The speed at which media travels can do funny things to a moviemaker’s career. In this Internet-dominated age, even the tiniest films can find some degree of exposure. Most of these movies get a few blog posts and fade into the ether, but a select few thrive in this brave new electronic world, thrusting their stars to unforeseen heights.
Greta Gerwig is one such beneficiary. The 28-year-old actress’ career launch has been one of the fastest in recent memory. One moment she was a recent Columbia grad (a double major in English and Philosophy) starring in the ultra-low-budget “mumblecore” movies of Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes The Stairs) and the Duplass brothers (Baghead), the next she was, in surreal fashion, starring opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg—and giving the greatest performance of her career up to that point.
Her utterly vulnerable you-can’t-learn-this-in-acting-school persona wasn’t enormously changed from her earlier films, but her portrayal of a character with barely hidden self-esteem issues felt realer than ever before. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to roles in big-budget pictures like No Strings Attached (as Natalie Portman’s best friend), Arthur (as Russell Brand’s love interest) and Damsels in Distress, WASP-auteur Whit Stillman’s first feature in 14 years.
While it’s tempting to read Gerwig’s success as an incredible out-of-left-field Hollywood feel-good story, the truth is much more nuanced. She may not have gone to an acting conservatory, but Gerwig’s been interested in the field for a while. She developed a love of musical theater when she was just a teen, and took plenty of acting classes while she was at Columbia. She saw herself becoming not an English or philosophy professor, but a playwright. The crucial takeaway? There’s nothing accidental about what Gerwig has accomplished.
Next up, Gerwig plays the titular role in Lola Versus, which is directed by another young talent with a rocketing career, Daryl Wein. (Wein’s micro-budget narrative directorial debut, Breaking Upwards, was bought by IFC Films for a VOD release but ended up in theaters for seven weeks.)
The story begins when Lola is dumped by her fiancé (Joel Kinnaman) shortly before their wedding. At first Lola is shaken and confused, but as she puts her life back together, she reassesses her ideas of what she really wants. (She also finds time to go on a few dates with a guy who listens to world music and insists on wild—not farmed—salmon, in some of the film’s funniest scenes.) Her best friends (Hamish Linklater and Lister-Jones) help steer her ship, but not in the way you’d expect; Lola Versus is nothing if not a totally unpredictable reworking of the typical romantic dramedy.
Between Gerwig, Wein and Lister-Jones, there’s a strong sense of outsiders at work in Hollywood. The result is an incredibly fresh take on a genre that, frankly, was well due for one.
Zachary Wigon (MM): There are a lot of moments where Lola Versus feels like it could be a romantic comedy, but it continually dodges genre conventions. How important was that to you?
Greta Gerwig (GG): That’s what grabbed me about the script. I had this feeling for the first 20 pages, like ‘Oh, I know where this goes.’ But it didn’t go there, it played things true to life. I really loved the fact that she makes big mistakes. She recovers, but it’s not like she makes little mistakes and people love her anyway; she makes big mistakes that really test the way the people she loves feel about her. I felt like that was really great because a lot of times characters make the kind of mistakes that are no big deal. In this film, she acts like an asshole and her friends treat her like an asshole.
MM: You’ve played a lot of cheery, whimsical characters, and this performance goes to a lot of darker places. Was it freeing to be able to do that?
GG: It was always a struggle we had, determining how dark it should be. My instinct was to go for the darkness as much as I could, because I thought that would make it real and funny. Fox watched the dailies sometimes and said, “Oh my God, what are you guys making? Half of it is funny, and half of it is a Lars von Trier film.” But I think there is something deeply funny about people who are in the depths of their own personal despair, because they will get out of it—especially if it’s romantic—but it feels so horrible at the time.
MM: Is it invigorating to be able to go dark like that, when it’s a different kind of character for you?
GG: If you don’t get to exercise a part of who you are as a human in acting, when that opportunity comes along you really say, ‘I have a lot of sadness and tears to throw out at this moment.’ But if you get typecast a lot, you start to feel like you’re limited as a person. So when something comes along that lets you show a different color, where you get to provide something new, that allows you to feel like you’re a more complete human being.
MM: There’s also a lot of anger in the performance, which makes sense, since a lot of comedy comes out of anger.
GG: She’s so pissed off at everything and everyone. I think in a strange way it’s based in physical comedy, too. Nothing’s funnier than a punch that doesn’t connect.
MM: What was the process with Daryl Wein like, in terms of how you guys shaped the character together?
GG: We talked a lot about who she was before the film begins. Lola’s never really been in a crisis. She’s a Type A person who always has everything arranged, [who] knows her career path. It’s more interesting to play someone who has the rug pulled out from under her than someone who’s been a mess all along. Lola’s parents have been crazy, the world around her has been crazy, but she’s been solid.
Someone explained to me that in the old studio system they used to give actors lessons in how to answer the telephone. If you were going to pick up the telephone and get bad news, you’re supposed to be in the opposite place when you pick up the phone—you’re really happy. I think a lot of what I did was building up that self-assured nature, that confidence that Lola has prior to everything falling apart around her.
MM: You acted opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot from working with really talented actors like that as your career has progressed?
GG: In so many ways I learned everything from them and what they’ve done. Someone—I forget who—on “Inside the Actors Studio” once said they can’t really take credit for their performance, since they were just responding to the other actors. You just have to be open to them. I feel like I’m still learning on every movie. I completely give myself over to every movie that I do. I don’t have any way to hold back. I just keep hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to keep working with great people. Every time I act in a movie, I think, ‘I just totally went for broke, I don’t know what else there is.’ But then you find what else there is. In some ways, I feel like I’m a pitcher, and I just hope I don’t get spooked and lose the touch.
MM: Well you’ve always looked pretty comfortable on-screen. Internally, has the comfort zone changed for you in terms of what it’s like to be in front of a camera?
GG: I’ve gotten comfortable with different kinds of movies. This movie felt different from Greenberg, which felt different from Damsels in Distress. Each time I have to find my comfort zone. I have to find out what will make it feel like the camera can just observe me, instead of feeling like I’m performing for it. Each time I’m scared, and it takes a while to find my rhythm and figure out what’s going on. I think I have a well-developed sense of the outcome; if it doesn’t feel good to me while we’re doing it, I know it will turn out badly. I have a pretty good internal barometer for whether something is working or not.
MM: I imagine that barometer has helped other skills of yours. I know you’re interested in aspects of moviemaking other than acting.
GG: I’d really like to direct. I hope I get the chance to. One of the benefits of being an actor is that you get to be on lots of different sets. Directors are typically just on their own, so they don’t know how other sets are run. Actors have the benefit of seeing not just how directors talk to actors, but what kind of ADs are the best, what to look for in a line producer—that sort of thing really affects the tone of the set. I hope all of that will make me more sensitive to actors. I have a good feeling for what jams actors up and what makes them really fly. You want to make sure you don’t make actors more self-conscious or embarrassed.
MM: I was reading the other day about how, when people improvise, like in sketch comedy or jazz, the part of their brain that controls inhibition has to shut down.
GG: I think that’s true of so many things. You need to turn off your inner critic. You have to turn off the part of you that would say, ‘No, don’t do that. It’s foolish.’ I think that’s true in all aspects of art. You have to structure yourself in a way that is not self-conscious, but still gets a piece of art out. That’s the trick. I fight with the inner critic every day. It’s really difficult—your inner critic is very well-developed. Also, I have outer critics now, so I have to contend with them, too.
Fox Searchlight will release Lola Versus on June 8, 2012.