Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha (Photos courtesy of The Criterion Collection)

The Jacket That Greta Gerwig Won't Get Rid Of

BY Alice Hines | Tue. November 12, 2013 | 12:00 AM | Culture Club
From Uma Thurman's blood-splattered zip-up in Kill Bill to John Travolta's classic perfecto in Grease, leather jackets have served as cool armor for countless on-screen stars. While equally iconic, the leather bomber worn by aspiring dancer Frances Ha in the eponymous film doesn't so much make a statement as help its hapless owner blend in. Out today on Blu-ray/DVD from The CriterioN Collection, Frances Ha was co-written by couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the former who directed the film and the latter who starred as Frances. "[The jacket] almost felt like some version of a superhero cape," Greta told me in an interview. "It helped me be her whenever I was wearing it."

For all its clumsiness, the jacket is charming––much like Frances. At the age of 27, while friends are hosting posh dinner parties and moving to Japan, she's still peeing on subway platforms and grimacing at bodega ATM fees. At one point, she books a weekend flight to Paris using a credit card she receives in the mail, only to sleep through most of the trip. "I'm not a real person yet," she admits to a date.

No one could say the same thing about Gerwig. Since making a name for herself in low-budget indie movies like Baghead, the actress has gone on to work with the likes of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. And she's more likely to be spotted in Band of Outsiders campaigns and printed Suno dresses than bulky bomber jackets. Nevertheless, the garment in question remains in her closet. We discussed it by phone last week.

Alice Hines: Thanks for making the time to talk. Let's start with the leather jacket from Frances Ha––where is it now?
Greta Gerwig: It’s hanging in my closet, actually. I like to keep at least one clothing item from every character I really loved. We tried a lot of different leather jackets before we settled on that one. It was written into the script that [Frances] "wears a leather bomber jacket. It’s not cool it's just something someone gave her once and it’s too big.” And so we went in search of exactly that. When I had it on it almost felt like some version of a superhero cape. It didn't have any special talents, but actually created negative abilities. [Laughs] It helped me be her whenever I was wearing it. 

Is having a signature item of clothing something that's unique to Frances? Or is that helpful for all characters?
Clothing is for me a very big part of figuring out who a character is. The way people choose to present themselves to the world says a lot about who they think they are and who they aspire to be. I find that the really good directors are quite specific about what [characters] wear. The more specific the better.

You said that Frances' jacket comes with a negative superpower. What would that be?
The inability to create the life you want for yourself. I have a lot more embarassment than Frances has, as a person. And I think in a lot of ways Frances is impervious to embarrassment and to how other people perceive her. She isn’t necessarily good at reading them. When I put on that jacket, I felt like I was equally uninterested in what anybody else thought. It's not a negative superpower but something I would actually like to be better at in my own life. Just because I think sometimes preoccupation about what other people think can interfere with you just living your life.

You’re saying that her jacket is a kind of anti-fashion statement.
In a nice way, she wears some of her "not caring" as a badge of honor. Even the way she says "I’m undateable." She's not saying that to put herself down. She's saying that because she thinks that's awesome. Like she can’t be tied down; nobody could handle it. Then at some point she realizes she’s the only one that’s playing this game with herself and no one else is keeping score with her. And I think that’s something that happens at a certain point as you’re maturing and becoming your own person. You realize there is no audience, nobody is watching, nobody is tallying up your points for you. There's something about how defiant she is that is somewhat good, but too much of it becomes its own burden. 

And in the end she realizes she's lonely once no one is playing the game with her.
Exactly. Well, she thought Sophie [her best friend] was going to but Sophie is definitely not going to.

Do you ever wear the leather jacket?
I can never wear clothes that belonged to a character. Actually, when I first started making movies I was using so much of my own clothing, because we were making movies for so little money. And I would thrift shop with my mom and collect all these clothes for my life and I would use them in movies. In the end I would have no more clothes to wear. That was a recurrent problem, so now I really try to never use my own clothes because they’re my armor for my life.

Is it the fact that these clothes are closely associated with a finished project that makes them untouchable?
Yeah, and because they really belong to another person and that person feels like they’re done. I don't know, it’s not really very rational. It's quite actor-y and emotional but it is something I come by honestly; I naturally feel that. I try not to question it.

