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Greta Gerwig, in ‘Greenberg,’ moves beyond mumblecore

Greta Gerwig stars in director Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.’’ Greta Gerwig stars in director Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.’’ (Wilson Webb)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / March 21, 2010

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Unless you follow the ultra-low-budget movement in independent film called mumblecore, you’ve likely never heard of Greta Gerwig. Tall, blond, awkward, lovely — and unflinchingly, impossibly real — she’s the scene’s leading lady, queen of the improvised imbroglio, muse to a collective of twentysomething filmmakers ginning up small movies about complicated young people in complicated young love.

Four years after taking her first role — she was a senior at Barnard College and the film’s budget was $3,000 — the 26-year-old actress is poised to break out of the underground as Ben Stiller’s love interest in the dramedy “Greenberg,’’ directed by Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding,’’ “The Squid and the Whale’’) and produced by Hollywood powerhouse Scott Rudin. The movie opens in Boston on Friday, and Gerwig called last week from her apart ment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood to talk about the wacky world of scripts, auditions, and red carpets.

Q. How did you land an audition for the role of Florence in “Greenberg’’?

A. It was pretty incredible. There was a lot of back and forth. They [Baumbach and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story and has a part in the movie] had seen some of the smaller films I had done and I guess liked them enough to be interested in meeting me, but not necessarily for this project or at this moment. I was sent the script, and I was supposed to meet them, and then it was moved, and then I heard they might be interested in someone else. My agent was very good at managing my expectations. I did finally go to their apartment, and they were going to have me read a few scenes, but I ended up reading the whole script at the dining room table, with Jennifer reading all other characters. Noah just sat there and occasionally gave me a note.

Q. I heard you sang a song for them.

A. I knew Florence was supposed to be a singer and I’d gotten the Judee Sill record [Florence performs Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road’’ during an open mike scene] and played it a million times. I thought, if I only get one shot I’ll sing it.

Q. Did you know then and there that you’d nailed it?

A. I thought it had gone well but didn’t think I would get it. I thought that maybe I could be friends with them. I wasn’t thinking that clearly. And my agent was calling me and telling me all the movie star girls who wanted the role.

Q. Noah Baumbach is known for sticking rigorously to his scripts, and I imagine that after years of taking a really loose approach to dialogue that required a major adjustment on your part.

A. It was actually a gift, and something I had been wanting as an actress. When I’d done plays in high school and college I always had a sense that well-written plays are rhythmic, and if you miss a word it sounds strange, and when I started working with this script it was so nice to tap into that. The scenes are quite long and the DP [director of photography] would set up cameras so that we could do six pages of dialogue in a row. It felt like little vignettes, and you knew the dialogue was always there to save you. It’s like tapping into a frequency and everyone’s on it.

Q. Florence is something of a lost soul: assistant to an affluent LA family, her personal life isn’t going very well, and yet she’s totally unguarded and maintains an almost innocent faith in the future. What were your impressions of her on first reading?

A. I thought, I know this girl. I felt my heart go out of my chest and into her. I think there is some Florence in me but as a person I have developed more defenses and boundaries, so that some of my work in being Florence was not a building up, but a breaking down.

Q. You’re known for your naturalism onscreen. How did you prepare for the role?

A. I just tried to do everything Florence does. I read the books I thought she’d read and listened to the music I thought she’d listen to. It sounds Method-y but I think falseness registers so strongly on film. I was lucky because we were shooting on location and had a lot of rehearsal time and time for me to be in LA and do what Florence does and go where she goes. I worked as a personal assistant to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother.

Q. People are already predicting that this film is going to be a career breakthrough for you.

A. I try not to read things, but my mom sends them. She got upset recently because Variety called me “a big young woman.’’ I think whatever your situation is, however people react to you comes with its own burdens. If everyone says you’re perfect it’s as traumatizing as people saying they don’t like you. I try not to let my ego get involved. I also think, how lucky am I to be in the position for people to not like what I do? Even if someone is critical it means you’re part of the conversation of what cinema is. That’s huge.

Q. Do you give much thought to Hollywood, to what it might be like stepping into that whirlwind?

A. Yeah, I do. I honestly think I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t in some way seductive. There’s this collective cultural fantasy of what Hollywood means and I think it’s a real thing but I try not to give it power. I loved putting on a dress at the Berlin Film Festival and walking down the red carpet. There’s that balance of being in awe of it and knowing that this too will pass.

Q. You’re making a leap from a communal, collaborative, and radically independent way of making art to a world that has very different rules and hierarchies. Is that at all bittersweet?

A. I don’t have to stop making tiny films and I really don’t intend to. Somebody like Chloe Sevigny keeps making films because she believes in them. I don’t think I’m saying goodbye to something as much as trying, hopefully, to straddle two worlds.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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