Born August 4, 1983, Greta Gerwig is the actress, producer, writer, and director, best known for being the fifth woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, for her solo-directorial debut Lady Bird. Similar to her main character, Christine “Lady Bird'' McPherson, Gerwig was born and raised in Sacremento, California. She is the youngest of three, with an older brother and an older sister. Her mother, Christine, was a nurse, and her father, Gordon, worked at a credit union doing small business loans.
Greta grew up in a household without television, so rather than spending afternoons mindlessly watching cartoons, she found herself instead engaged with extracurricular activities, school, reading, and her family. She did band, fencing, theater, speech and debate, choir, and various types of dance like ballet, tap, and Polynesian. Her mother deeply fostered within her what Greta calls a “New Yorker” attitude. She immersed herself deeply into everything she did. For example, when she voiced an interest in Polynesian dance, her mother put her into classes, got her books from the library on Polynesia, and helped her in any way she could to not only participate in the dance class, but understand and learn about a new culture and people.
One early influence on Gerwig’s love for cinema was watching Woody Allen and Gene Kelly movies. Without a TV, the family would rent tapes from the Sacremento Public Library which they could then play on their computer. The most impactful movie on Gerwig was Singing in the Rain. She said she could watch it over and over again, and something about Gene Kelly, the singing, and the wonderful tap dancing made this, for Greta, the most joyful thing she’d ever seen on film. And like many young movie lovers, she felt the pull that she not only loved the film, but she wanted to be in the film, and although she couldn’t, something about the magic of the movie made her feel as close as she could to entering that world.
When Greta was 5 and later when she was 8, she and her family went on two trips to New York, these being formative trips that greatly influenced Greta’s interests and ambitions. While in the city she saw a lot of Broadway plays: Cats, 42nd Street, Gypsy, and Starlight Express. The big stage, the bright lights, the tap choruses, and the singing were all thrilling for a young girl, and upon returning home Gerwig would spend much of her time listening to cassettes of her favorite Broadway musicals and dreaming of a life as an actress on the stage. Beyond her love for acting, though, Gerwig’s love for books also cultivated a love for writing. She would keep diaries and write for herself, but it wasn’t until a profound experience in middle school that she realized the power that writing and storytelling can have.
In 7th grade, during a math placement test at a new school, afraid to ask the teacher to get up and go to the bathroom, Gerwig peed her pants. Humiliated, a kind girl next to her noticed and gave her a sweater to cover up and go to the nurse. The following year, when given the assignment to come up with a story, Gerwig wrote about a girl peeing her pants in class, and the kindness of another student to help instead of humiliate her. The teacher loved her story so much that it was hung up on display in the class. Gerwig remembers not feeling embarrassed by her story, but realizing that the writing of such an act of kindness was something worth sharing and something that could potentially have an impact on how people treated one another.
Around this same time, Gerwig now recognizes a shift that occurred regarding her self-awareness. It was around middle school that she noticed that being ambitious, and more specifically, being an ambitious female, was not an attractive quality. The people surrounding her were not excited to hear about her passions and lofty endevours, and so, in order to survive the social labyrinth of adolescence, she buried that part of herself deep down, still there, but hidden from the outside world.
When it came time to go to high school, Gerwig chose for herself to go to an all girls Catholic school. She wore a uniform, attended mass, and overall found the experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Opposed to in middle and elementary school where a lot of roles were filled by the boys, simply because they were more noticeable, at an all girls school the only people to fill the roles were girls. So, the girls were the good kids and the bad kids, the jocks and the nerds, the studious and the class clowns. This was incredibly appealing to Gerwig as she was seeing, for the first time, all of the ways that women could express themselves, inciting within her a deep interest in the lives of girls and women, which would later come to be a common theme in her films.
During her senior year, Greta made the decision that she wanted to pursue theater acting in college, and so she began applying to drama schools’ conservatory programs. She applied to New York University, Juilliard, and University of California Los Angeles. She recalls at the UCLA audition that they didn’t even look at her... Not a good sign. Things were not looking good for drama school. While auditioning at NYU and Juilliard, so eager to get back to New York, Gerwig reluctantly went with her father to check out Barnard College as well, the all women’s college affiliated with Columbia University. Although hesitant at first, she quickly fell in love with the school and the sheer number of ambitious women in attendance.
With great luck, there just so happened to be an open interview slot during her visit, so she interviewed and she fell even more in love. She ended up being rejected from all of the drama programs she applied to, so Barnard became her last hope. When writing her application she noted that if they did not admit her that year she wanted them to keep her application because she would be applying as a transfer student. To her delight, she was accepted, double majoring in English and philosophy.
