Indie Darling Greta Gerwig Stops by 30 Rock on Her Way to Mainstream Success
Greta Gerwig is standing barefoot in her apartment wearing a black Vena Cava dress, while a makeup artist applies foundation to her legs in preparation for her second appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Looking up from her ankles, the 27-year-old actor asks the room, “Guess what I’m going to say tonight?” But before anyone can respond, she answers, “I get to say, It’s great to be back! I’ve always wanted to say that!”
Tonight will mark the first time she’ll return to the same talk show, an obvious source of pride for Gerwig. Thirty minutes later, with one of her two roommates and her beauty team in tow, she walks out of her apartment and onto a cramped street in Chinatown, where an idling Town Car waits at the curb. “Hi again! It’s great to see you,” she says to the driver, who, the night before, chauffeured Gerwig and some friends to a party for No Strings Attached, a raunchy, of-the-moment romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Gerwig, who plays Portman’s best friend in the film, is off to Rockefeller Center to promote it. The driver, a grandfatherly Asian man, enjoys the reunion as much as she does, and he’s visibly flattered by the recognition. As the car pulls away, she can barely contain her excitement: “We’re going to 30 Rock!”
Just a few hours earlier, Gerwig’s impending television appearance was a cause for anxiety. The dress she had planned to wear on camera was stuck in the back of a FedEx truck somewhere on the snow-ravaged streets of Manhattan. Despite frantic efforts to locate it, along with a half-assed promise from an anonymous FedEx employee that it would arrive in time, she had no choice but to sit in her apartment and wait.
Fancy outfit dilemmas are new to the California native, who, a few years ago, was writing, directing, and starring in movies with budgets similar to those of most Hollywood wrap parties. Back then, Gerwig, along with a group of friends and collaborators that included filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Mark and Jay Duplass, cornered the market—if you can call it that—on highly personal and largely improvised films about 20-something being and nothingness. They were seen as pioneers of an affordable digital movement, catnip for festivals and journalists, who dubbed it “Mumblecore.” In tiny movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, Gerwig played hyper-verbose, intensely desirable, and romantically beleaguered young women lost in the bigger picture. Her performances in these films are so naturalistic as to border on non-acting.
Without this under-the-radar background, it’s unlikely Gerwig would have been cast in last year’s Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s comedy of dysfunction, in which she appeared opposite Ben Stiller as Florence Marr, an adrift, endearingly sloppy personal assistant who falls for Stiller’s pathological curmudgeon. Gerwig’s performance earned her accolades, culminating in a 2011 Independent Spirit Award nomination for best female lead. Despite Greenberg’s similarities to Gerwig’s earlier DIY projects, it was, by her standards, her entrée into the mainstream.
The majority of people who swarmed cinemas to watch No Strings Attached (the film topped the American box office on its opening weekend) were probably unfamiliar with Gerwig, a slightly dorky girl with soft features, a gummy smile, and tousled hair—worlds apart from the trim and tanned Hollywood princesses who populate most big-budget fare. But those steeped in Gerwig’s still-nascent oeuvre were left questioning how someone who had poured herself so fully into wonderfully quirky cinematic experiments could now be a part of the very machine those films seemed to reject. “Framing those movies by saying that they were the antithesis of something builds a negative narrative of what they were,” says Gerwig, who recently wrapped Damsels in Distress, the fourth offering from New York auteur and arthouse favorite, Whit Stillman. “Mumblecore wasn’t about giving the middle finger to anyone. It was really joyful, but it wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll.”
Gerwig’s apartment, a spacious three-bedroom walk-up in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, could only be occupied by movie fanatics. (Sure enough, Gerwig shares her home with two other filmmakers: Ariel Schulman, co-director of last year’s documentary sensation Catfish, and Sam Lisenco, a producer with Red Bucket Films.) Vintage, framed movie posters and old photos adorn her walls. The remaining wall space is obscured by their VHS and DVD collection, precarious towers stacked next to one another. It feels almost voyeuristic to watch her getting powdered into camera-ready perfection while surrounded by the curated detritus of her everyday existence. One of Gerwig’s cats, Paw Newman—she has another named Diane Kitten—leaps into her lap. Petting him, she breaks into a fit of laughter. “I must look like Dr. Evil right now!” she says from her perch in the makeup chair, adding, “This is a really poor representation of my life. I bring a little bit of non-glossiness to glossy movies, and it’s cool that I get to do that, but normally I look like a scrubby teacher’s assistant.”
