Greta Gerwig, who stars in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, has made a name in indie films like Greenberg with a style that stands out for its naturalism. In Damsels, she inhabits the role of Violet, a bright, sweet, sincere college girl as only a bright, sweet, sincere former college girl could.
Gerwig tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the biggest challenge was that she was already a fan of Whit Stillman's previous films, Barcelona, Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco — and that actors working with strong auteurs sometimes have such a sense of the filmmaker's previous work that it takes some effort to approach the material fresh.
"He writes in such a specific rhythm," Gerwig says, "and he has such a strong voice that a lot of what I did was to try not to imitate the other actors who had done it so brilliantly before me. A lot of it was trying to find the words in myself, and not simply imitate what it was."
"I really try to come at it," she says, "like I've never seen any of his films before and I don't know what it's supposed to be like. It involves a lot of almost self-hypnosis."
Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento and attended Barnard College, says the influence of Woody Allen's films was one of the reasons she moved to New York. (She'll appear later this year in Allen's To Rome with Love.)
"I remember standing on the roof of Barnard College and not knowing which way was uptown and which way was downtown or west or east," Gerwig says. "I didn't know the city at all, but I was so happy to be in New York I cried. I was so excited."
Gerwig, 28 now, has more than arrived since then, thanks to roles in indies like Baghead and Hannah Takes the Stairs — and more recently in Hollywood comedies like Arthur. Her work has earned her — at least in Us Weekly -- the label "Hollywood's indie darling," which she finds both flattering and a little oxymoronic.
"As long as I can keep making films the way I have been," Gerwig says, "I don't have any reason to complain."
Several of her film projects are coming out this year, but she says she doesn't have a sense yet of what she will be doing down the road.
"I've never had a plan, I've always done things from instinct," she says. "I had dreams, but I didn't have the sense that they would necessarily work out. They seemed very far-fetched."
Now is the first time Gerwig has been in a position to wait on the right job — but she says that sometimes, throwing yourself into something is just as valuable.
"Getting bad reviews or doing something that's not great is also really good for you as an actor," she says. "It also makes me feel as an actor that I've earned my stripes a bit."
Gerwig says when she's met older actors, directors and writers — including those she admires — a common thread is that they've gotten bad reviews or done something they've regretted.
"Nobody gets away with it unscathed — everybody has their moments," Gerwig says. "It's both the price of admission and part of the joy of it that you're able to continue even when you do something dreadful."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, here's some dialog from a new movie called "Damsels in Distress."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DAMSELS IN DISTRESS")
GRETA GERWIG: (as Violet) We're using a whole range of musical dance numbers which, over many years, have proven themselves to be effective therapies for the suicidal and the hopelessly depressed. Tap is a highly effective therapy, as well as a dazzlingly expressive dance form that has been sadly neglected for too many years.
SIEGEL: That's Greta Gerwig. Her smart, overly literate lines are by the writer/director, Whit Stillman, but Gerwig inhabits the role of a bright, sweet and sincere college girl as only a bright, sweet and sincere former college girl could.
Before "Damsels in Distress," she was the best thing about a movie called "Greenberg." She was a bright spot in last year's remake of "Arthur" and she will appear in Woody Allen's next comedy. And, right now, she's appearing on this program.
SIEGEL: And I want you to begin by describing the challenge there was in your playing your character, Violet, in "Damsels in Distress," the challenge of playing a part in a movie, which is - to put it mildly - not striving for realism. It's a funny over-the-top movie.
GERWIG: Well, I would say that the biggest challenge was that I was a fan of Whit Stillman's films and I loved his previous films, "Barcelona" and "Metropolitan" and "Last Days of Disco." And he writes in such a specific rhythm and he has such a strong voice that a lot of what I did was to try to not imitate the other actors who'd done it so brilliantly before me. And so, a lot of it was trying to find the words in myself and not simply imitate what it was.
SIEGEL: To not imitate them?
GERWIG: To not imitate. I think, sometimes, people - when there's a strong auteur - they have such a sense of what it's supposed to be like.
SIEGEL: Speaking of auteurs, you're going to appear in a Woody Allen movie.
SIEGEL: So what do you do? Shake out of your head every young woman who's played a part in a Woody Allen movie?
GERWIG: I really try to. I try to come at it like I've never seen any of his films before and I don't know what it's supposed to be like. It involves a lot of almost self-hypnosis.
SIEGEL: And you have, indeed, seen all the Woody Allen movies?
GERWIG: Yeah. I grew up - it's one of the reasons I moved to New York.
SIEGEL: Explain that. You grew up in California - in Sacramento, California.
SIEGEL: And you went to New York to attend Barnard College?
GERWIG: Uh-huh. I went to Barnard College and I majored in English and I minored in philosophy. And I remember standing on the roof of Barnard College and not knowing which way was uptown and which way was downtown or west or east. I didn't know the city at all, but I was so happy to be in New York, I cried. I was so excited, I felt like my life is really beginning.
SIEGEL: You've arrived.
GERWIG: I've arrived.
SIEGEL: In this week's Us Weekly, in addition to a little disparaging item about "Damsels in Distress," there's a glamour shot of you under the headline, Hollywood's Indie Darling.
GERWIG: Oh, no.
SIEGEL: You haven't see this?
GERWIG: No. I haven't seen this.
SIEGEL: How do you like that, Hollywood's Indie Darling? Is that an identity you can work with for a couple of years?
GERWIG: I don't know. Isn't that sort of an oxymoron? Can you be Hollywood and indie at the same time?
SIEGEL: Sounds pretty tough to me, but you know, Us Weekly is a little bit over my head in these matters.
GERWIG: No. I think that's a lovely title. I think it's very flattering and, as long as I can keep making films the way I have been, I don't have any reason to complain.
SIEGEL: Is your dance card pretty well booked now for a few years?
GERWIG: You know, it's actually not. I've done a bunch of films in a row and then there's this funny delay. And then, this year, they're all kind of coming out at once and that's exciting, but I don't have any sense of what I'll be doing after they're all out. I mean, I hope that there's lots of opportunities, but I don't know exactly what they are. It's not like I'm booked out for years to come. I'm kind of seeing what comes up.
I've always worked very - I've never had, like, a plan, really. I've always kind of done things from instinct.
SIEGEL: But, when you're standing on a roof at Barnard and looking out over - that was the Hudson, by the way...
SIEGEL: ...out to your - whichever - you know, to the west. You didn't have a plan? I'm going to take over the city and make movies and be an actress and...
GERWIG: I mean, I had dreams, but I didn't have a sense that they would necessarily work out. They seemed very farfetched.
SIEGEL: Well, now you've reached the ripe old age of 28. Do you feel like the career is unfolding?
GERWIG: Yes. This is the first time I've ever been in a position where I have an ability to wait a beat before I start panicking about my next job, which is very thrilling. It's nice to be in a position to be choosy, but also sometimes just throwing yourself in there and getting bad reviews or doing something that's not great is also really good for you as an actor.
It also makes me feel like I earn my stripes a bit because, when I meet older actors or directors or writers who I really admire, all of them - all of them have had these terrible reviews or done something they regret or, like, nobody gets away with it unscathed. Everybody has their moments and it's both the price of admission and part of the joy of it that you can - you're able to continue, even when you do something dreadful.
SIEGEL: Greta Gerwig, thank you very much for talking with us.
GERWIG: Thank you so much for having me.
SIEGEL: Greta Gerwig plays the role of Violet in the new film, "Damsels in Distress." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.