DEC 2023/JAN 2024 Issue

After Barbie, Greta Gerwig Has No Plans to Rest

The director on her box office dominance, life with Noah Baumbach, and the grossest parenting story you’ve ever heard.
Greta Gerwig photographed in Brooklyn in September.
Greta Gerwig, photographed in Brooklyn in September. Coat by Lafayette 148 New York; shirt by Gabriela Hearst; pants by Khaite; shoes by Jimmy Choo; jewelry by Chanel Fine Jewelry.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Unless you’ve been living under a Dreamhouse, you know how this works: In Barbie Land, all Barbies are named Barbie and all Kens are named Ken. But in real life? Everyone is Enya. “Everybody gets ‘Sail Away,’” says Greta Gerwig of her ringtone. “Everybody.” In addition to a successful acting and screenwriting career (she starred in Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America), Gerwig was personally nominated for three Oscars between Lady Bird and Little Women. Then, this year, her 40th, came Barbie, the highest-grossing film ever helmed by a woman, a commercial anomaly even for its stars. Gerwig also wrote Barbie with her life partner, the writer and director Noah Baumbach. That she maintains a carefully curated existence seems at once a Hollywood rarity and the tentpole of her success. (She uses words like rigor and essential a lot and eschews social media, that “terrifying construction of a self through taste.”) In short: She likes what she likes, be it Truffaut or Titanic, which she saw eight times as a Sacramento teen and “wept beyond anything I thought I was capable of.” Perhaps this explains why, this past summer, a certain generation of women watched Margot Robbie zipping along in her pink Corvette, a challah of blond hair over her shoulder, singing along to the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” and thought: Am I really watching this? Or rather, Am I getting to watch this?

Sweater by Louis Vuitton; earrings by Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti; rings by Cartier.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

The answer is more than $1.4 billion worth of yes. This is not just children of the ’90s speaking. Gerwig, along with Taylor Swift, has had the most quantifiably successful year of any artist on the planet, creating a paradigm shift that brought people back to theaters just as Swift brought them back to stadiums.

Getting her to acknowledge any of this, however, is like asking Ken to put his shirt on.

Gerwig says she has not read a word of the Barbie reviews. “I’ll probably sit down with a binder sometime in February,” she told me, “But right now it’s too fresh.” This is the first extended profile she’s agreed to since the Barbie bonanza, so speaking with her really is a little like speaking with someone who’s been living under a Dreamhouse—except she’s the one who built the house. She credits everyone but herself for Barbie, which mostly reads as deference to other people’s talent and aesthetics but can run at odds with the movie’s impact, globally as well as personally. She concedes that “this year is the most that I’ve ever been recognized in my neighborhood,” but beyond the radius of NYU? “I don’t know.” The money is also “hard to wrap my head around.” She has an osmotic sense of the genuflection and the backlash—is Barbie second-wave feminist? Malibu-wave feminist?—but “there was such a cacophony so it was more like, ‘Wow, what a breadth of reactions!’” Gerwig refers to her leading actors, namely Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, as “pathologically unfrilly.” Of Ronan: “Try having a mystical conversation with Saoirse about what happened in a scene and she’ll be like, ‘I just memorized my lines.’” Of Robbie: “Margot comes from Australian soap operas and she’s a deep, true artist, but she also knows what it’s like to get two takes max and 40 pages of dialogue a day,” but this is also a perfect description of Gerwig. Talent out, head down.

“Everything I know about the movie’s success is an anecdote,” she insists, shoes off, knees tucked, as we sit on a minimalist sofa in her office wearing black T-shirt dresses from the same brand, which neither of us comment on. “Apparently, there was a very high percentage of people who said they couldn’t remember the last movie they saw in a movie theater.” When I agree, she’s had quite the milestone this year, she replies, “Yeah, turning 40 is a big deal.”

“By which I mean the major motion picture Barbie.

“Oh,” she says, smiling.

Surely, there was a fulcrum moment within her circle of friends, when the Barbie marketing campaign started to feel like the NSA had a hand in it. Gerwig is close with her sister-in-law, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker (Gerwig and Baumbach aren’t legally married, but she uses the usual terms); Josh Safdie; college pal Kate McKinnon (a.k.a., Weird Barbie); and Baumbach’s friends who have become hers as well—Brian De Palma, Jake Paltrow, Wes Anderson—but she has had the same core group since college, which she calls “a genuine treasure.” They came as her guests to the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in coordinated chartreuse. I am curious if life ever went from these people texting her photos of the Warner Bros. water tower painted Pepto to thinking, My coffin might be pink.

