Persona non Greta: Greta Gerwig on Frances Ha

In the last few years Greta Gerwig has graduated from the queen of the lo-fi mumblecore movement to US indie's most exciting young actor. We speak to the Californian about her brilliant new film Frances Ha

Feature by Tom Seymour | 15 Jul 2013

I’m hunkered down in the gutter, late for an interview with Greta Gerwig, fighting with the chain of a rickety old road bike. It’s rush hour on Charlotte Street, central London, and a towering figure talking business on his iPhone bars entrance to the pavement. I try to barge past, before realising it’s Harvey Weinstein, Don of Everything.

“Harvey’s here!” Gerwig exclaims. “You’re kidding?” Her face lights up like a Christmas tree. She flew in from New York yesterday, and has been sat in a windowless room fielding press all day. She’s jet-lagged, wearing a flowing satin-print dress that could have been nicked from the nearest charity shop. Throughout our interview, she folds and unfolds her legs more times than a contestent on Blind Date. She tries for a solid five minutes to break into a bottle of sparkling water. She ums and ahs as if she’s at the dentist. She tells herself she shouldn’t say something, and then says it anyway. I want to take her outside and point her towards the Hollywood mogul, just to see what she might do; on the basis of her character in Frances Ha, maybe she’d run over, trip on her dress, fall at his feet, pick herself up and extend a long, gangly arm. With Gerwig so unlike a media-trained Hollywood starlet, Weinstein could not help but fall for her too.

The 29-year-old Californian, whom the New York Times called “maybe the definitive screen actress of her generation,” is in London, along with director and partner Noah Baumbach, to promote their new film. Tomorrow they will go to Edinburgh for the city’s International Film Festival to introduce Frances Ha’s UK premiere: “I went to the Fringe when I was in college,” Gerwig says. “It rained, but I thought it was a beautiful city.”

Frances Ha is kind of like Girls for cineastes, or Manhattan for the recession generation. Channeling Éric Rohmer and the French New Wave (Baumbach’s infant son is called Rohmer), it’s a sparkling take on a quarter-life crisis; a young girl defining herself against a city that will keep on giving, but is totally indifferent to her fate.

Gerwig and Baumbach co-wrote the film, and this – in every sense of the word – is a collaboration. His deft, effortless direction proves a perfect foil to her full-blooded inhabitation of the role; as soon as you meet Frances, she feels like a long lost friend with a particular taste for living life. The dingy streets of New York, meanwhile, have rarely looked more iconic.

“We’re very different people, but we share what we want things to be like,” she says of their relationship. Yet this script was not a simple process: “The hardest stories to write are the delicate ones. You can’t muscle through them. They have to be exactly right. So we don’t just beat it out. We collect moments, and we talk about what kind of direction we want to push the material in. It’s almost like – you write the scenes, and then find out what the story is underneath.”

Frances Ha’s title character, Gerwig says, is a kind of alter ego. A 27-year-old apprentice at a New York modern dance company, Frances loses her boyfriend, job and apartment. Most significantly she also loses her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) to a man whom she doesn’t think is good enough for her. She contends with what it means to take a desk job, to keep up with the rent and to maintain complex friendships, all the while holding tight to a slipping dream of who she thinks she might be.

Gerwig admits she suffers from the perception she is the person she plays in movies. She is actually anything but clumsy: she had ballet classes as a child, then took up fencing. She won trophies as a teenager, and still bouts when she’s between movies and back in New York. She’s a trained actress who can “do anything,” according to Baumbach. “I feel my acting history up to this point is more in the tradition of an on-screen persona,” she says. “But that’s a creation. It’s not the person I am, but is in the wheel-house. I feel more kinship with John Wayne than someone who I think just imitates or grandstands. I don’t like acting that feels like a trick or feels indulgent. I look for actors like Carole Lombard or Katherine Hepburn, actors that don’t need to prove anything; they’re just great.”

“The hardest stories to write are the delicate ones. You can’t muscle through them. They have to be exactly right” – Greta Gerwig

The persona she refers to might come from the John Cassavetes-inspired, intensely-personal ‘mumblecore’ period she went through before Whit Stillman, Woody Allen, Ivan Reitman et al came calling. As well as being the mini-movement's most recognisable star, she co-wrote most of the films she appeared in (including Baghead, Hannah Takes the Stairs and LOL) and co-directed and co-produced her own mumblecore feature Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg. Despite their success at festivals like South by Southwest, Gerwig was close to broke when she auditioned for Greenberg, her breakthrough part and the first time she met Baumbach in the flesh. She was auditioning, and mostly failing, to get jobbing parts on TV series like Gossip Girl. Now, as she enters her 30s, her name is suddenly a byword for all things good about cinema. But if she patented a time-machine, if she could say something to her struggling 20-something self, what would it be?

“Trying harder to make rent would be a good place to start,” she says. “If I knew I was going to get Greenberg and that was part of my life, then I wish I would have felt better about things. I would say to myself, ‘It’s closer to working out than you know.’

“I got a lot more feedback from the world than Frances did. People were telling me it was going in the right direction, but I was very, very, very broke, and that continued for a long time. I felt like I was finding some traction in the world, but also that I didn’t fit in. I was making these movies that were getting some attention. That was exciting. But I couldn’t get hired on a normal acting job to save my life. I couldn’t even get hired as a day player on Law and Order. I felt like: The only reason I’m dancing is because I made the music. Why can’t someone ask me to dance?”

Baumbach asked her to dance. When she auditioned for Greenberg’s Florence, Baumbach said she “taught him” the role, such was her connection with the part. But if she was a bolt from the blue for him, he was a fixture for her: “I remember going to see Noah speak when I was in college,” she says. “I bought a ticket to City Hall to watch him read his pieces for The New Yorker festival. I loved Kicking and Screaming and his work with Wes Anderson. I was very aware of him.”

Reading the part of Florence, she says, made her feel good about everything she got into the movies for: “I thought to myself ‘God, this is the kind of writer I want to be.’ It was so beautiful and precise, sort of like how people speak, but just enough off to sound written. I just loved it.”

Gerwig has, without a doubt, made Baumbach a better filmmaker. Frances Ha may depict the death of a suspended life unencumbered by reality. But it may also signal the birth of one of the most exciting filmmaking duos in the business.

Frances Ha is released in cinemas on 26 July by Metrodome