At what point, precisely, does adulthood begin its irreversible forward march? When you’re born? When you lose your virginity? When the government deems you mature enough to drive, drink, vote, smoke, or go off to war? At midnight on your 30th birthday? According to Greta Gerwig, childhood ends the moment you go from constantly wanting to be a grown-up to being horrified that you can’t stop it from happening.“I think the moment you become an adult is when you watch the Olympics and realize that you’ll never be on the gymnastics team,” says the 28-year-old actor from her perch atop a windowsill radiator at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho. “I’ve talked to a lot of girls who’ve had that moment, like, I’m 12 and those girls are 15, and I can’t possibly learn to do that in three years. It’s the awareness that there are things that you won’t achieve based on your age. I think it started for me when I watched Searching for Bobby Fischer, and I was like, I’m never going to be a child chess champion.”
Gerwig’s obsession—which isn’t so much about sliding toward death, but about aging without losing her edge—relates to her latest movie, Damsels in Distress, the first comedy of manners in 13 years from Whit Stillman, the quirky chronicler of bourgeois youth in the ’80s, whose films include Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. In Damsels, Gerwig plays Violet, a student at a fictional second-tier New England college who believes she can tamp out the frat-boy heathenism of her male peers with a good bar of soap, tap dancing lessons, and self-improvement talks derived from St. Augustine’s Confessions. “I love Violet because she seems so much older than she is,” says Gerwig. “She doesn’t enjoy being in college. She wants to skip straight to, like, the time after her kids have left the house and she’s trying to reconnect with her husband.”
Unlike Violet, who sprung like Athena from Stillman’s head and lives in a world where campus coeds break into spontaneous musical numbers, Gerwig has enjoyed a standard youth devoid of magical realism and filled with drunken nights and regrettable sex. She doesn’t want to be old now, like Violet does; she just wants to be prepared for old age so that it doesn’t surprise her when it happens—and while she’s always made an effort to get better with each passing year, action has yet to catch up with intent. She’s currently reading both Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength and a book recommended in Willpower called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, although she’s pretty sure she won’t actually follow any of their instructions. “I sort of went on a spree of, like, I need to get myself better than I am. So embarrassing,” she says. She’s also so unrelentingly messy that she came home to her Chinatown apartment one afternoon to find that her closet had been reorganized by one of her two guy roommates, Ariel Schulman, director of Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3, who has since moved out. “He was like, ‘Your closet was really hard to look at.’ Oh my god, it was like Oprah Winfrey had been there.”
Gerwig—who was raised in Sacramento, California, by her mom, a nurse, and her dad, who works at a bank handing out small-business loans—is the most loveable sort of train wreck, the kind who flails toward maturity with an unbalanced checkbook rather than on a cocaine bender. “Being an adult is hard!” she says, giggling, as she does quite often, mostly at herself, when she’s not laughing at tweets from shitgirlssay. (Her favorite: “Can someone give me Photoshop lessons?”) “It’s easy to be young. Think about how rare it is for someone to write an amazing book at 60. Anybody can be amazing when they’re 5.”
On this sunny morning in mid-December, Gerwig left her apartment without a key item of clothing: pants. Well, technically, she’s wearing yoga pants, the clingy kind that leave no room for modesty. She’d planned to go straight from our interview to a class at Om Yoga (of the many centers she’s tried, Om lets her lie down the most). The only problem is that the temperature at Housing Works has left her with no choice but to take off the long down coat she’d been using as a cover-up, forcing her to stay seated on the radiator so not to expose her cotton-encased butt to the entire room. Cracking up with embarrassment, she admits, “I feel a bit naked.”
Gerwig, however, doesn’t often shy away from showing more than a little skin. A sweetheart of the unfortunately named mid- 2000s mumblecore movement—talky relationship films with low budgets and basic aesthetics—she had no compunction about going full frontal while getting dressed in bad lighting or slowly picking blue towel fuzz off her nipples in her second movie, Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she co-wrote with director Joe Swanberg. The blundering sex scene she shared with Swanberg in 2008’s Nights and Weekends, which she also co-wrote and co-directed, looked so real that some critics wondered if it was. In an article about her supposed mainstream breakthrough in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, in which Ben Stiller’s character makes an awkward attempt at going down on her, The New York Times critic A.O. Scott describes her matter-of-fact removal of clothing as an activity “which is not infrequent.”
Her actual mainstream breakouts were mostly clothed, and very brief. She played Natalie Portman’s best friend in No Strings Attached and Russell Brand’s love interest in Arthur, both released last year. But her inherent Diane Keaton quality—simultaneously bumbling and beautiful, without any clear awareness of her beauty—seems much better suited to working with the two aging, eccentric auteur directors she idolized growing up in Sacramento, and whose movies made her want to relocate to New York: Whit Stillman and Woody Allen.
Last summer, she was in Rome to shoot Allen’s latest film, Nero Fiddled, in which she plays the girlfriend of fellow Allen devotee and old-age enthusiast, Jesse Eisenberg. She’s sure she got the role, at least in part, because during her first meeting with Allen, when he asked her why she lived in Chinatown, she said, “I know a guy. I don’t know why I said that. But he laughed, which made me feel so good. Then I made a joke about cellphone cameras, which didn’t go over as well. I was like, Greta, you’ve reached too high. You’ve flown too close to the sun.”
