The film Frances Ha, written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, is often gorgeous to watch and painful to behold at once. Shot in black-and-white, it softens the edges of New York in the way Woody Allen’s Manhattan tenderly captured the city, while its heroine, 27-year-old modern dancer Frances, makes so many missteps with her life it feels like reliving the worst moments of your twenties.
Gerwig, who portrays Frances’s delayed coming of age as she flits from Prospect Heights to Chinatown and back again, is responsible for much of the beauty of this film. She is captivating and funny even when it hurts to watch her become alienated from her best girlfriend, threatening any chance of romance or a fully realized career.
By phone, Gerwig is just as charming. In a quick interview with BB, she described her first foray into writing and acting as a punk rock Dorothy, a possible collaboration with Lena Dunham involving Pilgrims, and her thoughts on intense female friendships.
In an interview with Lena Dunham you said “Acting is such an important part of expression for me, but I also feel it is not ‘it’ for me.” Do you still feel that you are not 100% an actress?
I mean, it’s complicated. I clearly dig acting and it’s clearly something that I do, but I think that as a person…I’ve always been jealous of people who seem to be single driven, like they’ve always known that they have to be a novelist or they have to be an actor, they have to do this one thing…and I feel like in my core my calling is that I like doing lots of things, and maybe my fate will be jack of all trades, master of none, but at least I’ll be following what’s actually in my heart.
When I was making theater in high school and college, it was really the collaborative stuff that I found my voice in.
Like when I was a senior in high school I was cast in The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy and my mom was like, why would they cast you as Dorothy? Especially at that moment because I had my hair cut like Ani DiFranco, and I dressed like her. And then we found out it was because the director of the play wanted us to rewrite it and add jokes, and make it weird…We would be doing almost a play within a play. Like it’s a Catholic high school putting on The Wizard of Oz so we all have our Catholic uniforms on but then over it I’m wearing red sparkly Converse.
It was the first time I felt myself really come into my own, and I was saying jokes that I had written, and some of them were really silly, but I felt like they were mine. And it was the first time that I felt like I had anything unique to say and I felt like I am the best person for this particular job and I think that whenever I’ve been involved collaboratively as a writer and actor and in costumes and sets and the whole thing, I’m much more fully realized than when I am just singularly focusing on one thing.
Are there any actresses you identify with—women whose work you admire or who you would like to be?
So many but not all of them are actresses. Emma Thompson has always been one of my favorites because she does write a lot of her own work and as an actor she’s an incredible technician. When she’s acting it’s like watching a sprinter run. It’s full of joy.
I like so many actors and performers but [I don’t want to emulate] all of them… like I like Carole Lombard but I don’t particularly want to die in a plane crash.
I’m really interested to see what Tina Fey does for the next 20 years, and Amy Pohler. I mean I’m often looking at women who are in comedy probably because they’re the ones who tend to make their own work.
But I have so many people I love. I love Gene Hackman. He’s probably my favorite actor. And I don’t see a very large chance of me becoming him.
The friendship between Frances and Sophie is such an honest portrayal of an intense female friendship that is borderline obsessive. Do you feel like that’s a relationship that is only possible in your 20s?
No, I don’t. And I actually have thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been talking about the film. I think in some ways it reaches its apex in college because the separation between your selfhood and who you are in a group is so unclear and I think that it’s easier to meld into another person’s identity when you’re in college because there’s less separation. And I think that as you enter your twenties, people start forming their own identities that don’t have to do with the group or with a two-person world. And I think that’s really painful.
I think though, that sometimes for women…there’s a way in which career, potentially romance or family can pull you away from your really intense female friends in your 30s, 40s and 50s, but I’ve found observationally among my mom’s cohorts who are in their 60s, that they really find each other again in their 60s and really reignite those close friendships and it’s different, but it’s like they have space for it again.
Frances is also very emotionally unavailable to men. Have you also gone through similarly undatable periods?
I think Frances says she’s undatable almost as a boast, especially at the beginning of the movie, like ‘No one can handle me, I’m just so crazy and can’t be pinned down!’ And I think as the movie continues it becomes more like, maybe this isn’t necessarily the best way to conduct the rest of my life.
I’ve definitely gone through phases where—and this is something Noah and I talked about while we were writing it—we’ve had periods where I’ve been in a relationship or…he was in a relationship but really the main relationship was with your friends.
Just because you’re heterosexual, and just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean that’s the primary relationship you’re in, in your heart.