“God, when did it sort of kick in? I always had a hope that it would connect. I had a sense that it might. But Barbie doesn’t fit neatly into a preordained category. We had these hopeful-looking metrics, but no one knew what they meant. It wasn’t until the end of the second weekend that I thought, Oh, this is going well,” she says. “I mean, Wonder Woman was hugely successful, but superheroes exist in a different bubble.”

It’s too early for Gerwig to feel the need to “put air between myself and this thing.” The details of Barbie still crack her up: “The scene when Ryan is throwing all her clothes out and Margot goes, ‘Not the palazzos!’ The way she says it still gets me.” But she does feel “slightly more self-conscious when I have pink accessories, like, this is just my water bottle.” Still, she wore the personalized pink purse that Gucci sent her (“I’ll bring it next time,” she says with playdate-level enthusiasm) to a recent dinner with Little Women star Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and Swift: “Laura was like, ‘Hey, we’re getting dinner, want to come?’” Gerwig assures me this meal was not focused on world domination. (Well, with the possible exception of a toast from Dern. “Laura is a person who reaches back into film history but also brings people together, younger and older people.”)

I wonder if it’s worth it, trying to graft such praise back onto Gerwig, where it so clearly applies, without her shimmying away from it. Gerwig’s gravitation toward joy, in tandem with her rigor, has created a rare kind of celebrity for a director, not to mention a feeling of kinship (we do simultaneous impressions of Rita Wilson in Sleepless in Seattle doing an impression of Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember). When she agrees with you, she points close to your face. This sounds bad, but it’s refreshingly unselfconscious and strangely welcome. Perhaps because it feels earned. This is someone who glosses over nothing. In response to a tossed-off analogy regarding the meal options at weddings: “I think the ‘fish or chicken or vegetarian’ question is funny because it’s this concrete instance of having an interaction with your past hopes for your future self and your future self hopes that you will want salmon but it’s wrong.” Such speedy analysis allows her to be both cool and uncool at once, the former being the vital ingredient to surrounding herself with artists, with people who “put themselves in the way of art,” the latter being the vital ingredient to capturing adolescence.

Coat by Khaite; top by The Row; pants by Theory; tights by Wolford; shoes by Ferragamo; earrings by Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Gerwig’s body of work is like a funnel by which the popular is distilled through the particular. She has cited classics like Singin’ in the Rain (“I love the razzle-dazzle”) and The Truman Show as touchstones for Barbie, but the movie also shares DNA with The Wizard of Oz, down to that heel-centric moment.

“Magic through feet!” she exclaims. “Did you know they tried to cut ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’ They thought it slowed everything down and was boring and people wouldn’t like it.”

“No one at the studio ever asked if you really needed all those musical numbers?”

“There was some of that. Some ‘You need what? Why do we need a dream ballet here?’ I was like, ‘Because it will be a delight.’ But there’s always a moment, with every movie, where they say, ‘You could cut this, you could cut that,’ and I end up saying, ‘Or we could cut the whole movie. We could just cut the movie. We don’t have to do it.’”

She’s speaking about integrity, but she’s also, purposefully or not, speaking about power. While Gerwig would gladly act again, she always felt acting was training for directing. This is the wedding guest who ordered very wisely for her future self.

“But I didn’t say it out loud for a long time. It’s like that part in Just Kids, where Patti Smith is watching Jim Morrison onstage and has that clarity of ambition, knowing she had ‘the thing.’ But I think, particularly for female artists, there are very few admissions of knowing.”

I now understand why Gerwig assumes turning 40 is the biggest piece of information in the room. Because for her it is. She parcels her life in movies yet to be directed. It’s why she tries to stay active, not just for her sons (Harold, four, and baby Isadore) but because what she does is “extremely physical, I think about it all the time.” If she keeps making movies at this clip, she could make three or four before 50.

“I want to do this into my 70s. I think it was Truffaut who said, ‘Sometimes, quantity is impressive.’ I know what he means,” she says. “I just want to be thought of as, like, she’s good. She can do it.”

