In 2006, Greta Gerwig was living in Logan Square, making her first movie (Joe Swanberg’s “LOL”) and fighting off a heat wave.
“We didn’t have air conditioning,” she recalls, “so we had to just put a bowl of ice by the fan.”
The actress, recently seen opposite Ben Stiller in “Greenberg,” Russell Brand in “Arthur” and now starring in “Damsels in Distress,” opening Friday, doesn’t need to rough it anymore.
In the 4-star “Damsels,” Gerwig is hilariously vulnerable Violet, the leader of a group of college girls who preaches tap dancing as a depression-fighting technique and embraces unintelligent, unattractive men in hopes of improving them. The movie glistens with director Whit Stillman’s most pointed, brilliantly backward dialogue and serves as a feast for anyone fascinated by the way people behave both as individuals and as part of a pack.
At the Peninsula Hotel, 28-year-old New York resident Gerwig talked about reinventing herself in college, the Macarena and people who falsely identify as ex-nerds.
How much did making this movie remind you of your own college experience and the way you used tap dance to make yourself feel better?
I loved college, but [the film] didn’t remind me of my college experience in any real way. The psychology of it is correct although the set dressing is wrong. We didn’t have that aesthetic in college, but the idea of having a clique of girls that tend to all become like each other is something that I think is pretty universal. And also just that in college you’re able to transform yourself in a way that you were never able to before ... because in high school you go to high school with people that have known you since you were 6, so how mysterious can you be? But In college I think people really did reinvent themselves and totally they went by different names and started dressing differently and disavowed Dave Matthews Band. I did.
That was your big transformation?
I was like, “I don’t know whose jam band CDs these are. Not mine! I’ve never gone to a Phish concert.”
“I know all the words, but …”
I feel like mostly in college people’s CD cases get them in trouble. They did when there were CDs. I was at the end of CDs. I went to college from 2002-2006 so we had CDs, but now no more. No reason to buy a CD.
What was the most embarrassing CD you had at that time?
Oh, it was a book more than a CD but I didn’t bring it with me to college. I had Jewel’s book of poetry. That was really embarrassing. The CD was embarrassing but the book of poetry was the kicker.
Do you remember any of the lines?
I probably do but I would be very embarrassed to go into it right now.
In many of his movies, Whit Stillman has worked with this notion of the leader of the pack being not necessarily—
Sure. What do you think the movie is getting at with the passive-aggressive, arguable empty-headedness of the leader?
I think actually the leader of the pack—it is a situation of, “Physician heal thyself”—but I think she’s not empty-headed. And I do think that Whit really loves Violet. And I think of all the characters I think Violet is the closest to his worldview. I think he actually does think that tap dancing and musical theater and sharp dressing and perfume can make people feel better about themselves. That’s not satire for him; that’s totally 100 percent how he thinks. So even though she suffers from some of the things that she’s trying to correct for other people, she’s incredibly sincere about what she’s trying to do. She really does believe in all of it. And she really wants to help people. She’s not just trying to control them for the sake of controlling them. She really wants people to be happier.
The movie’s full of lines that at first you’re like, “What?” But then you think about them more. I recently mentioned to friends the line about how everyone’s flawed, so why should that mute us to the flaws of others?
“Should that render us mute to the flaws of others?” It’s true. So many of the lines when I read them I laughed because they were very funny but then as I was actually doing them I thought, “He’s actually right. He’s actually right about lots of things.” The one thing he said he doesn’t think is true is Violet’s idea is dating doofuses or sad sacks. He said that’s just her defense mechanism. That that’s actually not a good idea. That’s her trying to not actually fall in love and get hurt.
Whit’s movies question how young people talk and live their lives. What’s something that strikes you as especially odd about how young people act these days?
Whenever I read the things that say the volume of text messages that kids send each other in high school—they’ll send hundreds of text messages a day, or something insane. It seems absurd to me. I feel like so much of my high school experience was daydreaming. It was having crushes on guys and staring at them but trying not to be kind of in the world. I think about people sending all these text messages, I’m like, “That’s so much stuff! That’s so much information.” That’s a little crazy to me. I just can’t believe that the kids who are—is it 2012?—it’s like if you were born in 2000 you’re 12 now. That’s absurd!
In “Damsels in Distress,” the guys don’t know colors, or what color their eyes are.
Whit takes stupidity, fratboy stupidity to a completely absurd place. It’s not just like dumb frat guys. They don’t know their colors! It’s so extreme.
