Greta Gerwig making moves in the movie industry

Actress Greta Gerwig, an icon of the ultra low-budget "mumblecore" movement in independent cinema, breezed into Chicago on a whirlwind 24-hour stop to drum up publicity for her new movie, "Damsels in Distress."

The musical (and almost romantic comedy) was directed by Whit Stillman and opened this weekend in Chicago, Highland Park and Evanston. In it, Gerwig plays a cool college coed with a savior complex, out to help out everyone at the school.

I spoke to Gerwig about her experiences acting in "Damsels" and in Woody Allen's new movie "Rome," which will open the Los Angeles Film Festival June 14.

Q. What's the major difference between acting for Mr. Stillman vs. acting for Mr. Allen?

A. They're similar, but Woody is much less precious about his words. He doesn't need you to say the words as written. He'll say, "If this isn't working for you, just throw out the script. Say whatever you want and get the gist of it." Of course, he has written jokes that don't work unless they're said exactly as written.

Q. What about Mr. Stillman?

A. Whit is a completely unique auteur voice in films. The thing about him is his careful attention to language and how much he cares about words and syntax and vocabulary. I think he expresses his cinematic ideas through dialogue. It's different from working with someone who's visually based.

Q. Is it true you wanted to play the leader of the pack Violet, but they had you pegged to play the role of Lily, the hot coed?

A. I really wanted to play Violet. I went in and auditioned. I tap-danced and I sang at the audition, neither one did they ask me to do. But I just decided to go for it because I really wanted the part.

Q. Did they know about your ballet training?

A. No, they didn't. I really wanted to showcase it so that there was no chance that they would not use me.

Q. So, you gave them the audition they didn't know they wanted to see?

A. I guess that's true. I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I loved Violet. I fell in love with her when I read the script. I was thrilled!

Q. How has your background as a competitive fencer factored into your acting career? Does it help?

A. I think sports help with the arts in general. There's a terrific economy you employ with your body when you're engaged in competitive sports. You don't do anything that you don't have to do. The point is to win.

And that's a good metaphor for acting in scenes. A lot of the time you think you should be doing something. In truth, most people do as little as possible at all times. I think taking that and applying it to scenes is psychologically very helpful.

Q. Any other applications for fencing?

A. Specifically with fencing, I think Whit Stillman wants to make a fencing movie, and this will be explicitly helpful with that.

Q. How do you treat your increasing recognizability as an actress? What role does celebrity play for you?

A. It's a little disingenuous when people say they didn't get into acting for that. If that were true, you wouldn't be acting in the movies. That means you have a desire to see people watch you on a large scale.

Personally, I have found any notoriety to be nothing but pleasurable. When people recognize me from a film, it's usually very loving and sweet.

But I'm in smaller movies. I'm not in huge blockbusters people would necessarily know.

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