Actress, writer and filmmaker Greta Gerwig has a remarkable career on her hands. Born and raised in Sacramento, the 28-year-old already has three major movies in release just this year, Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," Daryl Wein's "Lola Versus" and Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love." There's also a reportedly completed "Untitled Greta Gerwig Project," which she wrote and stars in, that shot some scenes here last winter.
Gerwig has succeeded through a combination of unaffected craft and artless talent. You see her up on the big screen but you don't see an actress or even a character, you watch a person. She skipped through rough-edged, no-budget art films to more polished, modestly budgeted indies, and now to the point where she's been on a set with Woody Allen.
All that Gerwig has achieved doesn't surprise anyone who knew her or worked with her in her formative Sacramento years.
Writer and director Anthony D'Juan was an artistic associate with Ed Claudio's Actor's Workshop when she attended classes there, and D'Juan directed her in a 2001 production of "The Seagull."
"Everything that she is now, was completely apparent from the beginning," D'Juan said.
"From the first moment I saw her act I thought, 'I just need to get her into something I've written so I can document she was in one of my plays,' " D'Juan said.
He wrote the play "Theory of the Dream" for Gerwig, and she performed it in 2002 at the Actor's Workshop. A review of the production in The Bee praised the young Gerwig's "sharp performance."
"Gerwig imbues her character with a spirited resolve that compels us to watch ..." I wrote about the 18-year-old actress 10 years ago.
D'Juan also echoed a defining refrain about Gerwig's attributes. "She makes it look effortless like it's nothing," D'Juan said.
"Back then it was early for me in theater. I hadn't seen anybody with those kinds of skills before," D'Juan said.
After Gerwig's 2010 breakthrough in Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" starring Ben Stiller, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott gave her on-screen presence a thorough analysis.
"She comes across as pretty, smart, hesitant, insecure, confused, determined all at once or in no particular order. Which is to say that she is bracingly, winningly and sometimes gratingly real," Scott wrote.
Does Gerwig posses some ethereal innate talent or has she absorbed a meticulous and now invisible level of craft?
It's likely both.
Sacramento acting guru Ed Claudio worked consistently with Gerwig from the time she was in elementary school through her high school years at St. Francis.
"She was a natural actress and always made really good, sharp choices that were right on target. When she played Nina in 'The Seagull,' she was Nina," Claudio said.
"As an acting teacher, the best you can do with people like that is draw out their talent, encourage them and help them grow," Claudio said.
In the earnest micro- budget early movies that first earned Gerwig recognition, her naturalistic style was quietly melded with a deliberately handmade aesthetic.
Still, she stood out in the modest movies made with understated auteur Joe Swanberg. In "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and the more dramatically striking "Nights and Weekends," which Gerwig also co-wrote and co-directed, her characters are the movie's real centers and she is performing, not simply playing an extension of herself.
Particularly in "Nights and Weekends," which dissects the messy dissolution of a romantic relationship, Gerwig shows a dramatic range open to many possibilities.
About the performance, the Times' Scott wrote, "Ms. Gerwig, playing someone who is, with great ambivalence, pretending to be someone else, conveys that confusion with poise and commitment. Which is just another way to say that, all appearances to the contrary, she is acting."
Gerwig has a confident physicality and makes subtle adjustments from character to character.
Tall, lithe and athletic (she was a nationally ranked junior fencer as a teenager) she's not afraid to deglamorize her striking personal appearance. For "Greenberg" she said she imagined a character whose "thighs rubbed together when she walked." As Sally, Jesse Eisenberg's doctoral candidate girlfriend in "To Rome With Love," she makes herself just a bit shlumpy next to Ellen Page's nubile neurotic.
Gerwig has indeed developed her craft, which is something her high school drama teacher Cheryl Watson thinks people need to know.
"She's very serious about it, and has always taken it seriously," Watson said.
Watson watched close up as Gerwig moved through her high school years participating in all the St. Francis theater productions.
"We did a lot of musicals, and she was always game to play different parts. She especially enjoyed the dancing we did," Watson said.
"From the time she was a freshman, she was adventurous and she'd try things. You'd ask her to do something and she'd give it a shot. She took direction very well," Watson said.
Gerwig works often and she moves easily between small indie features and larger mainstream efforts such as the new Allen film. Her ability soars even when the movies she's in are falling flat.
If you need an example, just watch the 2011 remake of "Arthur" starring Gerwig with British comic actor Russell Brand. While you couldn't say she elevates the pedestrian material, her game Naomi Quinn emerges unsmudged from the celluloid wreckage around her.
In the similarly predictable "No Strings Attached," Gerwig as star Natalie Portman's best friend drifted above the middling reviews of the film and occasionally earned standout notices, such as this mention from Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek: "And it's a stroke of genius to cast Greta Gerwig. Gerwig's space-case sense of timing gives her an air of mystery rather than predictability: Someone needs to cast her in a screwball comedy about a seemingly ditzy Nobel Prize-winning genius."
Gerwig has charmed her adopted hometown of New York. Features about her turn up regularly in the New York Times and photos of her in her apartment spread out across the pages of New York magazine.
But she maintains her longtime connections here, turning up at pal Connor Mickiewicz's "Merrily We Roll Along" opening night in April, casually lounging with friends and family at a pre-performance reception. Similarly, she invites old friends to the Los Angeles premieres of her films.
There is an unaffected grounding in Gerwig that is not an act. The magic she works in front of the camera seems there for the long run as well.
"She always, always had it," playwright D'Juan said. "She could just make the words work."
THE CRITICS LOVE GRETA
A. O. Scott, New York Times
"Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. ... Part of her accomplishment is that most of the time she doesn't seem to be acting at all. The transparency of her performances has less to do with exquisitely refined technique than with the apparent absence of any method."
Benjamin Secher, London Daily Telegraph
"If there is a reason to watch 'Arthur,' Gerwig is it. Even when delivering lines that smack of the typewriter, her charm is so easy, her acting style so unobtrusive that it's easy to believe she isn't acting at all. Indeed, she has perhaps the most effortlessly captivating presence of any young American actress since Scarlett Johansson mooched her way through 'Lost in Translation.' "
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
"The main thing 'Lola Versus' has going for it is the sight of Greta Gerwig in close-up. She has a quality of spirit that comes through the lens, different from people usually seen in movies, a pulsating indecisiveness. Or maybe it's an acted-upon passivity. Gerwig seems to be in an ongoing state of receptiveness and quiet reaction, and how this translates on screen is that the audience senses two things: 1. That Gerwig is alive; and 2. That despite the peaceful aura, she really might do anything."
Richard Brody, New Yorker Online
"(Whit) Stillman's dialogue (in 'Damsels in Distress') is even more confected than ever, and Gerwig's rapid-fire delivery spins it audaciously, like plates on sticks, with her reliably surprising personal inflections and expressions. The director found the actress's inner Katharine Hepburn; and that very fact is, in effect, the movie's subject."
Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
"That's what passes for a plot (in "Lola Versus"), yet it is almost enough because Gerwig is that distinctive and interesting an actress to watch, especially when the story includes a lot of raw truth-telling."
Compiled by Marcus Crowder