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“I guess I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve managed to still make things 10 years on,” says the actress/writer/director Greta Gerwig as we sit down at New York’s Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 33-year-old, who recently received a best supporting actress Critics’ Choice Award nomination for her portrayal of a 1970s free-spirit in Mike Mills‘ 20th Century Women, and who had just hustled over from the editing room of her solo feature directorial effort Lady Bird, continues, “I started making films in 2006. It’s 2016. That’s a pretty good run, and I feel like I have not settled, which is a nice thing. And I don’t feel like the mountain is behind me, which is also a nice thing.” She adds, “I just would like to be able to keep doing things and keep working. I am genuinely surprised that I’ve been able to do this, and it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do, so it’s good that it worked out!”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, Sting, Natalie Portman, RuPaul and Sheila Nevins.)
Gerwig, who was born in Sacramento, Calif., was a high school theater geek turned college cinephile. It was while at Barnard College that she first started writing, on top of performing. And it was during a trip with her then-boyfriend to Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, over spring break of her senior year, that she first established the friendships that would lead to the launch of her professional screen career — a trip she looks back at as “a really magical time.” Within a six-month period spanning the second-half of 2006 and first-half of 2007, Gerwig starred in Joe Swanberg‘s Hannah Takes the Stairs, the brothers Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass‘ Baghead and a film she co-directed with Swanberg, Nights and Weekends, which hit the film fest circuit during the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008 and made her the face of a new cinematic movement that came to be known as mumblecore.
“It’s the worst term,” she says. “I hate it. I think anyone who made those movies and then has to hear that term hates that term. I’m just waiting for the day that I never have to hear it again.” In short, mumblecore films were made inexpensively, with digital cameras and editing tools. “They were just cheap and we were all young,” insists Gerwig. “People had gotten used to a version of a movie at a film festival that was like a calling-card for the real movie you were going to make later. What was different about these movies was these filmmakers were like, ‘There is not another movie. This is the real movie.'”
Gerwig’s early work impressed many — The New York Times‘ film critic A.O. Scott wrote that she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation” — but it did little for her. At the time that she was first hitting many cineastes‘ radar, she was barely making ends meet — she was living on an air-mattress in a shared apartment; working as an S.A.T. tutor; applying to and being rejected by graduate schools at which she wished to pursue playwriting; and auditioning for everything she could. “I would have done anything,” she insists, noting, “I failed at being in the mainstream.”
What saved Gerwig, ultimately, was Noah Baumbach, the writer-director who cast her in Greenberg (2010), her breakthrough role. But as Greenberg hit theaters, Gerwig still was struggling. “I didn’t have anywhere to stay that night,” she recalls, and it wasn’t until she took a few paycheck movies — 2011’s Arthur and No Strings Attached — that she was more or less steady on her feet. “I don’t care if people don’t like those movies,” she says. “Those movies saved my f—ing life.”
She and Baumbach reteamed to co-write Frances Ha (2013) and Mistress America (2015), in which she also starred, picking up a best actress in a musical or comedy Golden Globe Award nomination for Frances Ha. “We always see the movie the same,” she says, acknowledging that they became a couple during the making of Frances Ha. And she further cemented her indie cred with roles in Whit Stillman‘s Damsels in Distress (2011), Woody Allen‘s To Rome with Love (2012) and Barry Levinson‘s The Humbling (2014).
Many of her admirers were taken aback when, in 2014, it was announced that Gerwig would be starring in a TV spinoff of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother called How I Met Your Dad. Asked about this, Gerwig reveals that, in the aftermath of Frances Ha, she went through a very dark period. “I couldn’t get hired,” she says, choking back tears. “I couldn’t get arrested. I was sitting at home literally ripping my hair out. I was depressed. I couldn’t figure out how to get hired. I didn’t know what to do about it.”
Her agents arranged for her to meet with TV execs in Los Angeles, and, with CBS offering to base the show in New York and allow her creative input, she signed on. “Suddenly I had a job, I had somewhere to go, I had people to make up jokes with,” she says. “I was like, ‘This will be great. This is a project. This is an outlet. And then I can go and make my weird movies when I’m not making this show.'” She adds, “Those guys saved my life. I was really feeling like I just didn’t know what I was doing anymore. And even though the pilot didn’t end up going, I really felt like that pulled me out of my own whatever — narcissistic depression.
“That’s one of the hard, hard things about acting,” Gerwig says. “You’re not kept warm at night by the things you used to do.” Fortunately, though, things have been anything but dry for her ever since. She went to New York to star in Sam Gold‘s acclaimed off-Broadway production The Village Bike, a spiritually invigorating experience. And she set about making three films that all came out during 2016: Rebecca Miller‘s Maggie’s Plan, in which she plays a woman desperate to have a child; Pablo Larrain‘s Jackie, in which she plays Nancy Tuckerman, the lifelong best friend of Natalie Portman‘s Jacqueline Kennedy (“I’m a little bit in love with Natalie, and I think Nancy was a little bit in love with Jackie,” she notes); and 20th Century Women, in which she plays a character based on Mills’ sister, and for which she took photography classes, listened to old records, researched old photographers and dyed her hair red. She emphasizes of the character, “I felt very protective of her and I felt very connected to her.”