Greta Gerwig on How ‘20th Century Women’ Defies Male Fantasies of Female Characters
In Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Greta Gerwig is a red-haired punk who listens to the Talking Heads, takes photographs of her belongings as a sort of pre-Instagram self-portrait series, and is recovering from cervical cancer. In every way, Gerwig’s Abbie defies the stereotypes of female characters we often see in indie movies. She’s not the manic pixie dream girl nor the cool girl who falls for the older single guy, two clichés the character could have easily fallen into. Instead Gerwig gives a career-best performance as a woman full of contradictions.
The film, set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, follows three women, played by Gerwig, Annette Bening, and Elle Fanning, coming together to help raise a teenage boy (Lucas Jade Zunman). As they teach him about feminism and heartbreak, take him to punk shows, and expand his world-view, the women begin their own coming-of-age journeys.
When I sat down with Gerwig in New York, she praised Mills for writing such nuanced portraits of women who go beyond the typical male fantasy of female characters. She also spoke about the complexities behind Abbie’s sexuality, how she wants Moonlight to sweep the Oscars, and her role in Pablo Larrain’s haunting Jackie, which she filmed in Paris just a day after the city’s 2015 terrorist attacks.
Abby feels like such a Greta Gerwig character to me. Was there anything about her that you immediately connected with?
I just loved the whole script when I read it because all of the characters are complex and interesting, but there’s three women in it who are not clichés. They don’t just exist to perform a narrative function, which is generally what movies ask of female characters. I just thought that they were full of contradictions and things that weren’t stereotypes and that was exciting to me. That’s always what I look for, things that I feel like they are human under there, it’s not just to fit a director’s fantasy or a writer’s fantasy.
Was that immediately on the page when you first read it?
It was on the page when I read it. Particularly with Abbie, there were these poles. There was this part of her that was kind of a reckless girl, who went to New York to go to art school and was a punk, and kind of angry, but also gleefully angry in the ’70s. It felt like she was living a more unconventional life. And then the part of her that deeply wanted to be a mother, which seems like those things don’t go together, but of course they do. It was based on, in some ways, Mike Mills’ sister. I talked to her a lot. She said this thing that I really connected with and also helped with Abbie. She said so many things that helped, but the kind of feeling of sexual power with men, or with women, and being promiscuous was in some way an expression of a maternal instinct for her. That she had some need to take care of them. It wasn’t just raw sex, in that way.
I feel like the complexities of sexuality are generally ignored. Elle [Fanning]‘s character is complex, Dorothea is complex. I think in a typical movie, Abbie would’ve wound up with Billy [Crudup]‘s character. But the truth was, he was the exact right person for her to have sex with. And not for any other reason than he would be gentle to her after she’d gone through cervical cancer. But she’s not supposed to be with him. But I think in the organizational structure of movies, it’s very hard to find examples of movies where a woman has sex with someone where it’s exactly right for the time, but it’s not right for all time. It either has to be a giant mistake, or right for all time. It’s hard to say, “No, it was right that we have sex right now, but not ever again.”
A lot of the film feels like a snapshot of a moment. It has less of an overarching narrative and is more about moments in these character’s lives.
Yeah. [Mills] doesn’t force the people to tell a fake story. I mean, he just lets them live, and we get to live with them. That’s why I loved making it, and I loved watching it because it feels and it felt very lived-in.
I wrote that in my notes.
Really? It does. Lived in. It feels inhabited. That’s really because of Mike and the way he works. He works with us individually over months to build up the characters. He had us all do all this rehearsal with a lot of improv and experimental theater games for a couple of weeks before we started shooting. So there was this sense that we all knew who our characters were, we all knew who we were in relation to each other. We were a real unit by the time we started shooting. And that’s rare. Most of the time you show up on set, nobody’s really talked to you.
What kind of improv did you all do on set while filming? Was there room to play with the dialogue?
Yeah, we did some improv. We didn’t do a ton of it, most of it was on the page. But we did do improv and sometimes he would tell us to ignore the lines and just say, “Play the meaning of the scene without playing with words in the scene.” We did a ton of that. Also, the woman who plays my mother in the movie, even though there’s very little of the two of us in it, we did extensive talking and improvisation of what their relationship was and building backstory. Because even though you only see her for one second, I think you can really, by osmosis, get the rest of it even if you don’t literally know what it is. So what was great about all of that was when we were ultimately on set, Mike would say, “Now ignore the words,” we knew our characters so well that we could improv in character, which is difficult.
