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.
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
Stone wears Chloé tunic; Wolford leggings; her own rings. Beauty: Covergirl. Affleck wears Louis Vuitton jacket and shirt.
Portman wears Dior dress; Mish New York earrings. Beauty: Dior. Negga wears Carolina Herrera dress; Lalaounis earrings. Beauty: Laura Mercier.
Adams wears Prada shirt; Djula earrings. Beauty: Giorgio Armani. McConaughey wears Burberry shirt.
Driver wears AG T-shirt. Mortensen wears Alternative Apparel henley.
Williams wears Louis Vuitton dress and bodysuit. Beauty: Nars. Edgerton wears Burberry T-shirt; Rolex watch.
Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.
La La Land
“My real name is Emily Stone, but when I started acting, that name was already taken by another actress, so I had to come up with a different one. For a 16-year-old, picking a new name is an interesting prospect, and back then I said, ‘I’m now going to be Riley Stone!’ So, for about six months I was called Riley. I landed a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle, and one day they were calling, ‘Riley! Riley! Riley! We need you on set, Riley!’ and I had no idea who they were talking to. At that moment, I realized that I just couldn’t be Riley. So I became Emma. But I miss Emily. I would love to get her back.”
Sonia Rykiel sweater; Commando briefs.
“I was attracted to Gold because it reminded me of my dad. He loved shady deals. He’d much rather do a shady deal with fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight-asses. He invested in diamond mines in Ecuador, and there were no fucking diamonds there. It was a scam, but he loved that. That’s the spirit of my character, Kenny Wells. There’s a little poem we have in the movie—‘Bird With No Feet Sleeps in the Wind.’ And that’s it: If Kenny, or my dad, gets the money or not, does it really matter? Would he change? No. Not that guy. These are people who are going to con, finagle, and boot-scoot their way in the side door. They never had the front-door entrance to the American Dream.”
AG jacket; Current/Elliott T-shirt; Levi’s jeans; John Hardy bracelet (right); Ann Demeulemeester boots.
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals
“Tom Ford became my muse on Nocturnal Animals. My character, Susan, was very personal to Tom, and so I based my interpretation on him. Tom would ask on set, ‘Why is Amy using her hands like that?’ And I said, ‘I’m copying you, Tom!’ I used him. I used him up.”
Gucci shirt; Djula earrings.
“Playing Jackie Kennedy is scary. I was nervous at first, and I started by doing a lot of research. The biographies on her are all a little bit trashy, but the transcripts of her interviews with the historian Arthur Schlesinger were really helpful. He taped everything, and you can hear Jackie’s voice. Her intellect and her wit and what she’s bitter about are immediately apparent. At the same time, I was going to costume fittings and makeup tests. When I put on the Jackie wig, the physical and emotional sides came together. The hair itself is so iconic that once you have it right, you can start to see Jackie. I don’t really look like her, but I felt like I was in her skin.”
Paterson and Silence
“Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests on a journey from Macao to Japan in search of their mentor, a priest who may have renounced his faith. When Martin Scorsese asked me to come to his house to talk about the movie, I already knew that for 28 years it had been his passion project. We talked about Silence, but when Scorsese starts a sentence, ‘When we were shooting Raging Bull…’ you can’t help but say, ‘Yeah, okay, tell me everything.’ So we talked for a long time, and finally he asked me if I would be willing to lose weight for the role. It made sense: How can you play a 17th-century persecuted priest while eating great meals? So I lost around 51 pounds. The weight loss was only bad in that, you know, I’d try to figure out how to play a scene and I had no ideas, because I was so damn hungry. Then I’d have a scoop of peanut butter and suddenly everything turned on!”
Dior Homme jacket; Rag & Bone Standard Issue T-shirt and jeans; Rolex watch. On model: Wolford stockings.
Hell or High Water
What was your first audition? My parents were both actors. I had just graduated from college, and my father had gone in for an audition for Gilmore Girls. He told the casting directors, “My son is back in town. Will you have him in for a reading?” So it was nepotism at its best. I can’t remember the role—maybe a boyfriend to someone? I got my start playing boyfriends, husbands-to-be, and princes.
