Peerless actor, passionate musician, national treasure, and the preeminent icon of slacker sophistication, Jeff Bridges lives his life to the fullest, soaking in every laid-back moment along the way. The six-time Oscar nominee’s new role as an undead cop in this summer’s R.I.P.D. has him considering his mortality, but he’s handling it with expected ease. As always, the Dude abides.
Life’s a trip, man, all of it. Wild stuff. Everybody floating down the bowling alley of experience. Jeff Bridges is just tripping on a higher plane than most of us. A man of simple pleasure, he’s grateful for the opportunities that have led him to this sunny cafe on New York’s Bowery, where he tucks a napkin into the neck of his T-shirt before laying into a plate of “well-cooked” scrambled eggs he’s doused in an entire bottle of ketchup. Normally, he’d have woken up at 6 a.m. to look out over the Pacific Ocean from the 19-acre mountaintop property in Montecito, California, he shares with Sue, his wife of 36 years and the mother of his three grown daughters. “I’m more of a morning guy. I feel energy in the morning.” Bridges says, sitting up straight and rubbing his spine against the back of his chair with the languid contentment of a mountain lion who’s found himself a nice tree trunk. “My rountine is to get up and make a big pot of coffee, then I go to this room where I have a sit and read some books, do some stretching.”
Bridges is 63 years old now. He got the first of his six Oscar nominations at 22 for The Last Picture Show; inspired a roving festival robe-wearing fanatics with his iconic stoner-philosopher, The Dude, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult phenomenon The Big Lebowski; and has been called “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived” by film critic Pauline Kael. He’s accomplished enough to step back and let the thrills seek him out. “My life is pretty tame,” he says without regret. “I’m not as wild or reckless as I was. I’m not in the mood for it, really.”
This particular trip to New York has been “a hit and run for me” says Bridges. He’s flying out in a few hours and is still coming down from the “good time” he had the night before, wining and dining at the International Center of Photography’s annual gala where he accepted an Infinity Award for the panoramic, black-and-white photographs he’s been snapping on his movie sets for the past few decades. The photos reflect Bridges’ deep love of cinema; his down-to-earth, insider’s view into the mechanics of moviemaking; and his goofy sensibility—exemplified by shots like the selfie he took as a one-eyed U.S. Marshal with a hanged man high in the trees behind him on the set of the Coens’ 2010 western True Grit.
Before Bridges was awarded his prize, the ICP screened a short video, in which Bridges recounted the story of trying to snap photos during a dream sequence for Lebowski that had The Dude sailing through the legs of women straddling a bowling alley, “looking up at their coochies or whatever you want to call them.” Bridges asked the first woman in line if he could take a photo. “Oh, by all means, do!” she said. But as he was being pulled down the alley on a skateboard, he looked up and, “I see that this woman really needs a shave! She’s got hair coming out of her leotard, and I think, My god! I snap the shot and go through. And then I see the next girl’s got even more hair. One after another,” he said. “They pulled a fast one on me. They all went to the makeup man and got crepe hair and shoved it up there!”
During his ICP acceptance speech, he’d also raised his glass to “film”—versus digital—and “the click” of a shutter. Less Luddite than connoisseur, Bridges shoots almost exclusively on a Widelux, a quirky camera without a viewfinder that requires a two-and-a-half second exposure. On sets, Bridges loves to shoot what he calls “Tragoedia/Comoedia,” where he invites costars like Matt Damon and “the lovely, dynamite Maggie Gyllenhaal” to make a sad face, then a happy face. Because of the camera’s long exposure, he can capture both moods in the same frame. Ever since 1984’s Starman (his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, for playing an alien; he’d studied the movements of babies and birds), he’s made a book of photographs for each movie he’s worked on, annotated with hand-scrawled captions, and given them out as gifts to the cast and crew. “That Widelux has given me such joy,” he says.
Bridges seems to find joy in pretty much everything he does: acting, photography, music, painting, and sculpture. (His website, filled with doodles and links to things he digs, like profane Irish Olympic sailing commentary, is a paean to artistic self-expression, and a ne plus ultra example of how to go digital without succumbing to celebrity confessionalism.) He’s also a wonderful ceramicist, according to musician and producer T Bone Burnett, who met him 33 years ago while filming Heaven’s Gate, and calls him, alternately, Jeff, Jeffrey, Jefferson, Bridges, and, of course, Dude. “He’s an incredibly lovable goof of a guy,” says Burnett. “He’s doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
“He’s a Zen actor, man,” says Ethan Coen of why he and his brother Joel keep hiring Bridges. “There’s no angst. He’s as easy to work with as you’d imagine. It’s just something he’s good at and doesn’t fuss over. He’s just kind of great.” The Coens actually wrote the part of The Dude for Bridges—not knowing him personally.