Despite this movie being about a young boy’s coming of age, it’s so much about the women and their journeys. Do you see this film about mostly being about harnessing female energy regardless of gender?
I do. I think Mike is a real feminist and I don’t say that about many men. He genuinely was raised by women. Most of his close relationships and friendships are with women. But even given that, when he set out to write this movie, or really when he just interacts with the world, his primary position is as a listener, which allows him to be in the state of not knowing.
Even though he grew up around his mother and his sisters, and other women, he interviewed all of them. Because he never quite asked them, “What was your experience as mom?” or “What was your experience? When did you have sex or what was it like when you got your period, and who were you in love with and what was hard for you?” Not knowing the answers and being okay with that. I think that that’s his particular gift, being a listener. I think there aren’t a lot of men that are good at that. They kind of use their fantasy version of women, and he just doesn’t do that. I think he’s a person that’s figured how to harness whatever his feminine side is. I don’t know what that means. I guess that’s an attribute that we associate with femininity, but I think it’s a willingness to be vulnerable.
Which in a way kind of transcends gender.
Yeah, but we typically associate it with women. But it doesn’t have to be a woman, it could be a man. He’s special, that Mike. [laughs]
It makes me think of Elle Fanning’s great line, “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” What’s your perspective on that?
I think it takes people, whether they be men or women, who are willing to be vulnerable and show vulnerability and not have it be something that they hide. I was thinking about this because I’ve been talking about this [with] a different film. But the character in Moonlight, Mahershala Ali who plays the drug dealer Juan, who is that figure for Chiron. And he’s not a woman, he’s a man, but he is able to be present and vulnerable and he doesn’t have to make this kid believe that masculinity works only in the way of showing, demonstrating strength or invincibility. Which is really beautiful. It’s one of the most beautiful mentor or parental things when he holds him in the water and says, “I got you.” Whether it’s a man or woman, I think that’s what you need. Someone who doesn’t want anything from you that you can’t give.
Moonlight would make a good companion piece to 20th Century Women.
Both distributed by A24! [laughs] I loved Moonlight, I thought it was really beautiful. Really great. I hope it continues to win awards. Wouldn’t it be great if it won Best Picture? And Barry Jenkins won Best Director? And it was like, America is also capable of this, right?
I really hope so. I also want to ask you about Jackie. I loved your performance as Nancy Tuckerman. It took me a while to recognize you in that role.
Oh, good. It was funny because I shot 20th Century Women and then I shot Jackie and in both of them, I’m moving backwards in time. But between – I had my bright red punk hair and my punk clothes and then I went to Paris and had that teased out hair and the pearls and little heels. It was really, really fun. I love Pablo [Larrain], who directed it. The first movie I saw of his was No. I thought he was a great filmmaker so I saw his other films. But I thought I’d never do a movie of his because he’s Chilean and he makes mostly movies about South and Central America, and I’m not really in high demand there. [Laughs] I was just thrilled he was interested in me to make this movie.
I’ve been friends with Natalie [Portman], so we had that to draw on so we weren’t a creating a fake friendship in a week. I just loved doing it. It was incredible, the entire White House recreated on soundstages in Paris. Just all these extras dressed so beautifully. The whole thing was surreal, but it was really incredible.
I arrived in Paris the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, so the whole city was empty and traumatized. And then we’re making a movie about the JFK assassination in this city that’s traumatized. The whole thing was this strange hall of mirrors. It was very poignant to be making the movie there then.
You’re releasing your solo directorial debut soon, Lady Bird. What was the biggest difference for you directing and writing on your own compared to co-writing and acting?
Writing on my own versus co-writing kind of is the exact same thing because we don’t sit in the same room when we write. We’re always writing alone anyway. So the writing was the same. Directing, in some ways I would say it’s more nerve-wracking in the lead-up than it was actually doing it. Doing it was great, it was just that feeling of the unknown unknowns. I don’t know even what totally to be scared of, but in a way that’s what your secret power is as a first-time director. You don’t even know where it can all go terribly wrong, so you just keep going. And it was a great shoot. Now I’m editing it. So maybe next year [it will be released].
20th Century Women is now playing in limited theaters.