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Greenberg – Greta Gerwig interview

Greta Gerwig in Greenberg

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GRETA Gerwig talks about some of the challenges of making Greenberg as well as the pleasure of getting to work alongside ‘Ben Stiller, comic genius’ in a serious role and writer-director Noah (The Squid & The Whale) Baumbach.

She also discusses her own career moving forward and what it was like appearing alongside Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in the remake of Arthur.

Q. What appealed to you about Greenberg? I would imagine that Florence is quite a challenging character to play?
Greta Gerwig: The whole project was very appealing from the get go. I’ve been a huge Noah Baumbach fan from way back. Loved his older movies as well as, obviously, The Squid & The Whale and Margot at The Wedding… he also writes humour pieces for The New Yorker, which are great. He’s so funny. I was also a huge fan of his wife’s [Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote Greenberg] and everything she’s done.

So, I was not the most unbiased reader of this script. I was ready to love it and I did. But Florence herself is so perfectly there on the page and I recognised her instantly. Jennifer and Noah are such great writers that with a minimum of woods and a maximum efficiency they can relay a whole person in a screenplay. Also, people don’t make movies about [people like] Florence or Greenberg… they’re unusual heroes, or anti-heroes and that’s something that’s exciting to play and something I haven’t seen too much before.

Q. Florence says a lot that resonates, too. I’d imagine a line like “hurt people, hurt people” was one that grabbed you quickly because it’s so simple and yet so meaningful…
Greta Gerwig: That was a big one… I’ve had a lot of people ask me when I do press for this film about my relationship with Roger [Ben Stiller], who are quick to point out to me that he’s such a difficult character. But I feel like everybody can always try to change the way they are, but can only do so from the place where they decide to start. And Roger is starting with a lot of problems at that time in his like. But it’s what makes the movie more optimistic.

So, I think that ‘hurt people, hurt people’ is one of lines that works because it resonates with you as an audience and as a reader, but all of Noah’s lines also work for the characters saying them. Florence is a little sheepish about saying it… she’s worried that it might come off sounding pat and clichéd, but she means it too. So, I enjoyed playing with saying something that’s sincere but also questioning whether you should say it. It’s a theme that runs though Noah’s work a lot.

Q. What was it like getting to do a serious film with Ben Stiller? He’s done serious roles before, but isn’t as recognised for them as he is the comedy roles…
Greta Gerwig: I love him. But I have very strong feelings of affection for everyone who worked on this project. But Ben was so dedicated to it and he really allowed himself to play Roger without being judgemental. He allows the audience to feel what they feel about him. He didn’t make excuses for Roger or try and cover anything up. And that was really wonderful to play against.

When I acted with him, I got to act with who he was as Roger, rather than Ben judging Roger – and that doesn’t always happen with actors. But he was willing to be as ugly and as beautiful as Roger is, which can be hard because then people start to think that’s you! I’d forget sometimes when we were making this movie that Ben is so funny! But then when I saw him when we weren’t shooting or on the weekends, I’d remember: “Oh my gosh, he’s Ben Stiller… comic genius!” He is such an incredible talent.

But it’s strange because comedians don’t get as much credit for being as transformative as they are. They’re not recognised for being chameleon like actors in the same way as the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. But I challenge anyone to find a more chameleon-like person than Ben Stiller. I really would. It’s just because he’s funny that he’s not always seen that way.

Q. How was singing in the movie? Was that nerve-wracking for you?
Greta Gerwig: Singing makes me nervous but in a really good way. It’s interesting because I think that one of my favourite things is watching someone who loves singing but isn’t the best singer, because it’s just so pure. I think it’s one of the most vulnerable things you can do. It kills me. So, I felt really lucky that I could do that in this movie because it’s such an elegant way to show a character without having them need to explain themselves.

Greta Gerwig in Greenberg

Q. So, were you more nervous about those scenes than the sex scenes, which are also quite eye-opening?
Greta Gerwig: I think the sex scenes are very funny, but they’re also very choreographed. It means you’re not surprised by anything that’s happening. Everything that happens is written in as much detail as possible and there’s a lot of awkward standing around and trying to figure out where to put the camera [laughs].

