Apr 25, 2016
Hail Greta, Full of Grace
On the last bright cold day before spring came to Brooklyn, Greta Gerwig was having her picture taken underneath the BQE, bare-legged in a sleeveless dress. Above her the photographer’s assistant fixed his bounce board and his thousand-yard stare with equal determination, zoning out as he tried to wrangle the best natural light for the 32-year-old actor, writer, and filmmaker. Below her were stairs leading into Battery Harris, the Caribbean restaurant on Frost Street, where we retreated when the entire crew agreed the air was much too chilly, despite the sun, to stay outside.
Inside, the crew and I busied ourselves at the bar, sipping draft beers underneath a sign admonishing jerks in advance—be nice or leave—while Gerwig posed per the photographer’s requests: A game of Jenga was brought out, and he snapped pictures while she flicked little wooden blocks out from the tower until it toppled over, and then she climbed on top of the table herself, back straight and legs crossed beneath her. All afternoon Gerwig’s athleticism was on display while we remained stationary. She flexed her feet and lunged her legs, reaching her arms up and out, never not moving. At one point she took off her heels (white with gold-dipped stilettos), holding them in her hand, stretching her legs and flexing her toes until the photographer was ready. She tried to slip the shoes back on without sitting down and fell off center for just one second: “Wait,” she called, and we did, “my shoe’s on the wrong foot.” She placed both feet on the ground, made the necessary correction, and found her balance.
“I think my stories always have to lead to a moment of grace,” Gerwig tells me after the shoot has wrapped for the day. We’d left Williamsburg for the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village, walking distance from Gerwig’s home. Margaux, the restaurant on the main floor, was quiet—too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so we ordered coffee (for me), tea (for her), french fries sprinkled with parsley, and crispy brussels sprouts (for both of us). “It’s the most resonant theme for me as a person.”
Gerwig speaks at a careful pace, one that seems to pick up as her thoughts do. Her face is just as expressive in casual conversation as it is on camera. She uses it the same way some people speak with their hands; she has eyebrows like arms. She also, quite literally, speaks with her hands, gesturing in low, quick circles as she turns her thoughts into answers.
“There’s this phrase, she can really handle a close-up,” Gerwig says when we talk about the physicality of her work as an actor. She’s frequently seen dancing, running, or pacing in films, with a loose flexibility that belies the precision of her movements; her physical comedy owes more to Pina Bausch than it does Lucille Ball. “I feel like for me, it’s she can really handle a wide. I get scared when the camera is too close, not out of vanity, but out of feeling like I don’t have”—she gestures downwards—“my whole tool kit.”
“When you sit in a movie theater and suddenly you see something and you say, ‘Oh my god, somebody knows, how did they know?’ You feel less alone.”
This month, Gerwig stars in Maggie’s Plan, a romantic comedy written and directed by Rebecca Miller. Gerwig plays Maggie, and she has plans, plural; Maggie, who works as a student liaison at an arts school—she helps students find ways to make money and art following graduation—decides she’s ready to have a baby, and enlists a friend to be her sperm donor. At the same time, an administrative mix-up leads to a chance meeting with an adjunct professor, John, played by Ethan Hawke. He’s a supposedly brilliant academic in the field of “ficto-critical anthropology,” currently lost in an unhappy marriage with Georgette (Julianne Moore, excellent as a kind of alternate-universe Rebecca Solnit; early in the film she speaks about anti-globalization, for example, but she’s Danish, deeply cynical, and extremely fashionable. One of her many highlights is her pronunciation of the words “Pussy Riot”). One thing leads to another, and John and Maggie fall in love.
But that’s not the story this movie is telling—that’s just the first twenty minutes. We cut to three years in the future, after Maggie has abandoned her initial plan. John and Maggie have had a baby of their own. We find her struggling to mother their child and respect the boundaries of being a stepmother to John’s children with Georgette. She’s trying to support John’s long-suffering novel, as well as her students; all work she cares about deeply, but is always and forever work, even, or perhaps especially, if most of it happens at home. Overwhelmed and unsure if she and John were ever really supposed to be married, Maggie conspires with Georgette to reunite the first marriage at a ficto-critical anthropology convention in Quebec.
