It’s no great knock on most actors and actresses to say that conversations with them, even when exceedingly pleasant, are often of the same genus, broadly speaking. After all, unless it’s a grand cover story for a print publication (a dwindling breed, it seems) such interviews are typically prescribed and tightly scheduled affairs, with the promotion of a specific project chiefly in mind. And if you don’t have much time, it can certainly be difficult to leave feeling that you’ve glimpsed a bit of who the interview subject really is.

But chatting with Greta Gerwig is an expansive experience, full of rich anecdotes, asides and pockets of intrigue. It helps, certainly, that she’s formally educated, having graduated from New York City’s Barnard College, where she studied English and philosophy. But it’s also in large part because of her easygoing nature, her lack of emotional or social guise. Her voice has a lilting quality that exudes thoughtfulness; Gerwig is not of the canned-answer clan, mindlessly reciting soundbite-friendly talking points. That her name is an anagram of great is no small surprise; it’s a fact that just seems right.

Gerwig’s latest film is writer-director Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,” in which she plays Violet, the quirky yet focused leader of a dynamic group of girls who set out to rescue fellow college students from depression through an on-campus suicide prevention center that peddles a combination of dance, donuts and hygiene improvement. Over breadsticks and iced tea, amidst sidebar discussions about college life and Andrew Jackson biographies, ShockYa recently had the chance to speak to Gerwig one-on-one, about “Damsels,” Stillman’s unique authorial voice, the Internet, personal reinvention, her thoughts on future life as a multi-hyphenate and why she’s still a certified aerobics instructor. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: So what was your first contact with Whit’s script?

Greta Gerwig: Well, I loved, loved, loved Whit’s movies. My friends and I from college used to do what we called the Chloe Sevigny from “Last Days of Disco” dance, where she just moved her shoulders. It’s not really a dance, I guess, but just a way she moved that looked really cool that we tried to emulate. So he was on that list of filmmakers that I would do anything to work with and for, and I was just so excited that there was a script and that he was going to make something. I thought that maybe he just had made three perfect films and was done. Along with everyone else, I had no idea what he was doing. It was like that feeling you get at the end of a movie that you just adore, where you just wish there was more of it — you want to keep living in that world, and you wish someone would say, “There’s another one right here.” Or [it’s the same] way I feel about writers I really love, where I’ll read a book and say, “Thank God, they have seven other books, I’m occupied.” It was that feeling of (excitement) over him having more characters and ideas, so I was enthralled and taken in by that at the outset. I don’t even really remember reading it with a particular character in mind, although I know that when we met he saw me as Lily. But I just read it like a book or a play that I was studying, I wasn’t reading it to see if I could play a certain part, necessarily.

ShockYa: Whit’s films are so urbane and particular that feel like they should come with footnotes, so I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t really like to have rhapsodic discussions about historical or philosophical or social commentary in his films.

GG: Whit doesn’t really encourage any sort of intellectualizing or mythologizing of his own work, especially on set. He’s very dismissive about all of that, he’s very quick to say, “Oh, I’m stupid,” which is obviously not true. I mean, I think… well, we didn’t specifically talk about them with Whit, but the ideas that he puts forth, as you learn the script and say the lines, you come to think that they make a lot of sense and are really rational. The process of getting inside a character and why they say these things, you inevitably believe all of the things that they’re espousing on some level. At least I do, I don’t know if everyone does. (laughs) When I first read the script I thought, “Oh, what a funny and ridiculous idea,” but by the end of shooting I thought, “No, that’s totally reasonable, people actually are happier when they’re dancing.” Even though he didn’t specifically sit down and talk about the decline of decadence and all of that, it all works its way in there if you just say it enough.

ShockYa: He also has a very specific pitch and meter to his dialogue. Did he talk about that a lot?

GG: Not per se. He wouldn’t give us specific direction regarding sound, but I would say the big thing for me, because I had such an idea of other people doing his dialogue, was getting those voices out of my head — like getting Chris Eigeman out of my head, or Kate Beckinsale out of my head. I didn’t want to be doing an imitation of the way they sounded when they did his dialogue, which is what I think what happens a lot with writer-directors with a very strong voice. In their later films, when people know what they’re doing, it’s what happens in Woody Allen films where they do an imitation of him. But when he was making films in the 1970s people weren’t doing imitations of what they thought it was. I think sometimes when things become iconic, the rhythms get set in a way that’s hard to break out of. The big thing for me was that I tried to come at it internally. It’s so tempting when you get a big monologue to score it almost like a musical score, and say, “Here’s the first thought, here’s the next,” to block it off and underline operative words and really prepare it because it’s a large chunk of text. But I tried to almost memorize it without meaning beforehand, and then find the meaning as I’m making my point to another person, so that I didn’t do this intellectual rhythmic process before, which would have been based on what his other actors had done. I tried to find the words spontaneously based on the thought pattern, if that makes sense. (laughs) Other people may do other things.

