Gerwig sees 'Damsels in Distress' as relevant comment on campus life

Greta Gerwig, left, and Analeigh Tipton play college coeds in “Damsels in Distress” KERRY BROWN / Sony Pictures Classics
Greta Gerwig, left, and Analeigh Tipton play college coeds in “Damsels in Distress” KERRY BROWN / Sony Pictures Classics
Posted: April 22, 2012

Somebody showed Greta Gerwig an early review of Damsels in Distress, the new Whit Stillman lark in which she stars — and in which she leads an ersatz Hollywood musical dance number — and the actress was not happy.

“I really love musicals, and I was thrilled that I got to take part in a song-and-dance number,” explains Gerwig. “But I actually was upset — it said that no one was very good at dancing or singing, and I was like, well, I think I’m good. I wasn’t given a chance to really do it. I got defensive — criticizing my tap dancing and singing! I’ll show them one day!”

In fact, Gerwig’s character in Damsels — which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse — isn’t supposed to have the grace and glide of Ginger Rogers. Violet may think that she does, but she’s living in a bubble of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement — a college student who dispenses advice about boys, clothes, society, and books as she leads a trio of roommates (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton) around campus, taking note of everyone else’s flaws.

She’s a typical Stillman creation — odd and a little off, smart, funny, and fun to behold.

“I was a very big fan of Whit and his films, and the one episode of Homicide that he directed,” Gerwig says of the writer/director of a trio of sly, talky, ’90s comedies of manners — Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco. (And demonstrating her Stillman trivia chops, too.)

“My agent got wind that there was a script being circulated that Whit had written. … Those kinds of things are always exciting — when your agent says, ‘I know you love Whit Stillman and you’ll never guess, he’s got a film and we’re going to try to get you in to meet him.’?”

Obviously, Gerwig got in.

Damsels in Distress is set on the leafy grounds of the fictitious Seven Oaks College (actually an old retreat for naval officers on Staten Island), and, characteristic of Stillman’s work, it is populated by people who don’t speak like your average Joes or Janes. Gerwig, 28, came out of low-budget, improvised indies — films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead, which earned the label mumblecore — and she had to adjust to the exact and eccentric dialogue Stillman had crafted for her Violet.

“The only real preparation for working on a Whit movie would be maybe working on Oscar Wilde or something,” she says, on hew new iPhone calling from New York (her old one died). “It’s challenging and wonderful and difficult to make it sound like it’s yours.”

Gerwig says that at the first of the table reads, before production had started, she found herself struggling. “It felt in a way like I was preparing for a race. I would always start out pretty good, but then it would be like I got winded. Not literally winded, but I would run out of steam for the character. … I would start off strong and feel like I was kind of distinguishing the points she was making, and finding it, but it was so tiring that by the end it was all running together. So I had to take whatever initial spark I had, or instinct, and then just train myself to keep that going and make it work.”

Although there’s archness and artifice in Damsels, Gerwig, who studied philosophy and theater at Barnard, believes that at its core, Stillman’s movie really is relevant to what’s going on campuses today.

“In an obscure way, I think it does relate to people’s experience, but it’s not literal,” she says. “My college days were quite different.

“But I do think Whit hits on something that feels authentic, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily like the world. It’s authentic, but it doesn’t have veracity — I think that’s the word I’m looking for.

“It’s not cinema verite. … He deals with things that are rather serious in a very funny, lighthearted way. But I think the themes of truthfulness and self-invention and depression and suicide — those are not light themes, and there’s something about the way he deals with them that I can feel is real in a deeper sense.”

Gerwig has been on a run. After landing opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s spiky 2010 entry Greenberg, the New York-based actress tried her hand at mainstream studio fare, with significant roles in Arthur and No Strings Attached. This year, on the heels of Damsels in Distress, Gerwig will be seen in the lead of Lola Versus and To Rome With Love, the new one — set in Rome — from Woody Allen.

About Lola Versus, opening in June: “She’s a girl in her late 20s, and it’s about a tumultuous year of her life. And it happens that I got this script almost exactly when one of my best friends went through something just incredibly similar. … It is very rare to find a script that really is about the female lead character.

“Usually when those scripts exist, there are at least 20 other girls ahead of me in the pecking order.”

About To Rome with Love, which also stars Penélope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin, and Allen: “I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about it yet,” Gerwig says, laughing. “I haven’t seen it … and who knows, I might be cut out of the film.

“Well, I think I can be sure that I’m in it, at least a little,” she adds. “But I’m very superstitious.”

The life of Marley Kevin Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, had originally planned to do a fictionalized feature exploring the huge impact Bob Marley has had on the worlds of music and popular culture in the 30 years since he died.

That project didn’t come together, but as Macdonald was doing research, he got to know some of the people who worked closely with the Jamaican reggae star, responsible for such hits as “No Woman No Cry,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “Exodus.” The singer, songwriter, musician, and devout Rasta died at age 36 of a long-untreated cancer.

And so Macdonald got the job — and the music rights, and the concert footage, and a wealth of Marley video and audio interviews — to make a documentary. Marley, a revealing 2-hour, 20-minute look at the dreadlocked music icon who has sold millions more recordings since his death than during his lifetime, opened Fridayat the Ritz at the Bourse.

“His afterlife is so fascinating, and I think it’s unique as well,” Macdonald says, on the phone from Curaçao, where he had just screened his doc at a film festival. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the music firmament who comes close in terms of the variety and breadth and importance of his legacy. … With Marley, it’s the style, it’s the dreads, it’s the association with Jamaica, and it’s the way he speaks to people in the developing world. People know him — where they would never have heard of the Beatles or the Stones in India, they’ve heard of Marley. And he speaks to people in this way that is more than just musical. It’s spiritual.

“And of course on top of that he’s a symbol for potheads, for student rebellion. He’s the other face on the wall, the other poster, besides Che Guevara. So it’s a huge range of influences he’s left behind.”

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, “On Movies Online,” at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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