With her breakthrough role in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg opposite Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig is being touted as the next big thing. Her feet, however, remain firmly on the ground. She speaks with Kylie Boltin from Los Angeles.
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20 Jul 2010 - 11:09 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 11:33 AM

In Noah Baumach's latest feature Greenberg, Greta Gerwig plays the role of Florence, a 25-year-old personal assistant to a wealthy Los Angeles-based businessman. An aspiring singer, Florence is drifting between her creative and romantic ambitions and the mundane reality of her everyday. When her employer takes his family overseas to explore a work opportunity, his brother, Greenberg (played by Stiller) takes over the house, calling on Florence for help navigating the city and for company.

The response to Gerwig's performance has been stellar but the actress is quick to deflect attention towards the cast and crew and character of Florence herself whose depth and complexity she could relate to. “It warms me to know that people are responding not just to me, but to this character, this girl. People don't really make films about her, or people like her,” she says. “I think that when I read it I recognised that it was a whole person on the page. It wasn't someone who was one-sided or had a sound bite or hook but she was someone who existed in a couple of different worlds. Everything was so expansive in the script. It seemed like one line would just open the key to all these different worlds that you would never see on screen—to her family, her sister, her niece. When you have such good material it gives you a chance to do better work than you ever thought you could do.”

Greta Gerwig was born and raised in Sacramento, California, far away from the cinematic centres of the U.S.A. While she “caught the acting bug” early and performed in school plays, she didn't think acting was a feasible profession until she moved to New York to attend Barnard College. There, under the guidance of many professors from Julliard, she realised it was indeed possible to act as a profession and she started to take on all aspects of the storytelling process because, she says, she “knew with total certainty” that she wanted to be part of that world.

Prior to her role in Greenberg, Gerwig was known as part of the 'Mumblecore' film movement—ultra-low budget, independent films recognised as featuring urban characters in their twenties helmed by directors such as Mark and Jay Duplass and Joe Swanberg. Gerwig's film career started in Swanberg's LOL and continued with Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she co-wrote with Swanberg. It was during her tenure in these films that Gerwig tried her hand in all areas of the filmmaking process including directing, improvising and technical aspects. It was an experience that she admits was “incredibly helpful” in her transition to more mainstream fare. “On a very simple level it gives you an understanding and appreciation for what everyone else is doing on a film set,” she reflects now. “It allowed me to act and to make things when I would not have otherwise been able to. I think all of that energy would have turned into bitterness had I not had that ability to channel it through these projects!”

Greenberg, however, allowed Gerwig to entirely focus on acting for the very first time, and become “submerged” in Baumach's vision. The actress has nothing but the highest order of praise for the director and his co-writer/co-producing/co-starring wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, calling them “true artists". Leigh's extensive insight into acting paved the way for a “zone of comfort, where there was protection and a feeling of safety” for the young star on set while Baumbach helped her work thought the character. Says Gerwig, “There was a lot of talking through the scenes and making things specific and developing a back-story and making everything as clear as possible for me so that it was grounded in some kind of reality. For most of the seven-week shoot we'd spend every Saturday afternoon talking about the scenes that were coming up the next week and getting a handle on them.”

Spending time in Los Angeles before the shoot commenced was another way that Gerwig prepared for her role. She relocated from New York to L.A for a month to absorb the “rhythm and feeling” of the city. For Gerwig, the city itself impacts of the character of Florence. For her, “people wear their cities on their faces and in their bodies. If you're driving half and hour, two hours every day you'll hold yourself a little differently than if you're walking everywhere or taking the subway,” she says. “I think your environment influences how you are, physically and emotionally. I was very lucky that I was able to do that before we filmed so that you could really breathe those elements through the screen instead of having to invent them on the spot.”

While Gerwig is now enjoying the first spoils of mainstream success she admits that after shooting wrapped she had her doubts. She credits her agent with propping her up and keeping her focussed. “I made the film and then I didn't work for six months and it was really hard,” she says now. “He was the one who kept saying, 'It's OK, you'll get through this. Don't take the crap horror film or the crap TV show. Sit tight and eat your canned vegetables and knuckle down and this will do something.' ”

It certainly has.

Greenberg will be released in cinemas July 22.