If you missed Ben Stiller's Greenberg last year (likely, as it peaked at #14 on the charts) then you've probably never heard of Greta Gerwig. But the quirky blonde is no budding ingénue: in five years, she's made 20 movies as the grande dame of "mumblecore," the indie movement typecast by its casual, twentysomething navel-gazing. Gerwig's turn as a Patrice, party girl nurse looking for love in Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached, may be her mainstream breakthrough—she gets the best lines and literally towers head and shoulders over Natalie Portman. And in April, she'll take over the role Liza Minnelli made famous as the blue-collar love interest in Russell Brand's Arthur. Boxoffice asks the low budget darling about assimilating herself into the machinery of a mainstream romantic comedy and her plans—or lack of plans—for propelling her career.
When you have the responsibility of being a part of the supporting cast of a film, is it better to do exactly what the script asks of you, or to make the effort to, say, pretend the movie's really about your character?
No, I think being a part of a supporting cast is its own thing, and it's really fun. I don't need to say the old story of the actor describing [the movie as] "it's about this girl" from their perspective. I think being a supporting character is its own thing and it should be treated as such. But I loved Liz Meriwether's script so much and a lot of the scenes were about just kind of a lot of people's banter, and kind of keeping it alive in the room. So it felt more like a game of hot potato where you're throwing something all of the time. I think it was more about just building an energy between all of us that felt like it was pushing the movie in the right direction and also was buoyant and fun. So it was a very communal experience, I think.
How did you define the character, because she's acting crazy the first time we see her, but after that she still seems to have vestiges of that behavior in her adult life.
I saw her as the girl who in a kind of bitter way never gets the guy, so she's like, "I'm going to slut it up, because it doesn't matter." But she was really smart but cynical and incredibly frustrated with her best friend but also really loves her. I think everyone knows that sort of delightfully embittered person, and I think that's who she is. It was really fun to have that character fall in love, because she almost begrudgingly does it; she's like, "fine—I'll just go ahead and do this!" That was sort of who I felt she was, the purpose she served, and I think she's delightfully negative.
The way you describe her, she sounds like a mirror or counterpart to Natalie's character in that she has such an empowered sense of herself, she's almost shocked by how meaningful romantic gestures are to her.
I think it surprises her how sentimental she is, and I think it's a similar kind of story as to what happens with Natalie's character; we're kind of coming at it from the same place, only Natalie's character, the guy's always falling in love with her, and my character, the guy's never falling in love with her. But to know that it can happen, it's nice, and even the most hard-nosed girl, if a guy opens the door for you it feels really great!
Having a background in films where there's a lot of fluidity and improvisation, did you welcome the relative structure of this movie, where most of the dialogue was scripted?
There was some improvisation in the film, but usually the jokes that Liz had written were really strong and organic anyway. They didn't feel like setup-punchline; it just kind of grew out of what was happening in the scene. But we always ran a few takes that were looser where you could say a different thing at the top or the end, some of which made it in. But it's really nice to have the security of a really funny script, but also then be able to have fun with it.
When you have that opportunity to improvise, is it important to have that character fully defined or to give yourself over to the process of discovery on set?
I think it's both. I think having your character defined for me means having their perspective defined - you know, the parameters in which they see the world—and then you can improvise within that. And then being open to what's going on, which is the second part of it, [I prefer] letting it be its own thing and not being too set in what you're going to do. So it's kind of an alchemy of both, but it's really having like a perspective—what does my character think about what's happening in this moment? And then that opens a whole world for you of the various things she could do with it.
Do you try to find something in a character you can relate to, or is it more important to just understand where they're coming from?
I think again it's kind of a crazy patchwork quilt that isn't all one thing or all another. I think there are parts of me that are like Patrice—kind of sardonic and holding people at a distance, and before I like you, I don't like you, that kind of thing. But I think it's a combination of the rhythm of how it's written, the physical relationship of [the characters]. Like I knew when I had scenes with Natalie, I'm much taller than her, and I think there's something really funny about that; I'm a bigger girl. And I think when you're getting into the space and you're playing with that, it's like, okay, the defining thing about this is that she's got a best friend who's much smaller than she is, and what does that mean for that person? How does that influence the way she talks to boys when they're both talking? So it's kind of a combination of all of these different things, but I think I really try to get into the character's point of view in a situation.
