So what is the kind of project that you dream of doing that would be the most surprising to people?

GG: I want to do something where I carry a gun. I think I'd be great, almost in a Leslie Nielsen kind of way, because you don't expect it. You don't expect that I'd be the spy. You expect Angelina Jolie to be a spy, but you'd never expect "this guy" to be the spy.

GretaA6A016_f_mm.jpgTrench coat by 3.1 Phillip Lim, dress by David Szeto, shoes by Miu Miu, sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith. Earrings by Luis Morais, necklaces by Giles & Brother and Valerie McCarthy, bracelets by Giles & Brother and Flutter by Jill Golden. Rings by Natalie Frigo, Valerie McCarthy and Paige Novick.

LD: Like how I want to be in Playboy. You get photographed covered in oil and dirt. I would wear underwear but I'd take my top off. I just don't want to show my genitals. It's the same thing: you'd never expect "this guy" in Playboy.

GG: I know. It's like the equivalent of one of us joining the Army.

LD: Yeah, a real Private Benjamin moment.

GG: It's scary to say the stuff you really want to do and the people you really want to work with out loud sometimes. It's easier to say jokey things. But Woody Allen...

LD: How could you not?

GG: I grew up in Sacramento and I watched that guy's movies and wanted to move to New York because of him.

LD: I feel like Woody Allen has got to find out soon that there's this girl who can say a smart line, and you'll fucking believe that she really thought it.

GG: Woody Allen had an erotic renaissance with Scarlett. He can have a neurotic renaissance with me! But really, I want to write and direct my own movie that is all mine and I want to win awards for it. Is that wrong? It's way easier to say I want to be in a gun movie than to say...

LD: That you want to write and direct a movie and win an Oscar for it?

GG: Yeah, and I want it to mean something and be good. But I also want to be a cool Sandra Bullock person who is OK with shit. I am putting a lot on Sandra that may or may not be true.

LD: Don't you also think you'd be friends with her if you met her?

GG: I think probably everyone thinks that.

LD: Sandra, if you're listening, call us. I'd like for you, Greta and me to sit around and enjoy some ice cream.


Hair: Seiji at the Wall Group
Makeup: Daniel Martin using Nars at the Wall Group
Stylist assistant: Kelly Govekar
Photographer's assistant: Maxime Fauconnier
Coordinator: Diane Drennan-Lewis
Assisted by Brittaney Barbosa

Photographed at 632 on Hudson

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