As someone who was in a fraternity, I did not take it personally. I did find it interesting that with so much information out there everybody misses something. What’s something you picked up late?
I’m incredibly gullible so I feel like I’m always coming late to stuff. I’m also bad at sarcasm, picking up on sarcasm. I like missed that day. So I’m still really bad when someone’s sarcastic. I always think they’re being totally sincere and it’s embarrassing because then I’ll start answering the question and then they’re like, “No, that’s not—can’t you tell?” And I’m like, “No! I can’t tell.”
Do you recall a time that got you into trouble?
No, it rarely gets me into trouble. But it just leads to an unnecessarily long interaction about something that didn’t need to be talked about that much. [Laughs.]
Violet really believes in the power of a dance craze. How wrong are we to laugh about the Macarena now?
I don’t laugh—I think the Macarena was great. I think the problem with Macarena is it doesn’t require a partner. Violet is very big on dances that require partners because it brings people together. Literally.
What would you recommend if you were going to revise the Macarena to make it a two-person dance?
If there’s a way to do it opposite so you could be putting your hands on someone’s shoulders? And then they could [lead] another part of the dance? Partner Macarena.
Rose comments that the idea of being nice to weird, unpopular kids hadn’t come around yet. In Bobcat Goldthwait’s upcoming satire “God Bless America,” the world seems mean and terrible. Are things nicer these days than they used to be?
Well I do think that weirdly, this wasn’t the case when I was in high school or college, but I think that now definitely in junior high and high school, the idea of the cool nerd, the emo kids. That’s like a thing now. It’s so weird. And all the girls who were popular in my high school when I see them now they describe themselves as not being popular because it’s like cool to have not been popular. [Laughs.] They’re like, “I was such a nerd.” I’m like, “You weren’t, though. A nerd. At all. That’s not true; you were totally popular and had lots of boyfriends and always looked great at dances.” But I think it’s something to do with “Juno.” I don’t know, I really think maybe because people are like, “I want to be different.” Good for them.
So, “Thank you, ‘Juno’”?
Thank you, Juno! I guess. Yeah. Also there’s this nerd aesthetic that came in and Urban Outfitters sort of popularized a certain look. It used to be the look that only the indoor kids wore but now it’s kind of a jock—now more social people wear it.
I liked “Arthur.” Why do you think—
Why didn’t anyone else like it? [Laughs.]
Yeah. It was funny, it was nice, it was romantic.
I have no idea. I don’t understand why it caught as much heat as it did. I thought it was unfair. It’s a sweet movie. It means no harm to anyone. [Laughs.] And people really went after it. But you can’t really take those things too seriously because it’s like, what are you going to do? If you had fun making it and you know why you did it and you enjoyed being in it, they’re not going to like everything. And people who like it, like it. So that’s why, I don’t like it when actors are like, “I don’t like that movie I did.” I’m like, “But what about all the people who did like it?” [Laughs.]
On Chicago: “I made between two and three movies here. Definitely two. It’s the place I made my first movie [“LOL”]. I moved the summer after college and I made a movie with friends and I didn’t know that it would all work out the way that it has, but I’m really happy about it. I love Chicago. I was staying more Logan Square, that area, so not the downtown. It’s a really glorious city. It was summer so we went to the lake and everything. It’s a great summer town. But it was the worst heat wave. It was the summer of 2006. We had this terrible heat wave that people were dying in, and we didn’t have air conditioning so we had to just put a bowl of ice by the fan.”
On her acting style: “People have not always known that I’m acting. A lot of people have thought that I just, in different movies I’d have people are like, ‘Did you just go find her on the street?’ [Laughs.] ‘Oh, she’s not acting.’ What’s nice about continuing to work is I think it also helps a little bit redefine other work I’ve done and people are like, ‘Oh, she must have been acting then because she’s not that person.’ But it’s a good problem to have because it means that they believed me.”
A guilty pleasure movie: “Oh, I have so many guilty pleasure movies. I love the ‘Twilights.’ All the ‘Twilights.’ I just love Kristen Stewart. I think she’s just really watchable. But I don’t talk about that. Or I try not to talk about it that much because that’s not even a cool guilty pleasure. Those are really fun. I was so excited. They had ‘Breaking Dawn’ on the plane. And I was like ‘Sweet!’ I was like so pumped. It’s the perfect plane movie too because your emotions are heightened because the air is so thin. I was crying and the werewolf stuff is so dramatic.”
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