Greta Gerwig brings an unconventional beauty, bravura and vulnerability to the role of Lola, the unconventional heroine in Lola Versus. The film follows Lola through a year full of humor and heartbreak as she reevaluates a lifetime’s worth of aspirations and plans and adjusts to her new life as a single woman in the city. Gerwig makes the role hers and holds the audience’s sympathy through even the most difficult moments as she becomes an inescapable version of the character that has so many flaws.
At the press day for Lola Versus, we sat down at a roundtable interview with Gerwig to talk about what attracted her to the challenging role. She told us why she likes movies about women behaving badly, how at some point you’ve got to stop looking for Prince Charming and deal with fixing yourself first, and why Noam Chomsky crossed with Bill Murray is her ideal kind of guy. She also discussed what it was like shooting on location in New York City, how she learned to approach acting like a fencing match, what it was like working with Woody Allen on To Rome With Love in Italy, and how she hopes to direct something she’s written next year. Hit the jump for the interview.
What is it about Lola that spoke to you when you saw the script?
GERWIG: Sometime female characters, especially in the genre of something that people consider rom-com, make mistakes in a cute way or they’re a mess in a way that’s palatable. I like that Lola is a real mess. She’s making big mistakes and it’s not just cute. It’s destructive and self-absorbed and not awesome and she has to recover from that. She stands to damage relationships around her. Even as this crappy thing happens to her at the beginning of the movie, she uses that as an excuse to behave badly for the next year of her life. I like movies about women behaving badly, because women behave badly just like men, and we’re not always adorable and cute about it.
How badly do you behave then?
GERWIG: Pretty badly. No. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. In college, it’s very easy to maintain your female friendships because you’re in such close proximity all the time. Right after college, I was living with all my female friends. Then, I went through a couple of years where I just wasn’t there for them as much as I should have been. It’s because you have to start making a real effort. It’s not integrated with your life all of the time. I think I took those relationships for granted, and then all of a sudden, I thought if I don’t step up to the plate with this, I’m going to lose these women and I love them like family. We all realize that. That was the biggest thing in my twenties, when I realized that if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need friends.
Can you identify with Lola in terms of any terrible break-ups you’ve had?
GERWIG: I’ve never had a break-up that’s before a wedding. I think any break-up from a long relationship has this accompanying feeling of who am I without this person. You feel like a half-person because you’ve integrated yourself into an idea of a couple for so long, and then teasing that out and finding out who you are without them, it just takes a while. It feels like an amputation. It feels like you’ve been cut at the core and that part of you is gone. I think that this movie deals with the reconstruction of self outside of a couple.
How did you recover when you broke up with someone?
GERWIG: Badly. I recovered, not in the same way that Lola did at all. My fallback was that I’d throw myself into work, which became my other substitute that I would try to make up for. I would try to outwork it. I would say I don’t have time to feel sad now because I’m on a movie set and I can’t feel sad. I’m just going to keep working, but that catches up with you. You can’t keep doing that. This movie really spoke to that idea of how you’ve got to deal with yourself at some point. You can’t just keep trying to find Prince Charming or a job or something that will fill that.
How was the experience of shooting on location in New York?
GERWIG: It’s great in some ways. I love New York. I live in New York. We shot two blocks from my apartment lots of days which was amazing. But I think it’s really hard to work in a city where you live too, because I get so absorbed with the movie that I become a bad friend and a bad participant in my own life. It would almost be better if it was shot in Canada because then I wouldn’t feel like I’m letting everybody down all the time. I love shooting in New York because I love the city. Ultimately, I like doing it there and the city is important to the story, but it can be hard to shoot where you live too because it is so all-absorbing.
One of the film’s themes is being single on the shelf at 30. Do you think a lot of women are afraid of that?
GERWIG: It’s a fear that sneaks up on a lot of women. I don’t think it’s something that my age group is conscious of as much within my set. I’m 28 and I don’t think that we all consciously sit around and say “Oh shoot, I hope we’re not single at 30.” Of the people that I know who are a little bit older than I am, I have a friend who just turned 31 and she’s been single for a while. It’s interesting because she’s not someone who ever thought that she cared and she’s panicking. It’s real. She’s saying “I want to be married and I want to have kids.” She’s got a great job. She’s a high powered book editor. She’s awesome. All of a sudden, she’s like “Oh no!” It’s real, this feeling of when she turned 30 and now she just turned 31. I think it really does sneak up on people because there’s something where we thought it would just happen, like oh, you’ll just be married at the right time and you’ll have the person that you can have children with. For a lot of women, it’s almost like they’ve forgotten about it. And then, all of a sudden, you’re 30 and you’re like “Oh, whoops! What are we going to do now?” I don’t think it’s an active thing. It takes you by surprise.
