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Interview: Greta Gerwig on "Frances Ha" and Movie Musicals

Greta at the "Her" premiere in LA last weekTrue stars are always spectacularly themselves onscreen, even when acing the particulars of a new character. And make no mistake, Frances Ha's Greta Gerwig is a star, despite her deceptively modest indie trappings. Even the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocation, notoriously reluctant to honor non-household names, could see it. They nominated her last week for a Golden Globe alongside little unknowns like "Meryl Streep" and "Amy Adams" for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical last week. In its own peculiar way Frances Ha is the film that most belongs in that category, being both musically inclined (Greta's Frances is a struggling modern dancer) and very very funny. The actress dances through Frances Ha, which she also co-wrote, with such endearing inimitable style that she's finally ascended, becoming the "GRETA GERWIG!" she was always going to become. 

I talked to this gifted actress recently about the somewhat arbitrary nature of movie awardage but we quickly moved on to two topics far closer to her heart: creative collaboration and movie musicals. When it came to the latter, her voice lifted with as much energy as her titular character exhibited in those spirited spinning runs down Manhattan streets in Frances Ha.

Nathaniel R: Everyone movie fan I've ever talked to about you remembers vividly the first time they saw you in something. I think this is a huge compliment to you.

GRETA GERWIG: That's really nice.  

What do you attribute that to?

I don't know. I think it's sort of "Who let her in the building?" I think it has that effect on people. [Laughter] But I'm glad I'm memorable!

[Three actors Greta loves and movie musicals after the jump...]

Nathaniel R: You're compared to Parker Posey sometimes... I  think you're quite a different actress but it's been such a long time since we had a leading lady who we might reasonably call "Queen of the Indies"

GRETA GERWIG: I loved Parker Posey when I was growing up. Particularly the stuff she did with Christopher Guest, clearly a co-creator, making it her own. She was bringing more than quote unquote just acting. there was something else it seems. I mean she's just terrific. She's one of those people who is just wildly talented. People sometimes forget that about her. My sense is that she was that person in drama school who was funnier and smarter and better and more creative than anybody. She's got that quality. I kind of think she can do anything.

You haven't always cowritten your stuff but with Frances Ha, you've really proven yourself in that regard. Is that something you'll be seeking out now or will you stay an actress for hire ?

I would LOVE to be an actress-for-hire but I don't think that's going to be what I do. I think I'll probably end up doing some combination of acting and writing and making things. I think it's probably lucky that -- I'm a lazy enough person, my character is lacking enough, that if someone says 'You'll never have to write again or be creative again in that way,' then I would take it! [Laughter]

Creating your own work is really hard. I know that sounds silly because it's joyful and amazing but it is difficult and it takes a lot out of me. I think I'm been saved from my own laziness by the fact that I haven't been giving everything I wanted. Which is a good thing.

I think one thing people don't say enough about Frances Ha is that the ensemble is really strong. Was it strange to act with people playing characters and saying lines that you created?

I was part of the audition process pretty heavily. A lot of the weirdness of that was beaten out of me during [auditions]. You hear so many people read the lines that they become not yours. It's almost like you beat out of you what you had heard in your head. It allows you to hear someone else's rhythm in it. When you hear it right -- but it's not your right it's their right -- than it comes back around to you if that makes sense? By the time we were shooting it felt like long since they weren't my words.

Charlotte D'Amboise, Grace Gummer, Mickey Sumner ...everyone was so good in it.

It was so much fun to cast it out of New York -- all these great New York actors -- whether it was stage actors or people we knew that had been auditioning for other stuff. There's something so great about using actors like that. I think so often casts are put together like "Does this person mean something financially?" and these were just people we thought were good.

You've used your background as a dancer before and it's a key component of Frances Ha. Do you want to do a pure musical?

[Excited] Yeah! That would be my ultimate thing. I do love dance and I think I love musicals more than plays or movies. I like films that have that element. I respond to them. I love the Gene Kelly movies. 

Oh, he's my favorite!

He's the best. They were doing a Jacques Demy retrospective at Film Forum and I watched all of his movies. It's weird when you watch a bunch of stuff by one filmmaker in a row. You realize he shoots some of the same locations in multiple movies. 'We were just in that hallway but it was that other story.' It's a totally modern thing you can do to watch movies so close together!  Not just Umbrellas of Cherbrough, but A Room in Town -- everyone sings through the whole thing which is great. The only thing I wish would have happened is dancing. 

I'm so happy you want to make musicals

I just don't know who wants to pay for that? Unless it's Chicago or something, I don't know. Maybe the world will come back around and the movie musical will be king again?

a few of her favorite things: Frances Ha, Gene Kelly movies, Denis Lavant movies

I wish for that all the time. What director would you like to be a muse for? 

Mike Leigh. [Thinking] And Leos Carax and Claire Denis. All the big ones of course but those two. I would like to figure out how to be a lady Denis Lavant. He always seems like he's in a musical to me - his body seems like a dancer's body. I like to make something that's not literal if that makes sense. I think Denis and Carax movies have this not literal quality that I think I'd be interested in being taken away and fucked up by.

Wasn't Holy Motors great?

I'm learning how to play the accordion because of that movie! That accordion scene I just never wanted it to end. 'Holy fuck I didn't know I wanted this!'  

That's another skill for your movie musical.

It's going to be all accordions! 

previous interviews 
more Greta Gerwig

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Reader Comments (7)

She mentioned Crax because of Mauvais Sang, where she took the Modern Love sequence from. I knew that was not something from Baumbach, I knew it!

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Here's the original sequence

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

sorry, I've done something wrong with html (like always)

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Her awesomeness has no limits. Leigh, Carax and Denis? I hope all of those collaborations will somehow happen.

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJan

I think most (especially young) actors want the things Greta wants but end up doing commercial or even dumb commercial stuff because 1) money 2) There aren't enough movies like Carax's etc because a) money b) bold creativity is not somehing society encourages.

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Oooooooh, Claire Denis.

And yes, I want a Demy-like singing dialogue from beginning to end musical. Somebody give Christophe Honore a better script and make, a bankable American cast, and make this happen!

James T- You can always balance this work. Binoche and KST do it all the time.

December 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I just want, at some point in my life, to see Greta Gerwig play the accordion. GREAT interview.

December 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

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