The accidental ‘It’ girl

Special to The Times

Think of her as an ingenue for the text-message set. With her offbeat allure, charm and sass, actress Greta Gerwig has become something of an indie-film sensation over the last two years after several of her movies played to swooning responses at such festivals as SXSW and Sundance. Since her insightful portrait of youthful uncertainty and anxiety as the title character in 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (the defining movie of the recent low-budget, dialogue-driven “mumblecore” film movement), she has seemed to be on the cusp of something bigger.

But not quite yet. In the new micro-budget horror-comedy “Baghead,” currently in theaters, Gerwig plays Michelle, a twentysomething transplant to L.A. desperate for attention and connection. The character is by turns flighty and wily, determined to get what she wants even if she doesn’t always know what that is, and provides an ideal launchpad for Gerwig’s distinctively natural, goofy-yet-sultry screen presence.

“Baghead,” a hybrid of mumblecore’s character-based talkiness jump-started with genre kicks, follows four struggling actors as they set out to make a movie in the woods, only to find themselves terrorized by an unknown assailant. Michelle is in no small part a complicated creation of Gerwig’s own devising, as filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, whose previous feature was 2005’s small-scale hit “The Puffy Chair,” allow their actors a wide berth through improvisation and collaboration.

Gerwig is something of the accidental “It” girl, a reluctant starlet whose first on-screen performance, in the 2006 film “LOL,” consisted largely of saved voice mails she had left for her then-actual boyfriend. (Along with risque camera-phone pictures she took of herself for the movie in the bathroom of a university library.) Yet with her choppy blond hair, wide eyes and pouty mouth, she has one of those faces that the camera, at whatever the budget, just seems to like.


“The way I describe it is when I’m shooting, [the camera] just wants to go to her,” said Jay Duplass, who besides being co-writer and co-director of “Baghead” also shot the film. “Greta, her face, like, glows.”

“She’s kind of her own secret weapon,” said Mark Duplass in trying to define Gerwig’s appeal. “She’s got a lot of things working there and I’m still not exactly sure how it all computes, how all the pistons fire.”

Gerwig, 24, puts across her characters with such ease that it can seem as if she is not acting at all. Whichever performance of hers someone sees first -- mischievous and a little dim in “Baghead;” whip-smart and reckless in “Hannah” -- it’s all too easy to assume that’s just her.

“I sometimes wish I could lose who I was a little bit more,” Gerwig said of acting. “In my mind, my performance in ‘Baghead’ is so wacky and out there, and then I look at it and it’s still me. I sort of can’t get rid of who I am.


“I don’t think anybody would hire me if they wanted somebody who was completely a blank slate. I’m not comparing myself to her, but if you hire Diane Keaton you’re going to get Diane Keaton. She can play lots of different things, but she more often than anything is Diane Keaton. I think that would be something closer to what I would be able to do. I don’t ever see myself playing Queen Elizabeth.”

The comparison to Keaton works not only for Gerwig’s eccentric mannerisms and personalized sense of style: Like Keaton, Gerwig comes across as a breezy combination of native California kookiness and bookish East Coast smarts.

Originally from Sacramento, Gerwig moved to New York City to attend Barnard College. There she studied English and philosophy and was an aspiring playwright. “LOL” led to working again with director Joe Swanberg on “Hannah,” which costarred Mark Duplass, leading to “Baghead” and other roles. Although her background as a writer has proved useful in the collaborative world of low-budget indie filmmaking from which she has emerged, her self-image as a performer has needed a little work. How does she see herself exactly -- actress, writer, director or all-around scene queen?

“That’s actually a question I’ve kind of struggled with over the last two years,” replied Gerwig, on her cellphone while waiting for a bus in Brooklyn. “You always have your mental image of yourself, the thing that you think that you are, and you keep saying that until you realize it doesn’t match with reality. I’ve sort of recently realized one of the things that I am is an actress.”


The unshakable Greta-ness of Gerwig should not draw away from the power of the performances she has given, an incisively varied gallery of idiosyncratic sirens.

“I think there is an effortlessness to what she is doing because she’s really good on the spot,” said Mark Duplass, “she’s really good at improvising, she’s really good instinctually. That being said, it’s like any good thrift-store outfit: It takes a lot of time and energy to make something look so lackadaisically put together.”

After the release of “Baghead,” Gerwig has plenty more projects on deck; already in the can are two comedic examinations of female friendship: “Yeast,” for director Mary Bronstein, and “Nights and Weekends,” on which she also shares writing and directing credit with Swanberg. She has also shot “The House of the Devil” for indie horror director Ti West and is working on “Thomas the Obscure” for filmmaker Caveh Zahedi.