In Hell or High Water you play a kind of modern Western antihero. You don’t speak much. When I read the script, the image that came to mind was of a man on a porch squinting through harsh sunlight into the distance, but not talking. I have a lot of similar memories of my father, where we are sitting next to each other and not saying much. Westerns have a stoic silence I’ve always appreciated. These days, we have so many distractions. I have minor ADD, so if anything grabs me and keeps me from petting my dog or collaging or just daydreaming, I immediately pay attention.
Brunello Cucinelli sweater; Sandro trousers; Loewe shoes.
Michael Kors henley. Model wears Araks robe; Stella McCartney Lingerie bra; Fifi Chachnil briefs; Falke stockings; Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“When I auditioned for the part of Mildred Loving, I had to sort of disappear into her character. Usually, I don’t create a costume for an audition, but this time I wore a summer dress. I knew that coming in the door looking like this woman would have an impact. A year later, I learned I got the part. At the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I walked up the steps of the Palais in full makeup, and I walked down the steps with mascara dripping. It was such an emotional experience. All I could think was that I needed to blow my nose before it dripped all over my frock.”
Prada top and skirt; Fabiana Filippi top (underneath).
“I’m a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? Well, to play Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who figured out a way to get NASA astronauts into space, I had to be believable as a math expert—and I failed math in college. Precalculus looked like Chinese to me. Even with two tutors, I still failed. So God has an incredible sense of humor, because now I am playing a mathematician! Even on set, they would have a professor there to try and teach me. I said, ‘Show me what I have to write and I’ll memorize it, because I’m not gonna get it.’ Take that, math! I won: I became an actress.”
Monse shirt; La Perla bra; Forevermark by Natalie K earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Rules Don’t Apply
“I never knew Howard Hughes, so I’m able to take liberties, to allow my imagination to go to work. I like to quote Henry Ford, who said, ‘History is bunk.’ I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it myself.’ And, in Rules Don’t Apply, I quote Mr. Hughes himself. He said, ‘Never check an interesting fact.’ ”
Jeffrey Rüdes sweater.
Manchester by the Sea
“I used to love movies that made me cry, and now all movies seem to make me cry. I don’t like that so much. I have my own things to cry about. I remember being young and sitting on the floor in my father’s apartment watching The Elephant Man on his black and white TV. When the Elephant Man did his speech—‘I am not an animal’—I started sobbing. That’s a tearjerker. That film made a superstrong impression on me. It set a certain standard in my mind of what was possible.”
Louis Vuitton pants; Falke socks. On model: Alexander Wang sweater.
A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“Recently, I seem to be doing a lot of dying onscreen. Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie. I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
Giorgio Armani dress; Djula earrings; Tacori ring.
Allied, It’s Only the End of the World, and Assassin’s Creed
“It might sound weird, but I always cry at the end of Step Brothers. I’ve seen the movie 10 times, and it still touches me at the end, when Will Ferrell sings. You don’t expect to cry watching that type of comedy, but I always do.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Loro Piana sweater; Chopard earrings.
Hell or High Water
“I remember doing an interview years ago and being asked if I was one of those actors who takes the part home with me. I answered, ‘No. Not really.’ My wife happened to be in the room, and she started to laugh. Apparently, I had been playing a terrible person—a killer or someone who buries people alive or something—and she definitely noticed. I wasn’t fun to live with.”
Boss coat; A.P.C. jeans; the Frye Company boots.
“When I was cast in Slumdog Millionaire I was 17. At our first major screening, I walked the red carpet in my school shoes and a terrible suit I found on the high street, in London, with my mum. My costar, Freida Pinto, was very beautiful, very glamorous, and they said, ‘We can’t have this kid walking the red carpet with her! He’s spoiling the whole picture!’ So they gave me a new suit and fixed me up. It was a bit like Pretty Woman.”
Hermès sweater; Frame Denim jeans.
The Edge of Seventeen
Where was your first kiss? My first kiss was actually onscreen. I was in a graduate-thesis film called She’s a Fox, and I had to kiss two guys in it. I think I was 12. I was very nervous. One of the guys was shorter than me, and he had to stand on an apple box… Awkward! He told me, “I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my mom!” I was pretty sure that’s not the thing you say before you kiss a girl, so I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my dog!”
