Greta Gerwig is having another sterling year, with performances in four films: Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan,” Todd Solodnz’s “Weiner-Dog,” Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” and Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women.” Not only that, but she’s deep into the edit on her solo directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” which she shot in California this summer. She talks to Variety about that wide swath of work, what she’s learned from each of these directors as she embarks on her own journey behind the camera, and fighting the urge to just make every shot of her new film a close-up of Saoirse Ronan.
You’ve had busy years before but with four features out this year, what has that whirlwind been like?
I guess in a funny way it just kind of worked out this way. As an actor you don’t have as much control over the projects that come your way and it was just kind of four things in a row where I really loved the directors and I really loved the parts. It went from Rebecca Miller to Todd Solondz to Mike Mills to Pablo Larrain. And I’m an actor who chooses movies primarily based on the director, more than the scripts, more than the part. A director I think has a real voice, and I’ve been lucky enough that they’ve wanted to work with me. So it was four great ones right in a row. And then it kind of just so happened that I had finished writing this script I was putting that together and then everything slotted together in a very particular way. It doesn’t feel it’s overstuffed, but it definitely felt like a brisk marathon.
Let’s start with “Jackie.” What kind of research did you do into the real-life Nancy Tuckerman when you took on this role?
There was very little written about Nancy Tuckerman, who she was, because she kept herself very private. She didn’t give interviews. She never wrote a book, which is actually pretty interesting because a lot of the women who worked around Jackie like Pam Turner, who was another secretary, and then one of the nannies wrote a book. A lot of them wrote books because people were fascinated with Jackie Kennedy, and this woman never wrote a book and never gave an interview. She was devoted to Jackie for her whole life. And I know when Jackie died she wrote the press release, which suggests a level of devotion which is pretty, I feel, unknown today. They’d known each other since they were five and in their high school yearbooks there was a question everyone asked was: “Where are you most likely to be found?” Nancy Tuckerman wrote, “Laughing with Jackie,” and Jackie wrote, “Laughing with Tuckie.” In a way I built who the character was based on these shards of information I had, and then I kind of let my imagination do the rest. I think in a lot of ways all the research I did was more about Jackie. I read a lot of books about Jackie but then also about what a certain upper-class girl at that time in the social registry was expected to do and what her education would have been like and what the limitations were. That kind of stuff was actually really helpful because it was almost the last generation of women that were really kept in almost like a finishing school way. A higher education wasn’t really an asset, it was a detriment. That it was better to just go through Miss Porter’s school for girls and get married. “You don’t want a girl who’s got a career; that’s a problem.” So that stuff was really interesting to me and informed a lot.
It’s such a deep connection, but maybe not something you would fully grasp watching the movie in the way it’s directed. It’s very abstract and intriguing in that way. Was there anything that Pablo would do with you and with Natalie to kind of indicate that connection, even if it was something that might not be overt?
When he cast me he told me that he liked how much bigger I was than Natalie. I’m much taller than she is and he said something like, “I see her as her protector,” almost like a gentle giant who always wants to be in the shadows. So he would always say, “Catch her, talk to her, hug her, take her hand. Always maintain a respectful distance of ‘this is Mrs. Kennedy,’ but within that try to mother her as much as you can.” So all of that got into the movie so even though they never really talk about it. He’s so good at that because he doesn’t make films where everything is spelled out for you. That’s not really what he’s interested in. He’s interested in these undercurrents and how they form what the movie is.
Moving on to “20th Century Women,” I personally think this your best performance yet.
There’s a real inner life to the character and it’s just a special performance to me. Did you draw on anyone in real life that you knew to help carve that out?
The role in some ways was loosely based on Mike Mills’ actual sister, who grew up in Santa Barbara and moved to New York to go to art school, then found out she had cervical cancer and had to move back home. I got to talk to her. She’s great. She lives in Portland. I spent a lot of time talking to her and to other people who were around in New York in the ’70s, particularly women who are artists, because it was such a particular time. There had been the sexual revolution of the ’60s and then the birth control pill had come out, but then these women were like occupying a space. It was pretty fascinating, particularly like downtown New York. I had a woman I know who’s the right age who would have been in her 20s in the ’70s in New York and she gave me a walking tour of New York City and explained what everything used to be, which was great. She was like, “That boutique was a bar where people would run drugs and you could always go there to get smack.” Things that were just detail-oriented. And then talking to people of the time in terms of what cancer was in the ’70s, it was very different than the “live strong,” support cancer survivor stuff. What I didn’t realize was that cancer was a very hush-hush topic. If you had it you didn’t talk about it. I had one woman who was a cancer survivor tell me she had to move back home when she had cancer. She also had cervical cancer from her mother taking DES and she was at home going through chemo and she didn’t tell anyone why she was home. They said she just needed a break, which is so odd. Like now you would tell your community. You would involve them. But I think a lot of that went into the performance and the feeling. And then Mike is just so good at giving you loads of homework, which is how I thrive. So lots of art books, lots of music, lots of essays to read and things to look at. I feel like I’m an actor that likes to have lots of points of connection.
Are you like a photographer at all, like the character?
Yeah. I learned how to use all these old cameras. I took photography lessons when I was preparing for the movies so I learned to use all these old Nikons and Leicas, and I learned how to develop the film and do cool things with developing like push the film and do different timings so it looks interesting. He had me take lessons for like three months, so I got really into it. There’s something very satisfying about old cameras because they’re ingenious. I mean when you take them apart and actually see, “Oh, this is how we make photographs,” it’s an ingenious thing, but it feels like it’s in a way a layman can appreciate, whereas a digital camera, I don’t even begin to know what goes into making a digital camera. But there’s something very satisfying about taking apart all the components of cameras as they used to be, because it’s all comprehensible in some ways. Does that make any sense?
Totally, and it’s like that analog technology can sometimes feel more futuristic in some ways than digital. Like, I’m dazzled by a Nintendo cartridge. I have no idea how someone came up with that.
That’s the same thing I feel like when you take apart a bicycle or you take apart a typewriter, there’s this sense of, “Wow, this is really smart. The person who figured this out is really smart.” And obviously that’s true of digital technology as well but it’s just less visible. I can’t see the zeros and ones so I don’t even know how to start to appreciate it. But I’m kind of a junkie for dying arts and technology. So that’s sort of where I live.
The environment of the story, Central California, very much informs the characters and informs a story. You being a Northern Californian, they’re two different areas obviously but I’m just curious if that flavor spoke to you at all?
Yeah. I mean the whole California of it was something — I wanted to work on a movie about California for a really long time and when I read this movie I wanted to do it so badly because I loved the character and I felt this protectiveness towards the character. But I feel like I know from California, and it’s particular. It has a whole mess of contradictions. Like in some ways it has a lot of liberalism and in an other ways it has a kind of strain of conservatism, which Mike and I talked a lot about about, especially Santa Barbara in the ’70s. I think Abbie’s family was more of the Goldwater Republican, would ultimately support Reagan type of people. But that’s just as much of California as like Haight-Ashbury. Do you know what I mean? That side of California, it’s like there’s a reason we voted more Republican governors, is because there’s a very strong, almost midwestern conservatism in California, which I dig and I’m interested in. So the California that I’ve always wanted to do, also because I feel like for whatever reason people very much associate me with New York, which I’m happy with because I love the city. But I always feel like saying, “No, I’m actually a California person.” I mean New York is a city of transplants, but I felt like I’m from this coast and I’m going to the other coast and then I have to go back. That story felt very clear to me. I just think that particular cultures and networks of cultures in California are just fascinating to me.
Lots of little pockets out here.
Yeah. I mean, it’s vast. And it feels like the identity is diffuse, but it’s there.
Well on that note I wanted to talk a little bit about “Lady Bird,” the film you’re directing. Are you close to finishing up?