According to lore, the character cut so closely to Bridges’ actual persona that he almost turned it down, suspicious that they’d been spying on him at home. “The brothers will tell you [they had to] drag me to the party,” Bridges said in an American Masters documentary on PBS, “but I’m sure glad I went to that party, man.” The magical melding of actor and character has inspired Lebowski specialty stores; the Lebowski Fest bowling parties; a “religion” called Dudeism; Bridges’ 2013 printed dialogue about Buddhism with spiritual guru Bernie Glassman, The Dude and the Zen Master; and even the name of Bridges’ country band, the Abiders.
Bridges is now on a break after spending a month on the road with the Abiders and his singer-songwriter daughter Jessica, who opened some of their shows. Playing in the band—as well as on his 2011 self-titled, country-tinged solo album produced by Burnett—is an extension of the musical chops he showed off while bringing to life the alcoholic, washed-up country singer Bad Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart, a performance that earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. Touring allows Bridges to live out his “teenage dream of being in a rock- ’n’-roll band,” and brings him back to the Wednesday night jam sessions he started in high school and continued weekly for 15 years with his good friends Steve Baim and John Goodwin. “We never knew what was going to happen,” Bridges says, “but every Wednesday you could count on having a great party, and we just jammed and danced and had a wonderful time.”
Both Of Bridges’ parents—Dorothy, who passed away in 2009, and Lloyd, who passed in 1998—were actors who loved showbiz. “I feel them very much with me,” he says. “Their spirit, who they were, lives on in me and my kids. They’re the foundations of my life.” Lloyd starred in Sea Hunt, a popular syndicated TV show about a scuba diver in the late ’50s and ’60s, and he’d bring Jeff along to set, often putting him on the show. If you tuned into Sea Hunt and “saw a little 8-year-old kid running around,” says Bridges, “chances are it was me.” He goes on, “My father, unlike a lot of showbiz folks, really urged us kids to get into it.” (His older brother Beau is also an accomplished actor.) When it came to acting, he worried about nepotism, but fell into it anyway. “It wasn’t so much about thinking, Maybe I’ll give it a try. It was more like, I wonder if I’m going to continue doing this thing.” Even now, he feels at a crossroads when he’s between projects. “Usually, I’ll make a movie and after the movie’s over, a very common feeling for me will be, I don’t want to do that ever again. And I know that will pass and that I’ll want to do movies again, but I kind of long to put the idea of being a character aside and just be myself.”
What gets him over the hump each time is thinking back to his turn in the 1973 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, when he was 24 and surrounded by old pros like Lee Marvin, Fredric March, and Robert Ryan. Bridges was nervous, and initially hesitant to do the film. “But I saw all these old-timers as anxious as I was, and I was just a kid, and I could see them kind of working with their anxiety and their fear.” After eight weeks of hanging out with them, “I said, Oh, this is my tribe. You know? I felt that with my brother and my father, but that’s a little different. That’s your family.”
Bridges still gets scared, but he’s learned to make peace with fear. “It’s just the way it is,” he says. “It’s like hanging out with a guy who you kind of get used to,” he says. “You know people who at first kind of bother you, but then you get to know them and you’re like, Oh, yeah, I can dig his eccentricities. That’s kind of what it is.” The key is to recognize that fear can enhance your life. “He puts a little edge on it,” says Bridges of his fear, personified. “Sometimes you’re on top of it, saying, Hello fear, I’m fine. And it says, ‘Oh, you’re fine? Check this out.’ It challenges you deeper.”
Even this interview is giving him anxiety, he admits, though it’s not noticeable. “I’m having it right this second,” he says. “I can feel it while trying to come up with answers to your questions. I’m thinking, What have I already said? Is this old information?” There’s one piece of advice his mother gave him that he knows he’s shared before, but can’t help sharing again. “She would always say, ‘Have fun and don’t take it too seriously.’” Now his wife Sue tells him the same thing. “And that is such wonderful grease, you know?”
