Greta Gerwig stars in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. She plays Violet, the leader of a group of college girls running a suicide prevention hotline. She speaks really proper and tries to get everyone to dance. We got to talk with her when she was in L.A. promoting the film, and also her upcoming movies: Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love and the wedding disaster comedy Lola Versus. She’s also working on Noah Baumbach’s HBO series The Corrections.
Crave Online: Where can I find a girl like Violet?
Greta Gerwig: I don't know, if Whit became a girl you could date him and he’d be like Violet. I think Violet is the kind of girl that only exists in Whit’s conception of the world. I don't think she necessarily exists in the actual world.
That’s what I’m afraid of.
I know, I know. It’s a sad thing. I love Violet.
Or Lily or Heather. They’re all great.
Violet’s the best though. [Laughs] She’s mine so I love her the most but yeah, I think my second favorite is Heather.
Isn’t she so funny?
Yeah, and I’m not usually into the ditz or “dumb girl” but there’s something so sincere about her.
I know, I know. And Carrie [MacLemore] is also the nicest girl just as a person. I loved Carrie so it became this other thing that I love Heather. She’s so funny.
She’s not trying to pretend she’s smarter like some of those characters.
No, she knows she’s dumb. Also there’s something about Whit does this thing with tropes. There is a trope of the stupid frat guy in college movies but only in Whit’s world would that frat boy who’s stupid be struggling learning his colors. It’s so absurd but it’s so perfect. It’s the specificity within this genre that makes it so special I think.
Did this way of speaking change everything else, down to your posture and the way you walk?
Yes, it did. I thought Violet was a very contained character. I felt that she wouldn’t be sloppy or excessive in her body movements. I had this way of running in the movie, with very small steps and my arms by my sides. I had a thing with her that she, when she’d speak she’d turn to the person she was talking to full on facing them and addressing them directly. Just the way she was, the way he wrote the dialogue, informed the physicality of the character.
Did you try lots of different things before you came to those?
Mm-hmm. I mean, I had a general idea of what they were when I started but I think a lot of acting is you have an instinct and you kind of go towards the thing that feels right and then if it stops feeling right then you try something else and the only way to do it is trial and error a little bit. I knew the direction in which I was going but I think the first week or two a lot of the particulars were worked out on camera. I was figuring it out as I went but I think that’s how most films go.
Have you ever had a film or character that was this extreme?
No, this is the most extreme I’ve ever played. It was also the most fun.
Does that change the process when you’re taking it to this level?
Each film is its own universe. I don’t feel like I have a [process]. I have certain things I like to do but I don’t have one set way of approaching each thing. I think every time I get a character, it’s like the first time. You don’t know. It’s like you’ve never acted before because you’ve never acted that character before so you don’t know the things that you need until you’re in there and doing it. Then you’re kind of building your parachute on the way down.
What if you did a sequel and got to play the same character again?
I would love to. I would just love to be in another Whit Stillman movie. I really loved working with him and I adore him as a human, but also as a director.
Do you wish you could talk like Violet in real life?
Yes, I do. I love the way she talks and I wish I could be as confidently right and confidently wrong as she is. She goes 100% in one direction but is completely ready for it to be torn down. I think I tend to hedge my bets more as a person.
This sort of dialogue is extreme but does it speak to the disconnect we’re seeing in a generation that says less and less and doesn’t connect?
Well, I think this movie doesn’t deal directly with technology, but I do think that the character of Violet is sad about the current state of people having limited chances for in person social interaction. She’s sad that people don’t dance socially. She’d like to start a dance craze. I think she would like there to be more opportunities for people to actually gather and be together and talk, as opposed to be isolated and in their own little world.
She’s trying so hard to help, does she also need to learn to just let some things be?
Yes, and also I think it’s a physician heal thyself moment. I think she also has a lot of the things that she’s worried about other people having.
Did you already know how to tap dance?
