Greta Gerwig is probably best known for her Golden Globe-nominated role in 2013's Frances Ha, a film about a frustratingly lost 27-year-old dancer that she also cowrote. Now, Gerwig is taking on another unique female role — Becky, a married, pregnant, and sexually adventurous schoolteacher — in the American premiere of Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike at Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The MCC Theater production is helmed by prolific Broadway and off-Broadway director Sam Gold (The Realistic Joneses, Fun Home). It follows Becky's emotional journey as she tools around the English countryside on her new bicycle. The play was first produced in 2011 at the Royal Court Theater in London, where Skinner won The Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright. TheaterMania spoke with Gerwig about wielding sexual power (or not), envying other writers, and earning a seat at the theater table.
What attracted you to this play?
Well, I've been a fan of Sam Gold for a long time now, and I think he's pretty amazing, so that was the first thing. I got an e-mail [asking if I] would be interested in doing this play, and I mean, I e-mailed right back and said, "Uh, yes, yes, of course. Of course I would be interested in doing this." But then I read the play, and I think I knew maybe in the first two pages that it was really, really good. I knew that anyone who was lucky enough to be in it would be given a gift as an actor, because immediately it's funny but it's dark and it's playable. There's so much in the play and it's so smart. It both uses these incredibly obvious metaphors but then it uses them in these deft scalpel ways. Like, she's using the biggest tools to create these detailed structures.
Do you identify with this character?
I definitely think I almost alarmingly identify with her — even in her speech patterns. I have a habit of making a definitive statement and then following it up immediately by saying, "I don't know." And the entire play she's saying things and then she says, "I don't know." I was very thrilled I got to tell my therapist I was getting to play a character who had the same problem I did. So I think even though it's set in England and she's British and she's married and she's pregnant, there's a core that I immediately, kind of disturbingly, identified with.
It seems like a lot of her life has been somewhat influenced by the fact that she has a certain amount of sexual power over men, but she's never really wielded it. It's just been the background noise of her life. And I mean, I don't particularly feel like I'm a seductive Lauren Bacall-Scarlett Johansson smoky-voiced kind of lady. But I definitely felt connected to identifying your self-worth in the male gaze. And that's not something I necessarily feel comfortable with, which is why it's been exciting but also hard to work through some of that stuff in rehearsals — that validation through being sexually desirable and then having it seeming to slip away from you. It's not what I lead within my life, but it's something I have more identification with than I'm proud of I'd say.
What are you looking forward to about being in front of an audience?
There's something about that kinetic experience of being in the theater and your body's there and all their bodies are there, and that's gonna be really exciting.
What is it like to be living in someone else's world as an actor instead of a writer?
It's great. It's so terrific. I will say, I think I'm most successful as an actor when the writing is, it's the kind of writer I hope I am — when there's some element of healthy envy or admiration. That's when I tend to do better acting work…I feel like it's so wonderful to encounter something that you wish had come from you and that you get to inhabit.
What is your history with the theater?
I went to a ton of theater growing up, and I would say I love it the most. I did a lot of it when I was in college and I did a lot of technical theater. I was a stage manager at a summer stock theater company in Vermont and I did lighting and sound at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater downtown. And I applied and got rejected from a bunch of graduate schools for playwriting when I was right out of Barnard. But the door was much more clearly open in film, in a way. It was kind of a magic time, and I ultimately kind of ended up getting further and further away from theater. But I've been looking for a while for a way to earn my seat at the table of the theater people I love. I feel very grateful to Sam. This is the most fun I've had since I was like, twenty. So it's extraordinary. It's amazing.