“It’s not a club,” says Anderson, for whom Gerwig voice-acted in Isle of Dogs, “but when somebody’s directed movies, they’ve been through this slightly crazy experience. It’s a slightly surreal thing to do with your life. To me, it means you’re good if you can make one good one and Greta is a veteran now. She’s established that she’s in command of it all.”

She is also but human. And while she may have been able to shield herself from the cacophony of takes post-Barbie, she was familiar with the 64 years of them pre-Barbie.

“Honestly, there was nothing but fear around all of it from the outset. You’re dealing with a topic that is already so filled with opinions, but the trick is to say well, instead of trying to tiptoe around it, what if we just stepped in it? And the whole undertaking was definitely like ‘Drive it like you stole it.’ Go, go, go. Don’t tell them, don’t tell them where we’re going.”

Coat by Gauchere; gown by Brandon Maxwell; earrings by Tiffany & Co; ring by Chanel Fine Jewelry.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Two days later, I meet Gerwig for breakfast at Buvette in the West Village. She arrives a tad late, hair damp, plops down in a booth, and promptly orders the first of three Americanos and two breakfasts. She was hardly “closed off” before; her mind is a cabinet of curiosities. An index of our chats would include: Beyoncé, Peter Bogdanovich, Joan Didion, the Coen brothers, Sarah Polley, Preston Sturges, fruits with “those little white outfits that you take off,” The Master and Margarita, a.k.a. “Wackadoodle Russia,” her obsession with Love Is Blind, and being “chuffed” at the Barbenheimer phenomenon. “Chris Nolan is one of my heroes, a proper auteur. It was an odd pairing, but it’s kind of like a film festival where you watch three movies a day.” But she seems more personally open today. Something is different. Perhaps that something is her son, Harold, who, mere hours ago, took a dump in the radiator.

“One more time?” I ask, pushing my menu aside.

“So the radiator is at the foot of his bed, and the cover is like a house with all these slats. We needed to get tools to take it apart. Also, the baby was up at 5 a.m., singing, which is cute, but oh my God. And then we had to get bleach and a bucket of water from the basement because, by coincidence, they’d turned off the water to our line of apartments.”

“Well, at least the radiator wasn’t on. Was the radiator on?”

“It’s that radiant heat you just can’t control.”

“Can I ask you a disgusting question, since we’ve crossed some kind of gross-out Rubicon? Was it—?”

“No, not per se. It was formed enough but it—”

“Hit every branch on the way down.”

“I read it as an accident. Noah reads it as a slightly more purposeful gesture.”

What, I wonder, are Harold’s gripes? Yesterday, Gerwig asked me if I “wanted to see a video of a baby laughing,” assuring me it was “her baby.” I watched footage of Isadore, convulsing with infectious giggles at his older brother. Aside from Harold’s unrequited love for a manual lawn mower at their friend’s home in Montclair, New Jersey, “he’s so happy. Also, he gets such good construction sites in New York. And he knows when the alternate side parking is because that’s when the street sweeper comes.”

Dress by Max Mara.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Gerwig alludes to general maternal guilt, but she also says that she and Baumbach will never direct a movie at the same time.

“The writer part of me was on strike during the Barbie promotion,” Baumbach explains, “so I was home a lot with the kids, which is great. It’s an enormous amount to take in at once, but Harold was also very young when Little Women and Marriage Story were both released. You just kinda do it.”

Considering her oeuvre, it’s a plot twist that Gerwig is surrounded by boys (“My dog—my dog is a girl”). She is also stepmother to 13-year-old Rohmer, Baumbach’s son with Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom he divorced in 2013. Gerwig says she has known Rohmer since he was two years old.

“Just the decibel level is just…how are three boys one hundred boys? If I had to pick, I probably imagined myself with girls. But I’m so delighted by these wonderful boys. It’s sort of like the questions I get about being a lady director. I can only ever be the director I am, which happens to be a lady director. Before Harold, I read all those books about ambivalent motherhood. I was scared because I really liked Rohmer as much as I loved him. But luckily, I’ve had a very beautiful experience.”

Hold on. There are entire books on what to do if you don’t love your children?

“You’d be surprised! I find all parenting books extremely stressful, as a genre, because the meta message in them is, ‘If you don’t do this right, your kids will be messed up forever.’

