Faster Filmmaker Q&A: “Greenberg” Star Greta Gerwig on Nakedness, Noah Baumbach and Movies that Make It Easier to Keep Living
In Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” the so-called “first lady of mumblecore,” Greta Gerwig, plays love interest to a guy who’s “trying to do nothing for a while,” played by Ben Stiller. So is that a step up, or what? I talked to Gerwig for half an hour in a hotel room the other day, and neither of us ever said the word “mumblecore.”
I’m sorry I haven’t seen every single one of your films.
Oh, that’s OK. There’s no need to.
But I’ve seen enough to know that Roger Greenberg isn’t the first aimless and shifty guy that a Greta Gerwig character has been involved with.
I think maybe that’s just what’s going on with guys right now. I think what’s interesting is very different women interacting with those kinds of guys. Florence was a particular challenge because instead of layering things on or giving myself things to do, it was more of a process of stripping away. What you’re left with is it’s kind of scary to be doing a scene because you are vulnerable in all ways. And every time I could feel myself wanting to make something more actory, I was like, nope, that’s not Florence. That would be Greta wanting to give a good performance, which is different.
I think I’ve seen you naked more than anybody else I’ve interviewed.
Have you interviewed Kate Winslet?
She’s ahead of me. But she’s got a few years on me.
That’s true. So what does all this nakedness mean to you?
It’s always transforming in what it means to me. I think it’s not something I consciously did or didn’t do, but it has been brought to my attention. [Laughs.] And I think that the first time that it ever happened, it was a scene in a shower. You don’t have clothes on in a shower. And also, I guess I fundamentally don’t get what the big deal is in a lot of ways. But if there’s any meaning to it initially, especially in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” it’s that I have felt like either you’re showing a woman’s body as a sexual object of lust that is presented for your desire, or it is degrading to be naked. But there was nothing in between. There wasn’t just nudity because, listen, you change your clothes and you’re naked. There was something about the lack of that that made me feel like women are either fetishized or degraded or both; they’re not just allowed to live in their bodies. I think it’s hand in hand with not wanting to see people for how they are. We don’t really want to see their bodies either. And I don’t mean to say that as a slight to filmmaking as it stands now. I would feel so much weirder about it if I had worked out really hard and gone on a raw foods diet before I did it, because that defeats the purpose for me. Because then you are showing your body as an object instead of your body as a thing that you live in. I would never do that kind of nudity. But maybe that’s splitting hairs. For me it makes all the difference. And then I think I felt like, “Ah, fuck it — if you do it once, who the fuck cares if you do it again?” At that point being coy about it seems sort of silly. I have said before, though, being naked on screen is very different than doing sex scenes, which are kind of horrible. Not in “Greenberg.” The “Greenberg” sex scenes were very choreographed and completely safe, which was very nice.
How else is “Greenberg” different from your earlier films?
The scale of it, definitely. I think it’s the biggest challenge and the biggest reward I’ve had as an actress. I think a lot of that has to do with coming to the script as a thing that has already had hours and hours and hours of effort put into it, by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach. And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it. But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.
Also, he tends to write movie characters who are not nice.
I still feel very protective of Florence and Roger. I still have trouble separating it when people, very well meaningly, say things like, “Boy, he was really mean. I didn’t like him at all!” It’s like, “What, you so fuckin’ perfect?” I feel myself starting to flare a bit. Or if somebody jokingly says, “What a loser, right?!” I think, that’s the kind of thing that makes people like Roger crazy. I mean, it sounds like kooky actor talk, but for me these people became incredibly real. I think I’m interested in flawed characters that are actually flawed. They’re not flawed in a way that makes the picture more beautiful or makes them lovable, but actually just flawed. I think that that’s more true. I know it’s harder from an audience standpoint; it makes characters less palatable in some ways, because it makes them more familiar. And I think I’ve always admired writers who’ve done that. Noah said something in an interview once that I thought was very true. He said sympathetic characters don’t need our sympathy….I mean, like, Nicole Kidman in “Margot at the Wedding”: I love it. I love it. I just thought she was great. But, that being said, I just watched “The Blind Side” on the plane and I cried.
What about actors? Who are your role models?
I think I tend to be attracted not just to actors but to actors in certain films. I really loved Michelle Williams in “Wendy and Lucy.” Just in terms of watching an actor not force anything. But it’s great because she’s in it. And you don’t need anything more than that. You need her to be experiencing these things. And fighting for your life doesn’t always look crazy. Sometimes it is quiet. And I think that that film captures that. I really loved Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky.” That was one of my favorite movies and favorite performances that I can think of in a really long time. She’s so fucking good in it! And that movie to me was so needed. I love going to movies and walking out and thinking, “I don’t know how I would keep living if I didn’t just see that.” And I think that’s why I want to make films and to make art in general. For just doing it all, I really love Emma Thompson. She writes, she acts, she was in comedy troupes, she dated Hugh Laurie and Kenneth Branagh. She’s amazing. There’s something about her that I find immensely appealing as a role model. She doesn’t seem snooty and she doesn’t seem like she panders to anyone.
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