Q. As a New Yorker yourself, did that help to inform both Florence and Roger’s characters, especially in the way that Roger has recently moved from New York to LA and struggles to adapt?
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, it did. I live in New York and since Florence is such an LA character I was actually very lucky and got to go out there before we started filming. In fact, I went out almost a month early to do rehearsals and costumes. I wanted to try and keep out of my mind the dichotomy of living in New York and LA because I think people wear the cities they live in on their bodies. The pace of life is so different… the rhythm of speech and the way you approach the world if you’re taking the subway or walking somewhere as opposed to sitting in a car alone. So, I tried to be in LA for as much as I could so as to feel like someone who lived and breathed LA, as opposed to a New Yorker. I didn’t want to be caught analysing it or feeling displaced.

Q. Greenberg marks your first steps into mainstream acting. So, how has it helped to raise the profile of your career? I gather you’ve just finished Arthur?
Greta Gerwig: Yes, and I’ve been doing that with two of your finest – three, in fact. Helen Mirren, Russell Brand and Peter Baynham, who wrote the screenplay and who is also responsible for things like Alan Partridge, which I love! Arthur is going to be so funny and the experience of making it has been incredible. But doing this film [Greenberg] has changed everything. It’s made it possible for me to work more consistently as an actor, and that’s been tremendously exciting and satisfying, as well as challenging on a different level. You hope you can measure up to people’s expectations.

Q. Did you ever think you’d be sharing the screen with Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in the same movie? Russell’s quite a livewire isn’t he?
Greta Gerwig: He is [laughs] but he’s also such a sweet man! Of course, I knew about all of his various sordid past histories, but he’s an incredibly hard worker, very dedicated and just really kind. A lot of people fought for me to get the part, which is extraordinary and nerve-wracking at the same time. I mean, I hope I’m worth it [laughs]!

But he and a lot of other people really were instrumental in making sure I got this part and I was floored by how generous and kind he was about the whole thing. I don’t find anything more nerve-wracking that auditioning, but from the moment I did, he was wonderful. I also love the group of British people he travels with. They’re so funny… they should have a sitcom called Russell Brand’s Entourage!


Q. The New York Times is quoted as saying about your performance in Greenberg that you’re now ‘the definitive screen actress of your generation’. What do you think when you read such a compliment, which isn’t misplaced? Does it bring extra pressure, or do you take it with a pinch of salt?
Greta Gerwig: [Laughs] I didn’t actually read it. I saw myself on the front of the New York Times Arts section and thought: “What the hell?” And I immediately got excited but then I thought: “No, this will make me crazy… whatever is coming [in the article] is going to be bad news for me…” I don’t want to become the kid who knows he’s cute. I don’t want to become too aware of what it is you’re perceived to be doing… it then becomes a hall of mirrors and that would be awful.

So, in some ways it puts pressure on me, yes, but in other ways… of course I want to keep making good movies that speak to me and to other people. But that being said, I’m very much a jobbing actor and some of it is about what people are willing to hire you for. So, I don’t have a mission statement. I hope I’ll always get hired to do things that are great, but all you can do is strive to make decisions that you feel are right at the time.

Doing Arthur, for instance, was a completely different experience for me than Greenberg… it has a different kind of style and storytelling in that it harks back to the screwball comedies, Howard Hawks and older stuff. So, it’s a different style of acting and performing, too. But I think it’s always good to feel that you’re pushing yourself. I don’t want to become stagnant. I know that sometimes I could be terrible but I’m fine with that too. I’m trying to be aware that not everything I’m going to be in will be good. You can make mistakes, even with the best of intentions going in.

Q. Will you continue to operate in the indie film circuit where you made your name as an actress, writer and director as well?
Greta Gerwig: Oh yeah, I live with two indie filmmakers and it’s sort of the air I breathe. I’m very committed to writing and directing and working on my own stuff, so hopefully that will continue because I’d like that to be a big part of my life as well as I continue. But that’s another knock on wood scenario. It’s keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that things can continue in the way they have been. We’ll see…

Greenberg is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 4 October from Universal Pictures UK.