Do you have to intellectualize all of that preparation or is it a more intuitive process?
Again, I think what's nice about making a film is that it's shot over such a long period of time that you have the work that you do before, and then you have the information you get on the first day, which the first time you get it, you do it on the fly, but three weeks into shooting, you've had time to kind of, not intellectualize it but fill it out. So you have this time to fill out the new information as it's coming in. I didn't meet Jake Johnson, the guy I fall in love with, until I got there - and then we hit it off and he's great. But you can't imagine what that would be until you're there. But luckily it's a long shoot, so you get time to make it special and complete.
What sort of adjustment did you have to make to the machinery of a movie that's this big? This film is much more studio-engineered than a lot of films you've done before.
It is a studio movie, and it was intimidating at first because I had not been on something that was quite like this. But it felt like a lot of other things I'd done ultimately because of Liz's script and she's so creative and interesting as a writer and everyone was very familial. It was a lot of hanging out and we're all kind of in the same age range, and it felt like spending time and making something fun with your friends, in spite of the studio-type machinery around it. I just love Ivan Reitman's films—I grew up loving Stripes, and I used to watch it all of the time—so I was just so excited to work on something with him. I adore him.
Given the fact that there are a couple of other projects with similar themes in development right now, do you feel like this story is reflective of the way relationships are sort of evolving in general?
I do think it's reflective of the culture. I think there are a lot of things pointing in this direction now. I don't know—in some ways I think it's kind of a byproduct of a lot of feminist stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s and I think this generation of women who are feeling like they're kind of owning their sexuality and their needs, and they're not waiting for approval. I think it's kind of a way of taking back the label of slut or something like that, making it like, no, girls are just the same. And I think it's nice that there is comedy and stuff about that because there's an overflow of male-libido comedies, and it's really nice to have some female-libido comedies coming out because it's true that we're all human and it's the same. But culturally, I don't know - I guess it is becoming more commonplace. But I live with two roommates who are boys, and I'd say for them, watching their dating patterns, I'd say it's more commonplace.
Do you look at a film or a script ever and pay attention to any of those possible larger cultural themes?
Yeah, I do. I try to just look at the characters and the story and the writing and who's directing it to see if it's something that would be interesting to do, but when I'm actually doing it, and moreso when I see the movie actually screened, I see [that stuff]. Everything is political and I think it's something I tend to think about afterwards more than while I'm doing it, because while I'm doing it I'm more focused on the character and the story, and then when I see it, I think, oh, this means something different than every other [one of these movies], or it's reinforcing something that's happening. And I think that's kind of something that happens after the fact for me, because when you're making it, sometimes you forget it's even going to be a movie. You kind of distance yourself from the fact that it's ever going to come out, and then it does and then you deal with it all.
How calculated do you have to be with your upcoming projects? Do you have to consciously balance work that is creatively challenging with things that are commercial enough to get you more opportunities?
I'm not calculated about it really at all. Like, I loved Liz Meriwether as a playwright, because I went to college in New York and she was starting out as a playwright in New York and I went and saw her play Heddatron. So when I found out she was a writer in LA, I was like, oh my God - I have to audition! And I was reading it and I was like, I know exactly how to say these lines, because I felt like I knew who she was as a writer. So even though it was a bigger show, I love Liz, I loved Ivan Reitman, and it didn't feel like "this is smart because now I'm in the studio world." It was the same thing with Arthur; I mean, that's Russell Brand and Helen Mirren! That doesn't feel like compromise, that feels like wow, I can't believe I get to play with these people! And then I love Whit [Stillman], so each time I've done this it's never been like, one for them and one for me, it's been like I've been excited about all of them for different reasons. I feel incredibly lucky. Not that I'm against being calculated, I just haven't had a moment where I've been able to be calculating yet. But hopefully one day soon that will come along and I'll get to be all Machiavellian, but so far it's just been luck—exciting things have always been available.