TSR Exclusive: ‘Damsels in Distress’ interview with actress Greta Gerwig

With a start in independent films like Nights and Weekends with “mumblecore” director Joe Swanberg, actress Greta Gerwig has recently expanded her quirky prowess to larger films, both from the independent and Hollywood scene. Recently, she played Russell Brand’s on-screen love interest in Arthur, playing the part once made famous by Liza Minnelli. Now, she’s in Damsels in Distress, the latest movie from Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco filmmaker Whit Stillman.

In the vibrant comedy Damsels, Gerwig plays a college student named Violet, an eccentric character with an unusual circle of friends. As tap dance-loving Violet falls into a “downward spiral,” her group of friends incorporate a new student (played by Crazy Stupid Love’s Analeigh Tipton) into their deadpan world of boys, suicide prevention centers, and the “Sambola.”

I sat down with Gerwig to talk about her unique character, the difference between working on a Hollywood project as opposed to an independent, and what the next Woody Allen movie To Rome with Love is going to be like.

Damsels in Distress is now playing in select theaters.

How important is smell to attraction?

They keep telling us that it’s important. I don’t think about it, but I think you’re not totally aware of how [smell] influences you. I just read this thing about Febreeze, which I never knew, that they have this thing that neutralizes odor. But people wanted it to smell like something; they wanted it to smell like Febreeze! So when it first came out, people didn’t like it because when they cleaned their house, they wanted it to smell nice. So then psychologically it helped sell the product later when it smelled like something. I would prefer a lack of scent. But apparently I actually wouldn’t, according to the consumer research.

Your character Violet also has some odd obsessions. What are some of yours?

I’m always trying to learn other languages. I always listen to “listen and repeat” tapes, and I download audiobooks. I am obsessed with organizational systems of all kinds, like planners. I love a planner. I love the idea – the thing of it is that I’m not that well organized, or punctual. I look for it everywhere, because I don’t have it. Sometimes I over plan things. For a while I was into “iCal” on my phone, but it became too detailed. ‘Wake. Eat breakfast from this time to this time.’ It took me more time to enter it in than it took time to do any of it. It makes me so unhappy when I write out schedules like I’m living on military time.

You have a lot of characters that deal with human relationships. What interests you most about that subject, and what do you think Violet says that your previous characters have not?

I don’t know that there’s anything more interesting than human relationships, period. How humans relate to each other is one of the most fascinating things. As for Violet, I think she is invested in the surfaces of things. It’s superficial, but it’s not trite. She’s interested in the surface in a meaningful way. The decorum, the politeness. Solving antiquated social norms. I think in a way being polite and concerned with manners is not any more superficial than people who always feel the need to be honest or rude. That has just as much pretension. ‘You didn’t help anyone. You just feel better about yourself!’

When I talked to John C. Reilly years ago for Cyrus, he said that the term “mumblecore” was a dirty word, and that the Duplass brothers didn’t like it.

No one likes that word. I don’t really mind that word, mostly because it’s not going to go away. It’s sticking. All the filmmakers hate that word.

Is there any alternative word for it?

I don’t think there is, but I think it’s wrong to lump all of these movies together. I think people just use it now to talk about any movie. I think it’s a silly term, but I don’t care that it’s being used.

Did the mumblecore movement influence Whit Stillman at all?

I don’t think it influenced him at all, he was just inspired by people making movies for no money. We had never talked about it, but my guess would be that he hates them [laughs]. People cursing, too much premarital sex.

Has he seen any of your movies?

I have no idea. I do know he saw Arthur, because he e-mailed me afterward to tell me, in one of the best e-mails I’ve ever gotten, ‘The projection was beautiful,’ [laughs]. He said I was very charming, it was the funniest thing. It came out when he was in post-production. He really liked my make-up in Arthur. He said I looked really good.

It seems that you bounce between doing one an independent film, and then another not-so independent film. Is that something you want to maintain through your acting career?

It’s not something that I deliberately want to do because I have a qualitative feeling about independent film in and of itself. I don’t think that because something is cheap to make that it’s good, or that if something costs a lot of money it’s bad. I think it has just inevitably worked out like that. I like doing both, and I like having both as an option. There’s something to be said for making a big Hollywood machine movie. It’s really fun. And it’s like a different side of filmmaking. There’s more than enough of everything; everything is run like clockwork. It’s such a massive operation, there are so many people, it’s kind of incredible. Especially when you’re actually on a studio lot, it makes you feel like you’re actually making movies. They can make it rain, or sunny. It’s pretty incredible.

