Greta Gerwig Isn't Your Average It Girl

"Woody Allen is the reason I wanted to live in New York City so badly," says Greta Gerwig, walking down Tenth Avenue in Chelsea on an April afternoon. Of course, Woody seduced a whole generation with his 1970s cinematic love letters to Manhattan. But that was a long time ago. He doesn't even shoot here anymore, and the New York he revered now seems as remote as Carrie Bradshaw's. So there's something sort of winsome about this fangirl confession from Gerwig, the 29-year-old star and co-writer—with her filmmaker boyfriend Noah Baumbach—of her own Woody-esque film, Frances Ha. And while it may sound odd for an actress to admit an obsession with Woody Allen these days, for Gerwig it makes perfect sense.

A Sacramento transplant, Gerwig comes off as more of a New York neurotic than as a California girl. With her penchant for stream-of-consciousness conversation—and for waving about her lanky arms for emphasis—she's also a natural heiress to the line of indie actresses that came before her, including Woody's original muse, Diane Keaton. Gerwig has lived in New York since moving here to go to Barnard, where she earned a degree in English and philosophy. "Not art history," she clarifies drily, wandering through Kenny Scharf's "Kolors" show at the Paul Kasmin Gallery on West 27th Street.

Although she is one of five people in the large white space, Gerwig's own muted palette—hazel-green eyes, pale skin, blond hair tied into a loose knot, a gray striped boatneck sweater—renders her almost invisible amid the funhouse sculpted fiberglass faces and garish blob paintings. Gerwig strolls unnoticed down Tenth Avenue, too, past 192 Books, which she says is one of her favorite bookstores, to Cookshop for a bite. Despite the fact that she's been starring in both big studio films (Arthur) and indies (Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress)—and even scored a role in To Rome With Love, Woody's latest—her real-person prettiness is a kind of camouflage in a city of aggressive chic.

Greta Gerwig photographed in the West Village, April 25, 2013.
Christopher Farber
Greta Gerwig photographed in the West Village, April 25, 2013.

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Gerwig was 12 when she first discovered Allen's movies, she says over a chicken salad—which arrives like a punchline just as she's describing her penchant for gawky, storky physical comedy—and she fell in love with his films starring Keaton. "They're what I feel movies should be," she says. She prefers old films because they let the viewer see "a physicality to the actors that I've always been looking for. Like, how John Wayne walks—he has a lazy walk; even the way he holds his head is sort of tired—because they shot him from far enough away." She adds, "Everyone looks sweaty and you could see their pores. I wish we were still making those kinds of movies."

She and Baumbach tried to bring that kind of perfect imperfection to Frances Ha, which features Gerwig dancing, running, and falling all over the place, and evolved into a paean to Annie Hall. It's not only set in New York and filmed in warm black-and-white tones à la Manhattan, but is also a reflection on a failed relationship, much like the one between Alvy Singer and Annie—except here the romance is a corroding platonic friendship between two female college friends now in their late twenties. Gerwig, who in person and out of character is buoyantly WASPy like Keaton, takes the role of Frances, a shiksa Alvy analog.

"Tell me the story of us," Frances says to Sophie (Mickey Sumner, the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler), as the two fantasize about "taking over the world." Gerwig's heroine is, at 27, a rather graceless dancer, with messy hair tucked in a half-bun and gangly limbs that flop and flap. "Her last reference point for conversation is college," says Gerwig, her own arms flailing inches away from a nearby diner. "I feel like that being the main thing that happened to you by the time you're 27 is not OK. You need to find a new thing to talk about." This stasis drives Sophie to pull away from the friend who once joked they were like sexless lesbian lovers.

Frances Ha is such a precise depiction of a fraying relationship that it can be excruciating to watch. "In college and right after college, there's this sense that your friends are your family," Gerwig says. "It's really painful in your late twenties when you realize that they're not your family, and they're going to make their own families. But we're all still friends," she says, her voice betraying a trace of uncertainty.