The film is sweet, self-aware, and sharp: as Maggie attempts to force the people she loves to look and feel right, she only upsets the tenuous balance a blended family is in the process of building. In those first twenty minutes, when John is falling in love with Maggie, he tells her she seems like she wants destiny without all the destiny; she’s willing to believe in fate, as long as fate is something she can control.
Grace, Gerwig explains, is too easily mistaken for resolution, an idea that appears in all her films no matter which side of the camera she’s on. Maggie has to find out the hard way what accepting grace looks like. Gerwig also points to Mistress America, her 2015 film that she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, her partner and frequent collaborator. Gerwig played Brooke, a 30-year-old hustler just beginning to suspect that label applies to her; she does not feel good about either her age or personality turned profession. Her soon-to-be stepsister, Tracy, is a Barnard freshman who mines Brooke’s theatrical (read: bizarre) behaviors for a short story, hoping to be accepted into a prestigious (read: pretentious) campus literary journal. Is it Tracy’s right to write the story as she sees it? Is it Brooke’s right to turn Tracy into a bounce board for her own self-mythologizing monologues? They’re both wrong, and everyone knows it. But the grace they find is not a symmetrical moral balance. “Tracy never apologizes and Brooke never forgives her,” Gerwig points out, “but it’s…okay. I think I felt like some grace goes beyond whatever their limitations are as people.”
Since she first appeared on screen, Gerwig, too, has avoided limitations in her career. Trained as a dancer and originally intending to be a playwright (her high school yearbook quote was from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; “super nerdy,” she admits), she moved from Sacramento, California, to attend Barnard College, where she took film classes alongside theater and dance. She credits freshman year trips to Kim’s Video in the East Village, where films were organized by director, as a “lightbulb” moment: “Something clicked in when I was eighteen, about what I was actually interested in. I thought, oh, you’re paying attention to directors.” Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Mike Leigh, the Mike Nichols adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “Talkies,” she says, when considering what they all have in common, “for lack of a better word.”
Gerwig graduated in 2006, a fortuitous time to be paying attention to film; equipment that had once been prohibitively expensive, like cameras and editing software, was much cheaper, and her peers were making films with minimalist budgets and matching aesthetics. She briefly moved to Chicago, where she worked with a group of filmmakers working at what had been dubbed “mumblecore:” Joe Swanberg, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, and Andrew Bujalski. Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga—a man who must’ve been very familiar with the murmurs of mumblecore—first said the phrase as a joke, before it solidified into contemporary filmmaking lexicon. Like many labels assigned to prove rather than identify a pattern, it was disliked by everyone it applied to. Still, “mumblecore” was a useful identifier for a certain kind of low-fi film made between 2002 and 2010. Gerwig featured predominantly in the major films of that brief movement, starring in Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, and Nights and Weekends, amongst others. She co-wrote Hannah, and was the co-writer, co-director, and co-star to Swanberg in Nights and Weekends.
In 2010, she starred opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg, her first collaboration with Baumbach. The film was criticized for its bleak depiction of a man suffering from painfully solipsistic depression, but her performance as Florence, a sweet, floundering personal assistant, was widely praised. Next came a few roles with high-profile directors and co-stars: Woody Allen with To Rome With Love, Whit Stillman with Damsels in Distress, and as Russell Brand’s romantic interest in the remake of Arthur.
Her second collaboration with Baumbach, Frances Ha, was a breakthrough role in many ways; after years of accumulating critical acclaim for her work as an actress, it was her work as the writer of Frances Ha that seemed to signify the story Gerwig wanted to tell. The performance was mannered, but never unnatural. Frances is guided by something inside herself, a force that makes her run down the streets even if she has nowhere to be, to say things she immediately wants to take back. We follow the aspiring modern dancer, flailing in every sense of the word, as she moves between apartments, jobs, and continents, heartbroken after a break with her best friend, Sophie. The film was a love story, traditional in every sense except platonic. “She has the girl, she loses the girl, she tries to get the girl back, she finally is able to let the girl go,” Gerwig explains as a summary of her story, “and that’s when the grace comes.”