“Parenting is like directing,” she muses. “By the time you get to the end of a movie, you know how to direct that movie. You learn how to do it while you’re doing it, but then it’s over, the moment’s gone. And kids are like movies. You’ve never had this one before, you just don’t know what it’s got up its sleeve and is this going in, about the shit in the radiator?”

We decide to change the topic to something people do want to know about, at least in a less niche way. The speech.

There is an impassioned monologue embedded in Gerwig films, delivered by a woman who longs to be her most authentic self (“though, what Saoirse says in Little Women, that’s Louisa May Alcott”). In Barbie, America Ferrera delivers it.

Though Gerwig and Baumbach cowrote the screenplay, much of Barbie’s dialogue is rich with female experience. She confirms that the “play the guitar at you” wording is hers, though I don’t ask so much as demand a verbal confirmation. This is an organic process; it would be tricky to color-code who wrote what and Gerwig has a horror of outlines. They bring each other scenes, she says, “read them out loud and riff.” Still, theories abound regarding Ferrera’s monologue.

Dress and leggings by Balenciaga.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

“I can’t remember, honestly, but yes, I wrote it,” Gerwig says.

There’s clearly enough awareness of the speech’s importance to inspire theories between Baumbach and Gerwig themselves (“Noah has a totally different memory of it; he was like, ‘No, no, we were walking,’ and I was like, ‘No, I was sitting outside’”). Regardless, Gerwig quickly points to a third party: “It does not exist as it does without America. It’s hers by right, more than anyone else.

“That scene still really touches me. I see some of my friends’ teenage girls who don’t think they’re good enough, but they’re so beautiful and so smart and you just want them to know.

Gerwig was never taking requests, but now feels like a good moment to express my disappointment that another product of the ’90s, Teen Talk Barbie (played by Industry’s Marisa Abela), didn’t deliver her infamously offensive line: “Math class is tough!”

“Oh, we did it,” she emphasizes. “It just never fit because it was such a weird long list of crap she says, like it belonged in a horror movie.”

Gerwig pulls up the truly outrageous (shout-out to Jem) Teen Talk Barbie statements on her phone, beaming as she reads them out loud. It is, in fact, a weird long list of crap. But it would be funny even if it wasn’t all about malls and ponies and beach parties, even if it were sentences like, say: “I adore Sacramento! Truffaut was bigger for me than Godard. I love showpeople! I don’t like milk made from other things.” Even the most extraordinary women will sound silly when filtered through a doll. Gerwig’s feat was that she gave Barbie a soul while still having her speak exactly like herself.

“She directs as she is,” Baumbach says. “It’s not a performance, she’s utterly herself. Actors feel like here’s someone who is also laying themselves bare and it gives them confidence to let go of habits that they may have formed, to be brave. She’s just there without any pretense, figuring it out alongside everyone else and it’s inspiring to people. With Barbie, I saw her direct on set more than I have before, and I felt: She’s delivering a speech today? I don’t know that I’ve ever delivered a speech. It’s intoxicating. I will be a different director having gone through this movie with her.”

Coat by Ferragamo; dress by Max Mara; rings by Cartier.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Speaking of paradigm shifts, Hollywood has gone through three distinct ones in recent years: #MeToo, COVID, and the strikes. Gerwig is a three-guild member—writer, actor, director. It’s been “a lot of upheaval and reassessment,” she says. But will any lessons last? I ask her how much of the “swirling crap” that led to #MeToo ever hit her (poor phrasing, given the morning’s events). Gerwig is relieved to be “luckier than a lot of people in terms of not having truly traumatic things happen.” Part of this is, indeed, being “one step removed from the apparatus” because she lives in New York: “I get to use the studio system but I don’t have to live in it. And I’m conscious of not wanting to be too attached to what Hollywood thinks is a good or bad idea because I don’t want to know if my idea is ridiculous. And when you live in LA, you know everybody. They all know each other’s lawyers. I often don’t know who the powerful person in the room is.”

These days, it might be her.

“That being said, there’s plenty of stuff that happened in my life, when I look back at it. I’m like, wait a minute. That was not okay. Just a million little things. It almost didn’t register. Which might be generational, you know? I think one substantive change is intimacy coordinators. They make perfect sense. It’s like a fight choreographer. Nobody would ever say, ‘Just take these swords and see what happens, just duel a little and see where the spirit takes you.’ That’s insane,” she says. “Aside from being a woman, the parallel world I see is getting stuck in some whirlpool of development where you never get out, you never get the thing made or find the right champions. I’ve been extremely lucky that I’ve managed to be supported by the system and not eroded by the system.”

