‘Sorry,’ says Greta Gerwig, shoving her hand down her shirt and clutching at her breasts, her voice full of wonder rather than apology. ‘I’m just going to actually make sure it’s getting out. There’s no elegant way to do this. It’s embarrassing… but I have no shame!’ We are in the toilets of a London photography studio. The cistern of a freshly flushed toilet gurgles somewhere in the background as Gerwig pumps away at her breasts. It’s for her six-month-old son who is home in New York with her mother. She has touched down in London for just 48 hours, first to take part in today’s ELLE cover shoot but also to sprint to the premiere of her partner, director Noah Baumbach’s movie Marriage Story later on this evening. She’ll add this breast milk to containers – she tells me with the same breathless optimism with which she has careened through today’s shoot – before surrounding them with ice after (hopefully) getting them through security at Heathrow Airport. It’s exhausting just listening.
Greta Gerwig doesn’t have time for exhaustion, though. There is too much to do. Scripts to write, movies to direct and, if her recent film Little Women is anything to go by, a slew of awards ceremonies to attend over the coming months. Still, her main priority right now is giving me as much time as she can. She is upbeat, Pollyanna-ish – wide-eyed with stress and exuberance – when we first meet, inviting me into the toilet as she washes her milk bottles in the sink, keen to offer every available second of her time. I laugh, asking if Oscar nominees really still have to do this stuff for themselves – she was the fifth woman in history to be nominated for best director at the 2018 Oscars for her film Lady Bird and she also got a nomination for best original screenplay. ‘Oh, that never changes. Although maybe if you win, somebody opens the door and it’s like “Surprise! You don’t have to do anything you don’t like ever again.”’
Gerwig might just get to find out with the release of Little Women, which she has written (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott) and directed. With an all-star cast including Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep and a powerful storyline about young women escaping narrow societal expectations, the film is tipped for every award imaginable. I watched a preview and found myself, unexpectedly, bursting into tears four times. ‘It made me cry, too, both while I was writing it and then making it. Now I have no feelings left – but I’m so glad it made you cry,’ she says, smiling.
For the 2018 awards afterparty, she was accompanied by her five best friends from the women’s university she attended, Barnard College. The tight-knit crew includes a lawyer, a social worker and a nurse, who share a WhatsApp group called ‘Six Scissors And A River’, after – ‘Oh God,’ she takes a deep breath, embarrassed – ‘We did a dance for my friend’s wedding and that’s what my friend Anna announced us as and now we’re stuck with it.’
Lady Bird, which charts the turbulent relationship between a young woman and her mother, seemed to tell Gerwig’s own story. Like the protagonist, played by Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig attended a girls’ Catholic school in Sacramento, California, in the 1990s and spent much of her adolescence arguing with her mother before getting financial assistance to take a place at the expensive New York City college. But the 36-year-old insists that her latest film, set 150 years ago, is actually closer to her truth. ‘Little Women feels as personal as anything I’ll ever make,’ she declares.
To understand Gerwig and the sort of raw, emotional films she is capable of making (and acting in, as anyone who has seen her in Frances Ha can attest), you have to firs understand where she came from. Gerwig grew up without a TV, which is perhaps how she became so obsessed with the characters in books, including her heroine, Jo March from Little Women. This obsession manifested itself in other things, too, though – fencing lessons, dance routines, people. ‘I recently read a test in the back of a book, to see if you have ADHD, that asked if, when you were a kid, you changed the radio station all the time. In our car it was a dial and I knew all the stations well enough that I could turn the dial without looking, and my parents were like, “Stop doing that!” But I just kept thinking, Maybe there’s a better song on another station. Or now, I’ll play the same song repeatedly, until it finally doesn’t give me that dopamine hit.’ She says she once read the entire set of seven Harry Potter books in a single weekend. ‘Everyone who works with me can attest to this – I go into a zone where I don’t wash or return calls and I go feral. I can go into hyperfocus as well as becoming more scattered.’ She thinks she would have been good in a newsroom. ‘I like things that have a great deal of pressure and a lot of deadlines, because I need it.’
This hyperfocus led her to uncovering sides to Louisa May Alcott that few have unearthed before. ‘She said something along the lines of, “I have half a mind to think I’m a man born into a woman’s body, where I’ve fallen in love with half a dozen pretty girls and never once felt that way about a man.” Well there’s a name for that!’ says Gerwig, noting that Jo’s character clearly shared that view. ‘But it felt reductive to assign something [like lesbianism] to her in an explicit way. She was a person who was conflicted about being a woman and what that meant.’
Little Women follows four sisters growing up in poverty and fighting for their place in society. Jo struggles to sell her writing to a publisher, Amy grapples with her artistic talent, Meg is frustrated by motherhood, while Beth is gripped by ill health. ‘The fearlessness and ambition, that happiness of girlhood, is something they’re trying to reclaim for themselves as women,’ says Gerwig. ‘Because that’s my experience of the world – you’re always trying to walk with your younger self.’
Gerwig has had her own battles with art. Though she always wanted to write, she didn’t get a place on a postgraduate playwriting course so instead turned her hand to acting. She excelled at playing directionless twenty-somethings in a number of quiet, mumblecore films, such as Hannah Takes The Stairs and Frances Ha, finding herself as an It girl for the millennial generation. She’s also starred in bigger Hollywood productions, appearing alongside Natalie Portman as the First Lady’s closest confidante in Jackie and stealing the show in Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress. Yet her greatest moments have come when taking control of the stories herself. She cowrote both Frances Ha and Mistress America with her partner Noah Baumbach. She met him when he cast her in Greenberg, which he cowrote with his then-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Years later, after Baumbach’s divorce from Leigh, Gerwig and the director got together.
