In “Damsels in Distress,” which opened Friday, Greta Gerwig plays the most eccentric yet of writer-director Whit Stillman’s opinionated gilded youths. A proselytizing do-gooder with obsessive compulsive order at a Northeastern university, Gerwig’s Violet leads a quartet of ultra-feminine women determined to save suicide cases and counter the ubiquitous musk of masculinity by disseminating bars of hotel soap.
Perfection being unachievable, Violet plunges into depression when her yahoo boyfriend has an extracurricular fling with one of her protégées, while conflict with her dissenting new friend Lily (Analeigh Tipton) brings on a crisis of values. Like many a girl before her, she realizes the only option is to dance away the heartache. Faced with Stillman’s rhetorical approach to melodrama and his precise dialogue, Gerwig acquitted herself admirably, her pleasing performance being another rung on her ladder to indie superstardom.
The 28-year-old actress-writer-director, who did achieve untrammeled perfection in the mumblecore movies that made her name (“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Baghead,” “Nights and Weekends”) and in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” could be at a crossroads. The trailers for the Tribeca Film Festival entry “Lola Versus” (opening June 8) and Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” (June 22) indicate she could become the dominant mainstream romcom actress of the next decade if she so chose, though one suspects her heart lies more in lo-fi, low-budget movies over which she has some control.
Then again, sitting opposite her for 20 minutes at the “Damsels” press junket, I was persuaded she could become the American Catherine Deneuve.
Violet’s much more constrained than most of the characters you’ve played. Was it a leap for you to relate to someone as straight as she is?
No. There were certain physical things that felt creative. The way she sat, the way she ran, the way she held her body, and the way she put herself together felt very not like Greta, not like me at all. But I connected strongly to the core of Violet, which is her fire. She’s a zealot, the Joan of Arc of her cause, and I have a lot of that in me, a lot of “I will fall on my sword for this thing!” In Violet, though, it’s contained within a very OCD young woman. I just had to build all the constraints.
There’s a misconception she’s one of Whit Stillman’s preppies.
She’s not a preppy exactly. She’s an idealist, a utopian, and her influences are not contemporary in the least. With preppies, I think there’s a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses element, and I don’t think Violet has that sense of comparison. She marches to the beat of her own drummer and does what she does regardless of what anyone else is doing.
How did you get on with all those pastels and girly clothes she wears?
I know. I love costumes. I’ve heard it said a million times but it’s true: a costume makes you feel like the character. I had 38 costume changes in the movie and had to go to fittings for hours at a time. We’d try some looks and Whit would say, “I think it’s too caricatured. She’s not that far gone and we’re not making a period piece.” It’s not how I dress, but…
She’s quite neurotic. She has a possibly Freudian aversion to the male scent and she’s very controlling. Was that fun to get into?
So much fun [laughs]. Her opinions are so strange.
Why the fixation on…
Scent? I think it’s just visceral. I think she believes in the fallen state of man and that you have to mask it otherwise we’re wallowing in sin. She sees the natural world as deficient and [dispensing soaps] is one way of controlling it. Whatever her sense of Christianity is – and I think she is Christian – she believes it your duty to improve everything. She thinks we shouldn’t be merely content with all the gifts God gave to the world, but that you have to polish them. That’s the way she actually looks at it.
Violet becomes especially interesting when she tells her friends she’s attracted to a guy [played by Adam Brody] who’s a liar.
Whit said to me, “Don’t you think truth-tellers are terrible bores?” And I guess they are, kind of. I think he’s attracted to people who are self-inventors. Even though he’s lived in Europe, he makes movies about Americans, and I think that idea of self-reinvention is deep in the American psyche – it’s a big part of what we come from. I’m always interested in how the history of a place influences its citizens even far removed from the inception of it, and I like that idea that you can be anything you want, that you can transform, that you can come here from another country and decide that you’re this person now.
Tell me about speaking the very ornate, hyper-articulate dialogue that Whit Stillman wrote for Violet and if it affected your acting.
It did. I think the biggest thing for me was that I had to get the voices of other actors [who worked with Stillman earlier] out of my head, specifically the voices of Chris Eigeman and Kate Beckinsale. They were great favorites of mine in his films, which I love. I have such a good idea of what the parts he writes are like when they are executed well, and I didn’t want to merely imitate them. A lot of it was trying to find my own way of doing it in my own rhythm. I don’t know if it was successful, but that’s what I did.
Playing Violet, I had the largest number of words I’ve ever had to work with on a movie script, and it was a wonderful challenge because the words are so good. It’s much harder when the writing’s bad. You’ve a lot more work to do. With good writing, you have to figure out how to let it come through you instead of imposing yourself on it.
Was “Damsels” a more formal experience than the early films you made?
It was definitely more formal than on the almost entirely improvised films I helped to devise and make – very different from those. But when I made “Greenberg,” that was very precise. That’s the closet analogy. I’ve since worked with Woody Allen. People compare Whit to Woody, but I found Woody much less precious about his lines. Woody says, “Oh, do whatever you want. Don’t say my lines, say your own lines.”
Did Whit Stillman talk to you in “isms” – you know, “naturalism,” “realism?”
He didn’t specifically use those words, but when I gave more broad or comic takes, he would say, “Make it smaller,” or “Can you say it normally?” He didn’t like anything that made the result seem self-conscious. He wouldn’t like it if you played a funny line as if it were supposed to be funny. We had to be in the moment and play it as if it were supposed to be sincere, which it is for him. So he didn’t speak in “isms,” but he did have “isms” in him, if that makes sense [laughs]. I think he was guided by “isms.”
Did you have to work hard at making your dancing seem gawky?
No. [laughs] I’m just gawky. I didn’t have to work at that. I’ve always been too tall and embarrassed about the size of my body and the length of my arms. I danced a lot as a child, but if as a child you grow up feeling you’re too big, I don’t think you ever lose it. And I haven’t.
Are you writing at the moment?
I wrote a movie that was shot over the fall and winter and which should be at film festivals later this year. It’s a very small film and very under the radar, and I’m trying not to talk about it too much. I love writing. Somewhere between writing and directing and acting is where I’m happiest.
Who directed it?
It’s a secret [laughs]. I’m in it.
What was it like working with Woody Allen?
He’s a person I’ve idolized my whole life, and a lot of my life decisions have been based on things he’s done. I moved to New York because Woody Allen lives in New York. So it was amazing – it’s a really funny film – but it was hard to process because it went by so quickly. It’s always hard when you do those things that mean so much – to have the experience while you’re having it. I’m hoping he’ll cast me again so that I can actually feel like I’m living it.
Are you ambitious or more driven by creative fulfillment?
I think they’re one and the same. I am driven by creative fulfillment, but in the world of movies that inevitably means ambition. I’m not Emily Dickinson – I’m not writing poems in my attic – but if all I cared about was fulfillment I’d be doing something else. I certainly care about public engagement because I’m making things for people to go see and participate in. I’m hugely ambitious but, without sounding too pretentious, I’m ambitious to make great things that deepen people’s experience of life. And I hope I get to do that.
Read J. Hoberman’s review of “Damsels in Distress” here. See the trailer below: