Interview: Actress Greta Gerwig of 'Baghead'
Wed, 23 Jul 2008 10:18:44
As we sat underneath a shaded eave at Beverly Hills' quintessentially Californian Avalon Hotel, discussing attitudinal differences between Los Angeles and New York City, actress Greta Gerwig astutely remarked, "In New York, your conversation is your currency." While we continued to speak about her latest film, Baghead, the state of cinema today, and the value of individuality, I couldn't help but think that her observation was true and her intelligent repartee golden.
That's the effect that Gerwig—whose talents extend to writing and directing, as well—has when engaging another in conversation. Belonging to a community of filmmakers who pride themselves upon collaboration and openness rather than rigidity on set, she has played multiple creative roles in the production of movies such as Hannah Takes the Stairs. In Baghead, directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, Gerwig plays one of four struggling actors who venture to a cabin to write what they hope will be their indie star-making vehicle. What they don't anticipate is being harassed by the titular "Baghead." (Yes, it's just what it sounds like: a man with a bag over his head.) The simultaneously terrifying and hilarious antagonist interrupts their reverie, as do tricky romantic entanglements.
In this interview, Gerwig reflects on the desperation of aspiring actors, her writing, and just how scary seeing the Baghead is in person.
I heard the film described as tapping into the desperation that actors experience. Is this something that you picked on doing the festival circuit?
On the festival circuit I didn’t encounter as many actors as I did filmmakers, who are desperate in their own way. I live in New York and a lot of my friends are actors. It’s hard. It’s so hard. A lot of them who are trying to figure out how to start their careers are like, “Maybe I should write. Maybe I should write a one-woman show.” My mother would always call me and she’d say, “Why don’t you write a one-woman show about homeless people?” I was like, “Why would I do that, mom?” Everybody’s trying to figure out how to propel themselves in some way and give themselves enough confidence to just keep going because it’s so hard. When that fails or when you get kind of dark, sometimes you can hide and [exert] power over people by flirting with them, manipulating men. That’s Michelle [in Baghead]. That’s where she gains her power because she feels so powerless in everything else.
How do you find confidence to stick with it?
I’ve been beyond lucky. I’m not in the new G.I. Joe movie, but within a certain world I know a lot of people who are excited to work with me, and I’m excited to work with them. That’s the best thing that can happen to you. But there are some dark days. If you’re young and you’re struggling to do something with yourself, the price of admission is staring at the wall wondering what’s going to become of you. You’re like, “Oh my God, what am I doing with my life? I went to college. How am I going to eat?” It’s so scary, but I think you have to be a little bit stupid and a little bit pigheaded to keep going. I’ve been lucky enough that I’m stubborn, so I guess that’s it.
You’re associated with a community that is sort of disassembling the hierarchy of what we know filmmaking to be. How do you describe the on set atmosphere?
Did you ever work on a project in school where it just felt like everybody was functioning at their highest level and trying to be as creative as possible? Not because they had to or because they thought it was going to get them anything in particular, just because they were really excited by it. I think that’s the feeling around it. The moment I walked on set, I was coming chock-full of ideas. I had truckloads of ideas and they had truckloads of ideas, and so did everybody else. We were so psyched about it. We weren’t just trying to get by and just do our job; we were trying to do more than our job. We were trying to really make something good, because it was such a small community that it felt like everybody had such an important role to play in what we were doing.
How did the roles of Mark and Jay as directors change?
Mark and Jay definitely were the head of the ship in that they were head cheerleaders. They really make you feel great. Part of what they do—at least from my perspective—I brought in all these ideas, and they just shaved and shaped them until they worked into what we were doing. They were the go-to people. They were never the people I would look to [and ask], “Tell me what to do now.” It was more like I would take stuff to them and they would be like, “Cool. Do that. Don’t do that other thing.” [Laughs] It felt much more like a give and take rather than [me] at their mercy. I don’t really think they enjoy working like that; I think they enjoy a more collaborative process.
Do you approach the process a little differently because you’re a writer, as compared to fellow actors who haven’t written before?
Yeah, I think it definitely changes the way I look at improvising scenes in particular because I do have a writing background and I continue to write. More than anything I’m structuring a scene in my head, like, “Oh, this would be good.” I sort of push it in one direction or another direction. That’s perhaps different in me than other actors, but I think that Mark and Jay also tend to work with actors who have either written something or directed something themselves, and they tend to like people who are willing to take on multiple roles.
One of the things that struck me about the film was how real the male-female relationships felt. I could watch it and go, “Oh my God, I’ve done that.” It’s almost painfully embarrassing. Was that an easy place for you access [as an actor]?
I think that I’ve gotten used to mining those really uncomfortable, awkward feelings and using them the best I can. It’s kind of painful to turn self-awareness onto yourself, because then you see all of the things that you do more clearly and you’re sad for yourself and you’re embarrassed. It’s become really natural for me. It’s so much of life, especially with romantic relationships. It’s so performative. Avoiding things, or going for things—it’s all this giant improvisational scene. In that way, it is somewhat easier to use in a film because then you’re just taking that performative element and applying it to a truly fictional relationship.
I have to ask, the first time you saw the Baghead, were you absolutely terrified, or were you laughing?
It was pretty scary, actually. Especially that scene where we walk out and see the guy [in the woods]. That was genuinely scary. There wasn’t a whole lot of acting we did.
You’re a playwright and an actor. Do you see yourself making the foray into directing, especially given the kind of [filmmaking] community you belong to?
I co-directed a film called Nights and Weekends which is coming out with IFC this fall, and I enjoyed doing that. I’m going to direct my own web series. It’s a low risk way to see how you like directing. I’m still intimidated by it. It’s not something that I went to school for, and I don’t entirely know how I would work being the only director. I think ultimately if I do direct it will almost always be in the context of a collaboration. I’m a really social person and I’m also a person who really feeds off of other people’s ideas. I don’t really have that hegemonic auteur spirit in me where I’m like, “I need to impose my vision on everybody!” I’m just excited to see what everybody wants to do. If and when I do direct, it’s going to be very collaborative with actors or another director or a writer.
Do you think it’s necessary to take back the process at this moment?
I think people are still trying to figure out exactly where film is going and how it’s going to work, because right now the only surefire things are sequels to big action movies or things that are marketed for 80 million dollars. There’s another way to go about this. People are figuring it out and there are casualties along the way. There has to be some sort of middle ground, almost like an indie rock model. There can be a Matador label and there can be an Island label, and it’s okay. Both can exist. There’s going to be some kind of emergence of that because I think people still really love movies, but they don’t want to only see one kind of movie. They want a variety of things.
Do you think you would make a foray into movies that are a little bit more structured than you’re doing now?
Yeah, for sure. [For] most people who make things or have any kind of artistic impulse, anathema to them is getting stagnant and being in the same place and making the same kind of movies over and over again. Something that often goes along with bigger budget things are tightly structured, more by the book [processes]. But that’s something that I’m really interested in; I’ve never really done that. It’s all about staying vital and interested in what you’re doing. Even [with] bad movies, the talent that goes into it—the costumes, the set design—is unreal. These people are amazing at what they do—lighting, cinematography. Even if the movie’s bad, the talent is unbelievable. That’s really exciting. Part of what’s exciting about making movies or making theater is that you get to surround yourself with incredibly talented people. Big budget movies mean that there are even more people on the payroll who are really good at what they do.