You’ve been very quiet about your current relationship with Noah—do you think you two will ever be more open about it?
Well, I’m not…I mean, we’re together. I just don’t give deets. [laughter] I don’t deny it, we just don’t really talk about it as a subject of conversation. Yeah, we’re definitely together. That’s just true.
What was the writing process like for Frances Ha? Did you both set out to make a film about the ambiguity and aimlessness of a person in their 20s? And what was it like writing collaboratively?
It was amazing. It really was the most fun experience of the experiences I’ve had making anything. I had gotten sidetracked by doing a lot of acting and I felt like I hadn’t been writing and I really felt like I had a lot of stored material inside of me that I needed to get out.
So when he asked me to collaborate on a script with him, I felt like I had a trunk full of stuff that I could open and we could start working with.
We’re very similar writers in that we really write to find out what the movie is, as opposed to deciding what the movie is and then writing it. There were moments that I had written down and that he had written down and that we talked about and then we started writing scenes to let characters talk, and it was finding what the story was underneath it. So we didn’t actually sit down and say it’s a story about friendship and ambition and growing up. It was more that we started writing characters and the story emerged out of who they seemed to be and what their struggles seemed to be.
Really the whole time it felt like we knew the movie we were making and it was the same movie. I’ve used this before, but I think it’s the best example: I’ve never been in a band, but it’s what I think it feels like to be in a band and be in a songwriting duo.
How do you feel about the film compared to your past work—do you feel like this is the truest expression or reflection of yourself as a writer and actress to date?
Yeah. Totally. When people like it I’m so grateful and so happy that they saw it and then I’m also like, ‘Good, because this is literally the best I can do right now. The best writing, the best acting…[and] if you don’t like this, you’re not gonna like what comes next!’
I mean I hope that I grow beyond this moment. I hope that in 10 years or five years I feel like, ‘Now this is the [best] expression of who I am as a writer and an actor,’ but I feel like if you get one every decade, that’s not bad.
What are you working on now?
Noah and I have some stuff that we’re cooking up. I’m not really supposed to talk about any of it because I’m much more loquacious than Noah is on the subject of future work and he likes to keep a tight lid on it so I try to respect that.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with Lena Dunham?
I would love to. I mean she’s very, very busy but I would love to do it. We’ve known each other for a long time, and we’ve worked with each other a couple of times but in really tiny things. But we have an idea…a comedy about lady Pilgrims. This was a couple of years ago and we never fully developed it. And our other friend we were talking about it with, she emailed me and was like, ‘I talked to Lena and she’s ok with it, do you mind if I explore the lady Pilgrim idea?’ and I was like, ‘Go for it!’
Can you give a brief overview of the Lady Pilgrim idea?
We arrive in Plymouth, or something like Plymouth, but the men have to go do something but they leave us there, and it’s a comedy of us trying to keep it together until the men come back. I forgot what the gist of it was, it was very weird. But it was a lot of comedy about trying to till the earth or something.
Are there any other things you still want to do with your career?
There’s a million things I want to do with my career. I want to write plays and write more movies, and direct movies and direct plays and act in things. I want to be in a Shakespearean play one day where I play Richard III but my deformity is that I’m a woman. I don’t know. I have all kinds of things that I want to do, but probably no one will let me or should.
You’re a huge fan of fashion. Are there any indie Brooklyn designers, local designers or stores that you like?
I’m a big fan of Rachel Comey. I love her stuff. I don’t know if she’s in Brooklyn but she’s definitely in New York and I really think she’s great. The store Bird carries her stuff and it’s really beautiful. I always go in there and I’m like, ‘Don’t spend money,’ then I always inevitably end up spending money.
Also I love the brand Suno, I believe they’re New York-based. And then there’s Built by Wendy, I love Built By Wendy. I’m also a real big fan of Geminola— Jemima Kirke from Girls, her mom is the designer. She makes beautiful dresses.
Where in New York City do you live?
I live in the West Village. I live in a Rom Com right now. I mean I have one of those streets that people have in Rom Coms where you’re like ‘How does she live in a brownstone, she’s a dog walker!’
I’ve always wanted to live in the West Village because it’s beautiful. It’s like your fantasy of New York. So I made the leap. It’s a tiny apartment but it’s very sweet and it makes me feel like I’m living the dream.
Frances Ha is screening at BAM, Cobble Hill Cinemas, Nitehawk, Williamsburg Cinema and more New York theaters.