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Greta Gerwig on Damsels in Distress, Dorkiness, and Not Dating Frat Guys

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s out-there comedy about a group of college girls who run a suicide prevention center, opens this week. The movie stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, the ringleader of the do-gooder pack who encourages depressives (like herself) to work through their problems by taking tap lessons. It’s a quirky role for a singular actress, and when Vulture caught up with Gerwig at a Cinema Society screening of the film this week, we got to talking about being unconventional and the joys of head shaving.

Thanks! I’m thrilled and happy with the way it turned out. It’s always scary when you work with a filmmaker that you admire so much. You just want to not ruin their films. I’ve spent my whole life watching [Whit’s] films and loving them. Now I’m like, Oh shit, now it’s going to be my turn to ruin it!

Or to carry on the tradition of great films.
Or to carry on the tradition. Right, right, there’s always that possibility too.

There’s a lot of frat action in this film. Do you have any experience with that?
Frat boys? No. I went to Barnard College, so when you go to an all-girls school it eliminates the possibility of frat boys. I kind of missed that. Because even at Columbia, where we would socialize with the boys, it’s not really a fratty environment. The closest we got to frats was the Jewish frat. They threw really good parties and a lot of our friends were part of it, but it’s kinda nerdy.

Did you ever date a frat boy?
No. [Laughs.] Do you think frat boys would like me?

You never know. Isn’t that like the perfect romantic-comedy story line?
Hmmm, yes, I think Channing Tatum should date ME! No, not at all. I always veered toward the sexually ambiguous theater types.

So what were you like as a 19-year-old?
I was just an incredible dork. I was on the Parliamentary Debate team, so I was very much like Violet in that way. I had lots of opinions and I argued about them very loudly across the eastern seaboard. It was great. In a strange way, it was good preparation for a lot stuff that came later. It allowed me to speak on topics we were not informed on. That’s just good practice for life. So yeah, I was aggressively nerdy, but I always had a really great time. I’ve been lucky my whole life. I’ve always been strange but I always had tons of friends. So I’ve never been lonely.

There’s no reason why one can’t be quirky in groups.
Exactly. To me, being nerdy has never equaled being lonely. There’s lots of outcasts!

Did you ever go through a damsel in distress phase?
You mean like the perfume or a downward spiral?

Um, both.
Well, the downward spiral, sure. And the perfume, well yeah. I go through these phases where I really want to wear a lot of dresses and makeup and care about how I look because my mom is really good at all of that stuff and my role as the teenager was to be like, “I want to go to Ani DiFranco concerts and shave my head.” And she would be like, “I don’t know why you want to be unattractive.” So I think when I go home I embrace my mother’s whole “wear color and care about whether or not you have roots” and I think, You know, she’s right. I should care. But then about three months in I’m like, “I’m going back to Ani DiFranco!”

Would you ever really shave your head?
Michelle Williams once said something like, “Cutting your hair is like a disease.” That once you start cutting it you just keep cutting it until it’s all off. I’ve had that disease. So my main goal is to not cut my hair because I can’t stop and it would just be really, really short.

Does being such a skilled debater make you difficult to direct?
I think so! No, I don’t know, you’d have to ask directors. I don’t think I’m difficult; I think ultimately I’m a really good team player. But I do think that I have a personality as an actor and I always have an opinion about how I think things should go, which can probably be really annoying for the people involved with me.

Have you ever been accused of that?
You know, mostly people have liked it. I think I’m pretty easy going. I was always the kid who participated in group discussions and was always the kid who chimed in. I’ve never had an awkward date because I’ll just talk the whole time.

That’s a good dating tactic.
Well, not ultimately — but in the moment!

Greta Gerwig on Damsels in Distress, Dorkiness, and Not Dating Frat Guys