Interview: Greta Gerwig Talks "Damsels In Distress" And Being Known As The "Queen Of Mumblecore"

The star of Whit Stillman's new comedy discusses working on the film and being the face of the lo-fi independent film movement.

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In acclaimed director Whit Stillman's latest girl-centric comedy, Damsels In Distress (opening in limited theaters this weekend), Greta Gerwig stars, alongside Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton, as Violet, the leader of a group of unconventionally pristine college girls who run a dysfunctional college campus' Suicide Prevention Center in an attempt to lift the spirits of their presumably miserable peers. Although Violet is seemingly aloof and sports wardrobe choices from the 1950s, Gerwig and her on-screen counterpart do share two key characteristics: their indomitable ambition and intimidating intelligence. 

The 28-year-old Barnard graduate, who's had experience both writing and directing her own independent films, penciled Complex into her (intentionally) perpetually busy schedule to discuss Stillman's latest masterpiece, renouncing her crown as the "Queen of Mumblecore," and working with yet another Hollywood legend, Woody Allen.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

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What was it like filming with Whit Stillman? 
Whit’s one of my favorite people who has ever lived. I love him. I really love him as a person, I love him as a director, and I think more than anything I love him as a writer. It was a real dream come true and I think maybe one of the best parts I’ve ever gotten the opportunity to play. He did a tremendous job heading the ship.  

Did you connect with your character Violet at all?

I found myself very much connecting to her passion and her very strong ideas. I equally have a lot of passion and very strong ideas.

Do you believe any of her offbeat convictions?
I believe all of it. My mom is actually a psych nurse. She saw the movie when it premiered in L.A. and she had really interesting things to say about it. She really thought it was very smart, and very, in its own way, realistic about how something like dancing can make you feel better and connect you with people, and get your body moving and get your endorphins going, and how it's really helpful.   

One of Violet's main goals is to start an international dance craze. Would you ever attempt something as ambitious?
Yes. [Laughs.]. I would never try to launch an international dance craze, but I’m very ambitious and like to do lots of ambitious things.

Do you have any in mind that you could see yourself doing?
I’d like to accomplish lots of things but they’re kind of embarrassing to say out loud, because when I say them out loud it makes me sound both completely egotistical, which I probably am, and like I have no sense of what I actually have the potential to do or what anybody has any interest in seeing me do. So I try to refrain from discussing my goals because it makes me sound like a maniac. [Laughs.]   

I hope I stay busy—it’s a sign that I’m not going to be destitute.

So we just have to wait for them to happen.
Yeah, and if they happen, you’ll know. I mean, rest assured it's not to, like, become the dictator of the United States. It’s nothing that’s malicious or would involve taking over a government, but they’d definitely be goals.   

Your character looks for someone inferior to be with. What’s your approach in that sense?
I try to look for people who are superior to me. I try to look for smarter, more knowledgeable people who are really great at what they do so that I can be inspired by them.   

From Greenberg to Damsels In Distress, you've had so many meaty roles and continue to be cast in great films. Is that something you had planned or did it just happen that way?
I’ve always secretly wanted to do all of it, but I think it takes a lot of courage to say you want to be an actor because it’s filled with so much rejection and disappointment. I think it’s a very brave person who states, “I want to be an actor and, come hell and high water, I’m going to do it!”

I did know that I wanted to be a part of movies, I loved movies, I loved theater; I wanted to be a part of that world. I wanted to be a part of the world of writers, and actors and directors, on stage or in film. But it felt like being an actor was something that was... I wanted it, but lots of people wanted it, and it felt like completely unlikely that it would be something that would happen to me. And the fact that it’s worked out is the greatest pleasure of my life and I’m so grateful for the fact that it’s worked out the way that it has.

It’s odd because I think sometimes people have the impression of me that like I didn’t mean to do any of this—it just happened. I certainly did mean to do all of it, but I never depended on any of it because it seemed like a foolhardy thing to depend on. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard this, or if someone has called you this before, but you’re kind of known as the “Meryl Streep of Mumblecore."
[Laughs.] It's shameful that I’m known as the “Meryl Streep of anything.” I don’t think you can. Meryl Streep is not a term that can be just bandied out like it doesn’t mean anything. Meryl’s in her own category.   

