Our writer spoke with former Sacramentan and actress Greta Gerwig for half an hour and neither ever said the word ‘mumblecore’
In writer-director Noah Baumbach’s new film, Greenberg, Sacramento native Greta Gerwig plays love interest to a perpetually nettled Ben Stiller, as a guy who’s “trying to do nothing for a while.” So is that a step up for the so-called “first lady of mumblecore,” or what? We caught up with Gerwig for a chat last week.
First, how was it growing up in Sac?
I loved growing up in Sacramento. It’s not like L.A. or New York or San Francisco. There aren’t as many professionals in Sacramento. It’s more limited. So there’s a lot of community theater. Which was important to me in the sense that it was an easy way to get your hands dirty. It didn’t seem like you had to be qualified. You could just go make theater. There’s a lot of little theaters in Sac. That carried over into making films later.
I did all the things that you would do if you were interested in the arts in Sacramento. I did The Nutcracker at Sacramento Ballet three years in a row. I studied ballet with Pamela Hayes, who still teaches in Sacramento. I did tap and jazz with Ron Cisneros, who’s still teaching kids in Sacramento. I did Shakespeare in the Park with City College in Land Park. I performed at the Woodland Opera House. I performed at Sierra 2. I did Ed Claudio’s Actor’s Theatre. Celebration Arts. Like, everywhere.
And now my best friend Connor Mickiewicz just started a theater company in Sacramento last year called the New Helvetia Theatre. My parents are still there; my brother’s still there. I’m very connected to that being where I come from.
Speaking of very familiar, I think I’ve seen you naked more than anybody else I’ve interviewed.
Have you interviewed Kate Winslet?
She’s ahead of me. But she’s got a few years on me.
That’s true. So what does all this nakedness mean to you?
It’s always transforming in what it means to me. I think it’s not something I consciously did or didn’t do, but it has been brought to my attention. (Laughs.)
And I think that the first time that it ever happened, it was a scene in a shower. You don’t have clothes on in a shower. And also, I guess I fundamentally don’t get what the big deal is in a lot of ways. But if there’s any meaning to it initially, especially in Hannah Takes the Stairs, it’s that I have felt like either you’re showing a woman’s body as a sexual object of lust that is presented for your desire, or it is degrading to be naked. But there was nothing in between.
There wasn’t just nudity because, listen, you change your clothes and you’re naked. There was something about the lack of that that made me feel like women are either fetishized or degraded or both; they’re not just allowed to live in their bodies. I think it’s hand in hand with not wanting to see people for how they are. We don’t really want to see their bodies, either. And I don’t mean to say that as a slight to filmmaking as it stands now. I would feel so much weirder about it if I had worked out really hard and gone on a raw-foods diet before I did it, because that defeats the purpose for me. Because then you are showing your body as an object instead of your body as a thing that you live in. I would never do that kind of nudity. But maybe that’s splitting hairs. For me it makes all the difference.
And then I think I felt like, “Ah, fuck it—if you do it once, who the fuck cares if you do it again?” At that point being coy about it seems sort of silly. I have said before, though: Being naked on screen is very different than doing sex scenes, which are kind of horrible. Not in Greenberg. Greenberg’s sex scenes were very choreographed and completely safe, which was very nice.
How else is Greenberg different from your earlier films?
The scale of it, definitely. I think it’s the biggest challenge and the biggest reward I’ve had as an actress. I think a lot of that has to do with coming to the script as a thing that has already had hours and hours and hours of effort put into it, by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach. And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean, there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it.
But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.
Also, he tends to write movie characters who are not nice.
I think I’m interested in flawed characters that are actually flawed. They’re not flawed in a way that makes the picture more beautiful or makes them lovable, but actually just flawed. I think that that’s more true. I know it’s harder from an audience standpoint; it makes characters less palatable in some ways, because it makes them more familiar. And I think I’ve always admired writers who’ve done that.
Noah said something in an interview once that I thought was very true. He said sympathetic characters don’t need our sympathy. … I mean, like, Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding: I love it. I love it. I just thought she was great. But, that being said, I just watched The Blind Side on the plane and I cried.