Fortunately for us (and this story), Greta turned out to be a delight. And we were totally vindicated in our BFF fantasies. She talked honestly about her new movie, Frances Ha (in theaters now — we strongly recommend you see it in all its black-and-white, big-screen glory). And then she spilled all about her writing process, her secret to perfect skin, the importance of screwing up in your 20s, and her propensity to binge on...self-help books. Read on and just try to fend off your own frolicking-through-Brooklyn-together buddy fantasies.
What was the experience of writing this movie like? Easier or harder than acting in it?
"It was an amazing process, I felt like I had a lot of things stored up in myself that I had not been getting out for a while. So, when Noah [Baumbach] asked me if I wanted to collaborate on this screenplay, it was like one of those cartoons where I was like 'I’m so glad you asked, because I’ve got this trunk full of stuff!' I felt like, I don’t know, a desperate traveling salesman or something."
"And usually, in independent films you shoot 20 or 25 days but we shot 50. We went really long and were shooting 14-hour days. It was exhausting but it was amazing. As an actor, I was trying do it well, and I would sometimes have these moments where I’d look at another actor in the scene with me, and they’d say a line that I had written and I’d feel so proud. I felt like I was challenging myself at every step but that I was better for it at every step. So, when people are like 'I liked your movie!' I’m like 'Good! Because it’s literally the best I could do!'”
Can we talk about your character, Frances, a bit? There’s something profoundly depressing about that moment you sort of realize that her best friend has outgrown this friendship, even though you can see it's holding her back a bit. Are you one of those people who believes that kind of female friendship is always a crutch that keeps you from experiencing real life, or do you think that there’s a place for that type of relationship, even as we get older?
"I tend to fall more on the side that there is a place for it as long as you, like Frances, can let go of the past and still find a way to love each other and be there for each other in a more mature way — like that you can love each other as adults. But, one of my very best friends, her mother told her, when she was younger: 'Enjoy your female friendships now because you’ll never really have them as you get older.' And she really believes that. So, I feel like I tried to give both sides a hearing in the movie – like, it does have to change and it will change, but I ultimately feel like has gotta be possible."
"I think that, definitely in your 30s and 40s and early 50s, a lot of women can lose sight of each other because the pressures of marriage and family can take over, but I’ve found that in my mom’s generation and for different women I’ve known in their 60s, they’ve seemed to really find each other again, in a significant way. Whether it’s that they got divorced or the kids are grown up, they have all this time again. I’ve known more women in their 60s who have traveled with each other or see each other all the time and hang out all the time. I feel like it can be rediscovered as a primary relationship, maybe later in life."
There's a scene at the beginning where Frances' credit card is declined and she’s like “Oh I’m not a real person yet.” That felt so poignant, but it struck a cord because there are so many self-help gurus out there giving advice to women in their 20s saying “you need to live more meaningfully, you need to do better, you need to start earlier.” And that totally flies in the face of this story, where Frances is able to grow up because she ambles through and screws up a bit. Do you think she's doing it wrong?
"No, I don’t think Frances was doing it wrong! I mean, I love Frances. I love the ways in which she’s flawed but also really cocky and funny and she’s got swagger even though she’s making mistakes — this utter confidence in in the face of things not going great. And no, you don’t have to make all the mistakes that she made but I do think you have to go through it."
"It’s interesting you bring up self-help books because I am a total self-help junkie and I know when things are going bad for myself, when I buy a bunch of self-help books — from the time I was probably 17 or 18, I would get in these black holes and then I would buy a bunch of books and some of them were about ‘organizing your life’ and others were about ‘finding spiritual satisfaction’ — they ranged from 'closet organization' to 'finding God.' I feel like I have often put too much emphasis on giving someone else — like an author or an idea or a set of beliefs — too much power, like, 'they can get me through the hard times so I don’t have to experience them.' But in reality, the only way out is through it! I feel like that’s a hard thing to know because you so want to be able to get through it in some other way or more elegantly. And I don’t think suffering is always meaningful. But I do think that, in terms of personal growth — and I use personal growth because that’s what they call ‘self-help’ now — you gotta go through it. It’s like puberty. You can’t just magically transform to the place where you’re done with it and you just have this woman's body — you have to go through all the weird parts in between!"
Do you have a favorite self-help book that you go back to, time and again?
"I do tend to like the ones with a more Buddhist bend, which is tricky because they tell you things like 'you just have to go through it' but meanwhile, just reading the book makes you feel so much better! So, I mean, those Pema Chodron books, she’s brilliant and I don’t mean to diminish it, but I think there’s a way you can use stuff like that inappropriately — which I definitely have. And then, I definitely have read and highlighted 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and then, the book called The 8 Habits, and then I got Living the Habits.... This is when I was like 22 and I was living with a bunch of roommates and they were like 'you’re crazy!' I got the workbook that you could use to organize your planner in terms of the seven habits, and people were like 'You are not the manager of a bank — you’re an SAT tutor!' So, that was a big binge. Oh! And I did The Four Agreements. I totally got into that. I mean, I think they’re all valuable but it’s just that I was using them like a drug addict."
