‘Greenberg”s Greta Gerwig on Ben Stiller’s Head, Brooklyn, and Becoming a Na’vi

It was hard not to feel terribly excited for Greta Gerwig when I found her in a room at the Waldorf-Astoria, waiting to be interviewed. Most actors have jumped through the press junket hoop to the point of inconvenience, but besides a tiny junket for the super low-budget comedy Baghead, this is her first. “I’m just excited I get room service,” she says, only half-kidding. She’s doing the media rounds for the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, her first “Hollywood” film. It’s impossible to write about (or interview) Gerwig without touching on her movie origins. Since her onscreen debut in Joe Swanberg’s LOL, she has collaborated with friends on movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, becoming the de facto queen of the movement dubbed mumblecore, that brand of DIY filmmaking about twenty-somethings stumbling through a post-collegiate world. But now, in Greenberg, Greta Gerwig is a love interest to a hypercritical, grouchy, man-child, played by Ben Stiller, and she’s absolutely terrific. Her life is about to change, and speaking to her, you get the feeling that she knows it.

Does your first major movie feel like starting over? It did. I always feel like I’m at the beginning. I think that’s sort of a perpetual thing for most actors. You always kind of feel like you’re starting from nothing, writers too—most people who don’t have any degree of certainty. But this time in particular, it did feel like my first time out. I’ve had a lot of feelings of first times but this is the biggest first time.

Has this kind of success always been the goal? I think it secretly was, but had you asked me earlier I would have said no, because it’s scary to want things, especially things that seem inaccessible. That being said, it was scary to want to do Hannah Takes the Stairs. It’s always hard to admit that you’re a reacher. I always knew I wanted to be an actress, but it’s very hard to admit that’s what you want to do, especially because that’s not what you’re doing, you’re a waitress.

Did you ever intend for your early movies to function as calling cards? No. The movies that people call mumblecore, movies like Baghead, Hannah, Night and Weekends, I made those in a six month spread. I did three in a row and we didn’t even know anybody would see them.. It just seemed like it was exciting. I wanted to do theatre, I wanted to act, and I wanted to write plays and make things, and here was a group of people who makes things. I don’t think we had any idea that people would have as many opinions on it as people did.

Was it a surreal experience to have Ben Stiller’s head between your thighs? Yes, it was. I mean, it’s such a genius scene. I read it and I think I said “Oh, Noah!” You just know what that situation was, why it sort of seems like a good idea but it’s just a horrible idea. Yeah, I did have a moment where I thought my life is strange. It was really choreographed so it felt very safe and very controlled.

Did you feel like this time around you really had to act, as opposed to other films which were more improvised? Yeah, there’s no improvisation at all. Ben and I are really stoked because we keep getting that question, because it means we sold it at least. It’s also just Noah’s writing is so perfect.

Did you ever worry that you’d end up like Greenberg’s character, a lost soul at 40? I still feel like that. I don’t think you ever really lose that fear, but I think that’s okay.

Are you planning on doing anymore writing yourself? Yes, I am. Right now I’m focused more on acting, but not to the exclusion of writing. It’s just that I’m living out what I wanted to do at 13.

What are your friends’ reactions to this? The guys I used to make movies with, I think they’re all excited. I think they’re all proud. They are also making their own. I think all of it is terribly exciting, and everyone is really proud of each other and it’s really cool when someone mentions a friend of mine in a meeting. Like they name drop my friend to me and I’m like “No, we’re all friends!” I think everyone is really pleased and hopefully it means more good movies will be in the world, because I think that they make really great movies.

Why did you have to gain weight for this role? I didn’t have to, it was my choice. My agent was upset, she said “just say that you’re going to gain it then don’t,” and then he saw me and was like “oh my God, you’ve put on 15 pounds,” and I just thought it was right. I talked to Noah about it and he said maybe put on a little weight. It’s not like that was hard.

What did you do? I ate a lot. My main memory of Los Angeles is delicious taco stands. When I read the role, I thought of Florence as someone just seven pounds too big, just a little uncomfortable in her own skin. What we did was I got to L.A. a month before we shot the film, so I had a month and we did a costume fitting when I got there at my normal weight, and then I packed on like 12 or 15 pounds and then they didn’t adjust the costumes so you just have that shirt-pulling quality that’s hard to fake. I mean it’s not like my Raging Bull moment or anything, but it was important to me that she looked the way I thought she should look. But I did have a moment before the first day of shooting where I was like, “What have I done? This is my big break and I’m all pimply!” And then I saw the film and I’m so glad that I did, because it makes the love story seem more romantic or more real. There’s something unfortunate when you see glossiness or everything’s been prettied up. And I feel grateful because I just thought “Well, maybe my next role, they’ll say they want me back at that weight!” Great, I know the perfect taco stand, Pinchos on Sunset.”

Do you still live in Brooklyn? I used to. Now I live in Chelsea.

Why did you leave Brooklyn? Because when everything crashed and all these people moved out of their apartments, places in Manhattan were cheaper than apartments in Williamsburg where I was living.

So you wanted to live in Manhattan over Brooklyn. I don’t know!

You have to choose! You know what I will say though, I really miss living in Brooklyn. I miss a lot of things, but the biggest thing was going over the bridge. I used to go over the bridge when I first graduated from college and every time I would go over the bridge I would repeat to myself, I own this city, I own this city. I was also working as an SAT tutor, but it was just this feeling of anything is possible.

Will you ever move back? Ideally I think I would like to live in Brooklyn Heights. I go to church in Brooklyn Heights, the Unitarian Society. It’s all like atheists, but I really like it. They’re all like NYU science professors that are like, “I’m dubious about God, but I like community.” It’s a good scene.

Have a lot offers come in because of Greenberg? Yes, it’s incredible how much one movie can change everything. I’m kind of on the clock about a couple of things, but I’m making decisions.

Are you going to avoid traditional glossy Hollywood films? I don’t know. I think part of me would like to do something with a green screen. Is that bad? It just seems so crazy, but I want to be a Na’vi.

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