How many people know Greta Gerwig’s name?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering over the past few weeks as her new movie, “Lady Bird,” debuts to near-universal praise.
Gerwig has been branded an “it girl” time and time again over the past several years, but her highest-grossing movies, “No Strings Attached” and “Arthur,” aren’t known as “Greta Gerwig movies.” No, “Greta Gerwig movies” are things like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” ― her collaborations with indie honcho and romantic partner Noah Baumbach ― as well as talky dramedies like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Lola Versus,” both of which belong to the so-called mumblecore genre. None of those topped $5 million at the domestic box office, though last year’s “20th Century Women” did manage nearly $6 million in revenue. Gerwig, 34, has plenty of art-house cred, but do mainstream audiences examine her sensibilities with the same enthusiasm?
I think ― and hope ― we’re about to find out.
“Lady Bird,” a wonderful coming-of-age tale starring Saoirse Ronan as a middle-class teenager longing to flee California for an East Coast college, has the potential to become a considerable hit as it opens in more theaters across the country throughout November. It heralds Gerwig’s foray into solo directing ― she also made 2008′s “Nights and Weekends” with Joe Swanberg ― and serves as a distillation of her sensibilities. The articulate, witty characters grow up, grow apart, seek contentment and learn lessons not through the manipulation of movie melodrama, but through the natural increments that accompany life’s progress.
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At indie distributor A24′s offices, I sat down with Gerwig last week to discuss her career evolution, “Lady Bird,” the support she’s received from her industry pals and the movie’s depiction of middle-class weariness.
I assume you’ve caught wind of the glowing reviews and tremendous opening-weekend box office. Everything is coming up Greta Gerwig.
Everything is coming up “Lady Bird.” It’s thrilling. It’s so meaningful because, really, this was such an act of love by every single person who made the movie, from my cinematographer to all my actors to every single PA, who I adore, who worked on this movie. People really poured themselves into it, so that it’s being received that way just makes me so proud of — I keep saying my kids, even though some of them are older than me. They all feel like my kids! I’m just so proud of the family that made it. It’s really exciting that it’s going this way.
Before we dive into “Lady Bird,” I must tell you I’m obsessed with “Jackie.”
I think I’ve seen it eight times.
Oh my gosh. I love it too.
Playing Jackie Kennedy’s assistant has to be the most un-Gerwigian thing you’ve done so far.
It’s true. I was a big fan of the filmmaker, Pablo Larraín. I had loved his films “No” and “The Club,” but I thought of him primarily as a Spanish-language filmmaker. He made movies in [Latin America], and I thought I probably wasn’t going to be in one of his movies because that’s not my skill set. But I admired them greatly, and then I heard he was making it and was interested in me being in it. As an actor, I just go off the director. I never ask how big the part is. I don’t look at it from the perspective of, “Is this going to be good for my career?” I just look for directors, and I think part of that is I knew I always wanted to be a director. For me, working with great directors is not only a great experience as an actor; it’s a great experience as a person who wants to do this.
I was already friends with Natalie Portman, and I adored her. So I thought, “Yeah, great.” I remember the first phone conversation we had — I’d read the script, but I knew I was going to do it because it was him. We talked on the phone about it, and he said this thing that was so interesting to me, which was, “To me, it’s a film about objects — all these objects that [Jackie Kennedy] had brought into the White House, and how all these objects left. It’s this tragedy, but it’s also this building of some American dream and having it be taken apart.” He told me he’d seen me in “Mistress America,” and he thought I was very good, but he thought it was nice that I was so much bigger than Natalie because I’m like a protector to her.
You mean in terms of your physical stature?
Yeah, I’m physically much taller than her, so it felt like I was a safe person for her in the chaos of what was going on around her. I just adored shooting it. We shot on soundstages in Paris. They recreated all these details. It was a French crew, and of course Natalie can speak all of the languages, so she could talk to everyone. I just stumbled my way through. I just loved being around it. I actually saw Pablo and his brother, Juan — they produced this movie “A Fantastic Woman.”
Yes! What a beautiful movie.
It’s so great. It’s so beautiful. I love that filmmaker, [Sebastían Lelio]. He also made “Gloria,” which had meant so much to me. I saw them at [the Telluride Film Festival], actually, right before “Lady Bird” premiered. Pablo said, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be great. Even if it isn’t, no one will say it to your face.” Which I always thought was pretty great. They watched it, and they were so wonderful about it. So “Jackie” was meaningful to me because I loved making it and I loved getting to play a part where I was completely transformed. That’s how I learned my job. I feel so part of the filmmaking community. It’s amazing how much people support each other.
Right, just think about that collective of Chilean filmmakers, like Larraín and Lelio, who all produce one another’s projects. They make such good work.
Such good work! It’s always interesting to me how it’s always a small group of people. When you actually get in there and you look at why all these great films are coming out of this place at this time, you realize they all know each other. The first version of that — or not the first version, but a big version — was the French New Wave. Those filmmakers knew each other and were writing about film and thinking about film. It happened again with American films of the ’70s. Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola all were friends. They were just kids.
Have you seen the Spielberg documentary on HBO?
Yeah, I loved it.
That footage of those five guys hanging out in the ’70s was stunning. I want an entire movie about that.
I know. It’s so fun to watch, too, as a person who is, you know, an aspirational filmmaker and a youngish filmmaker. They were always sort of looking at each other’s work. They were a little competitive, but mostly they were just trying to make what they were doing good, like how Brian De Palma came up with the scroll in “Star Wars” for George, and how they were all talking to each other about “How did you get this shot?” and “How did you frame this?” I think that is such a big part of what I love about communities of artists.