ShockYa: You mentioned Woody Allen, [and you’re in his] next film (“To Rome With Love”). Other films have proxy Woody Allens; is that part of your segment in “To Rome With Love” at all?

GG: Not in my role. I don’t think the female characters are usually written as a proxy for him, so there’s less of a trap to fall into. I’m with Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page. It was great, and a lot of fun. It’s really funny, and definitely one of his comedies — less along the lines of “Match Point” or “Vicky Christina” and more like “Midnight in Paris.”

ShockYa: One of the things that struck me about “Damsels” was its idea of radical conceptual reinvention, and that we accept that in artists, like Madonna or Lady Gaga or whomever, but less so in everyday life, from our friends and peers. Did you ever experience that feeling as you moved out of adolescence, a desire to shed a skin, if you will?

GG: I’ve always had the desire to get to the most authentic version of myself, whatever that means, and I’ve harbored some misplaced belief that there is an authentic version and I’m not there. I think it’s now more popularly accepted in psychology that we have many selves that are true selves, and depending on the occasion you’re one way at work and another way at home. You are adaptable and they’re all you. But I find the time that I have felt most pulled toward reinvention has been more with the stuff that happens outside of acting — dressing up for the premieres or doing that kind of stuff. That all feels like I need to transform Greta into something else, and I don’t feel that I’ve been successful at doing that, nor does it make me very comfortable.

ShockYa: Does that feel like a need?

GG: No. I used to (even) be worried about things like drinking too much coffee because I thought it altered my personality, so the Madonna transformation or something like that makes me nervous. I don’t have that architect’s view of myself. I think some filmmakers have that, actually — they design themselves and their lives, and look a certain way. They want to change or invent a persona as a way of protection.

ShockYa: I think Hollywood is like that in a lot of respects. A big part of it is the entertainment industry, yes, but it’s also a destination city with so many people constantly moving in and out.

GG: Not to get too heady about it, but it feels like everyone is famous now, in the sense that everyone is documenting themselves really heavily. When I was in college, which was from 2002 to 2006, Facebook happened and I was at Columbia and we all joined because it was exclusive. Like, that montage in “The Social Network”? That totally happened to me! It was really funny to watch it, because it was my life being dramatized in a (David) Fincher movie, and I didn’t even have to go through a serial killer experience. But for me I think the most extreme version of reinvention I’ve gone through is just a honing of tastes. In college it was (about discovering) good movies, music, books and theater, and feeling a little bit ashamed about your high school CD collection and hiding it, but then in your mid-20s owning it again. That’s a whole process. Now I think that people are so aware of their persona and what they’re putting out there, and have a need to micromanage their own image. Even if you’re not a so-called public person it’s so part of life now, I think everyone is their own Madonna.

ShockYa: I do sometimes think that social networking and the ubiquitousness of connection is re-wiring the human brain a bit, because it’s depriving it [of needed] downtime.

GG: I read this article about Facebook where Zadie Smith had written a piece in the “New York Review,” and it was her musings on stuff technological, and she said that all these things that we take for granted have a mind and a creator behind them, and the key thing to know about Facebook is that it was basically made by an adolescent boy — these are [the things] that he thought was important. So then you filter your entire identity into the categories that an adolescent boy thought were important at one time — like, a smart adolescent boy, but one nonetheless. There’s another example that I thought was really cool. It’s not quite as poignant, but I thought how it’s hard to imagine how a computer would work if there weren’t folders. That’s such a part of how we think about and use computers — but that’s not the way it has to be, that’s just the way it is. These things become invisible because they’re so accepted. But I think the whole idea of invention depends on a viewer, and someone looking at you and setting up a situation where people are looking at you. I mean, I love it — I think it’s so strange and extreme and great — and I think Whit loves artifice too. I mean, I know he does; I don’t feel uncomfortable saying that. I think he would appreciate the well-told lie, I don’t think it’s something that he finds upsetting. It’s almost like this enjoyment of the surface, but that doesn’t have to be shallow or trite. It just is this sincere enjoyment of the surface.

ShockYa: Are you big on social media, then?

GG: No, I’m not on Facebook or any of that stuff. But I do think about it a lot. I’m very interested in it. I don’t think anyone has really written anything great about it yet, in an academic way that’s also accessible to a lot of people. Like, I re-read “On Photography,” this (Susan) Sontag book recently, and I don’t think there’s an equivalent for the Internet and what’s happening now. She’s so smart about photographs and the way they’re utilized. She points out such smart things, about how you can’t imagine a modern family without photographs, and how photography is a part of the family, part of what that glue is. It’s part of the government, and it’s hard to imagine being on vacation anymore without photography. I just feel like someone needs to take a really intellectual look at the Internet. I feel like some people have written really smart things about it, but almost from a scientific point-of-view — like what is this in relationship to your brain? [There hasn’t been] a look at the paradigm shift that’s happening. I think there are things that have been touched upon — I read that (Nicholas Carr) book “The Shallows,” which was pretty good but didn’t go far enough, I thought — and someone needs to do it. You could really make some statements about some stuff. It’s odd — I participate so little in that world, and yet I’m so interested in what somebody will say about it because I think it’s huge. And I also think it’s funny that with “Damsels” we made this movie about college which basically has none of that stuff at all. I think it’s because Whit doesn’t really use [social media] either.