I wonder how this problem of clothing relates to the question of where you as an actor draw the line between yourself and your characters. A lot of profiles of you that I've read seem to conflate you with Frances and other characters of you've played. What does that feel like? 
It’s a weird thing to have to talk about at all because [the character] isn't me. It's a written script. I'm saying words that I wrote. We're doing many, many, many takes. That’s like asking if dancers play themselves in a dance. Like, no? I don't want to sound offensive, but I think it's a question that only people who don’t act ask. You're just doing each scene as honestly as you can and it's all fiction. 

I get that. Though the comparison could also be seen as a compliment of how seamlessly you fell into your role. 

I guess it feels like it has nothing to do with the actual making of the film to me. I don't know anyone who says, like, “Here's where I begin and here's where I end, here's the neighbor I knew growing up, and here’s what I imagine of a character." It’s like falling in love or something––you can't say, "up until here I wasn’t in love and at this point I fell in love." It's not that clinical. There are all these strange lines and at some point you become the same person, and then at some point you hate them, then you go back to being your own person, then you fall in love with them again. To play a character to me is like being in a relationship with someone. They become you and you become them, but you’re your own person the whole time.

The dancer analogy is interesting because a dancer does, to some extent, play him or herself––at times even more obviously so than an actor. 
But not if you’re a classical ballerina and playing the part of Juliet. Or, even if you’re a modern dancer, you're communicating an emotional space. You're communicating a place that you might not be in, but you have to be there mentally. It's the same with musicians communicating through their music. They are themselves, but they are also letting themselves be a vehicle for something bigger. 

Frances Ha is a very contemporary movie in that it describes the experiences of a type of young person in New York. But the characters are also very universal and could have existed at a lot of points in history. How did you balance that when writing the script? 
I wasn't really thinking of [the film] as being specifically generational. I don't really feel qualified to comment on "what late 20-somethings are like today." When Noah [Baumbach] and I were writing it we were just trying to make these characters as true as can be. And the other element of that is I was writing it with Noah, who’s in his 40s. It was like having an externalized half of myself who was observing this period of life, while half of me was also living it.

In a lot of different pieces of art and literature, 27 seems to be the age when you move from youth to not-youth. There was a universality of that moment that we wanted to tap into. But like I was saying before about costumes, the more specific you can make something the more universal it ultimately is.

One of the things I related to in Frances Ha was its portrayal of the struggle of being an artist or a creative person in New York City now. Was that drawn from your own experience?
I actually had a lot more luck than Frances had early on. I saw the Frances story happen more than I necessarily experienced it. I was not financially successful, but I did have a lot more signs from the film community and the world of art that I should be doing what I was doing. Which I think can be as important as being financially able to support yourself from your art. Even though I was nannying and tutoring and doing weird jobs, I felt I was part of a conversation and that was encouraging. And I think Frances doesn’t have that in the same way. In some ways I think that I used things I went thorough but it was also the feeling that... I was in a very different place by the time I was 27 but I could’ve easily been in the place Frances was if a few things had fallen another way.

When you were first starting out, did you pick projects that were financially rewarding or did you pick them purely for their artistic merit? Because that's often a conflict.
When I graduated from college my only true advantage was I knew I wanted to work in film or theater any way I could. I was writing and acting but also doing technical stuff like lights and stage managing. I think that gave me a lot of clarity because it wasn’t about the real passion versus the thing you’re doing to get by. It was just like: I want to be a part of this in any way I can. Any way you'll take me I'll go. And it’s interesting because when you’re starting out if there’s ever a circumstance where someone will pay you to do something you do for free it’s amazing. You kind of can’t believe it! You're serious? You're going to pay me to do this! Because my whole life I'm doing stuff hoping someone would let me do it at some point. It's astounding.

Indulge me Greta with this last question: How long were you an SAT tutor? 
A couple years. A few years, after college. I tutored things other than just SAT too. It's good money.

I did this for a while too. Did you like it?
Yeah, I actually did. There were friends of mine who just inherently understood all the tricks. I always had to work at it, but I think it made me a better teacher. That was actually so fun working with kids on the SAT because I felt like "I get where you are! I understand you! I remember not understanding and let me see if I can get you to the place where you finally do understand!" It was gratifying. 

Does that experience help you with anything you do now?
I think it probably helps with everything. The ability to think your way into someone else's mindset is the basis of writing, acting, and directing. It gives you that well-developed sense not just of emotional empathy but intellectual empathy. It's a window into understanding people.

Shop Criterion's Frances Ha DVD soon at Opening Ceremony's Ace Hotel store