Guest of Honor

Actress Greta Gerwig on being quirky like a Chrysler

Greta Gerwig appeared in last year’s remake of the movie Arthur. She co-starred in Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg alongside Ben Stiller, and she stars in the new film Damsels in Distress, the first work in 12 years or so from celebrated indie director Whit Stillman.

Rico Gagliano: I thought this film was incredibly fun and extremely optimistic, which is always nice in these times. And it also deals with gender politics, mental illness and suicide attempts.

Greta Gerwig: I like to say it’s a candy colored comedy extravaganza of suicide prevention. That’s what it is.

Rico Gagliano: It’s actually true: the movie itself could prevent suicides.

Greta Gerwig: I actually do think Whit wanted to make a film that would make people happy. I think he has very unpretentious aims despite the way his characters speak, their elevated way of talking. I think he very much just wants to make a piece of entertainment that makes people happy.

Rico Gagliano: Plot-wise it’s about a college where a lot of the guys are bores and a lot of the other students are depressed. But these three girls are trying to make things more pleasant for everyone. Is that fair to say?

Greta Gerwig: Right. They’re also not cool. Nobody really likes them that much but they’re very determined.

Rico Gagliano: Your character is almost literally insanely optimistic. How much was the attraction a chance to do something that’s unremittingly positive?

Greta Gerwig: It was unrelentingly positive but also it was so madcap. It was someone who has so many opinions and is incredibly bossy who also is a glutton for criticism. She just loves it when people tell her that she’s wrong.

Rico Gagliano: But that is how positive she is. She’s so positive that she loves it when people say something bad about her.

Greta Gerwig: I just had never read a character that had so many contradictions and was so alive in them. She’s also a liar even though she’s completely sincere. I actually was with Whit and someone asked him about lying and he said, “Well, I think people who tell the truth are just terrible bores.”

To me, Violet really is almost a female Whit Stillman. He really thinks tap dancing and dressing well helps you feel better and not be depressed.

Rico Gagliano: It is actually interesting because it is so candy colored, but in the modern world I kept wanting to ascribe satire to it. Like, this can’t be for real. But after awhile you start to realize that this guy is completely sincere.

Greta Gerwig: You can’t fake individuality or free thinking. You either are marching to the beat of your own drum or you’re not. And Whit definitely is.

Rico Gagliano: Speaking of individuality, last time you were here you talked with us a little bit about the Times film critic, A.O. Scott. He called you, “the definitive screen actress of your generation.”

What we didn’t talk about was the second part of that quote, which goes, “She seems to be embarked on a project of re-defining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.”

Is this a project for you or are you just being yourself? I think what he’s talking about is how natural you appear on screen.

Greta Gerwig: No, I never consciously embarked on any kind of project. I used to take it as an insult that people thought I was natural because I thought, “You think I’m not acting? I want to be an actor.”

The actors I’ve always held in great esteem from when I was growing up, the transformative actors like Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep and the actresses who really seem like they become all these different people. I think I realized at a certain point I probably wouldn’t have exactly that kind of career.

Rico Gagliano: Can you go play Margaret Thatcher next?

Greta Gerwig: I probably won’t play Margaret Thatcher next, but I’m not embarking on anything at all. I just wanted to be really accepted. I mean, John Wayne is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen do anything and he doesn’t transform anything.

Rico Gagliano: No. He’s John Wayne.

Greta Gerwig: But you believe every second of what he does. The same is true with Jimmy Stewart. Someone told me a story that Jimmy Stewart used to say, “A fellow plays a crackhead and withdrawing from crack and we all believe it because we’ve never withdrawn from crack. We have no idea. But then he stands up and walks through a door and we say, That’s fake. That’s not how you walk through a door.”

I thought that was a really smart way to think about it because sometimes when actors do very big things you’re like, “I don’t know what it’s like to fly a plane, I don’t know what those things are like but I do know what it looks like to make coffee and you don’t look like you’re making coffee.”

Rico Gagliano: There’s that term ‘the uncanny valley,’ where you see something that’s supposed to look like a human and you know immediately it’s not a human and it kind of freaks you out.

Greta Gerwig: Exactly. I think older actors in a certain tradition were very well trained in the business of being human. If there’s anything that I’m interested in as an actor it’s what acting looks like if it feels like no one’s looking at you. That feels private.

Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask all our guests of honor. The first one is kind of about what you’re not interested in. If we were to meet you at a dinner party what question should we not ask you?

Greta Gerwig: Anything about… “what makes you quirky?” Anything that includes the word quirky or “How does it feel to be so quirky?” Or, “What’s up with your quirk?” It seems insulting somehow. I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems insulting.

Rico Gagliano: What’s weird is that I don’t necessarily think of your work as quirky. I think of it as appearing natural, real. But if that’s quirky…

Greta Gerwig: When I think of a quirky thing I think of when Volkswagen re-released the Bug and everyone had a flower in their Bug and they drove it around. That seems quirky and cute.

Rico Gagliano: You are not a flower in a Volkswagen.

Greta Gerwig: I’m like a Chrysler LeSabre. I don’t know. I’m big.

Rico Gagliano: An SUV. You’ve almost done this by saying you’re an SUV, but here’s our second question. Tell us something we don’t know. That could be either about yourself or anything in the world. It could be a piece of trivia.

Greta Gerwig: I’ve got one. I don’t know if it’s true or not — but I’ve always heard it was — but I think it’s a good one. You know the Nobel Prize? There’s no Nobel Prize in mathematics. Usually if someone wins for mathematics they’ll win in the realm of economics. The reason there’s not a Nobel Prize for mathematics is Alfred Nobel’s wife ran off with a mathematician. Isn’t that awesome?

Rico Gagliano: What? So much for high mindedness.

Greta Gerwig: I know. I don’t know that that’s totally true, but I’m choosing to repeat it because I choose to believe that the world is that petty. I love it.

Editor’s Note: So we did some fact checking, and it seems the story Greta told is probably apocryphal, I’m afraid. It seems, for instance, that Alfred Nobel was never married. It also seems like most folks figure he didn’t create a math prize either because there was already a big math prize at the time or because he just didn’t like math. Very simple.