Greta Gerwig is something of a millennial indie darling, known for her string of mumblecore films -- low-budget movies with an emphasis on naturalistic acting and dialogue -- that have become popular over the past decade. But it’s her work with director and boyfriend Noah Baumbach that’s pushed her to the front of the pack, thanks to a Golden Globe-nominated role in 2013’s Frances Ha and the well-received Mistress America in 2015.
“I really choose movies based on filmmakers more than anything else,” Gerwig tells ET about working with Baumbach. That’s also how she ended up starring in the charming Maggie’s Plan by Rebecca Miller and Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse spin-off Wiener-Dog, as well as appearing opposite Annette Bening in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, which is in theaters on Dec. 28.
When it came to 20th Century Women, about Dorothea (Bening), a single mother who turns to two younger women to help with her son’s upbringing, Gerwig made the decision to work with Mills over anything else. “I knew that I would probably love the script -- and then I did,” she says, adding that she had an instant connection with Abbie, a free-spirited punk artist with Manic Panic-dyed hair enlisted to help guide Dorothea’s son, Jamie. “I wanted to take care of Abbie and I was lucky that Mike wanted me to play her.”
Gerwig’s other notable project this year is Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. The enthralling biopic about the former first lady in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination sees Gerwig portraying social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. Not knowing that Portman and Gerwig had become friends on the set of No Strings Attached, Larraín asked Gerwig to be part of the project. While excited to work with the director, she felt compelled to get Portman’s permission to be in the film.
“It sounds like false modesty, but taking on the part of Jackie Kennedy is such a big undertaking,” Gerwig explains. “I didn’t want to be the person who was a distracting element. I didn’t want to take her out of it in any way.” Luckily for both, Portman was excited to have her on board, allowing them to channel their off-screen friendship into the two women.
While both projects, as well as Maggie’s Plan, are distinctly different, they do share a common element: a narrative with a complex woman at the forefront. 20th Century Women in particular features three distinct female characters at different points in their lives, which Gerwig says is rare.
“I can think of a handful of films this year that have that, but there’s not many,” Gerwig says, pointing to a lack of female filmmakers, who are also not honored as much as their male counterparts. (Gerwig’s conversation with ET, it should be pointed out, happened the day Golden Globe nominations were announced.) “And that’s partially because most of the people who are critics are men.” Even though both 20th Century Women and Jackie earned multiple Golden Globe nominations, including nods for their female leads, Gerwig laments that Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was harshly ignored. “They must find it hard to relate to stories about women because I can find no explanation why it isn’t up for Best Picture this year,” she continues.
While Gerwig has largely worked with male filmmakers, she did find an opportunity to step out on her own with the upcoming Lady Bird, a film she wrote and directed. “I really have always wanted to be a director, but I always had a feeling that I needed to learn more, get a little bit better or apprentice a bit longer,” she says, before changing her mind once she finished the script. “I thought, ‘You’re never going to know enough. You’re never going to be ready enough. And at some point, you’re just going to have to jump.’”
For Gerwig, the risk is well worth it. “Even if it goes terribly, maybe it will inspire another woman to direct a film,” she says, adding that the fight may be long, but there’s great work still being done every year.
And when it comes to her 2016, Gerwig says, “It’s a real representation of who I hope to be as an artist.”
“To me, the year is the closest to what I hope to continue to do, which is to ask for great directors, make my own things and keep going in ways that scare me,” she concludes.