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Greta Gerwig

Q&A with the co-star of Baghead

Jul 01, 2008 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Greta Gerwig is only two years out of Barnard College, but already she’s been touted as the queen of mumblecore, a catchword used to categorize the DIY aesthetic of Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg and other young directors who make small-scale, dialogue-driven features with nonprofessional actors. Purportedly, “mumblecore” was coined by Eric Masunaga, Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer, at the 2005 SXSW Film Festival, where Bujalski, the Duplass brothers and Swanberg all converged with new films (Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair, Kissing on the Mouth, respectively). A year later, newcomer Gerwig was cast as the title character in Swanberg’s super-mumblecore film Hannah Takes the Stairs, which co-starred Bujalksi and Mark Duplass as Hannah’s boyfriends. Hannah was mostly improvised and climaxes with a long, strikingly confessional scene between Gerwig and Kent Osborne (playing Hannah’s third boyfriend in the film) before concluding with Gerwig and Obsborne performing a trumpet duet bare naked in a bathtub.

Movie acting is still relatively new to Gerwig, who was a playwright before being cast as Hannah, but since then she has starred in three features—all of which screened at SXSW this year—including Baghead, directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. In the film, Gerwig plays an aspiring actress who accompanies three actor friends to the California woods to collaborate on a screenplay, only to find themselves the prey of a menacing man with a paper grocery bag over his head.

Sporting short-cropped hair in Hannah and Baghead, Gerwig has appeared almost pixie-ish on camera, but in person, standing in boots and a black miniskirt, she’s taller than you’d expect, and with her blonde curls grown to shoulder length, she looks like a genuine starlet. Under the Radar met with Gerwig in Beverly Hills to discuss Baghead a few hours before an advance screening of the film in Hollywood. Gerwig’s relaxed, girlish voice is unmistakable to anyone who has seen Hannah, and though her answers are peppered with “like,” her speech is less languid than her sometimes intoxicated characters’; her observations on various artistic mediums are expressive and pointed. Asked how she can recall the details of past projects when she’s currently involved in so many, she replies: “I’m blessed or cursed with a good memory, so it all still feels fresh.”

What was the atmosphere like on the set of Baghead? Was it much different than Hannah Takes the Stairs?

The atmosphere kinda paralleled what happens in the movie. It really just felt like, “Let’s go make a movie!” We were in the woods and we didn’t know if anybody would ever see it. It felt very “Wow, we’re just gonna go do this and hopefully it’s good.” So it had this very independent spirit, in the best way. It felt very free and open and all ideas were welcome. Just bring your best material to the table and let’s make something good. And that was very similar to Hannah. Hannah felt that way as well. But I think the main difference was Baghead was much more structured, and there were specific tonal things that the Duplass brothers were trying to hit, like these shifts between scary moments and funny moments and romance, and having all of these things fused together in something that worked. So, in that way, I think it was less that we were trying to see what happened and more trying to execute a variety of different paths, because we wanted to make a movie that did something to people. If it was supposed to make them scared, that it actually made them scared. If it was supposed to make them laugh.… And making Hannah was more like a Rorschach test, like see what you want to see in it. Some people find it funny, some people find it tragic. But we were just trying to find true moments and present what we found. And this movie was much more, “We got a lot to juggle here, and it’s all gotta work.” [laughs]

The Duplass brothers have shot in sequence in the past. Was Baghead shot in sequence?


In Hannah you were acting with multiple directors, but what was the dynamic like acting for two directors in Baghead?

Mark and Jay are really positive people. They’re very encouraging, and their goal as directors is to try to make you feel so good about yourself that you will give the best performance that’s in you, as opposed to some directors [who] tend to break you down a little bit so that they can manipulate you into doing what they want, which is not their [the Duplass brothers] goal at all. They’re just trying to make you feel like you’re a great actor, so that you’re free and you stop worrying about it. And I think that’s a really successful way to direct. And also, because there’s two of them, if one of them gets tired, the other one can pick up the slack. [laughs] And so, basically it just means that, no matter what, there’s always some Duplass du-ply beside you cheering you on and being like, “That was amazing!” And if he’s not there, then the other one’s there. [laughs]

As long as they’re positive, that’s good. But they also could run you to the ground if they tire at different times.

It’s true. There were some long nights. But the other benefit of working on a small movie is they’re also pushing themselves to the bitter end and back, like nobody’s getting a break. We’re all in this boat together.

Did you know the brothers before Hannah?

I just met Mark when I did Hannah, and I was totally star-struck by him ‘cause I loved Puffy Chair. I was like, “You’re the person in Puffy Chair. [she swoons] I love Puffy Chair!” [laughs] So that was kinda cool.

Where were you raised?

I was born and raised in Sacramento. My mom and dad are still there, my brother lives there. My sister lives in Berkeley. So I was the only one to go to New York, and I’m actually the only one who’s in the arts at all.

Who were your heroes growing up?

Woody Allen, for sure. I was a dancer— Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp. Baryshnikov danced for years and years, and then he started his own dance company, and then he started doing modern dance when he was 50! That guy could do everything. To this day, I admire people who, not so much reinvent themselves, but find new life in themselves and keep challenging themselves, and I think that’s always something I’ve been attracted to. Like Clint Eastwood, very attracted to him. I might not love all of his movies, but that dude directs, acts, writes his own music! What the fuck? Who does that? He’s incredible. And Altman, he directed movies till he was so old. The people who keep persisting, I think I always was really attracted to.