While at Barnard, on top of her studies, just as she had with everything else in her life, she fully immersed herself in the theater and performance world. She joined speech and debate, took acting classes, and after being rejected from the main improv comedy troupe at school she started her own with performer friends like Kate Mckinnon (they named their troupe “The Tea Party''), holding their shows the same time as the main troupe out of spite. Being at Barnard she ironically had the unique privilege of taking acting classes with some professors from Juiliard. It was in one of these acting classes that she wrote a monologue for herself to perform.
Although acting had overshadowed her writing pursuits, bringing in this monologue garnered curiosity from her teacher. The acting teacher proposed that maybe she should take a playwriting class. Initially she didn’t think she was suited for playwriting, but with more convincing from the teacher she gave it a try, and found herself, again, through writing. So, during her senior year at Barnard she applied to Yale, NYU, and Julliard’s Masters of Fine Arts programs for playwriting, all of which she was rejected from... Again.
Although she was a bit defeated, she continued to let her ambition lead the way, and refused to give up. Around this same time she had a boyfriend who introduced her to the world of film. He would take her to the Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of Moving Image.
Although she had enjoyed film prior, this laid the groundwork for a new passion that she could pursue. With a certification to be both a paralegal and Zumba instructor (which she acquired in high school as a compromise with her mom so she could have a back up plan in her pursuit of acting), she seriously began her pursuit of film and theater. She worked as a light board operator and stage manager for theater productions, wrote a play performed by actors at Barnard, and she even contributed voicemail audio to her boyfriend for a low-budget film LOL that he was making with his friend from Chicago, Joe Swanburg. With this tiny film contribution Greta was able to tag along with their team to South by Southwest, where she met an amazing group of young filmmakers including: Barry Jenkins, Ry Russo Young, Aaron Katz, Jay and Mark Duplass, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanburg, Ty West, Josh and Benny Safdie, and Andrew Bujalski. At the time, DSLR cameras had just come out, and these filmmakers were a part of a sort of movement to make low/no-budget do-it-yourself movies instead of just waiting around for a production company to give them a green light.
Immediately following her college graduation in 2006, and through further discussions with Joe, Greta joined on to star in his next project called Hannah Takes the Stairs. Through shooting Hannah, Gerwig got to know her co-star Mark Duplass, one half of the Duplass Brothers, and subsequently scored a role in their next film Baghead. They shot Baghead in Texas, almost entirely doing night shoots, had a blast, and even got their film into Sundance.
Following this production, in 2007, Joe and Greta decided to collaborate again and they began working on the idea for Nights and Weekends, which they would co-write, co-direct, and co-star in, about a couple’s struggling relationship as they try to navigate a long distance relationship. Also sporting day jobs as an SAT-tutor, a Zumba instructor, and a waitress, Greta continued climbing the ropes, eventually acquiring an agent, and many years down the line would end up with roles in films directed by such filmmakers as Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman, Rebecca Miller, Mike Mills, Pablo Larrain, and even Woody Allen.
While keeping up with her acting career, as that is what kept her in the film industry, she had never stopped writing. She had a myriad of documents, ideas for characters, bits and pieces of scripts, but it wasn’t until 2011 that she got her chance at a real screenwriting opportunity. Her now partner, Noah Baumbach saw something in her following her starring role in his film Greenberg, and he approached her about co-writing what would become the indie-sensation Frances Ha, which Gerwig also starred in. And, she went on to co-write and star in another feature with Baumbach in 2015, Mistress America. Through all of her acting and writing pursuits, Gerwig was building up knowledge and experience that led her to embark on the journey of solo-writing and solo-directing her first feature, Lady Bird.
I have to end this blog on a bit of a personal note. I didn’t really become aware of Greta Gerwig until I saw Little Women in the theaters at the beginning of 2020. This would set into motion, for me, a life changing sequence of events. I have always loved film, and loved the idea of being a filmmaker, but it wasn’t something I ever thought could be possible, so I never pursued it seriously.
Listening to Greta Gerwig speak about filmmaking and being a highly ambitious female, both through interviews and also through the characters in her films, I was given the gift, for the first time, of seeing someone like me not only pursuing writing and directing, but finding immense success. It isn’t always the defining factor, but sometimes it just takes seeing yourself in someone else to make you realize the possibilities that this world holds for you. I am so indebted to Greta Gerwig and the inspiration she has given me to use the one life I have, follow my passion and make my dreams come true. Whether your film inspiration be Greta Gerwig, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Kathryn Bigelow, or someone else entirely, what we can take from all of our inspirations is the reminder to persist.
Greta Gerwig has said, “Relentless is a word that comes up a lot in filmmaking. Because filmmaking requires such a sense of purpose and you as the director have to be the one that at every moment keeps pushing it forward because there’s no reason for these films to exist other than you make them exist.” If being a screenwriter or a filmmaker is what you want more than anything, this is your one life, be relentless, go out there, and do it. Follow your ambition wherever it takes you, and...
Always be writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.