As a former It Girl and the biggest breakout star of the tiny-budget oughties movement known as mumblecore, Greta Gerwig knows something about making art out of nothing. But there’s been a whole lot less nothing in her remarkable six-year career than the blank wall faced by the title character of Frances Ha, named for a 27-year-old would-be dancer who still hasn’t gotten over the shock of being an adult.
“Well, it really is a fictional character,” Gerwig says on the line from a Toronto hotel. She again has the inside track in this: not only does she play Frances, she wrote the film’s screenplay with Noah Baumbach, who directed her opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg.
“I gave this character every ounce of creative energy and freedom. And everything I could bring to it, I did. But it’s completely written and constructed—not a line is improvised—so I really feel that it is taken out of life and put on another plane.”
If you’re a hard-core moviegoer, you may have spotted the tall, wide-eyed blond—who turns 30 next month—in obscure pieces like LOL, Nights and Weekends, and Baghead. More recently, she was in higher profile fare like Lola Versus, Damsels in Distress, and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, generally playing a ditzier, big-pawed version of her poised and very smart self.
In Frances Ha, which opens Friday (June 21), the false sense of autobiography is heightened by the presence of Gerwig’s parents in a narrative detour to Sacramento—where she grew up—from Brooklyn, where most of the movie’s black-and-white action takes place.
“I had a very different experience of my 20s than Frances is having. I had a lot more luck and good feedback. My world was probably a lot bigger than Frances is finding it to be at 27, but, of course, I feel very connected to her, mainly through the possibility that it all could have gone a different way. Also, I know a lot of struggling artists in New York who are very talented but just haven’t had the breaks or haven’t found their real thing yet. I in no way feel anything was owed to me or that I’m better than anyone else. I had some luck, but I think you have to stay aware of how close you came to not making it happen.”
Baumbach, who’s 12 years older than Gerwig, usually depicts male characters—human and otherwise—in various stages of growingupitis. (As a director, he’s best known for The Squid and the Whale, but he also wrote the screenplays for Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and Madagascar 3.) Apparently, it took him a while to see where his cowriter was going with this female-centric story.
“The movie’s really about friendship without sex,” she declares. “We weren’t that aware of generational differences while we were writing, but after we had the basic story in place, Noah told me that the kinds of friendships between men and women really weren’t possible when he was growing up.”
Gender roles come into casual scrutiny here. Gals are more like guys, straight men can seem feminine, and relationships are more fluid, if no less fraught with timeless angst. Certainly, the film plays into a certain pop-culture Zeitgeist, with the presence of Adam Driver as a temporary potential suitor reinforcing the vibe of HBO’s Girls.
“It really is just something in the air,” Gerwig asserts, “because we started writing this and shooting the movie before the whole Girls thing happened. What I think is unique about Frances Ha is that there is no emphasis on finding her a partner. At all. It may sound corny, but she really has to find herself first.”
If the movie offers any take-away (aside from the Chinese-food kind) that Gerwig can relate to, and one that gives her alter ego something like redemption, it’s that self-starting is the way to go for artists. The system has been working for her so far, but being picked first for the team isn’t always going to happen.
“Sitting and waiting is such an awful way to live, but it’s a big part of being an actor. Creating projects is really what’s happening these days. The chance to participate in your own career is a lot more exciting than just hoping that it all works out.”
Beyond all underlying messages, the writer-performer gets a big kick out of the name of her new movie.
“I know it sounds like such a small thing, but once we had the title, so much else about the character and story fell into place. And now that it’s done, I just love seeing it listed in between Fast & Furious 6 and Iron Man 3. And I still love the sound of it. Although in France, they pronounce it Frances Hey, so that gives it a whole different spin.”