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Ahoy, Greta Gerwig! Talking With the Star of Frances Ha

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There are filmmakers who use the story of growing up as a business scheme, a way to capitalize on the industry's market for coming-of-age parables. Then there's Greta Gerwig, who is guided more by truisms and theatrics than Hollywood hustle. The tall, dirty blonde-haired actress is the title character and co-writer of Frances Ha, a low-budget masterwork about life's bittersweet symphony, the beauty and pain endured during one's late 20s.

Gerwig's Frances is a dancer in both a literal and figurative sense, swiftly shirking relationship responsibilities, leaping towards an uncharted career course, yet landing on her feet, preserving a quiet grace. As Frances Ha chronicles the burdensome bloom from youth to adulthood, it remains an uplifting story. Its narrative is guided by street smarts instead of fraternal humor, harkening closer to the elusive American Dream than American Pie.

Less than an hour after Gerwig's film was nominated for two Spirit Awards, the vivacious actress talked to Alex Koenig about her upcoming film with her boyfriend and mumblecore-film maven Noah Baumbach, collaborating on a live performance with Spike Jonze and the Arcade Fire for the YouTube Music Video Awards, and how she came up with Frances Ha's meme-worthy pick-up line, "Ahoy, sexy!"

You woke up to some incredible news today: Frances Ha was just nominated for Spirit Awards for Best Feature and Best Editing. How does that make you feel?

I'm so excited and happy! I'm really happy for Jen, our editor, because I think she's so awesome and should be recognized. But to be nominated for best feature is ideal--we always want that one because everyone shares it. It's not just like getting nominated for yourself. Everyone got recognized, which is really great.

The film is about a 28-year-old woman who wants to become a professional dancer. Was that your idea, and if so, what made you want to write the script?

Yes. I have never been a professional dancer. In fact, I have never been close to being a professional dancer. But I've known a lot because my college had a very good modern dance program. I spent time trying to keep up with them, but also appreciating how talented they were.

I think dancing is beautiful and I love seeing dancing on film. I also think there is something inherently sad, how the dancer's life parallels female friendship that was changing. The female friendship of the early 20s gets very hard to sustain. It seemed like a good narrative for the movie.

Critics and fans have labeled Frances Ha as a coming-of-age film. Would you say that's accurate?

I think it's an incredibly late coming-of-age film. [laughs] I think a lot of films that deal with people accepting their lives and moving on, from what they thought their life was going to be to actually have the life they have, are all coming-of-age films in some way. So it falls in that tradition.

I mean it's clearly not a film about a teenager. [laughs] I think that's why it was so necessary that Frances let go of certain things.

Did coming-of-age books or films, like Catcher in the Rye or Almost Famous, inspire you when writing the film?

I loved Catcher in the Rye, but I have to say I was never a Catcher in the Rye fanatic that some people are when they're teenagers. I actually didn't feel when I read it, "Oh yes, I am Holden!" I immediately felt like I didn't see the world quite so bleakly. I was more of a schmaltzy person than that.

What are some of your favorite coming-of-age movies?

There's this Australian film called Flirting that I really love with a very young Nicole Kidman in it. I love all the John Hughes movies. I love movies with people who are reconciling themselves as individuals and with a group. I think teenagers work well in these films because they have such a strong pull to be accepted by a group, but they're alone in it. Raising Victor Vargas is terrific; there are so many coming-of-age movies that are great. I think it's pretty sad to not be able to let go of things at 27, but it's actually pretty common.

A key theme of Frances Ha is growing out of old lovers and friendships in your late 20s. Have the struggles of Frances ever mirrored your own life?

Yeah, I mean Frances is a totally fictional person. All of her facts are made up and not part of me. I certainly went through the experience of having to let go of a certain type of intensity in a friendship. It was difficult and heartbreaking and I didn't think there were a lot of examples in the film that showed what that was like.

I had a different experience in my 20s than Frances. I was a lot luckier and had more success in a typical way. I very much understand all of her feelings, even though hers are a lot more exaggerated than mine. They come from a place of really knowing it.

I'd be doing an injustice to my readers if I didn't ask you for the origin of one of the most indelible lines in Frances Ha, "Ahoy, sexy!"

I came up with that line. It was made up, honestly! It was a totally made up line. I did once have a text that had the word "ahoy." That word sounds hilarious. But I've never gotten "Ahoy, sexy." It's one of those lines that had a seed of inspiration from life, but it's just a goofy thing I wrote.

As part of this year's YouTube Music Awards, Spike Jonze directed a real-time video for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife," and you starred in it. How did that come about?

That was the most surprising and joyful thing I've ever done. I loved doing it. Spike Jonze had seen Frances Ha and liked it, and asked if I was interested in doing it. Jenny Butler, who's married to the Arcade Fire's Will Butler, choreographed it. But a lot of the dance was improvised. Spike would videotape it and watch it back, noticing what moves he liked and didn't like. That was what was shaped into the dance. We worked with movement that was native to me, and we made it so that it could be shaped and taught to children.

What is your career plan for 2014?

Noah and I wrote a script together, which we shot and are finishing right now. I am in a film called Eden with the French film director Mia Hansen-Løve, who is one of my favorite directors and I am incredibly honored. I'm going to be in Barry Levinson's movie The Humbling, which stars Al Pacino and is based on a Philip Roth novel.

You made your first talk show appearance, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, in 2010. Mainstream success remained elusive for you up to that point, and you told Kimmel, "I was really depressed. I was 25 and thinking, 'this is supposed to be the best time and I'm miserable.'" Are you happier now?

I am happier now. I guess I feel more comfortable with who I am, and I guess that's something you get as you get older. I don't think that I'm perfect or that I've reached the end of what I'm trying to get to. I spent some of my 20s wishing I were different than I was, whether it was something superficial or something deeper. I stopped wishing that I were different.

Perhaps that's a small victory, but it's pretty essential. For me, it's also got in the way of moving forward and making films and making projects. A degree of self-acceptance has not made me complacent -- it has allowed me to work harder.