In Damsels in Distress, the new film from preppy auteur Whit Stillman, the main character Violet goes into a personal tailspin, questioning the very goals (which range from preventing suicide to inventing a new dance craze) that have motivated her in life. The movie takes place at a small, East Coast college campus, but it very well could be Hollywood—or at least, Greta Gerwig’s Hollywood. Although the actress, who plays Violet in the film, has smoothly transitioned from indie sensation to mainstream star—she’s already got a rom-com (No Strings Attached), an animated TV series (China, IL), and a Woody Allen film (the upcoming To Rome with Love) under her belt—there are still a few things causing this damsel distress. We spoke with the actress about what’s embarrassing her on the red carpet and why actresses like Faye Dunaway have all but disappeared.
ELLE: What was your initial reaction when you read the script for Damsels in Distress?
Greta Gerwig: I was a huge Whit Stillman fan, so I loved the movie. I knew I would—I was biased reading it—but I really did love it. I’ve never read a part like [Violet]; she was so particular, I thought, so exactly herself. And she’s such a contradiction! She’s a liar but she’s totally sincere, she has all of these opinions but she’s totally ready to be criticized by anyone who criticizes her. She’s sort of the Joan of Arc of perfume and tap dancing. And then Whit said later that he really related to her, which then I liked her even more, because I really like Whit.
ELLE: Violet does love to dance. Do you still remember how to do the sambola, the “international dance craze” she choreographs?
GG: Yeah, I do—Whit’s always trying to get us to do it at press events! We’re very like childlike about it. We’re like, “No, gosh, why we would we do it?” Adam Brody and I had to do it on the red carpet in Venice and we were so embarrassed. We did it for about a minute and then we stopped—we were like, We can’t keep doing this, we feel really stupid. It’s sometimes hard to know what [Stillman] is serious about and what is a joke, but I think he’s very serious about this.
ELLE: Have you found there to be a difference between working on a small budget film with a little-known director versus, say, Woody Allen?
GG: Acting is acting, so there’s a level on which making a tiny movie and making a huge movie, you’re still doing roughly the same thing. But the directors, it’s like I try to read them like I’m reading a tea leaf because I’m an actor, but I also write and I also want to direct more. I’m always looking to see if I can find a common temperament in them, or is there something they’re doing, or how do they go about this, how do they direct these scenes, what is it they’re looking for? I think more than anything else, you realize that [directors like Whit Stillman and Woody Allen] really have a very specific thing they’re looking for, and they’re not happy until they get it. This sounds pretentious, but art means a lot to me. It’s sort of the thing in my life, so to be close to it and people who make things that have really affected me is pretty extraordinary.
ELLE: Have these experiences altered the type of work you want to take on?
GG: Yeah, definitely. I do well with people who have strong voices and visions. In a lot of ways it makes me want to do it myself, which is not humble but it is honest. This is probably a product of the fact that I think about this stuff too much, but…I love writing and directing, but there’s also an element of thinking, do I want to do that because I’m worried that I’m not a good enough actor? Or, am I too scared to really go for the acting thing? Because I find acting so painful, the rejection feels really painful, and also it’s a really hard world. I’m so lucky to be employed as an actress, but it always feels like there’s someone ahead of you and it always feels like you’re not pretty enough or right enough or normal enough or thin enough. And your art is there and then it’s gone, it’s ephemeral, and if someone says they don’t like it, or you get a bad review, there’s only you. So they’re reviewing you. While certainly making a film you can feel equally vulnerable, but you’ve still got that film that you made, that you directed, that you wrote, and it has more of a sense of, at least you have this product. I love acting and I’ll keep doing it, but God, there’s nothing scarier. I don’t think there’s any profession that’s quite as plagued with insecurity, even amongst people who are successful at it.
ELLE: Did you realize this downside to being an actor early in your career?
GG: I feel it more intensely as the movies I’m in get bigger. It’s so tricky because you want to give everything to it, but then if you attach your self-worth to it, it gets a little inevitably disappointing. I met an actress whom I quite admire, and I said to her, ‘I think you were wonderful in this movie.’ And she said to me, ‘I feel like I’m terrible in everything I do and I think I’m an awful actress. Thank you so much for saying that.’ And I thought, this has got to be the weirdest profession, because if you told a businessman, ‘I think you run a really great business, Steve Jobs,’ he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, do you think so? Because I feel horrible about myself every day!’
ELLE: Do you think that pressure is even more intense for women in Hollywood?
GG: Totally, because everyone feels like the jig is up at 40. [It’s] like, ‘You’ve got 12 years, honey, what do you want to do with it?’ It feels like you better get good at something else, because it ain’t going to happen for that long. I think for some reason there’s more of an interest and tolerance for women in television getting older and doing interesting roles as they get older. But the film stuff…I love films, so it’s kind of sad to think of it. You think, like, where’s Faye Dunaway?