“I get scared when the camera is too close, not out of vanity, but out of feeling like I don’t have… my whole tool kit.”
“I made it for the ladies,” she says. “And I love it when women say they feel heard or seen by it. When you sit in a movie theater and suddenly you see something and you say, ‘Oh my god, somebody knows, how did they know?’ You feel less alone, I guess.”
The theme that came through so strongly in Frances Ha, alongside the idea of grace, was Gerwig’s interest in relationships between women. “Friends or mentors or mothers and daughters and sisters,” is how she put it. “Particularly for women, it feels like there’s a whole territory of life undocumented. Don’t you wish that women in ancient Greece wrote a bunch of stuff, so we knew what the fuck they were thinking? We have no idea. Basically at any point before, maybe, the 19th century, we don’t know what they were thinking. It feels like a real loss.” She shakes her head. “I feel that way, still, with certain movies that are so dude-centric. I think, ‘what are your wives doing right now? Why don’t you just make a movie about that?’”
Maggie’s Plan is, in many ways, precisely a movie about what John’s wives— current and former—are doing. Maggie’s relationship with Georgette is a rare example of two women who are linked, but not defined, by a shared husband; they’re co-parents, mothering the same children. It’s a common bond too often reduced, in films, to clichés about wicked stepmothers and shrewd ex-wives. In Miller’s telling, both of them share a deep pride in their labor and their families. They want what’s best for their family , and they also want to insist on having their own needs met. Hawke is great as a particularly recognizable male academic; his good intentions are matched only by his self-absorption—convinced that, if every area of his life was perfectly manicured, he could finally write his novel—but he’s secondary to the story of Maggie and Georgette’s plan.
Gerwig wanted to do this film specifically so she could work with Miller, and she credits Miller with creating a collaborative, open process. They spent a year figuring out who Maggie was, going for walks, working on Maggie’s stance, and shopping for Maggie’s outfits, sending each other ideas as they had them. Gerwig describes it as getting a “flash” and would text Miller something like: “I don’t think Maggie drinks. I don’t think Maggie would have wine with dinner, but I do think she’d take a shot of whiskey to steady her nerves.”
In her work as an actress, Gerwig says she likes to collect these small pieces until it begins to form a unified whole. As a writer, too, she starts with a “mess of stuff” and prints it all out, physically arranging the pages until it takes shape: a nest, or a quilt, are the two comparisons she makes. Soon, she’ll direct her first film on her own, Lady Bird, currently in pre-production and slated for a 2017 release. Gerwig is thinking about it nonstop, but can’t really talk about specifics just yet. “I feel like I have nothing to say! I wrote it, I’m casting it,” and she pauses before telling me, “I want it more than I’ve wanted anything in my whole life. I hope we can have this discussion later, when it exists.”
Before that, Gerwig’s 2016 is full: Along with Maggie’s Plan, she is also starring in Weiner-Dog, Todd Solondz’s much anticipated sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, as Dawn Weiner. She’ll be in a new Mike Mills movie, 20th Century Women, alongside Alia Shawkat and Elle Fanning. And she’ll be reading her favorite plays, and thinking about her favorite artists, and staying in motion, always. She told me about a recent trip to London where she saw a show by the artist Agnes Martin, who used a quote from John Cage: “I’ve got nothing to say and I’m saying it.” This stuck with her. “I put it in my memory bank and thought, the next time somebody asks me what I’m saying I’m going to say that.” She takes a moment to reconsider, and then finds her balance. “No, I think I’m saying something.”
PHOTOGRAPHER Eric Ryan Anderson PHOTO ASSISTANTS Andrew Segreti and Chad Davis STYLIST Cristina Ehrlich STYLIST ASSISTANT Kevin Ericson HAIR Miok MAKE-UP Robin Friedrich LOCATION Battery Harris
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