Greta Gerwig Talks Working With Whit Stillman On 'Damsels In Distress' & Who's Left On Her Director Wishlist

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by Jeff Otto
April 2, 2012 4:01 PM
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Greta Gerwig keeps getting to mark names off of her director checklist. And it’s a pretty good list. There’s the Duplass Brothers, Noah Baumbach and, most recently, Whit Stillman and Woody Allen. To the surprise of some fans, Gerwig also recently branched out into larger budget studio fare with “No Strings Attached” and “Arthur.” But not to worry. The actress says she’s learned the bigger movies are a way to keep the smaller movies coming, at least as soon as studios figure out a way to best position her unique acting attributes.

In “Damsels in Distress,” Gerwig plays the hopelessly hopeful Violet Wister, the leader of a group of beautiful damsels who hope to raise the level of an East Coast College’s social standards. Oh, and Violet also hopes to launch a worldwide dance craze while she’s at it. Directed and written by Stillman, 'Damsels' features a terrific ensemble that includes Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLamore, Zach Woods and Hugo Becker.

The Playlist recently spoke with Gerwig about her experiences working with Stillman and her continuing journey to find her place in the strange world of modern Hollywood.

Whit Originally Wanted Gerwig To Play Lily
When Gerwig was first approached for “Damsels in Distress,” it was for the role of Lily, a part which later went to Analeigh Tipton. But as she got further into the script, Violet grabbed her interest. “When I first read the script I found Violet kind of annoying,” Gerwig tells The Playlist. “She has all these opinions and she’s bossy and critical of other people. But then, you realize that she’s great and she’s crazy and totally sincere but also a complete liar. It’s the most tantalizing mix of nuttiness that I’ve ever found in a female character, but it’s also completely joyful. Sometimes there are female characters that are crazy and they’re liars but they’re evil. And she’s not. She’s got a big heart. I just ended up adoring her and I think one of the reasons I really wanted to play Violet is I had this instant love for her. There’s been a couple of parts. Not every part that you play feels like this. I think it would be exhausting if it did. I just was in love with her. I think when you’re in love with a character, you’ll want to play them because I kind of want to take care of her and I kind of want to punch her in the face.”

What It’s Like To Work With Stillman
Stillman and Gerwig first met over breakfast, where the actress says he “looked like he was from a different time. You get the sense that he would have been the same way had he been alive in the ‘30s. He’s just Whit. I think he was reading a John Barrymore biography and drinking iced tea," she laughed.

The meeting clearly went well as she not only got the part, but also managed to convince Stillman to give her a shot as Violet. “I loved working with Whit. I anticipated that he would be more difficult, making you do tons of takes but never being satisfied and that wasn’t the experience at all. We did do a fair number of takes and he often wasn’t satisfied, but he was very gentle and not a yeller and you would always know if it was what he wanted because you’d hear, ‘Fantastico! Cut!’ [Laughs] Or ‘Excellente!’ If he just said ‘Cut,’ it was bad. And then he’d walk up and say, ‘Greta, I don’t know what you’re doing but please stop doing it. It’s not good.’ And then he’d walk away. But it wasn’t mean, it was just direct and succinct.”

It’s Best To Stick To The Script
Some directors like to shoot a take or two as written and then allow actors to stray from the dialogue in additional takes. And some directors simply use the script as a guideline or starting point. In Stillman’s case, the scripted words are carefully crafted and stay as is. Period. “It’s exactly what’s on the page as far as the words that are spoken. He really wants it to be verbatim, as written. No improv,” says Gerwig, who drew her inspiration for Violet from an interesting mixed bag of sources. “It was a combination of myself, some queen bee type girls I knew in college, my mother, my high school boyfriend’s grandmother had a lot of Violet in her. But in myself, I do have a lot of passion and opinions and I think that all of that fed into who Violet was and how she articulated herself ferociously.”

Who’s Left On Her Director Checklist
It’s no coincidence that Gerwig has worked with such a diverse, talented group of directors. She’s a film buff herself and is always adding to her list of directors she’d like to work with. “Yeah, there’s a list,” Gerwig says with a big smile. “A lot of people are left on the list. Some of the people on the list are unlikely to work with because they only direct films in Korean. But I’m a movie lover. I’d love to work with Wes Anderson and I’m so excited for ‘Moonrise Kingdom.’ I’ve watched that trailer a bunch. I’d love to work with Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant. There’s a lot of people that I really admire. If Bela Tarr ever makes an English movie and wants a girl who’s a little awkward in it, if he wants to do the English remake of ‘Turin House,’ I’m in. [Laughs]"

"Damsels in Distress" Sony Classics
Big vs. Small Movies
While Greta Gerwig is primarily associated with independent cinema, she says that was never a conscious decision but simply the material she was drawn to. “It’s worked out the way by serendipity,” Gerwig tells The Playlist. “I’m always a little baffled by this question and always find myself stumbling with my words. I would like to keep doing small films not because being small is inherently better but because a lot of the directors that I love work in a smaller way.”

But as her career progresses, Gerwig is also discovering the pluses of working on bigger studio material. “All these great directors, they need big stars to finance their movies. So it cuts both ways. They need a George Clooney and he’s great. The Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze or whoever it is, they need need you to be able to do those bigger movies so they can make their smaller movies.”

So the trick becomes figuring out the best fit, which is even more important with studio fare. “There is a way in which you have to know what you’re selling,” she says. “You have to be a type or a thing that people have an idea of what it is and I don’t think I’ve ever fit a box that well. I think it’s good mostly, but I don’t know, sometimes I’ll go to meetings with producers in Hollywood and they’ll be like, ‘What are you, funny? Are you the girl? Do you do drama?’ They don’t know what to do with me in their mind. So I think that part of the Hollywood thing is that if it’s not easy to put yourself in a box, it becomes hard to cast. But I want to keep doing Hollywood movies because I want to be able to keep getting cast in things like Whit’s movies because I want to matter enough that they can get some amount of financing.”

“Damsels in Distress” opens on April 6th.

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3 Comments

  • Forward Pass | April 4, 2012 9:00 PMReply

    Gerwig would be great in a remake of THE TURIN HOUSE. By Béla Tarr-roof?

  • indomee | April 4, 2012 10:23 AMReply

    kawaii!

  • StephenM | April 3, 2012 2:09 AMReply

    I think she's really great. Her performance as Violet was pitch-perfect. Can't wait to see what she does next.

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