How ’20th Century Women’ Star Greta Gerwig Found the Dance in Her Character: Awards Spotlight

Mike Mills' love letter to the women who shaped his teenage years features Gerwig in her boldest, most emotionally rewarding role yet.

Greta Gerwig

Daniel Bergeron

In Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” actresses reign supreme. Starring Annette Bening as Dorothea — based on Mills’ own forward-thinking mom — and Elle Fanning as the girl next door who enchants teenage Mills surrogate Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the lightly autobiographical film is packed with big turns from some of our hardest-working leading ladies, though it’s Greta Gerwig who emerges with some of her best work ever.

As Abbie, the punk-loving photographer tenant who lives just down the hall from Jamie in his and Dorothea’s groovy Santa Barbara home, Gerwig gets the chance to show off her trademark charm and effervescence, with a healthy dose of pathos and emotion. As quirky and fun-loving as Abbie is — and she is! she teaches Jamie about music and dancing and being himself! — Gerwig taps into the character’s darker side with apparent ease.

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It’s a role that’s already garnered her plenty of awards attention, but it’s not the kind of work that strives for that. It’s not big or showy or over the top, but gorgeously lived-in and real. It’s an honest performance and it’s honestly great. As Gerwig explains, finding Abbie took some work, though it was well worth it.

“I had to get very quiet to hear her,” Gerwig explained. “I needed to get very quiet and still to find where she was, and luckily, she came. Sometimes they don’t come, and then that’s worse. She arrived.”

Gerwig was aided immeasurably by Mills, who based Abbie partially on one of his sisters, but was adamant that Gerwig — and the rest of the cast — not feel beholden to the people that inspired their roles.

Gerwig credits Mills’ aim to make his actors “not be afraid to look foolish” as helping her find her Abbie, along with plenty of rehearsal time. And these weren’t just typical rehearsals, but free-wheeling and fun ones, including actual dance parties fueled by soundtracks informed by each character.

The actress is also in awe of her co-star Bening, who she says always showed up to work with “extreme, almost Olympic levels of present-ness,” the kind that allowed her to be “completely unpredictable.”

For Gerwig, one thing is obvious: Bening has just “got it.”

A true film buff and a lover of the form, Gerwig is only too happy to spout off a long list of her favorite films, from to “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Rio Bravo” and “Brief Encounter.”

READ MORE: For ’20th Century Women’ and ‘Jackie’ Standout Greta Gerwig, Playing Real Women Is Its Own Reward — Consider This

Check out Gerwig sounding off on her favorite films of all-time below. It’s basically a primer for must-see cinema.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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