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Video/Q&A: Greta Gerwig of 'Damsels in Distress'

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
April 09, 2012|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

In 2006, Greta Gerwig was living in Logan Square, making her first movie (Joe Swanberg’s “LOL”) and fighting off a heat wave.

“We didn’t have air conditioning,” she recalls, “so we had to just put a bowl of ice by the fan.”
The actress, recently seen opposite Ben Stiller in “Greenberg,” Russell Brand in “Arthur” and now starring in “Damsels in Distress,” opening Friday, doesn’t need to rough it anymore.

In the 4-star “Damsels,” Gerwig is hilariously vulnerable Violet, the leader of a group of college girls who preaches tap dancing as a depression-fighting technique and embraces unintelligent, unattractive men in hopes of improving them. The movie glistens with director Whit Stillman’s most pointed, brilliantly backward dialogue and serves as a feast for anyone fascinated by the way people behave both as individuals and as part of a pack.

At the Peninsula Hotel, 28-year-old New York resident Gerwig talked about reinventing herself in college, the Macarena and people who falsely identify as ex-nerds.

How much did making this movie remind you of your own college experience and the way you used tap dance to make yourself feel better?
I loved college, but [the film] didn’t remind me of my college experience in any real way. The psychology of it is correct although the set dressing is wrong. We didn’t have that aesthetic in college, but the idea of having a clique of girls that tend to all become like each other is something that I think is pretty universal. And also just that in college you’re able to transform yourself in a way that you were never able to before ... because in high school you go to high school with people that have known you since you were 6, so how mysterious can you be? But In college I think people really did reinvent themselves and totally they went by different names and started dressing differently and disavowed Dave Matthews Band. I did.

That was your big transformation?
I was like, “I don’t know whose jam band CDs these are. Not mine! I’ve never gone to a Phish concert.”

“I know all the words, but …”
I feel like mostly in college people’s CD cases get them in trouble. They did when there were CDs. I was at the end of CDs. I went to college from 2002-2006 so we had CDs, but now no more. No reason to buy a CD.

What was the most embarrassing CD you had at that time?
Oh, it was a book more than a CD but I didn’t bring it with me to college. I had Jewel’s book of poetry. That was really embarrassing. The CD was embarrassing but the book of poetry was the kicker.

Do you remember any of the lines?
I probably do but I would be very embarrassed to go into it right now.

In many of his movies, Whit Stillman has worked with this notion of the leader of the pack being not necessarily—

Sure. What do you think the movie is getting at with the passive-aggressive, arguable empty-headedness of the leader?
I think actually the leader of the pack—it is a situation of, “Physician heal thyself”—but I think she’s not empty-headed. And I do think that Whit really loves Violet. And I think of all the characters I think Violet is the closest to his worldview. I think he actually does think that tap dancing and musical theater and sharp dressing and perfume can make people feel better about themselves. That’s not satire for him; that’s totally 100 percent how he thinks. So even though she suffers from some of the things that she’s trying to correct for other people, she’s incredibly sincere about what she’s trying to do. She really does believe in all of it. And she really wants to help people. She’s not just trying to control them for the sake of controlling them. She really wants people to be happier.

The movie’s full of lines that at first you’re like, “What?” But then you think about them more. I recently mentioned to friends the line about how everyone’s flawed, so why should that mute us to the flaws of others?
“Should that render us mute to the flaws of others?” It’s true. So many of the lines when I read them I laughed because they were very funny but then as I was actually doing them I thought, “He’s actually right. He’s actually right about lots of things.” The one thing he said he doesn’t think is true is Violet’s idea is dating doofuses or sad sacks. He said that’s just her defense mechanism. That that’s actually not a good idea. That’s her trying to not actually fall in love and get hurt.

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