ShockYa: Because your route to acting was a little bit different than a lot of other younger actors, which is something I think comes through regardless of which movies someone might have seen you in —

GG: (laughs, interrupting) OK! That’s great. (laughs) It’s funny, because I just wanted people to see me as an actor at one time, I was so sad that I (thought it) would never (happen). I love writing and doing those things, I’m totally happy. But it was that moment of identity (crisis) where I was like, “I wish I could just be an actor and have everyone see that.”

ShockYa: What age was that?

GG: Twenty-five. (laughs)

ShockYa: See, that’s what I’m saying — that’s relatively late. Regardless of skill or attributes, I think there’s a particular thing — and I’m not knocking it, because it’s understandable for actors raised on pilot season auditions or television shows — that often comes through in performers who have a few more years of life experience, or who aren’t thrust into a bunch of studio films at a very young age.

GG: I wouldn’t trade college for anything, it changed my life. And I also think it’s an opportunity to exist — well, it’s not outside of the economy, because it is very expensive — but the work you do there is outside of the economic world. Most of your life is spent doing things that are directly engaged with a consumer economy. You’re either making something for consumption or buying shit, or your life is formed around that. It’s idealized, and it costs money to be there, so it doesn’t totally work (as an example), but spending 18 to 21 or 22 not doing anything that’s actually useful — or making, buying and selling at that moment — is I think spiritually rich and important. Even though it’s not religious, I think the time spent reading books because they’re great and talking about them because they’re great is valuable, because there’s more to life than utility. And that’s probably a reason why I love Whit’s movies so, because he’s so a part of that mindset and the way that he views the world. And even though he makes fun of pseudo-intellectual characters, they still are so smart and funny — like in “Metropolitan,” with the reading of the book reviews and what not. (pause) If I could be only an actress and that be that work then I would do it, but it doesn’t really work for me. (laughs) I hate saying “just an actor,” I don’t like that implication, but… it’s just not the whole thing for me.

ShockYa: Do you think you’ll end up back behind the camera? {note: Gerwig co-directed 2008’s “Nights and Weekends”}

GG: Yeah, I think that’s totally where I’ll end up. And I’m satisfied knowing that it may not ever be one thing. It may be a combination of things. I might be happiest doing lots of stuff.

ShockYa: I remember on a certain level having a profound jealousy of the founding fathers, because of this idea of [their very] scattered intellectual interests.

GG: Yes! It’s the best. I always think of them, and the issues of people who did everything. Not to sound like a communist, but because everything is so monetized today and everyone is so trained for what they do that I feel like it’s hard to elegantly take something up. Because there’s always a school for it, or whatever — a specialty. The ability to be a dabbler and an amateur takes a lot more…

ShockYa: Because people always want to know: to what end?

GG: Yeah, to what end. Like, why does that matter? But I love people who dabble. I read a lot, and spend a lot of time trying to learn foreign languages, which I’m not good at. I’m not a natural, but I really love them and also I got this idea in my head since Kristin Scott Thomas acts in French films and speaks French really well. I thought, “Oh, how brilliant!” and because I really like Arnaud Desplechin, (I thought) maybe if I become really good at French I can be in one of his films. But I also like a lot of Korean films right now, and Korean is so hard! (laughs) So I have tons of those audio programs. I download them — they’re the Pimsleur method, where it’s listen-and-repeat. I also try to play the trumpet. And I also write scripts. But I’m not a good cook, even though I want to be — I think that’s a nice thing to know how to do, in theory. But the hilarious thing about the founding fathers is that they were, like, amateur architects! (laughs) Do you know what I mean? That’s some serious dabbling: “I just picked up draftsmanship.”

ShockYa: Right. “I’ll just design my own home.”

GG: Oh, and I’m also certified in a lot of weird jobs, because in high school I had an idea that I wanted to be an actor or writer, and that I might not get paid, so I thought I’d become good at all these lower-level jobs that I wouldn’t have to take all that seriously. So I’m a certified aerobics instructor and I’m a certified paralegal, and also one other thing… (pauses) what was it?

ShockYa: Not taxidermy?

GG: (laughs) No, not that. But I got good at jobs that weren’t mentally taxing or intense, because I was a bad waitress. I realized I was really terrible, and figured out there were other jobs that I needed to learn how to do. I think it’s at the end of “David Copperfield,” where he learns shorthand (laughs) — that’s like the thing that makes his life works out. I always thought that was such a funny detail in that book, like that the shorthand allowed him to go to night school or something. I feel like characters in (Charles) Dickens books always make me feel lazy. (laughs) They work so hard. I don’t see myself designing a house anytime soon, but… maybe. I’m only 28, I guess there’s still time.

Written by: Brent Simon

Greta Gerwig

By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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