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It can be hard sometimes to see movie stars and think of them as being like you, even if they're your own age. Scarlett Johansson was born the same year I was, but I imagine our lives are nothing like. Paul Dano and I were born on the same day, but I rarely see him onscreen and say "That's me!"
Greta Gerwig, on the other hand, has mastered the art of seeming just like you-- and as a fellow 29-year-old woman (well, almost 29), watching Gerwig on screen is often an experience in thinking "Oh, shit, I have done that." That feeling has never been more acute, or surprisingly satisfying, as it is in Frances Ha, in which Gerwig plays a 27-year-old aspiring dancer who has more love for her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) than most anything else in her life. When Sophie moves in with somebody else Frances's life is sent into a bit of a free-fall, and though Frances Ha is a comedy and most everything turns out OK, the chaos of Frances's life is painful and true and hilarious and fantastic and remarkably fresh, even after two seasons of Girls.
Happily, talking to Gerwig is just as easy as watching her onscreen, as a banal conversation about New York City weather turned into a story about seeing Jaws outdoors, and a question I often have about actors-- how do you do that?-- becomes a thoughtful monologue about losing yourself in what you're doing. Gerwig, who co-wrote Frances Ha with director Noah Baumbach, talked to me about not wanting to be seen as the characters she plays, getting up the guts to write something for the New York Times, and why acting is like sky-diving. Read more below, and catch Frances Ha in limited theaters starting this weekend.
It poured rain for like four hours this morning.
But it’s so odd. This weather, I mean it’s spring. I’m excited for it to get hot. I actually kind of really like the hot New York summers, even though they’re gross.
And they smell terrible.
There’s just some sort of communal experience that happens that I really enjoy because everybody is just miserable, but then we all are in it together and I don’t know, it makes everybody slow down. And I like the feeling when the sun sets and it gets a little cooler and it’s like everybody gets a jolt of energy and everybody is out, drinking and doing stuff.
I like going to concerts in the park, like right at sunset.
So good. Movies in the Bryant Park?
I haven’t bothered with that in years though, because it’s so crowded.
I felt like that was a thing I could do when I was just out of college and then for some reason, it’s gone away. I think I don’t have as much time.
I know. It’s been a while for me too. I remember seeing Jaws there one summer, which is such a great outdoor movie.
But I remember we were sitting in front of these French people. We felt like such Americans, because when they killed the shark, everybody stands up and cheers and these French people are like, “This is disgusting.”
Makes you like self-conscious…
It’s like, “I’m sorry. This is my country. I love it. What can I say, we make shark movies.”
So, when I was reading stuff people have written about this, there was what I thought was an interesting contrast between you and Noah. He’s pretty open about talking about the autobiography in his movies, and obviously he’s written some stuff that’s very blatantly based on his life. And you seem to really not appreciate it as much when people think you are the characters you have played.
Well, I think it’s different, because it’s my face and my body in it, so you feel less protected by the movie, because it’s more, it’s me. That’s me. So, if there’s no separation, there’s something about it that makes me uncomfortable. I feel exposed when someone thinks it’s me. If I wasn’t on screen, maybe it would make me feel more protected about it, but I don’t know. I think there’s also probably a sensitivity to it, because it feels like--and this is probably just my own insecurity--but it feels like sometimes when people say, “Are you this person?” the implication is that I’m not doing anything.
Oh, that you’re not even acting.
That I’m not even acting or there’s not skill involved which makes me feel like, “No, I’m totally different. In life, I’m a British aristocrat and this is just an illusion!” but like, that’s exhausting. [Laughs] I think I’ve gotten less sensitive about it. Also just as you do more films you get thicker skin, I guess, and you feel less like you need people to see you a way, because you realize you can’t control how people see you at all, so even attempting to try is totally futile.
And you’ve gotten to that point?
No, I haven’t totally gotten there, but I’ve gotten a lot closer. I’ve gotten a lot closer to feeling like, “Eh, you’re going to think what you think.”
Well, when you’re the writer though, I feel like that’s going to come twice as hard, because people are going to say, “Oh, but you’re a young woman living in New York. This must be exactly your like story.”
In a way, I feel less defensive of it, having written it, because I know how hard it was to write. I know how many drafts we went through and I know how even if you take circumstances that are real and then you write scenes, the process of writing it doesn’t turn it into something that is totally fictionalized, but it does, the written-ness of it turns it into something else. It has form. It has shape and then it’s acted by people who aren’t you, so it transcends whatever the inspiration of it was. I know Frances is good, like the script was really good and I’m really proud of it and I know it read really well and I think that made me feel less exposed, because…
Because it’s a thing now.
It’s a thing. Literally because there’s a thing and acting, there is no thing, It’s just you.
In the thing you did for the Times, about the anatomy of a scene, you go through every take and you can sit there and say, “This is how I felt during it.” I feel like a lot of time, for non-actors, we’re like, “But they’re so in the moment. They’re in the character. It’s totally different,” but you seemed so aware of everything that was happening which is really a vulnerable spot to be in.
I mean part of my decision to write that piece for the Times in that way, the section is called Riff, which I don’t know if you’ve read many of these, but they’re really smart and they get really smart, funny people to riff about something, like, “I’ve been thinking about this thing,” and then they’ll have twelve paragraphs about what they think about the world and I said, “Oh, yes. I would love to write something for The New York Times.”
You can’t say no.
Yeah, no, I was like, “That’s awesome,” and then I sat down and I was like, “I can’t riff,” because I feel like in some ways, I write fiction because I get to hide behind it. I get to give things to characters.
Or tell a story, not just riff on an idea.
I have so many theories and thoughts, but I give them to characters, because I’m a coward, because it’s hard for me to say them as myself. So, I feel like if I can embed them in a narrative, it’s almost like I don’t have to own them in the same way, which is probably something I should get over.
Well, that’s what makes good fiction.
Yeah, I mean, or it’s the way I feel comfortable, it’s the way I feel most able to express myself. So, I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to write my opinion for an entire thing.
So, you needed a structure?
Yeah, so I needed a structure. I decided I would watch [all of the scene's takes] instead of just making it up and I felt... I actually, it was interesting, because watching it, I felt like I was really, I really tried very hard. That sounds so silly, but I really tried very hard and I, and as I was watching it, I would have moments when I would think to myself, “Why are you laughing?” and then I would hear Noah from offscreen say, “Why are you laughing so much?” but when you’re doing it…
You don’t think about it?
You can’t really control it. I can’t, anyway. I don’t know. Maybe other people can.
So, it’s less self-conscious than it seems when reading you going back and watching it?
I’m not comparing this, because I could never do it, but when you watch Olympic swimmers or something and it’s happening so fast and it’s totally happening at the brainstem level of like, they’ve trained this into their bodies, but it’s also almost happening in slow motion and they’re aware of every little thing and they’re also aware of nothing. It’s kind of like that. Or if you’ve ever played an instrument and really know what that feels like…. or dance. It’s like, it’s some feeling of you know it and it’s muscle memory and then you’re also hyper-conscious of every little thing. I think there’s an element of, you know, fear that makes the experience more vivid, which is why I think acting is so addicting, because there’s fear in it.
And there’s fear in every take?
Yeah, every take.
And even when you’re doing 42 or 52 takes of everything?
Never goes away.
It’s like sky-diving every minute.