Greta Gerwig, the endearing indie film phenom whose idiosyncratic style has driven you to distraction in movies like
Greenberg and Damsels in Distress, is making her off-Broadway debut this month in The Village Bike, a sexually-charged black comedy by Penelope Skinner. While cinephiles may still consider her the Diane Keaton of Mumblecore, Gerwig, who majored in English and philosophy at Barnard, is naturally suited for live performance, and she's a scream in Skinner's daffy yet disturbing play. She plays Becky, a frustrated young pregnant British woman who can't get any satisfaction from her husband and winds up seeking it elsewhere, hurtling straight downhill into an affair without any brakes.
What are you up to? Are you multitasking right now? Well, I just got done with a yoga class and I am waiting for a salad to be given to me, and then I'm going to walk home with it. It's not really multitasking, I'm waiting for someone else to give me food.
Is this a deli salad? Uh no, it's from a very nice new cafe that's opened up near me, which is delicious. It's called Peacefood Cafe, which ordinarily I would feel like, "No, I won't eat from any place called that," but it's really good and it's really healthy and delicious. It makes you feel like you're doing something really good for the planet even though you're just getting takeout. Which is exciting.
What neighborhood do you live in? I live in Greenwich Village.
You like it there? Yeah, I love it. I've lived all over New York since I went to college here, so I've lived in a lot of different neighborhoods and am really lucky to live south of 14th Street in Manhattan.
Yeah, it's a pretty prime location. And with the gig you have now you can walk to work, right? Yeah, I know. I do, I walk to work everyday. It feels like I'm living the modern day fantasy of what it means to be an actor. I actually ran into my friend, Matt Maher, who is also an actor walking to his show, and he said to me—we ran into each other and we were talking—and he said, "We're living the dream! We're in shows that we're walking to, and we're friends!"
He rocks. What is he in now? He's in a play over at—I haven't seen it yet because we're up at the same time, but it just opened for previews. Oh God, I'm going to forget the name of it. [Editor's note: Maher is currently in The Muscles in Our Toes.] He's such a good actor. Anyway. We were mutually self-satisfied with the moment.
I've never seen you in any plays in New York. Have I just missed them? No, I worked in theater when I was in college a lot but I also did a lot of technical theater. I did work at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater Company, doing light and sound. And I was a stage manager at Summer Stock in Vermont. I applied to a lot of playwriting programs, and got rejected from all of them, when I graduated from college. So it's always been what I wanted to do, but it never seemed like it was open to me in the same way that film seemed to want me along for the ride.
But I've been watching all of these people and been kind of an aggressive fan for a long time. Sam Gold [director] is someone I've always wanted to work with and...anyway, I feel incredibly lucky because I actually feel like I'm, right now, doing what I've always wanted to do in that Freudian way of fulfilling some childhood dream. Which is maybe great and maybe that's what happens before you go crazy. I don't know.
Well, you're working with some of the coolest people in New York. I know! I'm so lucky.
But aside from that, what is it that about the play that attracted you to it? When I started reading the play, I knew very quickly that it was good and that it was written by a person who was a good writer. I just felt like I could hear it right away. As I was reading it, I instinctively felt like it was playing in my head, almost like reading sheet music. As soon as I started reading it I knew how it should sound. And I really wanted to do it. I felt like the play took these leaps that I was not expecting, which was thrilling and scary. But I think I really knew right away. It was just from the first scene, from the way it was written and the way it looked on the page, and the way it sounded to me. I thought, "Yeah, I want to do this."
Scott Shepherd and Greta Gerwig (Matthew Murphy)
Sex seems like another character in the play; it takes on a whole life of its own. Did you have any inhibitions about doing any of this stuff live on stage? I mean, I think I have a certain amount of amnesia about this stuff. Like future amnesia about it. It doesn't actually occur to me that I'm going to have to do it every night, or, if it's a film, that I'm going to have to do it at all. Or if my body is actually going to be fit enough to do all that stuff!
So, I didn't think about it until we were in rehearsal and then I thought, "Oh no, oh goodness, this is going to be a lot." I think being with Sam, who I trust so much, helped alleviate a lot of that concern. But then it was really a process of getting there by gradation. I mean, even things like, I have to wear that nightie for a lot of the play and I knew I would be embarrassed in it so I started wearing it pretty early in rehearsals when we were blocking. Because I knew I had to get comfortable ultimately with a whole room of people looking at me wearing that nightie. If I could just begin and get comfortable with Sam and the cast and the stage manager, and then the producers, and then just expand my circle of comfort. And I think that's just what I did with all of the sex and the things that involved my body in a very explicit way. It was just starting at a very small, fixed spot and trying to expand it from there.
Did you know Scott Shepherd before you did this? No. I told him I felt like I knew him because I saw Gatz. I knew a lot of the work he's done with The Wooster Group but Gatz: we hung out for eight hours, remember?! But he doesn't remember. I'd never worked with him, but I have so much respect and admiration for him. He's the only actor I've ever met who, if I mess up, looks at me with total interest because something is happening that's new and he just looks at me like, "Now what are you going to do?" I mean, if another actor messes up I look at them with panic. Because I think, "Oh fuck, this is a disaster!" And he just approaches it where those moments are alive and exciting.
Yeah, I can see that being the case with him. So, what about the pornography? Are you actually watching porn during those scenes? Yep! I really am. I'm really watching porn. But I can't decide what porn it is I'm looking at. It's pre-set for me by the production design team so it's all pretty loaded porn that I'm looking at. But yeah, it's real porn.