Does working on a Hollywood movie relax you more, or allow you to focus more on character?

It does make it easier, in a way, but it’s about being in the spectacle of it all. Once cameras are rolling, acting is acting, and it’s very similar. It’s everything around it that is different.

What are your own tips for dealing with a “downward spiral,” especially after a break-up?

I think Violet is right about dancing. And I’m going to sound like my mom, but get eight hours of sleep, drink a lot of water, don’t drink alcohol, and get exercise. I think we’ll keep finding out study after study that exercise works just as much as anti-depressants.

How did you work with Whit to construct the Violet character?

We never sat down and said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We had a few read throughs, and the last one did not go well. It was bad. He knew it, and I knew it, and we were a little scared going into the first day of shooting. But it made me nice and scared to find it in myself to really go for it. Whit always wanted less from me. We’d do a take, and then he’d say, ‘Can you do less?’ He’d always say, ‘Can you do it normal? Just say it how you would say it.’ I would always get my takes in, which were a little bigger, and had a little more emotion in them. Then, he would get his takes when I would be more subdued and monotone, or flat. I think he likes that though, because he is not very openly emotional or demonstrative. He doesn’t feel false when actors are like that. But I’d figure he’d want some of it in editing, and he did.

How many of your takes got into the movie would you say?

Pretty much anything that is like excited, or anything that has a lot going on is mine. Anything that is damped down, and I’m just saying the lines, is his. But I think it’s good, I think he needs both. I think his lines work very well when they are delivered straight.

Do you think it is fair to say that there’s a lot of irony in this movie?

It’s not ironic. It’s actually 100 percent sincere. Which I think is what’s kind of amazing about it. When I first read it, I thought, ‘Oh, what great satire.’ But as you’re acting it, you realize that for him it’s not satire. He means all of it. Deadpan isn’t a terrible word, but I can’t think of another word to describe it. It’s sincere but absurdist, if that makes sense.

How much time did you spend on the choreography for this movie?

We rehearsed the choreography more than anything else. That was the thing that took the most time. Most of the boys didn’t dance, but all the girls had dance backgrounds. I was a total dance person, I loved ballet, tap, and jazz. I tap danced in my audition. I brought my tap shoes, they didn’t ask me, but I just wanted to do it. I did a soft shoe, and a few different times steps.

As a tap dancer, what is your favorite Fred Astaire movie?

Well, I’m more of a Gene Kelly girl. I like Fred Astaire, and all of the dance sequences, but I’m much more into American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain. I like his face a lot, and he uses close-ups well.

As a New York acting and writing student, what are your feelings as a fan on getting to work with Whit Stilman and now Woody Allen (for “To Rome with Love”)?

It’s insane. I have to forget that I’m a fan to do the work. You’re not serving the movie if you’re just kind of in awe the whole time. You have to have your own opinion and bring your whole thing to the table, but it’s so easy to just be like, ‘You’re great, and I don’t care!’ That’s not what they want at all. It’s incredible, I can’t believe I get to work with people I admire so much.

Having seen the PBS documentary on Woody Allen, it seemed like he was not the the kind of person who was into that.

He does not like that. He doesn’t encourage any type of reverence. Neither does Whit. I don’t know that any of them do. I think they just want to get on with the business of making a movie.

What can I expect from this next Woody movie?

It’s really funny.

Could you compare it to another of his films?

I would say it’s a little bit of Deconstructing Harry, that’s what it’s like to me. It’s a good one. It feels … it feels special.

Quick Questions

Favorite fruit?
Strawberries.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Two poached eggs and toast, and a tomato.

If you could be someone else for 24 hours, and then go back to being yourself, who would it be?
I would definitely be a man. Maybe Barack Obama. But what is he going to do while I am him? I mean, who doesn’t want to know what that is like? It would be an interesting day. I would say Sarkozy, but I don’t speak French … Carla Bruni would be confused.

Favorite summer movie?

The first one I think of is Wet Hot American Summer.

Age of first kiss?

16. That was my first real kiss.

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