Humanity runs through all of Greta Gerwig’s roles. And that’s the element she’s most excited about in what is shaping up to be a crowded awards race.
“They’re movies made by people, about people,” Gerwig said of some of the year’s biggest contenders. “And that seems political and important even just by itself. And, well, I’m just happy to be part of it.”
“I live for this shit,” Gerwig said. “If I didn’t get to act and write and direct, I would do as I do know, which is go [to the movies]. My status as a fangirl has, in some ways, only grown. I just love being around it.”
It’s a sentiment that is often tossed around during awards season – “it’s such an honor to even be nominated!” – but the star of “20th Century Women” and “Jackie” means it. “When beautiful things that are life-affirming and complex and interesting and important are given credit, it’s a really special thing.”
For Gerwig, those “beautiful things” include her work on Mike Mills’ and Pablo Larraín’s films, which both offered her the chance to play real women on the big screen. The California-born actress is no stranger to the awards circuit. She earned accolades for her acting and writing on “Frances Ha,” “Greenberg” and “Mistress America,” and 2016 showcase her best performances to date.
But she’s quick to mention other standouts, like Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women.” And she’s especially in awe of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
“I’ve known Barry Jenkins since I was 21 years old,” Gerwig said, tearing up. “And I’ve always loved him, I always thought he was so talented. And to be with him at the Governors Awards in L.A., sitting at a fancy table, looking at Jackie Chan accept an award, I just thought, ‘How lucky are we? How lucky is this?'”
When Gerwig directs the conversation to sing Jenkins’ praises, along with other rising stars like “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” breakout Janelle Monae and “Certain Women” MVP Lily Gladstone, her position as a self-professed “fangirl” seems genuine.
Here’s how Gerwig navigated playing these rich roles.
Both of her juicy 2016 roles are inspired by real people. In Pablo Larraín’s unique biopic “Jackie” she plays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s childhood friend and eventual White House Social Secretary Nancy “Tuckie” Tuckerman, who is a well-known, if press-shy Kennedy player.
And she plays the richer character of the freewheeling photographer in Mike Mills’ warmhearted family drama “20th Century Women.” Mills based the character of Abbie on his own sister for the autobiographical film.
But circumstances compelled Gerwig to approach each role in a different way.
Playing Abbie was “one of the most wonderful times I’ve ever had on a film,” she said. Based on his wild and weird coming-of-age in seventies-era Santa Barbara, the film follows awkward teen Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he learns about life from the women assembled around him, including his mother (Annette Bening), the girl next door (Elle Fanning) and the artistic boarder who introduces him to a new kind of culture (Gerwig).
Finding someone who could embody Abbie’s creative spirit was paramount to Mills, who credits Gerwig’s own varied ambitions for bringing Abbie alive for him. “I think of her as a writer, director, a maker,” Mills told IndieWire. “A lot of great actors, I can’t imagine them being a photographer, I can’t imagine them being involved in that culture, so she just fit the gestalt of the person.”
Although Mills seemed to be set on Gerwig early on, the actress worried she wouldn’t get the part, if only because she wanted it so badly. It was a familiar feeling. “I really wanted to play Abbie, but I also know that you mostly don’t get to play the parts you wanna play,” she said. “It’s just the state of being an actor, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Julia Roberts or me, I think you miss out on some things that you like.”
Mills laughed when we asked him why Gerwig was the right actress for the part. (It’s Greta Gerwig, of course she was right for the part!) And critics agree. Gerwig has already snagged a Critics Choice nomination for Best Supporting Actress for a performance that combines humor and heart alongside wrenching drama.
“I find Greta so deliciously, generously transparent,” Mills said. “You know what she’s feeling, and it’s very vivid and very real. It doesn’t feel like an act, it feels like it’s coming from some very real place.”
One Thing at a Time
When choosing roles, Gerwig follows one mandate: focus on the project at hand. “Usually, I tell my agents when I’m working on something I don’t wanna hear about anything else,” the actress explained. “It feels like a betrayal of the project, [it] feels kind of callous to me. I’ve probably missed some jobs that way.”
She added with a laugh, “I got the call about ‘Jackie’ while I was making ’20th Century Women.'”
Fortunately for Gerwig’s other big 2016 contender, that particular stance does leave a little wiggle room for Gerwig’s handlers.
“There’s a list of filmmakers that I say, ‘If they call, I don’t care what the part is, I will do it.’ And Pablo Larraín was on that list,” she said. “And they said, ‘We know you don’t wanna hear about this, but, weirdly, Pablo Larraín is directing a movie in English, and he’s interested in you.'”
Gerwig said ‘yes’ immediately. While Gerwig had a hefty amount of prep time for “20th Century Women” – nearly six months, a unique luxury — she had to almost immediately pivot into “Jackie” and the character of Nancy Tuckerman.
Tuckerman is notoriously tight-lipped, so Gerwig never met her, instead opting to tear through books about Jackie Kennedy to better understand Tuckerman’s world. Gerwig also found Tuckerman’s disinterest in sharing her stories to be essential in its own way.
Although it’s never stated outright in Larrain’s film, Jackie and “Tuckie” went way, way back. The pair initially met in kindergarten, and later rekindled their friendship in their teen years as debutantes and roommates at Miss Porter’s Boarding School. Tuckerman was a bridesmaid at the Kennedy wedding. A decade later, she came on board as the White House Social Secretary.
“Her silence was pretty informative to me,” Gerwig said. “She never wrote a book, she never gave an interview, she never talked about Jackie or Jack or any of it. And that was incredibly rare. Everyone who was even sort of close to a sneeze that the Kennedys had made gave an interview or wrote a book about it.”
Gerwig was taken by the details of Tuckerman and the First Lady’s enduring friendship. For example, Tuckerman wrote the press release when Jackie Kennedy passed away. “In their yearbook in high school, there’s a question, like senior questions,” Gerwig explained. “It says, ‘Where are you most likely to be found?’ And Nancy wrote, ‘Laughing with Jackie,’ and then Jackie wrote, ‘Laughing with Tuckie.’ Doesn’t that make you just so happy?”
“Jackie” is currently in limited release with further expansion to follow, while “20th Century Women” hits theaters on Christmas Day.