She has also been supported from the creative side, becoming someone who has both found the right champions and done some championing.

“My experience with directors is totally generous. They’ll get on the phone and talk to you about how they did it. It’s not guarded at all. I mean, everybody has their own ego and their own sense of competition, but if I asked, they would spend all day showing me how they did it. I know because I asked Steven Spielberg to do it before I shot Little Women. He showed me all his research from Lincoln, he showed me everything.”

“She’s a spectacular talent,” Anderson says. “When I showed Greta Moonrise Kingdom, she had the reaction you really hope for, it seemed to work for her in all the ways I wished for. It made me feel more than reassured, it made me think maybe I made something good.”

“I don’t want to miss it,” Gerwig says, last Americano down and seemingly more at ease discussing the magnitude of this year. “I don’t want to not take the extraordinariness in. And I do, I feel it, it’s incredible. But the thing that makes me not feel overwhelmed is to keep doing the work. Now, get back to work. Keep going.”

Trench coat by Gucci.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

Gerwig will “keep going” (she is, for one thing, slated to direct Netflix’s upcoming Chronicles of Narnia adaptation), but I have caught her in a period of creative tranquility. Right now, all her future film ideas are “little blobs” that she’s trying to protect while trying not to “internalize the pressure to live up to something.”

“But I don’t want to get too precious about making the ‘right’ decision. Two years ago, nobody thought Barbie was the right decision,” she says. “I want to give myself enough time to get lost so that I’m not so demanding of output to let it be uncomfortable. Not feeling like you have to be extremely productive is probably good for long-term health of the soil,” she continues. “Having my partner also be a filmmaker, I watch as he just starts on the next one.…”

“He chain-smokes them?”

“Yeah. Initially, I was like, ‘That’s so terrifying,’ that way of creating, because it took so long to build one castle. How are you already working on another castle?”

“Don’t you feel, though, that there’s a self-protective element? By the time the thing is out there in the world and there’s criticism, you’re safely on another planet.”

“That’s true but with movies, it’s more that it’s really scary to feel idle,” she answers.

Baumbach has a script ready to go.

“Are you in it?”

“No, not this one, sadly. I’ve been fired,” she jokes. “No, I was never in it.”

Gerwig says she hasn’t “done love at all, and I love a good love story. Not like romantic love. It doesn’t quite exist in my movies. The closest I came was in Little Women, with Laurie and Amy, and I felt very saved by my actors because I had such nervousness around it.”

“Because of the sincerity?”

“The performance of it. I was thinking about this while watching Love Is Blind. Obviously, I know there’s a feeling of being in love, but it’s also the way they act. Are they acting like they think people in love act? I know they feel a way, but are they also performing it? And then I just thought of everyone performing. When you’re in love and you say to someone, ‘I love you.’ Then they say back, ‘I love you too.’ Is everyone like, ‘Now I’m in the scene where we’re saying we love each other’? When I’m with my friends, I’m never like, ‘I’m in that scene where friends are having fun.’”

I wonder if she would ever make a movie in the vein of Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which is about love turned sour. Very sour.

“I don’t know if I would. I think yes. I’m scared of it, but in the right way.”

Trench coat by Gucci. Manicure by Maria Salandra. Tailor, Maria Del Greco. Set design by Viki Rutsch. Produced on location by Boom Productions.Photograph by Norman Jean Roy; styled by Natasha Royt.

For all her assuredness, for all the well-warranted logic of it, Gerwig has had the “fraudulence discussion” with herself before each movie, from her very first, and she’ll have it again. “At some point, the terror of never making anything becomes much bigger than the terror of making something bad”—and she knows this feeling is “not going away, there’s not some door you’re going to step through and then just have, like, certainty.” To make her point, she reads from a screenshot she took in 2022, while she was making Barbie. It’s a passage from Ingmar Bergman, another one of her heroes: “Persona was a breakthrough, a success that gave me the courage to keep on searching along unknown paths…”

She puts the phone down.

“I have enough faith in my skill level that I’m able to say, ‘This is what I need to do this kind of film, and I am the one to do it.’ Though limitations are also extremely helpful,” she says, cautious of drifting too far from creative shores. “But the nice thing about limitations is they always find you. You don’t have to go looking for them.”