Greta Gerwig was taken with the idea of instant families.

“I know quite a few people whose parents have gotten divorced and they’re getting remarried, and they’re in this position of meeting people they would now be spending holidays with, which seemed a particularly modern experience,” she says.

This was the genesis of “Mistress America,” which she wrote with director (and her significant other) Noah Baumbach. In the film she plays Brooke, an early 30s dreamer in New York City who befriends a young student (Lola Kirke) who’s about to become her stepsister.

“I liked the idea of a 17-year-old, 18-year-old and a grown-up being thrown together like this, and the oddness of an instant family,” Gerwig, 32, says on the phone from Washington, D.C., where she’s promoting the film. “It’s so out of their control, it’s so the forces of fate working around them, and they form this real bond that goes beyond what their parents have already decided.”

Even though Gerwig is playing the ostensible adult in the relationship, her character is far from stable. Brooke’s big dream is to open a restaurant/hair salon/grocery store in the city — a dream Gerwig says isn’t all that far-fetched.

“I can’t tell you how many people I know in New York who have business plans like that,” she says with a laugh, “and some of them make it work.

“I’m interested in people who are strugglers,” Gerwig says. “Even though I’ve been lucky and I’ve experienced a lot of success and I’ve been able to do what I’ve wanted to do professionally — which is a minor miracle — I really feel often like a small-time hustler, kind of what Brooke is, sort of keeping it together from day to day.”

As small-time hustlers go, Gerwig has indeed enjoyed quite a bit of success. She started out as the queen of mumblecore, the extreme indie film movement, making her mark in movies like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Baghead.” That led to some Hollywood work (“Arthur,” “No Strings Attached”), but she’s mostly known for art house and indie fare — Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love,” Whit Stilman’s sublime “Damsels in Distress,” Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” with Al Pacino.

“Mistress America” is her third film with the New York-centric Baumbach, following “Greenberg” with Ben Stiller and the showcase “Frances Ha,” which she also co-wrote. Even though she was raised in Sacramento, California, Gerwig has become New York-centric herself.

“I think New York has always been a place for either immigrants from other countries or from other states. It really is re-invented by the people who choose it every generation,” she says. “So even though I’m not a native New Yorker, I feel a part of what makes New York New York.”

Which doesn’t mean she’s excluding mainstream Hollywood from her life. She just hasn’t been able to squeeze it in yet.

“I don’t have anything against big Hollywood movies or superhero movies, I think they’re great and great fun. For me, I try to know at each point in my career what I would drop everything for. At this point what I would drop everything for is the work I’ve created and the things that I’ve written,” she says.

“So it’s not that I’m not interested in those things, it’s just that the stuff I want to do has always taken precedent over those bigger projects,” Gerwig says. “If it fits in and doesn’t interfere with the weird movies I want to make, I would happily don a superhero suit.”

Read or Share this story: