Since she first appeared in Mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg’s 2006 film LOL — the prolific director’s second film — Greta Gerwig has helped to set the standard for what independent acting could be in the decade to come. While she’s been steadily amassing roles with depth and meaning in films by respected and diverse directors in the years since, it’s been just the last 12 months that most people have begun to sit up and take notice.
In 2007 she inhabited the titular character in Hannah Takes the Stairs, the film that is often seen as the final nail in the coffin of mumblecore, considering the involvement of many of the movement’s key players and the small number of films in the canon to be released subsequently. In the time since its release, her co-star Mark Duplass has gone on to win enormous acclaim in Hollywood, directing films like The Puffy Chair (alongside his brother Jay) and starring in Humpday, TV’s The League and this summer’s Safety Not Guaranteed. While the film’s director Swanberg and co-star Andrew Bujalski have remained in the underground, Gerwig has followed more closely in Duplass’ footsteps.
That success may have been inevitable to anyone who saw the film — Gerwig instantly won me over in an early scene in which she sits, naked and wrapped in a blue towel, on the edge of the tub as her boyfriend (Duplass) picks off the flecks of blue fabric that have stuck to her after her shower — it did not come instantly. Gerwig spent a few more years proving her worth in the Duplass brothers’ 2008 low-fi horror film Baghead and Nights and Weekends, a drama about a couple living far apart, which Greta co-wrote and -directed with Swanberg, instilling a frankness in the characters she played. Whenever she was on screen naked or in her underwear, the situation was almost desexualized. Whether it was because of the way Gerwig held her characters — they are always a little unsure, in both themselves and what they’re doing — or because of the way we’re conditioned to view thin, white, blonde women getting naked in film, she never seems to “play sexy”, despite the countless sex scenes she’s acted or her disarming physical beauty.
After Baghead earned a cult-like following, Gerwig dabbled again in genre cinema with the little-seen 2009 horror film The House of the Devil (find it on Netflix). Playing the sassy friend archetype to a college student hired to take on a strange babysitting job, the role was a small one that would pave the way for Gerwig’s breakout role as Florence in Noah Baumbach’s exceptional 2010 Greenberg. Cast as the love interest of Ben Stiller — who, like co-star Rhys Ifans, reigned in his comedy instincts for the low-key West coast drama about a washed up misanthrope — Gerwig once again used her character as a vehicle for insecurities. A naive and trusting assistant to a wealthy family, Gerwig told Vogue she imagined Florence to be “A girl whose thighs rubbed together when she walked, who was seven pounds overweight.”
This highly insular and specific idea about her character’s place in the world was fairly irrelevant in her next big-budget films. In No Strings Attached, she played alongside Mindy Kaling as the underused doctor pals of star Natalie Portman, while in the 2011 remake of Arthur she assumes the role of the standard Zooey Deschanel character — that of “free-spirited love interest who teaches the childish protagonist lessons about life and love”. Constantly adapting to new work and making a string of surprising choices, though, meant that these two fairly void roles simply added fodder to her resume, rather than totally derailing it as it could for other actresses.
This year already sees four new films on the horizon for Gerwig. First came The Dish and the Spoon, which was shot on a miniscule budget with a Canon 7D after writer/director Allison Bagnall found herself with funding for a film — which was to star Gerwig and John C. Reilly — that had fallen through. Intent on collaborating with Gerwig despite this road block, Bagnall wrote a small film about a woman named Rose (Gerwig) who discovers her husband’s infidelity and hides out in her family’s beachside shack with a young English stowaway (Olly Alexander) she discovers along the way, until she can seek revenge on her husband’s mistress. In the refreshingly tender film, Gerwig displays her wide range of emotion, alternating between furiously threatening her mortal enemy, tap dancing in an empty dance hall while Alexander plays her a tune on a piano, and chasing back a box of powdered donuts with the saddest case of beer ever to appear on film.
This weekend saw the widespread release of Damsels in Distress, beloved independent director Whit Stillman’s first feature in more than a decade, in which Gerwig plays Violet, the leader of an eager band of college students intent on both preventing suicide and depression in their female peers and “training” the men around them to be husband material. A dark comedy that evolves into a sweeping musical, the film is the first in a long while that allows Gerwig to be more playful in her characterization, not to mention one of the first that sees her playing off a group of equally talented rising female stars.
As for the rest of 2012, we can expect to see Gerwig in the new Woody Allen ensemble comedy To Rome With Love, in which she plays the friend of a sexually-charged visitor (Ellen Page) among an all-star line-up. The intellectual New York Jewish writer/director trend continues through 2013, when she will collaborate once more with Baumbach on The Corrections, a TV movie based on the Jonathan Franzen novel of the same name, in which three generations of a midwestern family reunite at Christmas during the turn of the millenium. Given Baumbach’s proclivity towards awful familial situations and Gerwig’s natural response to tense and harried women — not to mention another stellar cast — this looks like one to set our DVRs for.
Lastly, just yesterday the trailer for Breaking Upwards director Daryl Wein’s new romantic comedy Lola Versus was unveiled, which sees Gerwig revisiting territory she hasn’t explored since Hannah Takes the Stairs. Playing the eponymous character who is unceremoniously dumped by her fiance (Joel Kinnaman) in the opening scenes, Gerwig embarks on a sex-charged journey to find other romantic options, stopping for bottles of booze, bags of chips and trips to strip clubs along the way. Being billed as the next (500) Days of Summer, some expect the film to cement Gerwig as “the next Zooey Deschanel”, but it’s hard to imagine her playing a version of herself in a FOX sitcom in the near future.
If she were to be judged solely on her work this year, Gerwig would be viewed as a diverse and intriguing actress whose choices continually delight and challenge our ideas of what it means to be a screen beauty. Placed in the context of a short but already sweeping career though, it’s enough to set her in good stead for decades to come.