Was that really necessary? I guess in some ways it's not strictly necessary but I think Sam really liked the idea that I would actually be watching porn. And he also had this thing about actually wanting to show how boring and pedestrian it is to watch someone watch porn and masturbate. He liked the business of it. We would talk through and he'd ask, "If you were going to watch porn what are the steps you'd take?" He liked me taking off my shoes in the scene where I put on a DVD of porn, which seems sort of sweet and quaint, but he liked the slowness of it. He wanted me to take my time and not rush through any of it. He wanted it to be as uncomfortable as it could be.
Did you feel uncomfortable? Yes. I did. Yes. I got less uncomfortable as it went on but I think—not that anyone needs to spend anymore time talking about the difference between film and theater, but I do think that there is a significant difference. With film, especially with sex stuff, you know it's coming but you don't actually do it until you're doing it. And with this one, Sam was like, "I really need to see, there's no saving it, you really have to do it every time." And I had to get over it. In film I'm like, "I'll give it my all in a day and do it then." Leading up to it, it doesn't matter if you get it exactly the way it's going to be, I'll just do it then.
There's this scene where I go to get Scott's character a bandage and I go up to my room and it just said in the script, "She pants like a dog." And Sam was like, "I want something else," and I said, "I'm going to do something and it's going to be weird!" And I just put all the pillows together and got on top of them, and then I put my fist in my mouth and he said, "Alright, if you can do that every night then that's what I want." And I was like, "Alright, okay!" But it felt sort of embarrassing to have to produce those sexual things...I mean, I guess it would have been more embarrassing if he said "No, I don't want that."
Jason Butler Harner and Greta Gerwig (Matthew Murphy)
I'm curious how you relate to Becky, and where you diverge. On a very basic level, I've never been pregnant. So I spent a lot of time reading pregnancy books and talking to women who are friends of mine who have been pregnant. Because I don't have that sense of my body not belonging to myself, in some bigger way. And now my Gmail thinks I'm pregnant, which is hilarious. I fooled it.
I mean, I think one of the things that struck me about the play is how little biographical data we have about Becky. We know almost nothing about her. It seems like maybe she was a little bit of a party girl. She says, "I never thought I'd be anything really before I met John." There's something unformed about her past life. But I think that's key, because she's completely defined through the men in her life. And her husband, who said, "I think you can be a teacher." I mean, she moved in with him three weeks after meeting him in a bar. Her entire existence, I mean even moving to the country, the whole back-to-the-country life, I think is all his fantasy that she's going along with it.
And then when she meets Oliver, she goes along with all of his fantasies. And I definitely thought I understood who Becky was, but I thought I understood her most clearly in how she let other people dictate what the terms of her life are. Were. I didn't really do a one-to-one analysis, like, "This is like me and this is not like me," but I do think there is a feeling of being almost infantilized or made to be a child that some women take in a way to make themselves more appealing. I understand that and I empathize with it and my heart kind of aches for it.
And those times in my life, when I've felt myself being a thing that someone else seems to want me to be, I think a lot of that came out in Becky. I think a play keeps revealing itself to you, especially when it's good and the director and cast are good, and different things will hit me every night. Sam said this thing to me which I really have hung on to; he said, "It's like laying down sediment layers. Nothing gets lost, even if it's not the final form of it. It all just gets layered down and it evens and it changes." So even choices that were wrong, where Becky was going too far in one direction or another, or even blocking that didn't work or a line reading that didn't work, all those add up to things that feel richer if you hadn't gone down the wrong paths to begin with.
Every night, I'll hear a different thing. I think it was a week into previews when I heard the question: "Why is this grown woman asking her husband if she can have a bike?" All of a sudden, I was doing this scene and I heard it. And I thought, "What?" Because I'd always been treating that like it was the status quo, and that there were things that were brewing, but it was mostly okay and I was suddenly like, "No, it's already not okay." Even before he turns her down for sex. Already there's a problem. Or like actually hearing in the play that she never asks for sex until the end of the first act. She never actually asks for it. And that's a big part of the character, that you wouldn't actually ask for it. Things like that, I feel, is the richness of Penelope's writing, that it keeps things coming up on my radar every night.
Where are we at onHow I Met Your Dad? Is there any future in that? I think it's a bird that never flew. I think that's the truth about it. I mean, I loved making it and I love the people who did it, and I really enjoyed the process of it and it's a bummer that it didn't happen but I also think you can't get too frayed about this stuff. I mean, it didn't work, onto the next, is the way I look at it. I really hope I get to make something with Carter and Craig, who made How I Met Your Dad, and Emily Spivey who made the show Up All Night and wrote for SNL. I just really like them and I think, in my experience—I can speak with some authority on life because I'm thirty (that's not true)—but I've done this for eight years and I know no good thing ever goes away. It comes back around, and I'll make a show with Emily Spivey someday.
Sediment. Exactly! It's in the sediment of television.
That's terrifying. I know. But I mean, there was a project with Sam we didn't end up doing five years ago fell through and it was sad but now I'm getting to do this. I believe that it's a combination of sheer will and stupidity that allows us to keep going and to find each other. But I do think that, in any form, you meet people who speak your language, even if it's not that one it will be another one.
That's a great attitude. Oh, well thank you. I really love Gothamist.