From his father, Bridges learned to accept fame. “I don’t struggle with it too much. I don’t get hounded too much,” he says. “I saw how [my father] handled it, as gracious as he could be, and that’s kind of the way I play it. Sometimes you hit a wall and you say, Sorry, guys, I can’t do it anymore, but I try to be nice. I’ve had that feeling of being a fan, and saying the inappropriate thing, or whatever.” He readily admits to being starstruck by musicians he admires. “It kind of took my breath away,” Bridges says of playing guitar with Bob Dylan on the set of 2003’s Masked and Anonymous. “It’s like being alive during Shakespeare’s time. He’s such a great, influential fella, and just a normal person. You can’t help but try to imagine what it must be like for him, having all of these opinions about who he is projected onto him. That must be wild.”
Embarrassment is nothing new to him, either. He recalls how, 20 years ago, he went up to David Byrne to tell him that the Talking Heads was the first band he’d really gotten into since the Beatles. “I was like, You guys are so great!” says Bridges. “And then I waited for a response, you know, but there was none. Nothing. It was like I was talking to a mannequin. Then I was like, Maybe I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, so I tried again. And nothing, then, One more! Maybe I’ll just try one more! Even more! And nothing. Well, okay! Hah! That’s a fair response from him, I guess. However you want, but I try to enjoy myself, you know, have fun with the folks. I mean, everybody’s human.”
When Bridges thinks about getting wild, it’s about “being crazy in a Dionysian way,” he says. “I enjoy getting wild every once in a while.” Back in the ’60s and ’70s, he says, he got wild quite a lot, “did all that ’60s stuff.” The Dude’s authentic stoner vibe came from experience. (He’d actually left home at 17 after his parents said he was wasting his life away on marijuana and alcohol; his younger sister Lucinda recalls Bridges telling them, “I don’t dig you guys anymore.”) “Oh yeah! We actors use something called sense memory,” says Bridges. “With Lebowski, I didn’t smoke any pot when we were doing the movie. But I’d smoked pot before, of course, so I knew what that was all about.”
As a younger actor, he hadn’t yet discovered sense memory. “I made the mistake early in my career, like, I’m supposed to be drunk in this scene, so I’ll just get drunk. That’ll be easy. I won’t have to make it seem very real,” he says, laughing. “And that might be fine for an hour of your scene, but then you’ve got to carry on with the rest of your day.” During production on 1982’s Kiss Me Goodbye, which costarred James Caan and Sally Field, he was supposed to play “a very sedate, uptight person who gets drunk and then dances. So I started drinking screwdrivers early in the morning.” In the end, he thinks his performance turned out fine. “I just don’t like to feel that way, you know, hungover,” he says. “I want my wits, I like them around. I don’t like to be too foggy.”
He still drinks, but he’s into red wine these days. And even then, he tries to limit his imbibing to half a bottle at a time. His current version of getting wild, he says, is “letting all of my impulses rip—dancing and movement, or it could just be ideas, you know, streaming forth.” He calls these “seasons of the day,” moods and waves of creativity that come and go like the weather. But they’re always tempered by the logistics of actually getting stuff done: “I spend most of my time in front of the computer, doing emails and shit.”
Bridges has been doing emails and shit to get the word out about A Place at the Table, a documentary he recently helped make about the “huge, solvable problem” of global hunger, a longtime passion of his. No doubt he’ll soon have to do more of the same for the upcoming release of The Seventh Son, an adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s children’s fantasy series, The Wardstone Chronicles, in which he plays a witch hunter opposite his Lebowski love interest Julianne Moore’s sorceress.
Before The Seventh Son, he’ll star in this summer’s R.I.P.D., as a cowboy sheriff brought back from the dead and partnered with Ryan Reynolds’ equally undead S.W.A.T. team member to hunt down evil souls who’ve escaped judgment and are hiding out among the living, plotting world domination. For all his accolades, Bridges, who has starred in TRON, TRON: Legacy, and Iron Man, loves a good genre flick. “I like going to the movies myself,” Bridges says, “and this is a movie I’d like to see—full of surprises.”
(One of which is that, in their second lives, Reynolds’ character looks like an old Chinese guy and Bridges’ appears as former Victoria’s Secret Angel Marisa Miller.) Making it was just as fun as he thought it would be. “It’s a bit like when you were a kid and playing pretend,” he says. Lately, he’s been indulging that love of genre by watching his pal Kevin Bacon, who also stars in R.I.P.D., on TV. “I’ve been digging The Following,” Bridges says. “This Following thing is scary as hell, oh my god.”
