Greta Gerwig and Aubrey Plaza, stars of two quirky new films about love, adore old Hollywood.
Greta Gerwig and Aubrey Plaza are recent additions to the world of mainstream films, but hardly unknowns. Plaza plays spiky April Ludgate, queen of the lethal eye roll, on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." Gerwig's hot-nerd magnetism has propelled her from stealing scenes in microbudget indies to starring roles for Whit Stillman and Woody Allen.
Each offers a distinctive flavor of relatable charm, and this month each got her feel-good breakout movie. Gerwig, 28, has the title role in "Lola Versus," a sharp comedy about a New York City grad student in post-breakup free fall. In "Safety Not Guaranteed," Plaza, 27, plays a magazine intern crafting an ironic exposé about a self-proclaimed time traveler (Mark Duplass) while falling in love with him.
In separate interviews, the comediennes discussed their first big-screen star turns, which opened this weekend.
"I was very lucky to even have this script presented to me," said Plaza. "I was told that it was written with me in mind, so right from the start I knew I was going to have some connection to it."
It's not the first time Plaza has had a part handed to her. Her moody, deadpan humor so impressed the creator of "Parks and Recreation" that he designed the character of April specifically for her.
"Safety" writer Derek Connolly's work appealed to her. "None of the characters are stereotypes," she said. "They don't fit in a box. They're each going through their unique journeys," and that evolution onscreen offered her a chance to prove she is more than Little Miss Alienation. "I was looking to do a movie that would let me flex some different muscles than what I've done in TV. This movie seemed like a way to play a character that is familiar to audiences -- me as this depressed, sarcastic girl -- and then transform into someone else."
While the script was carefully structured, for some key scenes director Colin Trevorrow called on Plaza's background with the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy improv troupe.
Two episodes that highlight the warm feelings Plaza develops for Duplass were created on the spot in a single take. In one, her defenses fall when he asks her favorite song. In the other he sings a touching love ballad while she looks on, rapt. Each vignette is utterly fresh and persuasive.
"Mark wouldn't let me hear the song until the camera was rolling," she said. "My reaction to him was completely real, and it was the first time. We did it very quickly and put everything we had into it."
Plaza has time-travel dreams of her own. "I would love to go back to the '30s and be a studio girl under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I would hang out with Judy Garland and be in all the Andy Hardy movies. I'm fascinated by that era." She's even more passionate about her future.
"I enjoy being on TV, but I want to go all in for movies," she said. "I'm a movie freak at heart. That's why I wanted to be an actor to begin with." And she's open for everything. "I'd love to do horror movies, action movies. I'd love to do something really physical, like Catwoman, someday."
A recurring television role can box you in, she said. "When you're on a TV show, people get used to seeing you do one thing and people are generally stupid and have no imagination, so it's hard to break out of that. So I think this movie is a step for me in the right direction."
Her next, the sex comedy "The To-Do List," is another step along the path. "It's packed with lots of 'Saturday Night Live' people, and it's set to come out at Valentine's Day, which is perfect. You can see the sex comedy with your beloved."
Gerwig, who worked as a writer, director and producer as well as actor in her earliest do-it-yourself indies, shares Plaza's nostalgia for Hollywood's golden era. "Often in movies there's not a lot of great writing. I'd like to make it like back in the day of the studio system and get the caliber of people like Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and William Faulkner and really make great films."
"Lola Versus" twists the usual romantic-comedy formula, which often pins its characters' relationship troubles on a lie, misunderstanding or coincidence. The film addresses a more common and scarier scenario, a loss of romantic feelings.
"Rom-coms follow the pattern of trying to keep the people apart until the end of the movie." Gerwig said. "This starts at the end of the relationship. It's post-rom-com. It's being called that because people don't know what else to call it."
The notion that Lola's enduring friendships prove more meaningful than her transient romances "feels very true to life," she said. "My friends and I, of course, hope we end up with wonderful people and are married, but at the same time we're all planning to get a time-share together."
Gerwig doesn't just make movies -- she eats and breathes them, devouring the latest from the Korean New Wave alongside Fred Astaire musicals. Her cats are named Paw Newman and Diane Kitten. The limousine-and-camera-flash life of a movie star doesn't hold much appeal, however. Gerwig describes the acting life as "fickle," with writing and directing "less fickle. People just get tired of faces. They'll literally max out on a face. It's less so with writing. I don't think people max out on a writing style or directing style in the same way. Actors always have a sense that this can all go away."
Gerwig lives unpretentiously in a walk-up apartment in New York City's Chinatown, sharing the small, book-crammed space with two roommates. "I try to be aware of how addictive money can be, how used to spending and objects we can all find ourselves becoming. I try to keep some distance between my identity and the things that I have. I don't do it perfectly. I am not a saint. I am a girl. But I try to stay away from the aspects of the business that are more materialistic or image-obsessed, because that makes me less happy and interferes with my work. It distances me from anything that feels real."
That also means sometimes turning down large amounts of money attached to a bad project. "I try to keep my overhead low. I do have to take acting jobs because I am not an heiress, so I do take jobs to make ends meet and pay my health insurance. But I try to keep things pretty minimal so I can hold out for things that I love. The point is always to do things that I love and to create things that seem interesting."