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Flashes of a Healthy Ego: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke on “Mistress America”

At first glance, Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America” may not seem like all that dramatic of a departure for its star/co-screenwriter, Greta Gerwig. It marks the third film in four years that features the actress as a young woman struggling to make it on her own in New York City. That exact premise, according to IMDb.com, is also shared by Gerwig’s next film, Rebecca Miller’s star-studded “Maggie’s Plan” (set to premiere at Toronto), yet what makes “Mistress” stand out is its gleefully screwball tone. Baumbach and Gerwig clearly had a blast orchestrating the rat-a-tat rhythms of their script’s exuberantly witty banter, which has an energy and bite quite different from the whimsical naturalism of their 2012 gem, “Frances Ha.” Grounding it all is the wonderful lead performance from Lola Kirke (sister of Jemima Kirke from HBO’s “Girls”) as Tracy, a college freshman who befriends her much older soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig).

Displaying a chemistry as infectious offscreen as it is on, Gerwig and Kirke spoke with RogerEbert.com about powerful role models, the pressures facing women their age and the appeal of a healthy ego.

When I last interviewed Greta, she told me that she was working on a “top-secret project,” which turned out to be “Frances Ha,” one of my favorite films of recent years.

LOLA KIRKE: I saw it after we had finished shooting “Mistress America,” and I already had really good feelings about what our movie would be, but after seeing “Frances Ha,” I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t wait.” I love that film.

GRETA GERWIG: Me too—I mean, obviously. But I also feel so grateful that I’ve gotten to collaborate on these two films with Noah and create these really distinct and unique worlds and characters. Nothing I’ve done has given me as much pleasure as working on these movies. They take so much work, but there’s just something about doing it soup to nuts with that much integrity that makes it very hard to go back. It’s hard to feel satisfied by less.

Noah’s two films this year, “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America,” make a fitting double bill in how they both explore friendships with a generational gap. How have you encountered that tenuous line between youth and adulthood in your own lives?

LK: That’s a really interesting question. 30 seemed like such an older age to me when I was younger, and now all of my friends are somewhere in that world and there is an agelessness about them. What I like about these characters is that neither of them are married to being the age that they are. There’s a wisdom to Tracy and there’s a wisdom and youthfulness to Brooke as well. Greta has talked about how a 30-year-old has their 25-year-old self and their 10-year-old self in them. I also like how this movie is about people aspiring to be something more than they are, and I think that New York really lends itself to that aspiration.

GG: I didn’t have anything to do with “While We’re Young,” that piece of magic was made sans me. I read all the drafts, but I was more a friend of the regime. [laughs] I think that Brooke is really smart but she’s not educated. She didn’t go to college and she isn’t going to make it in the world any other way except through her street-wise hustle and her wits. For women, there’s still an added anxiety, almost in a Jane Austen sort of way, of passing out of the time where you’re marriageable. Powerful, wealthy men date women in their 20s, and Brooke has now moved out of that age. We always say that if Brooke had ten percent less integrity, she would’ve just married some dude she didn’t care about—

LK: She would’ve been fat and stupid and lazy and—

GG & LK: Rich.

GG: Brooke wants so badly to be on the other side, but you love her because she didn’t go that route and marry for wealth. Brooke thinks she missed her chance and was foolish, because she thought that she’d be young forever. I do think that there is a different pressure on women. This is generalizing, but I think that with men, professional anxieties tend to be more common. A lot of women in their 50s say, “I became invisible at a certain point.” In a place like New York, when there are so many young, beautiful, sexy people, that happens much earlier.

LK: While we were shooting the film, it was difficult for me to conceive of Tracy as being appealing in a sexual way, and I guess it had something to do with her costume…

GG: You would get mad every few days because we would make you wear so many sweaters. [laughs]

LK: It was like a cropped sweater with a very long flannel shirt underneath the sweater, which is very awkward. Tracy has that line where she’s like, “If I could get my look right, I’d be the most beautiful woman in the world.”

GG: That’s my favorite line the movie! And you know, Lola, I think that’s true of you. [laughs]

LK: [laughs] Thanks. I love that there is this part of Tracy that worries about her look, but she’s not really going to do anything about it.

GG: In a way, Tracy is like, “I see that people care about these things,” but she doesn’t know how she’s going to deal with them, so she kind of takes herself completely out of the game. She’s like, “I will wear giant blazers because I haven’t figured out what else I want to do. I will make myself a neutral palate to build from later.” But I like her flashes of a healthy ego. Every time I hear that line, it totally charms me because oftentimes female characters, particularly younger, ingénue-types, are somehow unaware of their own beauty or appeal. They’ll be like, “Huh? Am I beautiful?”, and I’m like, “You f—king know that you’re beautiful!” I love that Tracy knows that she’s beautiful, even if she hasn’t figured out what to do with it yet. 

