Chatting with Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke of Mistress America

From Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert (1933) to Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997), buddy films have traditionally focused on male-male pairings. Men were even a critical part of the plotline in early female buddy films, such as Beaches (1988), Thelma & Louise (1991) and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997). These days, director Noah Baumbach and producer-actress Greta Gerwig are redefining the genre by putting boys on the side in films like Frances Ha (2013) and Mistress America, which opens today in San Francisco.  

SF Weekly talked to Gerwig and costar Lola Kirke about making modern woman's movies, why women should support each other on and offscreen and why seeing Kirke onscreen for the first time made Gerwig feel like a “creepy, old filmmaker.”

[jump] Greta, you've described Mistress America as a modern woman's film.  In which ways?

Greta Gerwig: When Noah and I wrote and made Frances Ha, it felt like we were telling the story of a woman's relationship where the central question was not about romance or the way a woman is serving the narrative of a man, and we wanted to make another movie that was really about the relationship and hopes and dreams of the women that had nothing to do with who they ended up with. So it was on purpose and I'm really interested in all the myriad ways that women relate to each other and I feel like my life is so full of interesting relationships with women older and younger and my friends and my sister and my mother and my grandmother, so I feel like they tend to be underrepresented. So to give a whole film that as the emotional core, that was something I wanted to keep doing.

A friend recently posted on Facebook that when she passes another woman on the street, she makes a point to always smile at them.

Lola Kirke: We were just talking about that. I was thinking that there's definitely a rise in consciousness about being kind to women with everyday interactions, but also in a larger media way, like body positivity becoming somewhat hip now. There are still so many mass media outlets that tell us to hate our bodies and buy their products. But I think that being kinder to women and kinder to yourself is growing in our collective consciousness.

GG: I'm so glad your friend's doing that, and I hope I pass her on the street.

What I was getting at was how a lot of women are still getting in each other's way by sizing each other up, competing with one another and worse. What will it take to change this?

GG: I think anytime the predominating thought pattern is a culture of scarcity, like there's not enough room for all these women and not enough men to go around and not all women can be successful, if you're this one token woman you must be knocked off. So I think it's important to really encourage and support each other and remember that it's not either or; it's both and. The more someone else succeeds, the more I have a chance of succeeding. I don't think there's a cabal of evil men conspiring to hold us down. I think it's incredibly entrenched and hard to break out of. But I do think that right now what's so amazing is that there are women who are raising each other up and supporting each other publicly and privately.

I went to an all women's high school and college, so it's something I've seen, the effects of that kind of environment firsthand and how it really enabled women to grow into their own power in a really beautiful way. So I really hope I contribute to my little piece of the puzzle, which happens to be cinema. It's moving the needle in whatever way I can.

LK: Greta's contribution and writing parts for women who are fantastic certainly has for me in a professional and personal way. 
Lola, you're one of the most promising new actresses today. But you've said that you're repeatedly typecast as the nerdy girl.

LK: I think that might be a summary of what I was saying. I would say more accurately I get cast in parts that are not the hot girl. If those parts do have sex appeal, I think it comes in a different way than a physical way. Like I've played four lesbians. Of course lesbians can be hot girls, but more butch lesbians. I've played trashier characters and my fair share of nerds. I think it has to do with a few things. Like I weigh 150 pounds on a great day, not 100 pounds. But I like playing those parts more. There's more to it. Not to say I would look down my nose at playing a conventionally sexy character in a film. I think there can be something great in that, too.

GG: I also want to say that Lola is super sexy, and I have a dream of writing her like a 1940's femme fatale part, because she could kill it doing that, and it would be totally unexpected. I think she's a transformational actress, so she could do anything. But I think that when she plays her sex bomb role, everyone's gonna be like holy shit.

Is one type of role superior to the other?

GG: Celebrating the fact that Lola's beautiful is not in any way to undermine any of the other qualities she has. I can say this because I am a woman and I don't sound like a creepy, old filmmaker, but the first time I saw Lola on tape when she auditioned, I sensed myself feeling like I imagined old creepy filmmakers feeling, which is, 'God, I wanna put a camera on that young woman,' and just wanting to capture the moment that they're in, of both their talent and their beauty and their youth. I feel that way about women of all ages, and what's magical about Lola is that she doesn't lead with it, but it's there. I remember that when I had these stills of Lola during the screen test, showing my friends, and saying, “Don't you want to see a whole movie of this girl?” I did and we got to.

Lola, you studied filmmaking at Bard College?  

LK: Yes, it was a very cerebral and anarchistic film program, and I somehow found myself making the only narratives there, which always scarred me, because I had this anxiety that no one was ever going to make a film with me. So I had to do it myself.  I made some weird soap operas where I played all the characters, and a pseudo-homoerotic lesbian cowgirl film, where nothing actually happens, but it taught me how to be onscreen.

Now that Greta is writing all these parts for you, is filmmaking still something you need to pursue? 

LK: At the moment, the idea of making a full movie overwhelms and intimidates, so even though being on set is the greatest film school you could actually get, and working with Noah and Greta, it's hard to live up to that. Not that it's a comparison — I'm very inspired by the way that they work. I just want if I have to say something for it to be good.

Greta, is it difficult to collaborate with your partner, Noah Baumbach?

GG: Working together is an absolute joy. It's so fun to work together and share a brain and make a world together that what's actually hard is when we're working on different projects. We're both 24-hours-seven-days-a-week people, so it's really hard when we're not working on the same thing, because we only want to talk about what we're working on. That's where it's difficult.

Lola, you'll soon be seen in Mena, working opposite Tom Cruise. How was that experience for you?

LK: It's exactly like working opposite Greta Gerwig [laughs].  He did have an intense workout regimen and a trailer on set called the “Pain Cave” that he was so wonderfully generous about inviting as many crew and actors in to do a two-minute team-building exercise together, so that was really sweet. But he's a really hard worker, so it was very surreal, to be like, “Oh man, I'm sitting with Tom Cruise right now. I thought that would never happen.” 

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