I am walking back to my edit as we speak!
What are you learning as a director on that movie?
I think it’s a little premature for me to kind of encapsulate what I’ve been learning. I guess one thing I’ve been learning is that I think I’ve been preparing to do this for a long time and I think all the work that I’ve gotten to do as a writer and as a producer, but also as an actor, has been tremendously helpful for me when I started working on this film. Because I think a lot of directors, they never know what it’s like to be on another director’s set because they really only go to their own parties. And as an actor you get to go to a lot of different people’s parties so you get a lot of different ways of doing it.
Talk to me about Saoirse Ronan. She’s one of my favorite people in this business.
She’s one of a kind. I feel like I can’t talk about her without getting ridiculously gushy. I look at her face every day and I watch what she does every day and I can’t believe it. She’s so gifted but she’s almost like a savant because I don’t think it’s intellectualized, I think it’s just available to her and I think she’s so technical and without ever letting the technique overtake the heart, if that makes sense. I know there’s a lot of technical actors where it’s almost like they’re really good but you don’t feel like there’s this line of life running through it, you feel like you’re watching someone do math — impressive math, but you don’t really feel that like flesh and blood and bone of it. And Saoirse, God damn do you feel her just living vividly, which I don’t know. That’s a gift from God. She’s great. She’s funny. She’s real. She’s beautiful. She can hold a close-up like nobody else. It’s almost like a trap with her because you can have the whole movie on her face and it’s interesting and you have to ask yourself, “Well, wait, no, is that what the scene wants to be or do I just want to look at her face again?” Do you know what I mean? Anyway, I’m talking too much. It’s not cooked yet. It’s not out of the oven. We’ll talk about it again later. You are not wrong, though; she is a woman to be loved. She’s so young, too. She’s 21 and just a natural.
Last question for you, kind of connected to “Lady Bird” in a way, I’m just curious about the impact of these four directors this year: Rebecca Miller, Todd Solondz, Mike Mills, Pablo Larrain. What did you learn from these four directors that you took into “Lady Bird?” These were the last four filmmakers you worked with before embarking on your own directorial adventure, so what stuck with you?
With Rebecca I would say the things I learned from her was that preparing and over preparing never gets you in trouble, and that being a female director and being a male director, there’s really no difference at all. It’s the exact same job and requires just as much of you and really it has more to do with differences between people than differences between gender.
Todd Solondz, I learned don’t be afraid of your actual taste and don’t be afraid of your actual voice. That it needs to make sense to you, and if it doesn’t make sense to you then you don’t have a chance in hell of it making sense to anybody else. He said something to me once: “Oh, to me [‘Weiner-Dog’] is a love story.” And I suddenly realized that to him it is a love story and that is how it makes sense in his brain and that’s why he’s unique and special, because I don’t think anybody else would describe it as a love story, but that’s the way he saw it. I think that commitment to what you actually like and how you actually see it is one of the only things you have to hold onto.
For Mike Mills, I learned that having dance parties and crying with your cast does not make you a weak director, it makes you a strong director. And that you can direct from an emotional place and an emotionally-connected place and still be incredibly specific and clear and authoritative, but that it’s based in a kind of intuitive and emotional space. I hadn’t really known a director to work like before.
And then from Pablo, I guess watching him work, I felt that suddenly all of my narrative needs and all of my quotidien needs of what comes after this and what comes after what, it felt like it was all just blown apart and suddenly I was like, “Why does anything have to be anything? Why can’t you do the same thing three times in five different rooms and jump cut it together? Why are we clinging so strongly to an idea of cinema that has these draconian rules that nobody made up and have been done a million times and badly? Let’s change it.” And he’s not afraid of metaphor and he’s not afraid of things being oblique and he doesn’t need to serve it to his audience on a platter. That’s inspiring.
That ought to have made an interesting cocktail.
I know! It’s just going to be non-narrative, really weird, a lot of crying, but I would have been prepared.