You’ve worked with quite a few different types of directors. How would you describe Daryl’s method of directing and the vibe on set?
GERWIG: I would say Daryl is a very collaborative director. He’s very open. Some directors have that feeling of they’re not looking for suggestions and they’re not looking for input. With the actors and the producers and the heads of different departments, Daryl has an open door policy to discussion. At the end of the day, he’s the director and he’s going to make the decisions, but I think there’s a real sense that people could involve themselves with him as far as talking about the decisions for the film and they didn’t feel that wall that some directors develop. Part of that is because he trained as an actor and he’s done a lot of collaborative work. That’s where he comes from and acting just comes naturally to him. He likes to hear all voices and he doesn’t like to shoot anything down.
How was it working with Bill Pullman and Debra Winger on this film?
GERWIG: It was amazing. I loved both of them. They’re actors I admire greatly. Debra Winger is so great, and as a female actress, she has such an incredible body of work. And then, in this weird way, she’s become this cautionary tale of Hollywood and what it’s like. There was that documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, which I saw. She’s just a great actress. She has an awesome life and awesome kids and she’s great at what she does. She chooses her projects carefully, but I think she’ll continue to work and make things. I feel so lucky that I got to do one of the ones that she’s chosen. Sometimes people’s mythology can get bigger than who they are. It’s true that she’s a wonderful woman who’s really talented and interesting. I was really lucky to be with her. And then, Bill Pullman, I just get happy every time I see him.
He loves you.
GERWIG: I love Bill Pullman. He’s also the most interested man. He’s just interested in stuff. He’s like “Well tell me about that. How would you grow a garden?” He’s very involved with whatever you’re talking about. He wants to know everything about it. What’s really nice for me as an actor is he still loves acting. He gets a kick out of it and he’s acted for so long. He’s doesn’t have an attitude of “Ugh, this old thing.” It’s easy to get jaded, and I’ve seen a lot of actors who get jaded, and he goes at it every time like he loves acting. He told me all these cool stories about working with David Lynch and that was fun.
This is a film about relationships and women being single. Which do you prefer?
GERWIG: I can’t talk about myself, but I can say I’m a relationship person, and I like relationships. I think I also like relationships because then you don’t have to date because dating is horrible. If you’re with one person, then you don’t have to meet other people. It’s like when you’re acting in a movie, you don’t have to audition for other movies. I prefer that. But also, I’m just a relationship girl. I fall in love and I usually have long relationships. I like getting to know people well and having substantive, long relationships. I’ve loved all of my boyfriends. They’re all great.
Were you a fencer when you were growing up?
GERWIG: Yes, I didn’t do saber. I did foil.
What impact did fencing have on your life and career?
GERWIG: I was a ballet dancer. I did other kinds of dance but ballet was my great love. But then it became clear, when I was 12, that my body wasn’t going to be right. That’s always a heartbreaking moment because there’s nothing you can do about that. Your body is just not right. You don’t have enough turnout. You’re not built properly. I was devastated, but there was a fencing place that opened up in Sacramento. My mom read an article that said dancers actually make good fencers because they have good footwork and control, and they’re able to shift their weight quickly and move quickly. She signed me up to take a class. I was set against it and I was like “I’ll never love anything like I loved ballet.” Then, I fell in love with fencing. I got very far. I was ranked third in California and I was ranked in the top 8 nationally. I was really good for a while. The best part about it was it was my first real moment of being involved in sports, and in an interesting way, as an actor, it really helped me. There’s an economy in sports that I always think is a useful metaphor for acting. You have an objective. You’re trying to win, and of course, you want to do well. You want to use good techniques so you enforce it, but also you don’t do things you don’t have to do. It’s very economical, and I think that in acting the most economical way through a scene is always the best. It’s active. There is the sense of the fight and you want to win. Using that energy in a scene can really cut the fat off of something and streamline it. It can make it work for you and activate it for you in a way. If you’re just wallowing in the emotions of it, then sometimes it doesn’t get as clear as when you can just treat it like a fencing match.
