Recently, “To Rome With Love” star Greta Gerwig returned home from Manhattan to Sacramento, California, where she picked up her high school yearbook and got a big surprise. When asked where she wanted to be in 10 years, she answered, “Living in New York and making a Woody Allen movie.” A decade later, the downtown darling with the off-kilter smile is doing just that. Gerwig (who was in “Arthur” and “Greenberg”) plays sweet-natured Sally opposite Jesse Eisenberg’s Jack, in Allen’s latest ensemble comedy about fame, fidelity, and amore. In one storyline, Sally’s starlet best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), visits the couple for her Roman holiday, and their comfy romance hits turbulence. Gerwig sat down with me last Tuesday and shared her thoughts about playing a supporting character in her own romantic subplot.
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Thelma Adams: What did you make of your storyline about an American love triangle in the Eternal City?
Greta Gerwig: Woody Allen has characters that interest him. One is like my character: the person the romantic hero doesn’t end up with.. She’s the side girl. Woody Allen has these people that he comes back to again and again.
TA: So what is your side girl like in “To Rome With Love”?
GG: She’s a little like the inverse of Ellen Page’s character. It doesn’t break down exactly. Often, there are two women in Woody’s movies. In “Manhattan,” they balance each other out. As much as Ellen’s character is shifty and seductive and complicated and shiny, mine is grounded and bland and trusting and not dazzling. My performance came from what Ellen was doing, because what I was doing was playing in contrast. You can feed off of what they’re doing.
TA: How would you describe your character, Sally?
GG: This character is definitely more muted. She’s a bit of a bystander. She’s not the leading role in her own romance. Somebody else comes in and takes the leading role. Her emotions aren’t demonstrative. She’s much less sparkly.
TA: Does that make Page’s Monica the manic pixie dream girl?
GG: I hate that phrase; that idea, that it gets applied to people, that you have to avoid or deny it. It’s reductive. It’s a way of trying to find a connection where often one doesn’t exist. I was reading something about the screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby,” and it called Katharine Hepburn the original manic pixie dream girl. Aren’t we reaching? I’m probably just annoyed by it, but it’s around. I’m no pixie. I’m 5 foot 9 and 140. When I go on set, they’re always surprised the first day. I’m a giant, and everybody is a mini person.
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TA: I know that for me, growing up a Jewish girl in the San Diego suburbs, watching Woody Allen was like getting thrown a cinematic life preserver. I knew that “somewhere, there’s a place for me.”
GG: I’m not Jewish. I’m the original shiksa. I went to a Catholic girls’ school in Sacramento. I wanted to be Annie Hall, to find a nice Jewish boy and bring him back to my goyish family. I adored Woody Allen movies. I felt less alone. I could project myself into a time where I would be less lonely and would be surrounded by people like me. Woody Allen also led me to other movies. He led me to “Cries and Whispers” by Ingmar Bergman. I didn’t grow up with arthouse movie theaters.. Allen was the first person that gave me a window into what was possible. I read all his stories. I loved “A Guide to Some of the Lesser Ballets.”
TA: Now that you live in New York, do you feel that you still see the city through Woody Allen’s eyes, even though he’s moved on to London, Paris, Barcelona — and Rome?
GG: New York is so full of places he’s photographed. When he was working with cinematographer Gordon Willis, my entire idea of New York was based on that lens — and I don’t know if I’ve ever taken that lens off!