"My most recent binge was probably right before Frances went to film festival and I was so nervous. And when I get really nervous, I don’t experience at that because I just find myself buying all these self-help books. Anyway, there’s this woman, Martha Beck, she’s on Oprah all the time; I downloaded every single book she has ever written and listened to all of them. They’re all about “finding your true north star” and all this stuff, and I used to go to the gym or just walk around the city and listen to her voice. I became so addicted to it that I would have trouble walking around without her voice in my head, since it was so calming and soothing."
Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films.
I know this role is different since you created her, but normally, what draws you to these slightly lost characters — the ones who aren’t ever completely broken, just struggling?
"I don’t know, totally. I try not to psychoanalyze my attraction to characters too much because I don’t really understand it. I know I have a lot of empathy for them and I feel, in some ways, very close to them, even though I’m not going through their exact experiences. I feel a lot more together in my life than some characters that I’ve played."
"And with Frances, I experienced a lot more...luck, early on, than she did. Even though I wasn’t wildly financially successful or hugely famous, I was getting a lot of feedback from the world that told me that I was on the right track, which I don’t think Frances got. I think a lot of people who are artists of any kind feel very close to the reality that it could’ve not happened and that it doesn’t ever really feel solid. It always sort of feels like you’re renting success or renting the ability to make work that anybody cares about. So, it doesn’t ever feel like Ah, yes, this is solid and won’t go away. You just always feel like you’re just one bad break from it all falling apart."
Speaking of success, you mentioned at the CFDAs that the thing that really changed for you in recent years is that people finally send your clothes in the right size. Beyond that, have you had any other moments or milestones of Ha! I've made it! ?
"Well the clothes were and are very specific because they were the right size. I’m like a totally normal-sized lady. I just don’t wear a sample size. It’s like, that’s good...if I were going to dress a doll! But seeing as I need to dress my body, it definitely needs more fabric."
"But, that feeling of Oh I’ve really made it, it’s fleeting. It’s almost like a drug hit and you need to re-up it all the time. But, the past few weeks in New York City, so many people on the street will stop and say, 'Hey! You’re Frances and I love it!' and there’s something about it because this is the city that I love so much and it’s my adopted home, and there’s something about getting a high-five on the street about this movie you made — that’s the most recent feeling of like Holy shit, this is what it feels like! and it’s great. It’s really emotional and mind-blowing and I'm so grateful."
Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films.
So, when you put your name into Twitter, you get quite a few tweets about casting rumors for the Hillary Clinton biopic, and fans who are like, “Well I really wish Greta Gerwig were playing this role.” Would you ever consider something like that?
"I actually met on it. I read the script and I loved it! I’m sure I’m like one of a bunch of ladies who’d be willing to wear headbands! I had this whole thing like 'I went to a women’s college! I was on the debate team! I can play this role!' But that’s really awesome that people on Twitter felt that way!"
"I mean, it’s one of those great roles. And, as a woman, you realize there are so many great female actresses and there really just aren’t enough great roles so whenever I read a great script I think, 'I want this but probably everybody else does, too.' You know, I feel like it’s odd because I’m really just starting to get a lay of the land, but sometimes it works out! So, I don’t know. But I love that project, and whoever does it, it’s gonna be a great movie because it’s a great script and a great director. But yeah, I would love to do something like that!"
Okay, one last question, not about the movie (or Hillary). Everyone in our office wants to know what your secret to that perfect complexion is. What do you do?
"My skin-care secrets, Jesus! I actually, much like self-help, I will get obsessed with an entire line of skin care and I probably waste more money on skin care than anything else because I’ll try a product and then I’ll be like 'I need everything that Jurlique has ever made!' So, I feel like actually I’ve forced myself to keep everything incredibly simple, because I find that getting infatuated with new products all the time actually makes my skin really upset, even though it’s in my heart to do so. So, I’m basically all Cetaphil all the time. Because it’s just so non-irritating — and nobody from Cetaphil is paying me! I’m just saying!"
"But I’ve done literally every skin-care thing you can name. My most recent exploit, which I actually still, to be totally honest, use sometimes, is the Rodin oil. That’s nice! It’s like liquid gold — literally, because it’s as expensive — but it’s so nice! And you smell like a woman on the Upper East Side when you wear it."
That is amazing. Other than Cetaphil and the fancy oil, is there anything you do, like in your diet, to keep your skin healthy?
"No, I actually get infatuated with trends and ideas, so I avoid them — at any time, if I feel myself going like 'I’m gonna give up gluten!' or something, I have to pull myself back and say 'Greta, you’re not allergic to gluten! God gave you the gift of good digestion; therefore, enjoy it!” and eat all of these lovely foods. So, I actually feel like I try to keep myself eating everything all the time. I feel like needlessly eliminating things is sort of a life-denier."
Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films.