Yes, I grew up dancing all different kinds of dance and I knew how to tap. I tap danced for my audition so I was very excited about tap.
Have you just been waiting for a movie to unleash that in?
Yes. I have been. I love it.
Having a dance background, how easy was it to learn the Sambola?
Very easy. Anyone can learn it. If you talk to Whit, he would really like it to be an actual craze.
Are you a natural leader?
No, I don't think I am. I think I’m the sneaky leader. I think other people are more clearly the leaders but then I think I create counter-revolutions.
Was it hard to take on that aspect of Violet?
It was a bit in the beginning but it was really helped by the fact that I was on set every single day and I had the most to do out of any of the characters. I was in almost all of the scenes so it helped because myself as Greta felt like I was taking more of a leadership role and that helped with the character of Violet.
What was your college experience like?
I loved college. It was a wonderful time. It changed my life. I moved from Sacramento, CA to New York City and I met such smart, interesting people. I just loved it. I also met my five best girlfriends and we’re all still five best girlfriends. Even though we were nothing like the girls at Seven Oaks, there is a similarity in I think groups of girls tend to all become like each other a little bit. They mimic each other. That definitely happened.
What was your group’s “thing?”
We were really good students. We were really competitive students. We also were hard smoking, hard drinking, cussing kind of girls.
Yeah, we were a little unmanageable. We thought no one could tie us down.
But you kept the grades up.
That was part of it. We thought we were smarter than everyone else too so it was a lovely combination.
Did that lead you into the arts also?
Yeah, I always loved the arts but I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who was an artist or involved with film or theater in a professional capacity. So in college I acted a lot but I also wrote a lot. I wrote a lot of plays and sketch comedy. By the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be involved in film or theater professionally but it still felt like a long shot to be an actress, even though that’s actually what I wanted to do. I think my attitude has been the whole time that I just threw myself at it and whatever was available, whatever was going on, I was there. I was in it and I didn’t care if I didn’t get paid and I didn’t care what the job was and I didn’t care often whether it was good or not. I just was so hungry to do it and I’m so lucky that I have ended up where I have.
Was it always part of the plan to go out for big Hollywood movies like No Strings Attached and Arthur?
I mean, I don't know that it could’ve been. It’s impossible to think of something as being part of a plan because there’s no way to plan for that. You can’t say, “In my 10 year plan, I’m going to do Hollywood movies.” I was so lucky that they came my way. I think I was always open to it though. I love film in the art sense but I also like movies in the Hollywood sense. So I’ve always felt like both are really part of me so I get to do films like No Strings Attached and Damsels.
What do you get to play in the Woody Allen movie?
I play Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend and I can’t say anything more than that because I don’t know how secret things are. But it’s a vignette. There are three different stories I think in the movie and I’m in one story. The one story is me, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg.
Is it like we always hear where you only get your own pages?
Yeah. You only get your own pages.
Do you like that?
I prefer it actually. Sometimes it’s possible to overthink things if you have the whole script. I think it works really well. I’ve written and directed things and I only give people the pages that they are in, so I like it.
What is Noah Baumbach’s sensibility in a TV format with Corrections?
Well, I don't know because we just shot the pilot. That’s like a mini movie. It’s strange because it’s not an original of his. It’s him and Jonathan Franzen obviously. They wrote the pilot together and the 10 episodes that hopefully, knock wood, we’ll shoot. So it feels like one of his films but it feels like something entirely different also because it’s this work and this world and this family that Jonathan Franzen has created.
Is Lola Versus a very different take on a wedding comedy?
Yes, it is. It winds up in a totally different place than any other one that I’ve ever seen, so I’m really excited for people to see it. I had a lot of fun making it and I hope people have a lot of fun watching it because I think it’s funny and it’s true and embarrassing and vulnerable and female driven in the truest sense.
Do you get a lot of funny stuff to do in it?
I do get a fair amount of funny stuff to do in it. Physical stuff. There’s a notable scene in a strip club which felt like my Goldie Hawn moment.