Do you feel like you have been able to establish that for yourself?
Hugely. And with people you wouldn’t think of.
The most obvious version of that — and I know you don’t like this word, so I use it loosely — is the mumblecore movement that started in the 2000s, in which a small group of independent-minded actors and directors, including yourself, quickly became connected.
Sure, sure, sure. That was a big part of just taking each other seriously because we were doing stuff that was so off the radar. Still, the people I text with are Josh and Benny Safdie, the directors of “Good Time.” They’re some of my best friends, and they just texted with me over the weekend, like, “Get it, Greta! Get it!” It was just so sweet. And Lena Dunham is part of that group of people. Miranda July. All these different kinds of filmmakers and people. We’re always looking at what one another does. I went and saw “Good Time” in the theater the first weekend, and I think it’s the best thing they’ve made. And I’ve known Ronnie Bronstein for a long time, who co-wrote the script with them and who is married to Mary Bronstein, who directed me in a film called “Yeast,” years ago. It’s just one of those things where I very much sense this community that’s talking to each other. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost — they directed “Catfish,” and they’ve directed other things since then. And Ry Russo-Young, and what she’s done. And the Dupes. Mark and Jay Duplass.
The Dupes? Is that what you call them?
The Dupes. The Dupses. But yeah, it’s a very nice thing to feel like that’s all connected.
For someone to disappear into a role, that actor usually needs a persona that informs what people expect from them. Maybe a certain genre or style. Yours is something that tends to generate a lot of similar adjectives. Words like “quirky” get thrown around a lot. Do you think people have adequately defined your sensibilities, if that’s something you even care to monitor?
Well, for me I just keep making the work. You live through the moment you’re living through in terms of how people see you, but in terms of the project you’re doing, whether it’s acting in something like “Jackie” or writing and directing this film, I can’t control how anyone sees me, so I make no attempt to do so. I just try to keep my eye on the thing that is most challenging and most alive to me in that moment. I figure — knock on wood — I’ll have a long career, and at the end of it the assessment will be whatever it is.
You don’t do it until you do it, is the thing. Nobody knows what you have in you until you’ve done it, so I just keep pushing those boundaries, and I figure it will all come out in the wash.
Does it bother you when people call something like “Frances Ha” a “Noah Baumbach movie”? You wrote the script together. It was very much a collaboration.
I mean, he directed it. He directed the shit out of it, and that’s great. But in terms of the film being something that’s authored by both of us, yeah. It’s authored by both of us, and it’s nice when it’s referred to that way.
It very much feels like a movie that has your artistic sensibility stamped all over it, and sometimes, in passing, there seems to be some sort of divide between whether it’s a “Noah Baumbach movie” or a “Greta Gerwig movie.” Of course, I’m generalizing here.
You know that band the Traveling Wilburys? It’s Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. They were all their own artists, and then when they made an album together it was the Traveling Wilburys. So I think “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” for both of us, that’s our Traveling Wilburys. And of course he’s made amazing films on his own. He’s my favorite filmmaker, of course. And then I make films on my own, and also act in other people’s projects. But to me it’s kind of like a side band.
What struck me most about “Lady Bird” is its depiction of the middle class, the way Lady Bird envies her classmates’ homes and feels judged based on her material possessions. That’s a sensation that lingers through adulthood, but it feels distinctly adolescent here, how teenagers litigate one another’s social status based on arbitrary wealth.
It’s interesting to me because I am interested in it as a question, and I’m interested in how we deal with it and how we don’t deal with it in the art that we make and the conversations that we have. The moment of the film that I wanted to set it in is a little bit after when I was in high school. I wanted it to be in this post-9/11 world. We’ve experienced a national trauma; we’re in the war in Afghanistan; we’re getting into the war in Iraq; the internet and cellphones and all of that are on the rise, but they’re not there yet; the speeding up of the erosion of the middle class has started, which is something we’re really, really experiencing right now. It felt like a way to talk about now without setting it now.
I think something about high school students being snobby about how much they have or don’t have is particularly absurd because it’s not theirs. It’s their parents’. So to feel quite good about yourself because you’ve got the fancy house and car doesn’t make any sense — you didn’t earn any of that.
It’s circumstantial, and so it is truly just the luck of the draw in that way. I was also just interested, in terms of Lady Bird, in the way she’s always looking at the fancier houses and the girls who have more. They have more access to this stuff that she thinks she wants, and she doesn’t notice that she is the object of envy of somebody else. Her best friend, Julie, would look at her and say, “But she’s got an intact family and she lives in that cute house. Her life is perfect.” Sometimes envy doesn’t allow you to see what you have, and particularly, I think, in America, you’re always looking at the more, more, more. You can’t see what’s in front of you.
And the other thing is just this idea that I think started happening in the ’90s, and then it really sped up with the changing technology and the changing workforce and the erosion of the middle class. It’s this idea of your parents’ generation finding themselves in their 50s or their 60s, and suddenly they don’t have the job they’ve had for 30 years. You have to find a new job in your 50s, which is not a thing that your parents’ generation ever really had to go through, but because the economic landscape has changed so drastically and what is required of workers has changed so drastically, you find yourself needing a new career at a point when you thought you’d be winding down in your career. I think all that’s really fascinating, and it’s not as if my film has a response to it. I just wanted to show it.
“Lady Bird” is now playing in select theaters. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.