All this talk of souls in R.I.P.D. has Bridges, who is “Buddhistly bent,” considering death and the afterlife—not an unusual occurrence for him. Terry Gilliam, his director on The Fisher King, has said, “He’s absolutely fearless, but there’s a darkness that broods,” recalling that the first time they met, Bridges showed him a book of the macabre photos of Joel-Peter Witkin, often featuring dismembered body parts. “I don’t know what happens!” Bridges says of death. “But the older I get, the closer mortality feels—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think about the preciousness of it all, and I’m feeling kind of grateful to be alive, after whatever things we did. Even just appreciating where I am feels good, and being connected—having a sense of community feels good.”
For Bridges, it all comes back to community and family. The most meaningful photos in his life aren’t those he takes on his Widelux, but the ones he carries in a stack of well-worn, tiny squares in his wallet. Flipping through, he shows me his three beautiful daughters—Isabelle, Jessie, and Hayley—and one very special photo with a very special story.
He’d been making a comedy western called Rancho Deluxe in Montana’s Paradise Valley with Sam Waterston, shooting a scene in an old dude ranch. “I see this beautiful girl, a waitress, cleaning rooms, working her way through school,” Bridges says. “She had two black eyes and a broken nose”—from a car crash—“and I could not take my eyes off her.” He finally worked up the courage to ask her out, but she declined. “She said, ‘It’s a small town, maybe I’ll see you around.’ And her prophecy proved true. We ran into each other, we danced, fell in love. I was knocked out the moment I saw her.” Bridges courted Sue for almost three years before she agreed to marry him. Fifteen years later, after they’d had their girls, Bridges got a letter from a makeup artist who’d worked on Rancho Deluxe, saying, “‘I was going through my files and I found a photo of you asking a local girl out.’ I look and there’s a photograph of the first words I ever uttered to my wife, of me asking her out and her saying no,” says Bridges. “There’s a picture of that, and a close-up of her face! Isn’t that wild? What are the odds?”
He pulls out a photograph of Sue today and beams. “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she? Look! She looks pretty much the same,” he says. “I lucked out.” Sue raised their daughters, says Bridges (“I was gone for most of that”), and “she just takes care of so much, all the financial stuff. She’s my partner. We kind of do it in tandem.” He was 28 when they married, but he doesn’t seem to have ever looked on his marriage as restrictive. “Oh no,” he says. “We had wild times together.” And the good times continue. “Marriage is so cool, man,” he says. “I’m digging it now, really digging it. It gets better and better and more exciting. Because the big high is intimacy, right?” That’s what this life is about for Bridges: the high of being in your moviemaking tribe; the high of camaraderie with your band; the high of feeling a part of a global initiative to stop hunger; and, above all, the high of having a family. “It’s intimacy, getting to know someone,” he says. “Like, We’re going to get into it! Marriage is wonderful.”
His manager rushes into the café. Bridges needs to be at the airport in an hour. He grins and nods at me, like we did all right on this little chat. His mind already seems to have leapt ahead to where he’s going: the 900-acre ranch he owns up against the woods in Montana where he met his wife. Half the ranch burned down last year in a forest fire, and this will be the first time they’ve gone back since. But Bridges isn’t worrying about that. “I’m going to my ranch,” he says, with the utter certainty of a happy man, “to see my girl, to see Sue.”
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko. Styling by Sophie Assa.
As seen in The Wild Issue. Out now at The Bullet Shop!
The pale pink cream liqueur Pharrell Williams pours into a tumbler of ice isn’t just for me, but for all womankind. He urges me to smell, to sniff, to sip, watching attentively for my reaction. The summer sun has begun to set over the patio of the Standard East Village hotel in New York City, where he manages to make even his sales pitch sound seductive: It’s 99.9 percent lactose-free (“so if you’re lactose-intolerant like me, then you’re good”); it’s thinner than other cream liqueurs (“it’s less like a milkshake and more like Yoo-hoo, so instantly you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, you know, five more hours this week on the treadmill’”); it’s only 12.5 percent alcohol by volume (“the same alcohol by volume as white wine, so you can sip as much as you want and you’re not rolling around the room”). The idea came to him after listening to the concerns of his female friends—most of his friends are female—and he cared, he really cared, that there wasn’t yet a good, sweet drink out there for women of discerning taste. “This is not a club drink,” he says. “It’s for around the house with your girls. It’s after dinner. It’s definitely poolside.” He stares deep into my eyes. Do I taste the strawberry? Does it taste good? It’s called Qream. The Q, he says, is “because it’s made for queens.”
