Greta Gerwig Explains How Exercise & Girlfriends Inspired Her Latest Role

Photo: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX USA.
In 2013, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach introduced us to Frances of Frances Ha, a wannabe modern dancer who was lovable even as she flailed through life. Now, the pair have created Mistress America’s Brooke, another New York heroine as captivating and flawed as Frances, but in a different way.

Gerwig plays Brooke, who entrances her future stepsister, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a newbie to NYC who uses her new friend/soon-to-be sibling as inspiration for her writing.

Brooke is one of those characters who can only exist in movies — or, you know, on the streets of New York. But Brooke is not your familiar Brooklyn hipster. Her coolness comes from the fact that she’s sort of exquisitely uncool. She’s a SoulCycle instructor, an aspiring restaurateur, a freelance interior decorator, and someone who comes up with ideas for T-shirts that eventually get sold at J. Crew. Decidedly not fashion-forward, she wears boot-cut trousers and a semi-drab houndstooth coat. Kirke accurately (and astutely) describes Brooke’s look as “confused businesswoman.”

“I do know people like that in New York. Not to generalize, but they’ve always got a hustle and every third thing that comes out of their mouth sounds like a lie, but then some if it turns out to be true, and you’re not sure what part is which, and they’re kind of amazing, and you just want to be around them,” Gerwig explains in her characteristically breathless way.

It's true. Throughout the movie, Brooke alternates between seeming like the most fascinating person in the world and the most insufferable. "We want to be honest about these people, and we don’t want to make them just have adorable flaws," says Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with director Baumbach — also her boyfriend. (It was recently announced that Gerwig will make her directorial debut next year with the indie Lady Bird.) "We didn’t want to let her off the hook for anything, but we didn’t want the movie to be a dangerous place for this person. I know that sounds weird and kind of astrology-ish somehow, but I experience the world as a place where there’s a lot of mistakes made, but there’s also a lot of forgiveness and love. I think to make a movie that treats its character quite roughly through and through doesn’t quite rhyme with how I see things."

Hopping on a call shortly after landing in the States from an international flight, Gerwig walked us through how she built the inimitable Brooke.

Exercise Classes
Gerwig, “like any good actress,” she says, goes to a lot of exercise classes, and she has taken special interest in her instructors. Thus, one of Brooke’s careers was born. “I’m fascinated by the girls who teach those classes. They always have other dreams, other talents, they are usually incredibly positive,” Gerwig says. “They are around a lot of people who have a lot of money and a lot of time, and it’s a weird kind of negotiation. They’re incredibly interesting people, and I’ve spent time reading through — Brooke is not based on any of them — their Twitter feeds, their Instagram, how healthy they are, and how good at stuff they are, and how positive. I was just thinking, maybe there’s a person who is part of that, but she’s not quite so great at it."

'80s Movies

While the films Gerwig and Baumbach have made take place in the present day, they are intentionally imbued with a vintage “vibe.” But if Gerwig sees Frances Ha as a product of the late '50s and early '60s, Mistress America owes its sensibilities to the late '70s and early '80s: a sort of “Melanie Griffith thing.”

“There was a kind of character that was present in a certain kind of '80s movie, like in Something Wild and After Hours,” Gerwig explains. “Whatever happened to that character and why did she disappear from cinema, and can we bring her back?” Brooke’s social aspirations are also of a more '80s milieu as well. “She’s not a bohemian artist who lives in Brooklyn and only does hip stuff,” Gerwig says. “She wants to be a square in some ways. She wants to be a yuppie. Even that distinction between the yuppies and the downtown people is a more '80s distinction.”
Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
Screwball Comedies
Brooke also has earlier cinematic roots. She’s a gold digger in the style of Claudette Colbert. “We were definitely thinking of screwball comedies,” Gerwig says, referencing the Preston Sturges film The Palm Beach Story, in which Colbert plays a woman in search of a wealthy husband. “What I love about Brooke is, if she had 10% less integrity, she would have married some guy she didn’t like who had money. She unfortunately had just enough integrity to fuck herself for the life she thinks she wants, which is sort of tragic but also noble.”

Real-Life Relationships
If Gerwig is any character in the movie it's Tracy, not Brooke. (Like Tracy, Gerwig went to Barnard.) One moment in the film, when Tracy tells Brooke she doesn’t know how to use a coffee maker, was derived from Gerwig’s real life. “I completely idolized so many women,” she says. “I’m still really prone to it, and a lot of that stuff was taken directly from different experiences I had in different circumstances. I said, ‘I don’t know how to use a coffee maker,’ and [a woman] looked at me and she said, 'You do. Stop pretending to be incompetent.' It was this moment where I was like, Oh my God, she’s right. I’m pretending to be incompetent and I’m not.”

Like Frances Ha, Mistress America is more concerned with platonic ties between women who love each other than with romantic relationships. Movies don't often go there, and Gerwig has found that her bonds with other women have been “some of the most vivid” of her life. “Even when I was young, like Tracy’s age, I had some feeling of: Boyfriends will come and go, none of us are going to marry these guys," she says. "[Those romantic relationships] are playacting for an adult life that may or may not come to pass, and the actual intense attachment and emotion was, for me, around female friendships.”

Mistress America arrives in select theatres August 14.

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