Inspired by Annie Hall, Gerwig recently went through a phase of wanting to adopt a uniform of only wearing menswear, which meant that sometimes she and her two male roommates lived in a slapstick comedy where they’d all walk out of their rooms wearing the same outfit. “I feel like everyone who accomplishes a lot creatively has a uniform,” Gerwig says. “It’s not true, but the idea somehow ended up in my head: Steve Jobs had a uniform, and I’m sure Newton did. I need a uniform.” Not long into her embrace of literal boyfriend shirts, she discovered that she didn’t have the body to pull off menswear. “I looked like the late-night talk show host on PBS, or someone who reads the news on Democracy Now!”
Gerwig studied English and philosophy at Barnard College, where her then-boyfriend Chris Wells started collaborating with Swanberg on a movie called LOL. Wells asked her if he could use voicemail messages she’d left for him, as well as camera phone photos she’d sent to him, in the film. “We had one of those self-conscious relationships where everything feels like you’re making a little piece of art. It’s probably very obnoxious,” she says. “Because we loved movies, we’d be like, Let’s accidentally on purpose get caught in the rain! I talk to a lot of people who end up being filmmakers, and there’s a part of them that’s always thinking, ‘This would be good in a movie.’ It’s so well-developed even from childhood that it’s hard to turn off.”
At the same time, she became part of a tight-knit group of “hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, swearing, not really datable girls,” she says. “We shared a love of prickliness and an inability to be approached—there was no one we’d rather be with than each other, so there was no need for boys, really. I was very upset when we all kind of grew up.” They’d become friends much in the way that Gerwig met her most recent roommates, which was through sitting in their dorm suite and waiting for someone to come home and hang out with her. “I just kept putting myself in their apartment,” she says. “I think that’s a good way to make friends, to just keep going there. They’ll eventually hang out with you.”
After graduating, all six women moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The two shortest girls painted the whole thing orange, “and they didn’t get step ladders, so the paint just stopped where they couldn’t reach the top of the ceiling and they were like, ‘Well, that’s good enough,’” Gerwig says. Their home had a walk-through living room where one girl lived. Another one of the girls slept in a closet. Gerwig shared a room with the sixth girl; for two years they slept on the floor, her roommate on a futon mattress and Gerwig on an air mattress. “It was so bad,” she says, laughing. “And then the apartment didn’t have heat, which you would think would make us move out the second year, but it didn’t. We were so lazy! We had so much stuff that it seemed so hard to move, so we were like, Never mind, they’ll probably fix it this year.”
Moviemaking wasn’t something she’d thought she could do growing up, simply because she’d never met anyone who had made a movie. “Movies seemed totally removed from me,” she says. “They just sort of appeared, but they didn’t seem like they were made by humans.” So she did theater, before falling into a crowd of filmmakers—including Wells, Swanberg, Schulman and his Catfish filmmaking partners, Lena Dunham (creator of the HBO show Girls), and Mark and Jay Duplass (directors of the upcoming Jeff Who Lives at Home; Mark is also an actor)—who all hung out at the same office building on Canal and Broadway and many of whom had day jobs working as projectionists at places like Film Forum and the IFC Center. “If you were going to those venues regularly, you would eventually get to know everyone, because they were all the people doing it. Literally, they were running around projecting movies and then, like, making them.” She pauses. “And now I’m doing it. I can’t believe it. I’m so lucky.”
Gerwig took part in the New York City Marathon two years ago, during which she ran by her former Park Slope apartment as well as another onetime dwelling in East Williamsburg (where she endured the “sad growing-up moment” of realizing that she and her girl gang weren’t actually destined to live together forever). Gerwig cried multiple times throughout the race. “I felt like I was running through my entire life,” she says.
Not that it’s been a bad life; at 28, she has accomplished her lifetime goal of working with Woody Allen. She wrote a movie, which she can’t really talk about, that’s in the editing stages and is working on another screenplay. “Writing is sort of where I’m most comfortable,” she says. “I want to be like Charlie Kaufman before he directed.” (When she’s not frequenting Housing Works, she’s writing at one of the New York University libraries.) What’s next in her career, she doesn’t know, but she’s prepared to age, which is why her favorite magazine is More, a monthly lifestyle publication targeted at women over 50. “I like the issues they talk about,” she says. “I like thinking about menopause, because what are we going to do when that happens? That’s crazy!”
In the next six months, Gerwig is determined to move out of her Chinatown apartment and live by herself. This is all part of a larger plan to “grow into a woman who I would admire,” she says. “I feel like, I don’t know, Fran Lebowitz probably lives alone. Joan Didion lives alone. They all live alone. I mean, Joan Didion lives alone by tragedy, but I feel like she’s the kind of woman who could have always lived alone. She’s got an inner strength and fortitude, and she’s kind of steely. I want to be steely!” She laughs again, getting riled up. “I’m not steely yet, but I feel like you have to start achieving these things. I want people to say, ‘She’s really lived’—whatever that means.”