Williams has just come from his BULLETT photo shoot, which required him—poor thing—to be entangled in bed sheets with a beautiful model he’d helped handpick. “I love my job,” he says, grinning at the near-nude memories of a few minutes ago. “I’m so lucky. I’m trying to figure out when they’re just going to go, ‘Hey, what are you doing here? Get out!’” It won’t likely be anytime soon. In October, Rizzoli will publish Pharrell: Places and Spaces I’ve Been, a beautiful, coffee table–ready celebration of the 39-year-old entrepreneur’s influence as a rapper, producer, fashion designer, thinker, and dreamer (though, sadly, not as a ladies’ beverage impresario). It’s a book so reverential it’s practically deifying. Williams begins with a conversation about Biggie Smalls with Jay-Z, whose own exhaustive, line-by-line analysis of his lyrics, mixed with his memoir, Decoded, set the standard for serious rappers’ selfcanonization. From there he talks to Buzz Aldrin about physics and Drake (that is, astronomer Frank Drake, who developed an equation to estimate the number of alien civilizations that might be present in the Milky Way); to Anna Wintour about male style; to architect Zaha Hadid about the line of prefab houses he proposes they do together (he’s also said he wants Frank Gehry and Hadid to design him a mansion partially submerged in the ocean); to Hans Zimmer about that time they composed the music for the 2011 Academy Awards; and to Kanye West about being misunderstood. Images abound from his 2009 Art Basel installation, for which he collaborated with Takashi Murakami to bedazzle Heinz ketchup bottles and Pepsi cans with fine gems at the height of the financial crisis, and the two clothing lines, beloved by alterna-cool (rather than gangsta) urban youth, he designs with A Bathing Ape founder, Nigo: Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. Both lines brim over with an appreciation for cartoons, Japan, bright colors, spaceships, girlie pinups, a reluctance to grow up, and Williams’ unstoppable sweet tooth. Picture a sweatshirt and matching hat covered in a print that looks like a syrup-drenched Belgian waffle.
Like all heroic tales, Williams’ begins with a heightened-reality story of origin: Latchkey kid in depressed Virginia Beach, beating the couch with grandma’s “cakestirrers” to TV theme songs. Introduce real drums in seventh grade music class. Form a band with a couple of like minded cool nerds, Chad Hugo and Sheldon “Shae” Haley, to perform at high school talent shows with socks pulled up to the knees, wearing Helly Hansen raincoats and rain hats. Get spotted by a record label scout at one of those high school talent shows. Get signed. Get work, first as a Williams- Hugo producing duo, the Neptunes. Develop a distinctive, tripped-out electronic space-funk sound and produce megahits like Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U,” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” Get so hot that you produce nearly half the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 2003. Reunite the band on the side. Change the name to N.E.R.D., as in No One Ever Really Dies, to honor friends who keep dying on you, as they tend to do when you’ve grown up talented and ambitious in a rough city from which only a few ever get out. Write your own hit song, called “She Wants to Move,” with lyrics like, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride.” Open for the Beastie Boys. Start designing clothes. Move into a penthouse 40 stories above Miami. Fill it with Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga arcade games; a home theater you only use to play Mario Kart; life-size statues and giant paintings of Agent Smith from The Matrix , SpongeBob SquarePants, the Smurfs, the Simpsons, Stewie from Family Guy , and the Michelin Man; legit pop art from Murakami, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and KAWS; and a “Perspective” chair you designed from two pairs of mannequin legs (one male, one female) to symbolize love. Call yourself a “kidult.” Do more N.E.R.D. albums that don’t do as well. Tell magazines you’re too old “to be around loud music and drunk, young bitches all night.” Still write songs with lyrics like, “Go on and touch it, girl / go on and touch it, girl.”
As we sit opposite one another, sipping Qream, Williams never once mentions the book, and there’s only one origin story that seems to matter to him. “What are we without women?” he muses. “All humans are here via women. Women are literally the vessels that birth us into existence.” Dig deeper, and he can’t talk about the fairer sex without slipping into double entendre. Why does he gravitate toward women? “I’m trying to find a politically correct way of saying I am what I eat,” he says, smiling because he knows exactly what image that conjures. “But I mean that in a more general and respectful way: I’m all about girls, you know what I mean? If you cut me open, all of my admiration for women comes tumbling out.” Specifically, he admires “that little elevator they have” to “deliver humans to our reality.” Another image springs to mind. “It gets incredibly dirty as you move on,” Williams says, chuckling. He has to stop himself from getting too graphic sometimes, “or it’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, did you hear what he just said? Womanizer!’”
Photography by Tim Barber
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.”
Photography by Ben Morris