Did you have the acting bug as a kid?

Yeah. Well, I was that very serious dancer, I wanted to [be a] ballet dancer, but it became apparent that I didn’t quite have the right body for it. So, I started acting. I was pretty competitive as a fencer for a while, but acting was always— I was like an obnoxious kid, you know [laughs], like most kids who like to act are. I did lots of voices and looked at myself in the mirror and made faces. [giggles] And I did musicals in high school. So I was pretty eclectic.

Did you give up dancing around high school?

I still danced, but I gave up the idea of wanting to be a professional dancer— it became clear like 13 or 14, I guess, because you’re either really gonna do it or you’re not. Especially with ballet, it just became obvious. And my mother thought it was gross. She was like, “I don’t understand why my 10-year-old is crying.” Because it’s a lot of pressure on girls. And boys. You go crazy. Talk to any little kid who’s serious about ballet; they’re like little adults. They’re very scary. [laughs]

How did you get involved with Joe Swanberg’s work?

I became involved at the end of college through my boyfriend at the time, a native Chicagoan, and he knew Joe, and they started collaborating on a movie together, LOL. It was about relationships within technology, and my boyfriend asked if he could use my actual voicemail messages that I had left for him as sort of found pieces of art in this movie, and I said yes, after a fight. And then I met Joe when the movie premiered. And we kinda hit it off, and then he was making Hannah and he asked me to be a part of it.

Did you have any leading-role experience before that?

Not in film. I’d done quite a bit of theater acting at my college and high school, and I’d written a lot for my college theater department. But I wasn’t gonna pursue acting. But it makes so much sense to me now, looking back. I always secretly wanted to do it, but it’s sort of embarrassing to say you want to be an actor. You feel like you’re joining a rank of people who want to be actors who aren’t being actors. It’s sort of humiliating. [laughs] I mean, just in terms of like, it requires a lot of chutzpah. I mean, to say you wanna be a writer, it’s the same thing. You’re like, “I wanna be a writer. Oh God, am I working on my novel?” I think anything in the arts requires you to put aside your ego and be like, “Nope, I’m doing this.”

As a writer, are you as open to improvisation as you are an actor?

Um, [pause] yes. I haven’t written a play in a while. I guess a year ago was the last time I wrote a play. It was awesome. It was up at a small theater company in New York.

What was the name of the play?

C’mon, Girl (You Can Do Better Than That). As a playwright, no. I like people to say the right lines as I wrote them. But film is different though. Theater, the rhythm is in the words and the way that they’re said, because so much of the information that the audience gets is by listening. I feel like in film, rhythm is established through editing more than anything else, and it’s a much more visual medium. So, I’m just not as picky with my words in film.

What can you tell me about your films that screened at SXSW this year?

Well, Baghead was one, so, done. [laughs] Yeast was another one, which I worked on with Mary Bronstein. She directed it, and we worked on the script together. It’s great, I love it. I think it’s wonderful. It’s about these three toxic women who are in destructive friendships with each other, and it’s great because it’s one of those things where, you know, female friendship is generally portrayed as a safe haven in film. It’s like, “Oh, I’m gonna go get drinks with my girlfriends,” and it’s safe, and the rest of the world is scary. In this, we made this scary. [laughs] These are pretty evil friendships. It was really fun to do, and I hope it gets distribution and gets out in the world some way, ‘cause Mary’s very talented, and she’s gonna keep making films. And the other one is Nights and Weekends, which I co-wrote and co-directed, and I’m in with Joe Swanberg. That’s like a beast of a film, it was very hard to make. It’s very hard to watch, for me. But people really, really like it, which is good. But also bad, ‘cause when it’s hard to make something, you almost wish people would hate it, because it took so much of me to make. And you’re like, “I sacrificed so much to make it, I almost hope you can hate it.” But then, you also want them to like it because you did sacrifice so much. So it’s a very weird relationship to have with a film, but it comes out this fall through IFC. It’s gonna be in theaters and on demand.

Is there anything as offbeat as naked trumpet playing this time around?

No naked trumpet playing. Just fighting. It’s about a relationship disintegrating, and it’s so difficult to watch. It’s a sad film. [laughs]

What’s the key to playing drunk effectively?

Ooh. I don’t know, be drunk a lot and pay attention to yourself when you’re drunk? [laughs] I wasn’t drunk for any of this stuff, but I think everybody really does know how to play drunk because— I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like this, but I think most people have when they’ve been in high school or college or something, and they haven’t really drank that much in their lives. I never got drunk before college. And then you have one beer, and you’re like you want to be wasted, so you start pretending like you’re wasted. You’re like, “I’m so drunk! I had a beer, oh my God, I’m gonna say a bunch of things that I’ve always wanted to say, now that I’m drunk.” [laughs] And then you’re like, “Wait, no, I’m not drunk at all. I just wanted to say that stuff.” So I think pretending like you’re drunk, when you’re not, comes naturally. I think most people have done it. [laughs]


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