With her delightful ability to be equal parts awkward and charming on screen, Greta Gerwig has taken the indie film world by storm with her stellar performances in Frances Ha, Greenberg and Lola Versus. Aside from school shows, the world premiere of Penelope Skinner’s humorous and haunting new play The Village Bike is the first time the actress/writer/filmmaker has appeared on stage, but Gerwig insists that she's no theater newbie. Below, the lifelong theater fan chatted with Broadway.com about her Sondheim obsession, the unfortunate demise of How I Met Your Dad and getting comfortable enough to strip down emotionally and physically in the new MCC Theater production of The Village Bike.
Congrats on making your professional theater debut—why was The Village Bike the play for you?
I really love and respect [director] Sam Gold—well, now I love him. Before, I was just a fan. He’s singlehandedly brought me my favorite theater experiences as an audience member. The Annie Baker plays [Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, The Flick] were hugely important for me, and Fun Home destroyed me for a week. So I felt like I would give my eye teeth to work with him. Then when I started reading the play, it sounds ridiculous to say this, but I knew two pages in that it was really good. Instantly, I could hear it in my head.
Your character Becky has a lot of pent-up sexuality. What is it like to unleash this side of yourself in front of an audience?
I started wearing a nightie in rehearsal very early, because I knew that I would have a degree of embarrassment about my body and that I had to get over it. I got used to all of the actors seeing me like that, and then the set designers came and the producers came for run-throughs. I wanted to ease myself into feeling comfort with the high degree of emotional exposure but also physical, sexual exposure. For me, it’s terrifying but it also feels like it has its own reckless momentum, and in the second act, there’s a current that I can get into where it almost feels cathartic.
You go on a wild ride—how do you unwind after the show?
Well, we have a lot of whiskey in the dressing room. [Laughs.] And I have this kind of chocolate I like, so I take off my [prop] wedding ring, I have a shot of whiskey and I eat some chocolate and then I’m ready to go out into the world.
What kind of chocolate?
If I tell you about it, I’m worried I’m going to make an addict out of you, and it’s expensive. I’ve made the entire cast addicts. It’s called Fine & Raw chocolate and it’s made in Brooklyn, and I like their cacao and coconut bars. I can’t even explain it, it’s like fudge, it’s like butter, it’s so good...but they’re $7 a bar. So we were all joking that our entire paychecks are going to our chocolate addiction.
I'm so sad about How I Met Your Dad not getting picked up.
The saddest part about it for me is I loved the people I was making it with—Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas], who made How I Met Your Mother and Emily Spivey, who was creating this new show with them. I loved the process of both acting in it but also sitting in the writers’ room and pitching jokes—it made me feel like I was an old-timey joke writer on a Sid Caesar show. I’m bummed out that we can’t have the experience of doing it, but at the same time, you have so little control over these things. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, and if it’s not, it’s not. I think that what gives me the right to call myself a show person, which is all I’ve ever really wanted to call myself.
You initially wanted to major in musical theater in college. Were you a fan of musicals growing up?
I didn’t grow up with television, but I could rent VHS tapes from the library. I would watch Gene Kelly musicals and The King and I and Oklahoma! I just love musicals, and I’m a huge Sondheim nerd. The documentary of the cast recording of Company is one of my favorite things ever made. And I was into Floyd Collins and Parade when I was in high school. But the truth is I never had a great enough voice to really go for it, and my mom wasn’t super excited about me pursuing a full-time musical theater career. She wanted me to get a liberal arts education and maybe have the potential to be a lawyer one day. So I gave up my NYU and musical theater dream.
Well, what about now?
Yeah, I’m gonna force someone to dream up some musical for me. [Laughs.] If it was the right musical and I felt like I wasn’t going to do a disservice to it, I would love to do one. But if the right thing never happens, I’m just happy to see them.
Do you have a musical theater dream role?
Well, I wish I sounded just like Audra McDonald. And this sounds like I’m being tongue-and-cheek, but anything Elaine Stritch played, I could maybe have a shot at doing OK with, because there’s something about her and the way she is that I always felt connected to. That could maybe work out for me. The Sondheim women are the parts that I would love to play. They’re just so complex and not cliché. They’re so dark and spiky and complicated. They make mistakes and they sing about them. That’s what I would wanna do.
See Greta Gerwig in The Village Bike at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.