Greta Gerwig has been on quite a run since starring in Greenberg, her major breakthrough as an actress, in 2010. Since then, she's worked with a who's who of independent filmmakers: in addition to Noah Baumbach, there is Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Rebecca Miller, and Todd Solondz. In the past year alone, she starred in Pablo Larraín's Jackie and Mike Mills's 20th Century Women, both in the recent Oscars running. She also just directed her own film, which will likely be coming to a festival near you shortly. Here, Gerwig recalls making 20th Century Women, and the indispensable advice that Rebecca Miller gave her about directing her first film—which Miller got from the late, great Mike Nichols.
How did 20th Century Women come to you?
I loved Mike Mills's films, his work. We had a very long breakfast and talked about the movie, and we talked about California and about art. And then I found out like a month later that I had gotten it—and I was very surprised. I thought perhaps he had moved on. And I instantly had the feeling with the character I play, Abbie, that I was protective of her, which is for me always like a key to a part that I feel connected to. And even if I don't get the part, I worry about the character. So I was very lucky I got to do it.
Mike told me that the part was based on his sister.
That's right. I talked to his sister a few times on the phone, and then I met her. She was very generous with me in terms of talking about her life and her experiences in New York and her experiences growing up. And I didn't feel a particular sense that I was playing her, per se. But it's always better when you feel like there's a well to draw upon that's based in reality.
One of my favorite parts was the dancing, because you're such a great dancer. You guys had dance parties to get into character, right?
We had a lot of dance parties before rehearsing. Myself and Annette [Benning] and Billy [Crudup] and Elle [Fanning] and Lucas [Jade Zumann]—Mike gave us the assignment to all bring a song that, he said, "your character would like." And then we all danced to each others' songs. And it was one of the most special rehearsal experiences I've ever had because it makes everyone instantly feel unafraid to do something that looks silly.
What was your song?
I think a Talking Heads song. "Found a Job."
What's your karaoke song?
Only the nerdiest one that you could ever do: "We Didn't Start the Fire," by Billy Joel. It's one of those songs that if you're a certain kind of teenage girl, you think, You know what would really help me get a boyfriend is knowing all the words to this song. And then you realize about 30 seconds too late that it won't, and it's not. You think that it's gonna be impressive somehow, that that's what guys are looking for—a girl who could really memorize a lot of names. But they don't care about that. They just care are you cool and... will you give them a hand job or something? [Laughs.] I don't know. I don't know what boys are interested in at that age, but it was not what I was selling.
Which brings me to my next question: Where was your first kiss?
It was in a hot tub. And then we rode our bikes home. [Laughs.] Yeah, we had been building to it for a solid six months. I was 16, and just so in love with him. We were in my friend's hot tub in his backyard. I think we were quoting The Little Prince to each other and then we started making out. It was a great first kiss.
Who's your cinematic crush at the moment?
Right now I have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. I mean, the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar when she's all done up... And she's got a head for business and a bod for sin. But there's a moment when she cuts her hair off and she says, "I want to be a serious businesswoman. You need to have serious hair." She's so great and so sexy without being plastic, which I think a lot of people miss now. She seems like a real sexy person.
Alec Baldwin is super-hot in that movie.
Yeah, and he plays that scene where he gets caught cheating so, so great. He almost underplays it. I watched an interview with [director Mike] Nichols; Alec wanted to do something really big and Nichols was like, "No, no, no."
There's a great love scene with Harrison Ford, too.
Oh my god, I know. Young Harrison Ford, what a dreamboat. But it's her. She's so compelling and funny in it.
So you just directed your first movie.
Yes, Lady Bird. I wrote it and I directed it, but I'm not in it.
What was the scariest part about directing your first movie?
Oh, I had plenty of fears going into it. I would say I over-prepared because I did have so many fears. I think this is nice to be able to repeat just in case anybody wants to direct their movie for the first time. I was expressing all of my fears to [the director] Rebecca Miller, who I had worked with [on Maggie's Plan]. I said what I'm worried about is not so much working with actors or the crew or the [director of photography]. What I'm worried about is after you've directed a bunch of movies, you have this kind of sixth sense about what you need and what you don't need. Like, you have a clear sense of, Oh, I don't need to spend time getting this shot because I'll never use it, but I'm gonna shoot this doorway the exact same way I shot it the last times because then I know that the viewer will know we're in the same place. Stuff like that. And I said I'm scared that I don't have that yet, and Rebecca said to me, "Well, I'm gonna tell you what Mike Nichols told me: 'Don't let this pass you by. You will only have the chance to not know what you're doing once.'"
Oh, I love that.
"'And there's a real power in that because you don't even know what there is to be scared of yet. And you will learn and you will become paralyzed by certain things later, but right now keep your innocence intact because it will allow you to make choices that later you'll never have the naiveté to be so brave to make.'" So I sort of tried to embrace the not knowing.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Or just a pet peeve.
Um, criticism that's delivered with the wrapping of an offhanded comment. When people say things like, "Oh, do all the shoes need to be by the front door?" Well, maybe just say, "Move those shoes."
And what's your irrational fear?
I'm scared of the internet. That's not real, but it is. I'm worried about what it's doing to us. I sound like an old man when I talk about the internet, but I am actually worried about what it's doing to our brains and our sense of connection. You know, yawn, but... I mean, I'm always looking for ways to cut it out of my life. But it's amazing, too. It also brings people together and creates all these good things, so I don't know. I'm probably not seeing it for all its good things. I just worry that it's actually making people more lonely than it is bringing them joy.