Gerwig, who once aspired to become a playwright, also has the approachability of a TA, an infectious kindness that obscures her serious triple-threat potential. Natalie Portman agrees. “Greta is incredibly smart and curious about everything. She not only acts the shit out of a scene, but she could also write or direct it better than anyone in the room,” Portman says. “She’s also so graceful and egoless, and she infects any room she’s in with good times. Greta is a rare combination of the coolest and kindest person I know.” For her part, Gerwig speaks with a fondness for everything and everyone, even the guy who held her umbrella to protect her makeup from the glare of the sun during a humid summer shoot. “What a lovely young man,” she says as her makeup artist lightens her eyebrows. “His name is Valentin and he’s a fencer at Harvard. The guy holding my umbrella? Harvard.”
That summer shoot was Arthur, a remake of the classic Dudley Moore comedy about a dedicated drunk with the wealth of a prince and the wit of, well, Russell Brand. Gerwig peforms opposite the British prankster as Naomi, a tour guide who might just be Arthur’s salvation. Gerwig and first-time director Jason Winer had trouble defining Naomi’s character, so she expressed her opinions the old-fashioned way: an epistolary “diatribe” addressed to Winer. “I wrote that if Naomi were a song, she’d be Nina Simone’s "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life." She’s completely fearless, and she’s one of those characters who appears in a lot of movies from the ’80s. She’s that kind of freewheeling, unreliable city girl on-the-go, and wherever she’s going, it’s always more interesting than where you’re going. She usually has crazy hair, and maybe she’s on roller skates.”
Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento with dreams of a New York life—a goal she realized when she enrolled at Barnard College, where she majored in English literature with a concentration in theater and philosophy—infused Naomi with the joy and spontaneity of her personal promised land. Her character embodies the spirit of a Manhattan that Arthur, in his wealthy bubble, has never known, and it’s the same one with which Gerwig herself associates. “The best things in the city are free,” she says. “And when you’re not wealthy—which is often the case for young people—it can be exciting when you’re forced to choose between spending the money you have on food or on a subway token.” According to Brand, Gerwig and her character share many of the same eccentricities. “Like Naomi, I think people aren’t quite sure what to make of Greta—she’s such a peculiar and unique commodity,” he says. “When she was a little girl, she used to mow the front lawn in her nightie and tell concerned neighbors that she was forced to do chores by her parents, like a modern-day Cinderella. Indie-rella.”
On her way to the Fallon taping, Indie-rella sits in the backseat of her Town Car—a New Yorker’s horse and carriage—dressed in that black Vena Cava dress, a gift to her from the label’s co-founder, Sophie Buhai. (Buhai is also Schulman’s girlfriend.) The outfit Gerwig was planning to wear is still trapped in that rogue FedEx truck. Outside Rockefeller Center, she signs her name for a few autograph sharks who seem unsure of who she is, only that she looks famous. Once inside studio 6B, where Late Night is taped, Gerwig is ushered into the Bird Room, a small cubicle that, with its dandy Victorian décor, could double for Oscar Wilde’s boudoir. As a producer runs through the show’s proceedings, there’s a knock at the door. “Yaaaaay!” shouts a manic Jimmy Fallon in his unmistakable squeal. He wraps Gerwig in a tight embrace, telling her how happy he is to see her and reassuring her that their segment will be great. The exchange leaves her at ease, and, while snacking on Doritos and waiting for her cue, she watches David Duchovny play to the Late Night crowd, shooting a birthday cake into a basketball net. Soon, she will be on that same stage, but just before she goes on, someone asks her to add her name to Fallon’s guestbook, which Gerwig does happily. “Jimmy!” she writes. “You’re the first talk show I ever did twice! (It’s great to be back.)”
Photography by Marley Kate. Styling by Kemal + Karla. Hair by Seiji @ The Wall Group. Makeup by Daniel Martin using Mac Cosmetics @ The Wall Group. Photo assistant: Kyle Cook. Stylist’s assistants: Rachel Berryman, Daisy Campos, and Alexandra Voyatzakis. Location: Go Studios. Top picture: Coat by Burberry Prorsum. Second picture: Jacket by D&G. T-shirt by Guess. Skirt by Moschino. Necklaces by Alexis Bittar. Watch by Nixon stylist’s own bangle. Third picture: Blouse and pants by Sonia Rykiel. Necklace by Mixology. Watch by Michael Kors. Boots by Loeffler Randall. Bottom pictureL