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Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke act like surrogate sisters, on-screen and off

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Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig are not sisters. They just seem like they are, both on-screen and off. The A.V. Club met the co-stars in Chicago to talk about Mistress America, the second NYC comedy (after 2012’s delightful Frances Ha) that Gerwig has written with director Noah Baumbach, her creative and romantic partner. A zany screwball farce, the film casts Kirke—best known, perhaps, for her brief but memorable supporting turn in Gone Girl—as wide-eyed college freshman Tracy, who begins spending her evenings with Brooke (Gerwig), the free-spirited New York daughter of the man her mother is marrying. The characters are, in other words, almost related, which is a good way to describe the familiarity that Gerwig and Kirke exhibit during their paired interview. Cutting into each other’s answers, fielding each other’s questions, and trading favorite Onion headlines, they seem close as kin—a product, perhaps, of spending a few weeks firing bon mots for the director of Kicking And Screaming.

Greta Gerwig: The A.V. Club, division of The Onion.

The A.V. Club: That’s right!

GG: Started in the Midwest. Right?

AVC: Yup. In Madison.

Lola Kirke: It’s a division of The Onion?

GG: Yeah!

LK: Oh!

GG: When I was at Barnard, one of the guys who graduated from Columbia was the editor-in-chief of The Onion. And I was like, [Whispers.] that guy’s the coolest.


LK: One of my favorite Onion headlines was “Mumford & Sons distressed after they all gave each other banjos for Christmas.” [Laughs.]

GG: [Laughs.] My favorite is “Cocky attempt to operate ATM in Spanish backfires.”


LK: [Laughs.] We could go on for hours with these.

AVC: Lola, you grew up in New York. And Greta, you’ve spent a lot of time in the city.


GG: Yeah, I’ve lived there since I moved there for college.

AVC: Does Mistress America reflect your individual New York experiences?

LK: It doesn’t really reflect mine. I guess I was always envious of people who got to move to New York for college because they got to see the city that I, perhaps, was pretty jaded by with new eyes and discover for themselves that Andy Warhol was dead. [Laughs.] Like that they were never going to get to go to, like, the Bowery and do those things that New York is known for. But it does reflect my experience with New York in the way that it might not be the place you want it to be, but there’s something really lovable about it anyway. Also, it reflects that New York is really changing. I mean, Brooke herself is “the personification of New York,” as I’ve discovered over three days of press. [Laughs.] You really have to find those things when you’re talking about one thing for a long time.


GG: In some ways, my experience of being in New York when I first got there was kind of like Tracy’s experience, because I went to Barnard and I did “getting to know you” games. I remember standing on the roof of my freshman dorm, where we shot, and I didn’t know which way was uptown and downtown, I didn’t know which direction to look on Broadway. I didn’t have a character like Brooke in my life, but I had pieces of people who became the character Brooke.

I remember the summer after my freshman year of college, I got a job nannying for a family so I could stay in New York, and even though I was working all day, I had an incredible amount of free time, because I didn’t have papers to write at the end of the day. I used to take the train—it was before smartphones, so you could really get lost—to somewhere I didn’t know, then figure out how to walk back.


LK: That’s awesome.

GG: Sometimes I would find myself at the East River and be like [Feigns mumbling.] “I turned the wrong way. You got to go back.” [Kirke laughs.] And I had, like, the Streetwise map, but I wouldn’t carry it with me because I was like, “You just got to get a feel for it.” And then after that summer, I feel like I owned it in some way. I love New York City. The New York City of the movie, in some ways, is not… I don’t know anyone that lives in Times Square, but the idea of having a character that lives in Times Square was almost, like, a throwback New York. We were influenced by movies in the ’80s like After Hours and Something Wild, like a different version of New York. And even though it takes place in the present, modern day, I think we were going for something a little bit more mythic and less realistic.


LK: Totally, and I think that’s also reflected in the costumes for the characters. They’re very fringe. I feel like the free spirit of a loud person in a film is often like a flower child, like they’re wearing something large and poofy.

GG: The way we dressed Brooke, it’s like some bridge between the late ’80s and early ’90s idea of a business woman. [Laughs.] Brooke does not dress like any hip person dresses, but for some reason it worked with the atmosphere that we wanted to create.


AVC: Greta, this is the second film you’ve co-written with director Noah Baumbach, after Frances Ha. But your character here, Brooke, is sort of the anti-Frances.

GG: Yeah, she is.

LK: That’s the first person I’ve heard say that.

GG: But she is. I mean, even her psychology and her personal history and what she wants is in its own orbit. Tracy idolizes Brooke, but Brooke’s secret of idolizing Tracy is that Brooke didn’t go to college. Brooke isn’t intellectually confident in that way. She’s smart, but I don’t think she’s particularly assured in her abilities. And she doesn’t have any skills, really. She lives by her wits and her chutzpah and she’s kind of on the wrong side of marrying for money. We always say that if she had 10 percent less integrity, she would have done that and she’s probably kicking herself for not doing it, but we love her for not doing it. But Tracy is smart and she knows it, and Brooke says, “This girl is smart and she thinks I’m smart and doesn’t that make me feel better.” There’s this pride of being associated with someone who is a part of a world that she’s missed somehow.


