I’m talking to Greta Gerwig hours before the premiere of Frances Ha. The film’s star, radiant in an orange dress, seems nervous. Or perhaps that’s just her trademark awkwardness––part of her immense charm (and craft) as an actress. At twenty-nine, Gerwig has made a name for herself playing young women who are often optimistically adrift, both lively and heartfelt at once, and either too self-conscious when they’re supposed to be less, or not enough when they’re supposed to be more.
So on the surface, her role in Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach (who not-so-secretly became her boyfriend during the project), is more of the same. But despite the well-worn premise (post-college artsy girl doesn’t know what to do with her life, can’t find an apartment in New York, grows jealous of her best-friend, visits home, couch-surfs, goes to Paris), Frances Ha sings. If Godard remade Vivre Sa Vie in Fort Greene, this is what it might look like. Here, Gerwig and Baumbach have both embodied and transcended much of what they’ve been striving for in their prior films. Here, the actress explains why she never reads anything about herself (including the recent New Yorker profile), what it’s like for everyone to think you’re on drugs, and why (as she puts it) she’s not not ambitious.
Does the premiere for this film feel different than the premieres for your other films?
Let me explain. I was surprised by the amount of buzz this has been generating.
Does it feel that way to you?
It feels that way to me.
Oh, good. Because I really try not read things or look at things. I find it makes me self-conscious in a way that’s destructive. It’s like a combination of an ego trip and horrible deflation at the same time. Like, ‘I’m awesome…and terrible.’ To feel both. ‘I’m ugly and hideous…and beautiful!’ It’s like the worst combination. It’s just too much at once.
But you must be happy the film is getting a lot of attention.
I’m glad it’s getting buzz because I care about it so much. But it seems like, in this world, it almost seems like movies are a dying art. There are so many released, but it’s so easy to get lost. I’m glad it feels like people are actually caring about it because after it was on the festival circuit for a while, it felt like, ‘How are we going to shut this down and open it back up in 6 months?’ So I hope people see it. I mean, I love it.
I think it’s great. It will last, too.
Yeah. I mean, it does feel different in a way. I’m much more invested in this movie than I’ve been in any other movie that I’ve participated in. Partially that’s because I co-wrote it. Partially it’s because––it just feels like the closest thing to what I want to make.
Does the role feel close to you? To who you are?
In some ways it does. In other ways it feels like an invention. It feels like the best part of what I’m capable of as a creator and as an actress. It feels like the full extension of my talents at that moment. You can get hogtied or hamstrung by limitations in movies. But I felt like I was stretched by this role, and that felt really good. Sometimes when you allow yourself to be bigger, the more resonant and true it is.
In the writing, who approached whom first?
Noah approached me. After Greenberg opened, he asked me if I was interested in collaborating on writing something because he wanted to do something very small.
He wanted to get away from the glitz?
Yeah. He was like, ‘How small can I do this without losing my ability to make as good of a film as I can?’ That was the idea. He knew I had written plays and the screenplays for movies I had largely improvised in. But I think there was a real sense that we would work well together.
I don’t want to make you self-conscious, but have you read your New Yorker profile?
No. I did look at the picture, though.
Did you like the picture?
The picture was nice. But no. I didn’t read it. I understand it was nice and that I seem like I’m on LSD.
I was waiting for them to trot out words like ‘spacey.’
Yeah. I always get that. Everybody my whole life has thought I’m on drugs. When I first heard that, I was like, ‘I’m going to really act like I’m not on drugs now.’
The film is so great with awkwardness in general. It’s like the line where Frances says she likes things that look like mistakes.
Yeah. I do like things that look like mistakes. That’s true of me. I really love precise things that look like mistakes, but when you think about them, they couldn’t possibly have been because of how the entire thing was constructed. When I acted in high school, I would try to cultivate those weird moments, the moments when you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what I was always looking for. But I wasn’t actually on drugs.
Well, that’s our cultural shorthand for anyone whose just isn’t on the same wavelength.
I’m definitely not. You know those personality tests where they tell you if you’re an INTP or whatever? I remember I took one and my personality was like “sees things as part of a cosmic whole.” “Might have religious inclinations.” Things that were sort of like, ‘This person is a little crazy and might think that they’re a prophet,’ which I don’t see as wrong necessarily. (Laughs)
You’re on drugs without being on drugs.
I feel like I’m capable of experiencing very intense emotional landscapes. And that has helped my writing and acting because I feel like part of what I want to do when I make things is transmit that intensity of experience to the viewer in some way. I have moments every day where I have this sense of like, ‘I’m alive right now.’ Which totally is druggy. I realize that, but it’s completely… I’m straight, you know.
Was the personality test right? Do you think you’re a prophet of our generation?
No, no! I didn’t mean it like that! (Laughs)
Greta declares herself. Oh shit.
But you’ve been so good at turning the stuckness or frustration that’s pretty endemic to a lot of people’s twenties into art that’s really exuberant and beautiful. Are you worried that you’re success might actually prevent that kind of alchemy from happening?
I do worry about that. But I don’t feel like I’ve hit that point yet. I think something can happen where if you become too successful––or too visibly successful––it interferes with your ability to…Well I spend a lot of time just wandering around New York City waiting for things to reveal themselves to me. And you need to be able to be really anonymous to do that. It’s important to me to feel connected to what people’s lives are and what people’s everyday-ness is.
Would you say that you’re ambitious?
Certainly. I’m not not ambitious. So there’s a part of you that’s always striving to make your presence solid, to be a thing people know about. ‘Ah, yes. Greta Gerwig. I know exactly who that is.’ Because it relieves you from the anxiety of having to explain yourself, which I think is…that’s something difficult.
Frances is always fumbling over those kind of dinner-party explanations in the film.
Yeah exactly. She doesn’t see herself as the world sees her. It’s not like ‘this is what you are and everybody knows it and we all see what you are.’ That kind of solidness can cut you off from the experience that 99.99% of the world has, which is that there is a disconnect. So I feel like it’s important to me to maintain it somehow.
I read something about this recently. I really like Flannery O’Connor. And she said that every story she writes is about grace. But grace is not something you experience. You can experience the after-effects of grace, but grace itself is this thing that’s unaccountable for. I think that’s kind of always what I’m trying to. I’m trying to gather these moments of grace. And you have to be quiet to do that, and part of trying to be successful is not being quiet. So there are these too opposing forces. But I think—I hope—I’ll be able to stay on the quiet end of it.