Gerwig's college friend Ted Malawer, who was often cast as her romantic partner in Columbia University's legendary "Varsity Show," an annual musical performance, says over the phone that Gerwig is known for maintaining close friendships. "Whether her friends are movie stars and she's going to a premiere, or she's going to a show in the East Village that has 50 seats, she will support you," he says.

Malawer saw an early screening of Frances Ha and says it is like watching "a culmination of a lot of the stuff she used to do when she was younger." Gerwig worked on the "Varsity Show" for three years, alongside Malawer and another friend, SNL's Kate McKinnon. "She's one of the stranger people I've met," McKinnon says from the SNL set. "And so, so smart. I just looked up to her all through college. We were in a playwriting class together and she just blew everybody out of the water. We had this improv troupe together, and we were talking about doing a monthly show. I said it should be a comedy show. And she was like, 'It should be a comedy SA-lon,' and I said, 'You mean salon?' And she repeated, 'A comedy SA-lon.' And it's not pretentious—she's just of another era, really. She's like 1930s Paris. She should be wearing a mink stole."

As easy as it is to interpret Frances as an autobiographical role for Gerwig, the film is very much a joint effort with 43-year-old Baumbach, who immediately recognized a kindred spirit after casting her as a self-deprecating caretaker in Greenberg, opposite Ben Stiller, who played a caustic 40-year-old recovering from a nervous breakdown. Baumbach and Gerwig had never met before she auditioned; she was then all but unknown outside of a handful of mumblecore movies (she played the title role in 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she also co-wrote).

Baumbach says they struck up a friendship during production. At the time, he was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also starred in Greenberg and who gave birth to their son just before Greenberg was released in March, 2010. Baumbach and Leigh separated a few months later. He and Gerwig began speaking publicly of their relationship only this past February. "It's not a secret, but I don't really talk about it," she says. "I acknowledge the existence."

Baumbach hadn't read Gerwig's work before he asked her about a collaboration, but says he was struck by how "authorial" she was. After Greenberg wrapped, "I just asked her, almost like, what was on her mind?" he says by phone from his West Village apartment. "What would be interesting for a movie if we did something in New York about women in their twenties? The first thoughts that she sent to me were so inspired and funny and true, I felt like I could see the movie even though I didn't know what movie we were making yet. I responded and it became a kind of conversation."

It was a conversation that took place over e-mail, "for practical purposes," says Baumbach, because Gerwig was away from New York—in Italy, filming with Woody—for much of the year it took to develop the script. "We started out more casually, sending a document back and forth," Baumbach recalls. "This was before we even knew we'd follow through on this—we were just kind of trading ideas. And then as it started to take shape, she'd take one scene and I'd take another. As we got closer to the production, we found time when we could be in the same room at restaurants sometimes, at the computer, and start to really finish it." Their partnership has yielded not only Frances Ha, but two more forthcoming projects: a New York film currently in post-production, known only as "Untitled Public School Project," in which Gerwig also stars, and an animated feature in development for DreamWorks.

It's hard to avoid comparisons between Gerwig and another auteur of neurotic twentysomething New York women—though she is quick to note that "Girls wasn't on the air when we wrote this." Frances Ha can certainly be seen as a corrective to Lena Dunham's series, whose "girls" strike many as blithely entitled. Where Hannah Horvath worries that happiness undermines her gravitas and yearns for experience for its own sake, Frances's New York existence, says Gerwig, isn't so much entitled as it is precarious. "She really has a feeling of 'I can't go home,' which is the majority of people's experience in New York. If making a stupid decision is the difference between staying here or leaving, things count for a lot more."

Leaving New York would be, in the end, the worst breakup of all. Like Woody Allen and Alvy Singer, neither Gerwig nor Frances can imagine it. It was hard enough to film the demise of the friendship. Gerwig says that the ending of Frances Ha was inspired by Annie Hall's final scene, when Alvy meets once more with his now-ex-girlfriend, Annie. "I will probably start crying when I talk about it—sorry. When he hugs her, and the voiceover says it's just nice to see her again," she says, her eyes welling up on cue. "And you're like"—she sniffles a bit, channeling Keaton once again—"Ahh, that's how life is."

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