AVC: The second half of the film becomes a full-blown farce.

LK: “Sliding-doors farce.” Why does everyone keep saying that?

GG: Because in farces, the thing is that there’s always people walking in and out of doors, and slamming doors. You know Noises Off?


LK: No.

GG: Okay, Noises Off is this classic farce play where the first act is what you see on stage and the second act is flipped around and you see the actors and all the drama going on backstage. It’s amazing.


AVC: It’s very funny.

GG: It’s really funny and it’s also, like, a lot of work for the actors because the timing is crazy.


LK: Have you done it?

GG: No, I’ve only ever seen it. But the joke is sliding doors don’t have the same punctuation. You have to, like… [Imitates sound of sliding doors.]


LK: [Laughs.] I love that. Okay, now I get what that fucking means.

AVC: You mention the timing. As actors, does that require a lot of rehearsal to get that precise? There are moments in the film where there are seven people talking at once and sort of stepping on each other’s lines.


GG: I love it. It actually gives me a kind of contact high seeing it and when we were editing it… I mean, this makes me sound like I’m more adventurous that I actually am [Kirke laughs.] but from the time that they arrive at the house to the end of when Tracy gets back on the train, I want it to feel like you’ve done a line of coke. It’s hitting you, then it goes, goes, goes, and then you feel like shit. [Kirke laughs.] A lot of the rehearsal we did for that sequence was in camera because it’s so connected with what the camera movements are so we ended up doing dozens and dozens and dozens of takes and it wasn’t a thing that we could really establish the blocking of ahead of time. I mean, Noah and Sam [Levy, cinematographer] shot-list everything; they do it at least twice before we shoot. But once you’re accounting for what the actual space is, it’s something else again. And I think we benefited because all of the actors were so great and then a few of the actors like Michael Chernus and Cindy Cheung and Jasmine Cephas Jones and…

LK: Heather Lind.

GG: Heather Lind! Were all, like, super-trained stage actors and they could just [Snaps her fingers.] hit it, hit it, hit it. And so can Lola. [Laughs.] But you can ask that of them and they’re very comfortable delivering.


AVC: There’s been talk of a scene that took 55 takes.

LK: I am so surprised that was the remarkable one, because I feel like that was so standard.


GG: So standard.

LK: So standard.

AVC: There was a scene that took more?

GG: Well, probably. That’s kind of how we do.

LK: I don’t think we did anything under, like, 30.

GG: Some of it is getting the camera perfect. And while we do definitely have that as a consideration, I think we do tons of takes for performance, if anything, because it’s about getting these layered performances that you can only really get by doing it over and over and over again. Then you get these kind of super-nuanced interpretations. I don’t know any other way than to do it a lot.


AVC: So it’s not so much about getting that perfect take than it is about the actors getting a lot closer and closer to what—

GG: But it’s almost like you’re swinging in different directions. You start out with your initial impressions—and it is about getting a perfect take—but it’s also you have to get three or four perfect takes because a lot of the scenes are one shot. The issue is the scene in the closet [that took 55 takes], where they’re looking for the pants, that’s one take. So Noah wants—at least—four or five options that are great that he knows he could use that are slightly different from each other depending on how he wants to build the story. So it just takes time. To get five great ones, that’s hard.


AVC: Can you talk about your writing with Noah? When you watch the film, can you look at it and say, “Oh, that’s something I wrote specifically?”

GG: Well, the way we write, everything was written by everybody by the end. We work on these scripts so hard and so long, but when we actually generate material, we do actually go off on our own and come up with pages and then trade with each other. You get a bunch of material that way, and then you start working on it together when one person is at the computer. And we’ll take notes and whoever puts in the notes, we go over it over and over again. There are some things where you really don’t know who did what. But there are certain lines I know are his, certain jokes I know are his, certain jokes I know are mine.


AVC: Do you have a favorite joke that you wrote for the movie?

GG: What’s my favorite joke? The one I’m actually thinking of is one that Noah wrote, which is the autodidact line. That was him.


LK: [Laughs.] “That’s a word I self-taught myself.”

GG: But I know certain things I wrote; it’s easier to remember and enjoy somebody else’s joke, but when you remember your joke, it’s like, “That’s nerdy.” [Laughs.] I think my jokes tend to fall into the asides that are odd. Like I just learned what case-sensitive was, like, yesterday. That’s me.


LK: The “BCC” line?

GG: “You can BCC her. Well, she can just CC it since she already knows you’re getting it.” [Laughs.] Stuff like that is just me and my weirdness and it makes it sound like all of my stuff is about the internet. I wrote the line, “I was very beautiful when I was young; I was the person people make television shows about.” [Gerwig and Kirke laugh.] But then Noah’s line is, “I lived in a walk-up in the East Village. I taught at Baruch!” That’s Noah because he had friends that taught at Baruch and then worked for Goldman Sachs. [Kirke laughs.] But I know that’s mine and that’s his, but it all goes together in what the thing is. People always say, “I don’t know who wrote what.” That’s never true. You kind of remember.