But she has that inner sense of her beauty, which is most appealing of all. 

LK: Yeah, all of the characters in the film have this inner sense that they’re really great and no one has recognized it yet. 

GG: That scene between you and [Matthew Shear]—I just love that scene and the music that Dean [Wareham] and Britta [Phillips] wrote for it. It’s such a weird scene and I felt that the writing was the height of us just saying, “Let’s forego realism for a second, and find what these people want to say to each other out of the dark, weird corners of their souls, which is actually not as creepy as they might think.” I’m always writing lines like that and Noah’s like, “They don’t need to literally say what they feel,” but I think in this one, because we were doing this heightened screwball thing that kind of took over the movie, he felt like it could sustain something like that. It was also just a pleasure. It's exciting to write in a way that is just slightly outside of your wheelhouse, because you get so used to what you think it is you do. It’s like acting—no one wants to play the same part again and again.

There’s such a screwball ingenuity to that sequence set at the house of Brooke’s rival, Mimi Claire. How did that set piece evolve?

GG: We always knew that we wanted to do some big set piece at Mimi Claire’s house in Connecticut, and we eventually decided to begin with the pregnant women’s book club. I still love Tony’s line, “Holy s—t, those pregnant women are super-smart.” I had read an article in The Times about all these women who had MBAs from Harvard and Yale, and had PhDs in Russian literature. They had elected to be stay-at-home moms, but they would have book clubs that would be like graduate-level courses at the most elite universities. They weren’t like a chardonnay club. These women were so smart and they had so much to say. Once we knew that this was happening, we thought that it would be great to have a book club happening at Mimi Claire’s house when Brooke and her friends first arrive. One of the club members would be left behind and we would maintain the energy [from that club] throughout the whole sequence. We wrote the set piece so many different ways because there were so many directions that it could go. We really just kept refining it. The same was true of the actual shoot. It took a long time because there were so many moving parts.

Lola, this film is a revelatory debut for you as a leading lady. Considering your family has such a varied background in the arts, did they serve as an inspiration in terms of your chosen profession?

LK: It was definitely encouraged that we would all be creative as kids, which is such a privilege. I feel like a lot of people almost have to come out as an actor to their family.

GG: Which is the essentially the same thing as coming out as being poor.

As a writer, I can relate.

LK: Exactly! That’s why I’m really grateful to have the luxury of being supported in my endeavors.

GG: You always knew.

LK: I always knew that I wanted to act. I think that I was probably a really obnoxious/outgoing kid, and they were like, “Oh, she’s an actress.” It’s like when you see a two-year-old playing the drums and some guy’s like, “See, he’s going to be a drummer.” As far as being inspired by my family, there was always lots of art being made in the house by my siblings. My brother is a photographer, my sister Domino is a singer and my sister Jemima is a painter and now an actress. These are really powerful women, and they intimidated me, even though they were my sisters. They were bolder than I was, and they definitely were large factors in my conception of Brooke and Tracy. But the dynamic that Greta and I have was also very influential. I really do admire Greta and I’ve never met anybody quite like her. What’s similar about the relationship between Brooke and Tracy and myself and Greta is that Greta is at once on my level—we can laugh about the dumbest things ever—but is also revelatory herself in how smart and talented she is.

GG: I’ve paid her separately. [laughs]

LK: [laughs] We keep complimenting each other while sitting next to each other during interviews, and you kind of just have to take it.

GG: When Lola auditioned, she was so great right away. I saw a tape of her before meeting her in person, and I was so attracted to the tape. We auditioned a lot of girls, and many of them were playing it darker. There was something about the way Lola played the scene where the lines were funny but she wasn’t playing them for comedy. Just the way that she said the lines was funny. We had her audition ten times for the role of Tracy, since she’s the lead of the movie. If you’re not invested in her, you can’t care about what’s happening. She has to go on a journey of coming into her own power while doing something that may not be entirely ethical. She’s trying out different versions of being a woman and an adult in power, and she makes mistakes along the way. We needed to be on her side. One of the things that we realized over the course of auditions was that we didn’t want someone that didn’t want to be an actor. There are talented people who come in to audition, but acting isn’t what they really want to do. They don’t want to work at it, they’re not invested in it and you don’t want them on your movie set. Lola is very serious about her craft. She’s got skills and she also cares.

There were times Lola reminded me of a young Lili Taylor.

LK: Wow, thank you so much! That’s awesome. I love Lili Taylor.

GG: [in John Cusack voice] “All her songs are about you, Joe. Why are they all about you?”

LK: Which movie is that?

GG: “Say Anything.” 

LK: Oh yeah! Joe’s so hot.

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