People learn about themselves through relationships. What have you learned about yourself by inhabiting the character of Lola?
GERWIG: Inhabiting Lola, it’s hard to quantify or categorize what I’ve learned from all of my characters. In a certain way, I think Lola especially was a catharsis for me. It felt like a free-wheeling enterprise. I got to really let go for it and feel that wild abandonment and panic and terror, and to embrace all of those things without running away from them. In life, those are the things that you usually try to get under control and make yourself not sob and drink too much and go crazy and heckle strippers. Getting to behave that way and not shut off that part of myself and eat seven bagels and go yell at people, it exercises a part of myself that I often feel bad about. Being able to use parts of myself for a character gives me less shame in a way of having those elements in myself. In relationships, you learn a million things. I’m sure a therapist can tell you about it.
What kind of guys do you go for in general?
GERWIG: Nerds. Just nerds. I like people who love books and movies and art and want to talk about it all the time, because that’s basically what I want to talk about. Intellectuals that are funny. Noam Chomsky crossed with Bill Murray.
At the end of the day, what did you take away personally from being Lola?
GERWIG: That I’m okay and that I’m okay alone. It’s just a weird thing because it sounds so cheesy to say look, the lesson that you learned as a character in a movie is actually something you feel in yourself, but you do internalize it. It’s almost like when she has her moment of transformation and she becomes okay with herself and settles, it seeps into your own self. I sensed that while making it. I’m hopefully feeling more okay every year with myself, but I think playing that was an important push in that direction, like fake it until you make it.
What was Woody Allen like to work with on To Rome with Love? Was it intimidating?
GERWIG: I’ve been in love with Woody Allen since I was 13. It was some weird combination of Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. It’s like my dream man. I was so honored to be there and I couldn’t believe I got cast. I feel like I didn’t get to experience the experience because I was so in awe of everything. I was just like “Get through the day. Don’t get fired. Just get through the day.” If I could go back, I would say “Just enjoy it. Drink up the Woody Allen moment.” It’s so hard because you’re scared. For me, it was like my equivalent of if I were an athlete and I got to be in the Olympics. I’m sure that just goes by you and you don’t get to really feel that you’re there. I loved doing it and I loved the other actors in it. Most of my scenes were with Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg. I adore each and every one of them. I loved them so much. We all supported each other and made it less intimidating.
Was it romantic to be in Italy?
GERWIG: Amazing. I love Rome. I love Italy. I love Italian people and Italian food. I ate so much pasta. I got so big. Between Lola Versus and then going to Italy to do From Rome with Love, I was getting quite round. It was fun. I remember the Italian costumers. I feel like I outgrew my costumes in the course of doing it because the food was so good and at every restaurant I would get this dish called cacao e pepe which is with pepper. I would get whatever I was getting, and then I’d always order a side of that, which is just a lot of pasta, but it was so fun. Italy is so incredible. I took a side trip to Florence and I got to go to the Uffizi [Museum]. I’d never been. I never saw the David. I cried in front of the David which really felt dramatic of me. It was exciting. There’s a lot of great art in New York which I love seeing, but there’s something about seeing it where it was intended to be seen. “Oh, he painted these in this church.” This was where it was supposed to be and here it is. That’s really cool.
You worked with Russell Brand on Arthur, what was he like off-screen?
GERWIG: I love Russell. Russell’s great. He’s a rock star. He’s a total rock star religious leader. That man could start a cult. He’s completely magnetic. You could just feel when he walked into a room, everyone lit up. When he looks at someone or talks to someone, it would just show in their eyes. He’s so charming. It was so fun to watch him with his fans when we were on set. There would be people lined up, and he’d go over and hug them and take pictures and be funny with them and flirt with the girls, but totally innocent. I think he makes people happy and that’s a really cool thing. Some people don’t like being famous, but I think he loves being famous.
Can you tell us what you have coming up next?
GERWIG: I have the Woody Allen film and then I don’t know. I’m writing a lot and I hope to direct something that I’ve written in the next year. That’s the next mountain to climb.
Lola Versus opens in theaters on June 8th.