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Greta Gerwig on Russell Brand, What’s Wrong With Romantic Comedies, and How to Build the Perfect Pandora Station

Greta Gerwig stars in two romances this spring: the big-studio-produced Arthur with Russell Brand (out April 8), and Allison Bagnall’s beautifully acted indie The Dish & the Spoon, which just premiered at SXSW. We met up with Gerwig in Austin to talk about the lack of romance in today's romantic comedies, how she craves the “bigness” of emotion in films like Say Anything, and why Russell Brand could be a cult leader.

It’s so nice to be out of the city, isn’t it?
Yeah. You know, Allison [Bagnall] and her husband have a farm in upstate New York and when we started working together — we were writing something together which wasn’t The Dish & the Spoon — we’d go up there in the morning and work on the farm and write the rest of the day. You don’t get the chance to do that in Chinatown. There’s a bus nearby for gamblers headed to Atlantic City, though.

Is that a new addiction?
Oh, no! But when my friend turned 26 her boyfriend took her to Mohegan Sun and gave her mushrooms. She spent some time lying down on the floor, staring at the carpet, terrified. She was wandering around in the parking lot.

Those carpets are very strange: They’re divided by season.
There’s a weird carpet in one of the big Sacramento multiplexes. It’s all squirrels. It’s sort of an M.C. Escher squirrel carpet. I think that’s one of the benefits of growing up somewhere where there’s nothing cool to do: You notice things like squirrel carpet and you hang out in 24-hour grocery stores. That was what we did. A lot. But that’s not the point of the interview!

Okay, on to the film: You play a distraught woman who’s furious that her husband has cheated on her and then meets this almost magical young man. Your co-star Olly Alexander was an incredible new discovery, and you two really seem to have clicked.
Sometimes when you have chemistry with a person, you have it because there’s this desperation that you want to get something from them — whether it’s sexual or an energy — and Olly and I had an easiness and a desire to be around each other that wasn’t needy. It didn’t have something that felt like it stole power from the other one. It felt very pure. And Alison saw the film as something that was more pure than what you have in adult romance, which is going off and having sex and then trying to figure it out. I can’t — it’s so strange because I have been in movies where there has been very explicit sex, but I think as a person I relate more to childlike crushes. I have a very deep understanding of what that is. And it was great to play it.

It seems like people just jump into bed faster and faster in rom-coms now.
It’s strange. I think sometimes people confuse women’s lib or women being powerful and owning what they are with sexual promiscuity, and it’s interesting how it works in movies: “Yeah, let’s go, fuckbuddy, I don’t care … ” I don’t think it’s true of men, really. I mean, maybe it’s true of us all at some point or another, but I don’t really think that’s most people’s deepest truth.

But there’s this huge boom of films about women who are just as sexually aggressive as the men now, right?
I was in one! And I loved doing it. I have walked down that road — but you know, I thought about the last movie that just truly made my heart jump out of my chest and make me feel so in love with love and characters — it was Brokeback Mountain, to be honest. It was unabashed. He takes that shirt out at the end, and says, “Jack, I swear … ” It’s so big! It’s romance and I don’t think I’ve seen anything that pure in a long time. I want that romance from the movies. I’m all for the banalities of life and humiliation and everyday tragedies, but I also think people have big moments and they have bigness in them. And they want to see that bignesss. I want to see it.

Has that been on your mind a lot lately?
Well, I made a Pandora radio station out of “Africa” by Toto. Which turns out is the best radio station in the world, because it’s a lot of Don Henley “Boys of Summer” — a lot of stuff that’s epic and unapologetic and totally synthed out. I find it all very moving. And of course, “In Your Eyes” played and I felt like I had to watch Say Anything right now. But it wasn’t on Netflix Instant, so I found it broken up into ten parts on Spanish Yahoo. I guess that’s sort of where I am right now.

And your next romance is with Russell Brand in Arthur. Did you two improvise off each other?
Russell’s always improvising, and I don’t mean this disparagingly at all. He’s always performing. It’s like he’s reading words off a screen in his mind. I got used to it — but not totally. I had this feeling that when he paid attention to you and put his attention on you, the sun was shining on you and it was so warm and good. And then he’d take it away and you’d just want it back again. And I think he really did have that effect on everyone around him, which is why I’ve always said he could be a cult or religious leader.

Photo: Skip Bolen/WireImage