Given Gerwig excels at playing characters who have tended towards the delusional – struggling to claim their power – I admit this has made me struggle to imagine her in charge of a big Hollywood film set. Is she good at taking command of the cast and crew? ‘Yes I am,’ she replies. ‘I mean, they all want to do what you say. It’s not like I’m teaching a class full of kids who are resistant to learning algebra. They are people who would like to please me.’ She directs by trusting her own instincts, adding, ‘When you rehearse, you’re hypnotising everyone into dreaming the same dream with you. So by the time you shoot the film, they wouldn’t do something way off base because you’re all in the same dream.’
Still, it can’t have been easy trying to hypnotise Meryl Streep, who plays Little Women’s formidable Aunt March. ‘Oh, I was terrified as a director, because what am I going to say to her? She’s so smart and she knows more about how films are made than anyone. There were a couple of lines I wrote to get a character from A to B, inelegantly, and you know when Meryl asks, “Now why do I say that?” you’d better have a f*cking good answer. It’s intimidating, but it forces you to be better. Unfortunately, it’s uncomfortable to get better, because it means you have to look like an idiot in front of her. But she’s fabulous.’
Timothée Chalamet, who first met Gerwig while reading for Lady Bird and who also stars in Little Women, calls to confirm Greta’s presence as a director. ‘She has a way of talking with actors that is uniquely insightful. That’s perhaps because she’s an actress herself, but also because she has this intuitive way of speaking about movies, about acting and about the direction of a story.’
Gerwig says she likes to be collaborative with her actors. ‘I think there are some directors who wish they could clone themselves 200 times to do every job on set themselves, but I like people bringing things and surprising me. You want them to see the film and feel like, Well, that is what I gave you. You didn’t misuse my gift.’
An hour later and she apologises again, because now she has to wriggle herself into a dress for Baumbach’s premiere of the similarly Oscar-tipped Marriage Story. ‘It’s a nice coincidence that Noah’s premiere was here and we’re able to hang out, because in this job you’re either working all the time or not at all,’ she adds, shedding light on their relationship, which is the subject of no small fascination in their hometown of New York. (Baumbach recently revealed the secret to their relationship: ‘I want to impress her all the time.’)
Gerwig and Baumbach work together because ‘writing with someone is more fun than writing alone, but we’re not in the same room,’ she explains to me. ‘We’ll talk together a lot at first and we’ll try to make each other laugh, but when we write, we write separately and then we trade. We’ll have an idea for a scene and I’ll say, “Well, I’ll take a crack at that,” see how far I can get and then give it to him and he’ll edit it or have ideas. Or vice versa.’ The pair are currently writing the script for a Barbie film, starring Margot Robbie as the doll. A feminist, intellectual Barbie full of dry wit or existential angst, I’m guessing – does the toy company Mattel know what it’s letting itself in for? ‘The worst they can do is fire us from the film!’ Gerwig laughs.
As for motherhood, she says, ‘Babies are in a hallucination the whole time and when they make eye contact with you, there’s this kind of joy – Oh my God, someone else is in here, too! – and then they go away again into their hallucinatory world. That’s pretty interesting to be around. He’s a good little baby – I could look at his face all day.’ She then adds, humorously, ‘I really like him,’ as if it could have gone either way.
The couple chose to not publicly reveal his name, though she tells me off the record (it’s traditional, not Hollywood wacky), but she is keen to stress that she and Baumbach have paid help. ‘There’s no way I could do it without that help, as well as my mother and my friends,’ she says, muttering, ‘3:50, 5:25, 6:45…’ to herself before adding, ‘Sorry, I’m just doing the math of when I can do the next pump.’ She tells me she has also given her son breast milk from a friend who is also nursing and thinks it’s the natural way. ‘We should all be breastfeeding each other’s children, because it builds up the immune system.’
While Gerwig says she is far too new to motherhood to hand out any more wisdom, she admits that: ‘Whatever you were prepared for, none of it is how you think, as far as I can tell. There has to be a certain amount of denial that goes on. After my friends threw me a baby shower I got given nursing bras and, while putting stuff away afterwards, I remember thinking, I’ll keep my regular bras out as well because I’ll use those sometimes, too. Like when? When is the time if they’re eating every hour and a half? You have to believe that, alongside your new life, your older life is going to continue – and then you realise with stunning clarity that that’s not true. I think you have to not know that, to be able to do it.’
She claims that she’s not as optimistic as her sunny disposition suggests. ‘I’m always in the middle of some kind of deep, necessary self-doubt. I am extremely stressed and neurotic but I think what I have always had is a sense of: It’s so amazing to me that this is what I get to do and I can’t believe I’m here, anyway. But it’s not for lack of stressing. I do agonise.’ Happily, film sets offer the perfect solution. ‘It’s a timed art form. It costs so much money that every second you spend doing one thing is a second you don’t spend doing something else. You’re just living in a panic attack for weeks, but it’s marvellous.’ As for the promo and the awards, she admits she loves them. ‘It’s wonderful when people tell you how great it is, but that doesn’t really change you making the next thing. You’re in a dance with yourself in some way that is really untouched by the world’s approval or disapproval.’
Then she’s getting her make-up and hair touched up by the shoot crew, who she already seems to have made firm friends with, and she invites me to come in the taxi so we can keep talking. As she gets out and hugs me goodbye, I notice something glimmer on her wedding finger. Is that an engagement ring? ‘Oh yes, it is, but I’m not married yet. I’ve had this for years. It’s a chastity ring,’ she says, adding, with a wicked glint in her eye: ‘It failed miserably.’
This interview appears in the February 2020 issue of ELLE. On newsstands January 9.
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