But are all the mumblecore-esque roles something you're still drawn to, or are they something that you just keep getting cast for now?
The mumblecore thing, or what has come to be known as mumblecore... I was writing those movies and improvising all of the lines, so those came largely from me. Luckily a lot of those things I've been cast in are things I’ve been drawn to. So it’s worked out that that has been very fulfilling for me. But, I certainly don’t have any desire to be typecast as an actor or only work in one way.

One of the things I really love about this movie is, I think, after Greenberg came out, a lot people thought I was that girl, but now they’re like, “Oh maybe you’re not that girl," which I never was to begin with. But I genuinely believe that people really think I am all the characters I play, and I’m not any of the characters I play. Though, they all of have pieces of myself in them, if that makes any sense?   

I guess people come to expect from you what your character shows them.
But you keep expanding that with every part, hopefully.   

So would you be opposed to, say, a superhero movie?
I’d love to do a superhero movie. Nobody wants to see me in a superhero movie, that’s the problem. [Laughs.]   

Who would you play?
Wonder Woman. [Laughs.]. I don’t know. I’d love to do a superhero movie. I think in some ways I’d make a really good superhero because I’m really unlikely. That’s the whole point of superheroes: You’re not supposed to think they’d ever be a superhero because they’re in disguise. I’d make a really good CIA agent because nobody would ever think I’d be a CIA agent. I could be working for the government right now, like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.   

I read that you and your co-star Analeigh Tipton went to the same high school. Did you guys know each other?
We did. I knew her sister. Her sister was in choir with me. It was a pretty small all-girls school so we all knew each other. It was totally wild when we got this movie together. I couldn’t believe it. I had known about Analeigh because when she was on America's Next Top Model, everyone watched because she was a St. Francis girl. I thought she was very charming on Americas Next Top Model, and she still is very charming.   

Damsels In Distress explores a variety of themes, from suicide to "the decline of decadence." What did you take away from it?
I think that the idea that fixing something seemingly superficial, that fixing the outside of yourself can actually have a very strong influence on the inside of yourself. I think that’s one of the messages of the movie. While I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling with the message because I don’t think that’s really the job of the actor to figure out what its supposed to mean, I think that there is a lot of truth to that, that dealing with something that’s seemingly superficial actually can cause a lot of internal changes.

It's like how they say if you smile, you become happier, and when you frown, you become sadder, just because of the muscles that are activated with the corresponding neurons in your brain and the way they’re wired together. I think that’s very true.   

What was it like working with Woody Allen in this summer's To Rome With Love?
It was incredible. He’s my idol, so working with him is like meeting a Beatle or something. Its crazy. I hope I did a good job. I’m scared I didn’t because I was so star-struck.   

Could you discuss your role in the film?
I can’t really talk about the film because he’s very weird about that. I shouldn’t say "weird," but he likes to keep things under wraps. But I can say I mainly was acting with Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page, so the three of us bro-ing down.  

With Damsels coming out this week and Lola Versus premiering at Tribeca next week, you’ve been consistently busy these past few years. Does it ever stop?
No, I never want it to stop. I’m like Joan Rivers—did you see that documentary? When she opens her calendar, it's blank, and she’s like, “You wanna see fear? A blank calendar!” I feel that way. I think a lot of people who are in the arts feel that way. I think it's because you realize you’re in such a privileged position to be able to make your living doing it that it's just terrifying to think of not having it.

I think that’s one of the reasons why it can make you crazy: It feels mutable, it doesn’t feel solid. Then again, as the recent economic downturn has proved, very little is solid. When I graduated from college in 2006, I remember people kind of saying, “Oh, do you think it’s a smart idea to go into the arts? Maybe you should do something in finance or become a lawyer.” Now I’m looking really intelligent for going into the arts cause everything else kind of went belly up.

But, yeah, I think that there’s a lot of terror in not working. So I hope I stay busy—it’s a sign that I’m not going to be destitute.

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