For a while, it was nearly impossible to read an article about mumblecore without seeing a picture of Greta Gerwig, usually followed closely by a reference to her as the queen of the ad hoc movement. But as the wave of low-fi realism has fanned out and dispersed, Gerwig has continued to establish her place as one of the most distinctive young actresses in or out of Hollywood. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, in which she plays a melancholy personal assistant opposite Ben Stiller’s misanthropic carpenter, is a confident step toward the mainstream, at least by the standards of, say, Baghead. For the first reel, before Stiller moves into the spacious Los Angeles house owned by his brother and her boss, Gerwig functions as the movie’s temporary protagonist, and the ease with which she inhabits her character doubtless helped inspire Stiller’s most nuanced performance in more than a decade. Initially envisioning herself as a playwright, Gerwig played a small role in Joe Swanberg’s LOL, then vaulted to co-starring and co-writing in Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs and Nights And Weekends. More recently, she played the protagonist’s pizza-scarfing best friend in The House Of The Devil, a part that culminated in one of the most memorable movie shocks in recent history. From her home in New York, Gerwig recently talked to The A.V. Club about the finer points of onscreen driving, how Baumbach is like Shakespeare, and the future of mumblecore.
The A.V. Club: The opening credits of Greenberg roll over a lengthy close-up of you behind the wheel of a car, a shot that instantly establishes the movie’s relaxed tone. Did you know the beginning of the film was going to be an extended shot of your head?
Greta Gerwig: I didn’t know. Although I did know that [the shot] when I pull up to the house and I get the stuff out of the trunk—Noah ran up to me and said, “Just so you know, this is where it will say ‘A film by Noah Baumbach.’” “So… no pressure. I’ll just try to do this as naturally as possible.”
AVC: There’s a real ease to your performance. The line your character uses when she’s trying to change lanes—“Are you going to let me in?”—turns out to be significant as her relationship with Ben Stiller develops. But for the most part, we’re just watching you check your mirrors, stare at the road, and play with your hair. It’s very in the moment. Do you feel that sense of ease when you’re doing it, or is it just an effect?
GG: I think in many ways, the ease is earned through doing it. With the driving stuff, especially at the beginning, but also some stuff in the middle, all of that was done without a process trailer. It was just done with a guy with a camera in the front seat and the back seat. I’m driving Harris Savides and Noah Baumbach around Hollywood, which was pretty surreal. We shot for hours and hours, and no one in the car was talking, so I got kind of into that hypnotic mode of how it feels to be in a car alone, which I think is a huge part of living in Los Angeles. I think it was important to them that it looked and felt how it feels to be in a car. Your mind is wandering, and you’re half-engaged and half-not-engaged, both with your fellow drivers and the environment as it passes you. But the naturalism… yeah, it was earned. The first day was harsh. [Laughs.] Because I think I was so in love with the character as it was on the page… You suddenly feel all this obligation toward not only the film, but the fictional person. You get a little frightened that you’re going to somehow do a disservice to them.
AVC: In a number of cases, whether you got writing credit or not, you’ve been substantially involved in creating the characters you’ve played. Is this the most obligation you’ve felt to stick to what existed before you were involved?
GG: In terms of the lines, definitely. There was nothing in the film… I don’t think we even shot anything that wasn’t in the script. Everything was word-perfect. I think that’s largely because Noah is such a precise writer, and he writes almost more like a playwright. There’s internal rhythm and structure to his scenes, so if you miss a word, it sounds off, something akin to how when you speak Shakespeare, you can hear when it doesn’t complete itself. So it’s an obligation to the character, but also the structure of the words, how they sound. I guess I felt very deeply for Florence. But I also had that experience of having a character that existed on the page before I came to it with House Of The Devil or Baghead. They were not something I had created. But with Nights And Weekends and Hannah, the particular way that Joe [Swanberg] works, you can make the character who you want to make it. So those were the only two experiences that I really had free rein. I think as an actress, I prefer having a character on the page. It allows you to be more invested in actually creating a whole person. It’s easier when you’re not trying to come up with your next line on the spot. [Laughs.] Or you’re worried about different things, I’d say.
AVC: Florence is very vulnerable, but there’s also a disarming, almost unsettling honesty to her. When Greenberg asks her how many people she’s slept with recently, she just tells him, rather than thinking that might not be the best thing to tell a man she’s attracted to.
GG: I don’t think she has a lot of defenses, and she also is not strategic or canny enough to think ahead five moves, which is what makes her kind of the best person and the worst person for Greenberg to encounter. It’s not because she’s stupid. Life has not hardened her for some reason. And I don’t think it will. I think that there’s something about her honesty that also gives you the idea that even though she is vulnerable and a bit insecure and clumsy and naïve, she kind of deeply knows who she is on some level, which is comforting.
AVC: That’s something that seems to run through a lot of the characters you play, that sort of “take me as I am” quality.
GG: I don’t know. I think Florence is the nicest person I’ve played. I think Hannah is kind of the opposite of Florence. She’s always wondering how she’s coming off. She’s always looking to other people, and she’s much more performative. Florence is the opposite of performative. And I think the character in Baghead is also performative, as the dumb girl who wants attention. [For Greenberg,] I actually thought a lot about—I really like Michelle Williams’ performance in Wendy And Lucy. So I thought a lot about that performance, and not specifically making Florence like her.
AVC: She’s not that sad.
