The actress and writer Greta Gerwig is understandably happy with her new film “Mistress America,” which opens in Sacramento this weekend.
“It really pleases me that it exists,” Gerwig said in conversation about the New York-set film she collaborated on with writer-director Noah Baumbach, who is also her boyfriend.
The comedy drama, which Gerwig co-wrote with Baumbach and co-stars Lola Kirke, casts Gerwig in a not completely flattering role of a sputtering woman named Brooke who’s trying to start a restaurant. Brooke takes a quiet young student, Tracy, under her wing. But there’s more to Tracy, played by Kirke, than we see at first.
In Gerwig’s smartly ascendant career she’s now made movies at all levels – from improvised no-budget indies to larger-scale Hollywood entertainments. She’s worked for major directors including Woody Allen, Barry Levinson and Ivan Reitman and starred opposite actors such as Al Pacino, Helen Mirren and Natalie Portman. However it’s particularly in her last two films, well-heeled indie projects “Frances Ha” and now “Mistress America,” that Gerwig has really shown her distinctive interests and abilities.
The 32-year-old actress was raised in Sacramento’s River Park neighborhood and attended St. Francis High School before heading off to Barnard College in New York, which has been her home ever since.
Q: “Mistress America” feels similar to Frances Ha” but also quite different. How do you see the two?
A: We wanted to make another movie about a relationship between two women, but a different relationship. We knew we wanted to do that again, so it quite deliberately shares that with “Frances Ha,” but the movie itself feels quite different. … In “Frances Ha” she wants to be a dancer and what she comes to is that she’s not going to be a professional dancer in the way she thought she was going to be. She’s going to be a choreographer, but she’s going to have to make some compromises and figure it out.
In this movie Brooke doesn’t want to be an artist. I don’t think she has any artistic talent or ambition really. Tracy wants to be a writer, but she’s 18, so she’s really at the beginning of exploring that.
Q: They’re both set in New York, and it seems there is a certain sensibility at work.
A: It’s about strivers, which is a commonality, which is something I’m interested in. The kind of striving, which is distinctly American, is pretty present in the movie. It’s a common thread in novels, plays and films about Americans but it tends to be about American men. I’m interested in what that is for women because they’re very engaged with that too. We definitely talked a lot about winners and losers. There’s a lot of weird, twisted, distorted dreams that fall along the wayside or have various states of realization. I think that’s an endlessly fascinating for a source of drama.
Q: How did you find Lola Kirke to play Tracy?
A: She auditioned. I first saw her on tape, and she was great, and we had her come back, I think, a total of 10 times, which is a lot, but she’s the real heart of the movie. She’s the lead, she’s in almost every single scene, and it’s a lot to put on a young actor, and she hadn’t done a movie before. We cast her in this, and it was before she shot “Gone Girl.”
In a way you want to make sure she’s up for it and that she’s got the chops. And boy did she have the chops! I think she’s amazing, and we totally struck gold with her. I think the world has borne that out. I think she’ll have a huge career.
Q: Lola’s character, Tracy, is such an interesting, hard-to-read character for much of the movie. How did that develop?
A: In earlier drafts of the movie we had this idea of Tracy (being) kind of inscrutable and you don’t really know what’s going on with her. We had slightly darker drafts where really crazy stuff was going on with her. All that got leached out of the movie long before we cast Lola, but we wanted to have that quality of someone who’s a watcher because those people tend to be writers, and they don’t fully present as shy or not totally confident, but they’re taking everything in, and that’s a really dangerous person.
Q: I really enjoyed the character Dean Wareham played. He made me laugh every time he came on screen.
A: Dean has such a different energy from everybody else in the room, and there’s something sort of aloof about Dean, which I really love. It’s almost like he can’t be bothered to say any of the stuff he’s going to say. Every time he’s on the screen, it’s a little bit of a crackle. I love when they’re reacting to Tracy’s story, and he just says at the end “It’s not a nice story.” It’s so deadpan. It’s withering.
Q: This is the third movie you’ve done with Noah Baumbach and the second where you’ve co-written the script. Has the process changed at all?
A: It all feels kind of the same in terms of we click into the same lens in a way. We both know what the movie is intuitively. It’s a rare thing in a collaboration that it works so seamlessly and it’s also really fun. Its also nice for me as an actor because once the script is written and we’re going to be on the set, I know he’s not going to make a different movie than the one we were seeing together. I know he and I are seeing the same thing, so when he guides my performance and everybody else’s performance, it’s all in service of that idea. It’s so odd when you write a movie, especially when you write together but even when you write it alone, you know the shape and the feel of something that doesn’t exist yet. That’s such an odd thing to know. It’s not intellectual; it’s something you just know. It’s mysterious. It’s a very exciting collaboration, and it never really has conflict. Sometimes the writing is hard and we’re both struggling with “OK what happens now?” but we never see the movie differently.
Q: It seems you were really able to make the film you wanted to make.
A: The way we made “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” was that we had really trusting investors. Our financier said you’re greenlit for whatever you want to make and really we don’t show them anything until we have a final movie. So they have enormous amount of trust in us. That is special, and we hold ourselves to the highest standard that we can, but it’s all about making the piece as great as we can – not about massaging the egos of executives.
Four favorite Greta Gerwig films
1. Nights and Weekends (2008) – Gerwig co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred with Joe Swanberg in this intense, low-budget drama about the dissolution of a long-distance relationship.
2. Damsels in Distress (2011) – Gerwig stars as Violet in writer-director Whit Stillman’s arch comedy about a trio of young women trying to raise standards at Seven Oaks, a small liberal arts college.
3. Greenberg (2010) – In her first collaboration with director Noah Baumbach, Gerwig plays the charming, innocent house-sitter Florence Marr against Ben Stiller’s depressive Roger Greenberg.
4. Frances Ha (2012) – Gerwig co-wrote and stars as Frances in the comedy-drama about a flailing young woman in New York. Baumbach directed.