Where was your first real-life kiss, then? At my house, by my front door. Which kind of sucks, because every time I walk through my front door I think about it. The kiss was a little messy, and I looked at the guy and said, “No, no, you can do better.” That’s not what you’re supposed to say, but I said it anyway.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings.
The Witch and Split
You say you don’t like watching horror films—so what’s it like for you to act in them? I’m a real scaredy-cat. I’m not good at being frightened. But I do like acting in a horror movie, because I get to feel so intensely. You put yourself in these extreme emotional situations, and it wears you out in a great way. Afterward, I go home and get a good night’s sleep. The work chills me out: I’m a lot more stable since I’ve been in scary movies.
What frightens you? Revolving doors. I worry they’ll cut me in half. Strangers will see me tense up and hold my hand as I’m going through them. I’m constantly worried that I’m not going to make it through the door alive.
Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants.
Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Nocturnal Animals
“Doing a sex scene is just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure. The horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness of sex is all there to enjoy—but none of the happiness.”
Saint Laurent jacket, shirt, and tie; Tiffany & Co. watch.
Hacksaw Ridge and Silence
“The majority of my process in playing a priest in Silence was praying. I’d never really prayed before, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself—call it God, call it love, call it what you will. It became very natural to me, and I realized that we’re all praying all the time. There’s that human impulse to worship and to long for a connection to the divine. Unfortunately, in our culture we are driven to worship things that are false and empty. I had a year of exploring this idea of what we are truly longing for and how we actually go to the places that can feed that longing. We all get glimpses of eternity every day. It’s just a question of whether we’re looking up from our iPhones long enough to notice.”
Alexander McQueen jacket and pants; A.P.C. shirt.
Maggie’s Plan and 20th Century Women
What is your karaoke song? It’s the nerdiest one ever: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel. It’s one of those songs that if you were a certain kind of teenage girl—me!—you thought knowing all the words would help you get a boyfriend. And then, about 30 seconds too late, you realize that it won’t. But it remains my song. I had the same thought about “Modern Major General,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought guys were looking for a girl who could memorize a lot of names, but they didn’t care about that. They just cared about getting a hand job or something.
Do you have a cinematic crush? I would have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl—the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar. She’s all done up and she tells him, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”And young Harrison Ford…what a dreamboat! But it’s her I truly love. She’s so compelling and funny. She’s sexy without being plastic. I think a lot of people miss seeing women that way.
Proenza Schouler dress; Guidi boots.
Were you a dramatic child? Yes, I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. I would also try different accents. I was living in an imaginary world, usually with Michael Jackson. He was going to rescue me! I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and I would send them to his fan club. I would imagine Michael waiting for me at the gate of my school, eager to whisk me away to a happier world.
Why Michael Jackson? I imagined myself as a Peter Pan kind of character, and Michael represented that existence. He was my guy.
Miu Miu coat, sweater, shorts, and shoes.
Manchester by the Sea
“As a little kid, my first love was IMDB [the data bank for movies and television]. I would memorize the birthdays of child actors. I really wanted to be an actor, and I related to the kids in the industry. But now that I think about it, memorizing their birthdays is not cute at all—it’s a little serial killer–ish.”
Prada sweater; Brooks Brothers boxers.
What was your favorite birthday? When I turned 40, my husband, Keith [Urban], drove me up to the top of this small hill in Australia and sat me down. He had put together this huge fireworks display. It was just for the two of us! It was sexy.
What is your pet peeve? When people say they will do something and they don’t. And I know it’s terribly demanding, but I don’t like it when my husband doesn’t answer his phone. I have to keep calling and calling, and I get anxious. Does that make me high-maintenance?
What movie has made you cry? Last year I saw Room, and I was absolutely devastated by it. I’m raw as I get older. I have to be careful what I let in.
Where was your first kiss? This is crazy: We were playing hooky from school. I had my first kiss while watching The Shining. Is that not weird? And we did a few things other than kiss too! I didn’t see a lot of the movie.
Chanel sweater, dress, shorts, and shoes; Bulgari earrings.