GG: No, no. But just how affecting it is to… I don’t know, to see someone living. I don’t really even know why I brought that up, other than I really did think about that.
AVC: There’s a loose quality to Ben Stiller’s performance that’s unlike anything he’s done in a long time. Even his posture is slack. There’s comedy in the movie, but it isn’t a comic performance. It’s played in a very different register.
GG: Right, I agree. I think we both, because of Noah and Jennifer [Jason Leigh, his wife and Greenberg co-writer] and the material and the environment, we just felt like we didn’t have to sing for our supper—that we could trust it. We didn’t have to shtick it up. We didn’t have to beg to be heard. Noah allowed these characters to be who they are. You don’t need to talk loud or be better [than someone else]. I think because of that, there was this ease and generosity on set that I think is palpable.
AVC: Logistically, was this a different environment than movies you’ve made before? Were there more takes or more rehearsals? How different was the process for you?
GG: The process was very different. I had more time with it than any other movie I’ve done. Between auditioning and rehearsal time and shooting it, I just got to live with the character for a long time, which I haven’t gotten to do before. I got to L.A. a month early. I worked as a personal assistant to Jennifer’s mother, who’s a screenwriter, Barbara Turner. So I got to let the character and Los Angeles organically and slowly seep into me. I got to spend a lot of time listening to music that Florence would listen to, and read her books. Then once I was on set, there were a lot of takes. I think Noah’s very specific about what he wants and how he sees it. He gives us a lot of freedom, but then within that freedom, he gets as many colors as he needs, if that makes sense. It was different from other sets I’ve been on, although for a bigger movie, I think this is just about the gentlest bigger movie I could have been on. I think that Noah and Jennifer, especially Jennifer, because she’s an actress, are very sensitive to what makes a set pleasant. They’re just non-hysterical people. Even the volume. People didn’t speak loudly. It was very calm.
AVC: Was she there for most of the shoot, or all of it?
GG: All of it. She was there for all of it. Because she grew up in Los Angeles, I think there was a desire to make a movie that felt the way Los Angeles actually feels. She had all this specific knowledge that I don’t think anyone else could have contributed.
AVC: You grew up in Sacramento, which is in California, but very much not Los Angeles. Have you spent a lot of time in the city before? Did you have a feel for what it was like?
GG: No. I mean, I grew up in Sacramento, which is a good seven, eight hours away. We didn’t really go down there when I was a kid. We would go down to Riverside, California, which is very poor now, but that’s where my grandfather grew up. He grew up during the Depression in Riverside. So I had some kind of sense of Los Angeles, but I guess my true sense was the agricultural valley and how big it was, stretching between Sacramento and L.A.—just the length of the state. But that Los Angeles itself had never been open to me the way it was when I was shooting Greenberg, and I think… I love Los Angeles. I live in New York, and I love New York as well, but I think Los Angeles is a place where if you have the right person with you, there are all these little worlds that you would never guess by just looking at the exterior of what the city is.
AVC: Let’s talk for a minute about The House Of The Devil, which is a real A.V. Club favorite. Your character, Megan, seems very much like you in some ways. How much of that was on the page before you got there?
GG: Florence and Megan aren’t the same, though! Megan’s got a mouth on her! I auditioned for House Of The Devil. [Director Ti West] knew me, but he didn’t just give me that part. I had to fight for it. House Of The Devil wasn’t tiny. It wasn’t huge, but it was shot on film. There were resources. The system Ti and I worked out was… Ti figured out early into the shoot that because Megan was a bit of an obnoxious girl, a loudmouth, he figured out that if he let me do the first take musical-theater style, really big, then I would get it out of me, and then I would tone it down. So I think he always ended up using my second take. I always thought of her as a gum-chewer, even though she didn’t chew gum. She was a smacker, and Ti was completely grossed out by how I ate.
AVC: And then he made sure to show it in great detail.
GG: Yeah, of course. Ti is also very precise, I have to say. He also is not a person who says “Whatever you want to bring to it.” He won’t be satisfied until he gets what he wants. I really enjoy working with someone like that. You know you’re safe.
AVC: To the extent that mumblecore was or is a movement, do you feel that initial energy has dissipated as people move off in different directions?
GG: I do think it has dissipated, but I think it dissipated a while ago in a lot of ways. I think, the truth is, the movies I’ve done that people consider mumblecore-y, namely Hannah, Nights And Weekends, and Baghead—I guess Yeast is in there, but less so —they were done over a six-month period. Which is before anyone saw them. They were all completed before anyone saw them. I completed the first half of Nights And Weekends before anyone had even seen Hannah. I think the energy had dissipated before that, but I think in general with micro-budget films right now, it’s rough. The economy is rough. I think that affects everyone from big filmmakers to tiny filmmakers.
A lot of my friends are struggling. This was the first fall that a lot of my friends didn’t make movies, which was really hard and sad. I’m good friends with this film collective, Red Bucket, which made Daddy Longlegs and The Pleasure Of Being Robbed. They’re climbing the walls. They’re all making cartoon booklets now, because they can’t raise the funds to make another movie. But I think that when it returns, which it hopefully will, there will be another surge of energy. And I think I’m pretty committed to staying. I’m not committed to not doing big movies, but I am committed to continuing to make smaller movies, not for the sake of making smaller movies, but because I think it’s really invigorating to just go work with people and know that it might be awful. And that’s okay, because it didn’t cost that much to make.