Greta Gerwig, who stars in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, has made a name in indie films like Greenberg with a style that stands out for its naturalism. In Damsels, she inhabits the role of Violet, a bright, sweet, sincere college girl as only a bright, sweet, sincere former college girl could.
Gerwig tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the biggest challenge was that she was already a fan of Whit Stillman's previous films, Barcelona, Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco — and that actors working with strong auteurs sometimes have such a sense of the filmmaker's previous work that it takes some effort to approach the material fresh.
"He writes in such a specific rhythm," Gerwig says, "and he has such a strong voice that a lot of what I did was to try not to imitate the other actors who had done it so brilliantly before me. A lot of it was trying to find the words in myself, and not simply imitate what it was."
"I really try to come at it," she says, "like I've never seen any of his films before and I don't know what it's supposed to be like. It involves a lot of almost self-hypnosis."
Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento and attended Barnard College, says the influence of Woody Allen's films was one of the reasons she moved to New York. (She'll appear later this year in Allen's To Rome with Love.)
"I remember standing on the roof of Barnard College and not knowing which way was uptown and which way was downtown or west or east," Gerwig says. "I didn't know the city at all, but I was so happy to be in New York I cried. I was so excited."
Gerwig, 28 now, has more than arrived since then, thanks to roles in indies like Baghead and Hannah Takes the Stairs — and more recently in Hollywood comedies like Arthur. Her work has earned her — at least in Us Weekly -- the label "Hollywood's indie darling," which she finds both flattering and a little oxymoronic.
"As long as I can keep making films the way I have been," Gerwig says, "I don't have any reason to complain."
Several of her film projects are coming out this year, but she says she doesn't have a sense yet of what she will be doing down the road.
"I've never had a plan, I've always done things from instinct," she says. "I had dreams, but I didn't have the sense that they would necessarily work out. They seemed very far-fetched."
Now is the first time Gerwig has been in a position to wait on the right job — but she says that sometimes, throwing yourself into something is just as valuable.
"Getting bad reviews or doing something that's not great is also really good for you as an actor," she says. "It also makes me feel as an actor that I've earned my stripes a bit."
Gerwig says when she's met older actors, directors and writers — including those she admires — a common thread is that they've gotten bad reviews or done something they've regretted.
"Nobody gets away with it unscathed — everybody has their moments," Gerwig says. "It's both the price of admission and part of the joy of it that you're able to continue even when you do something dreadful."