03.18.10

My Big Break with Ben Stiller

Greta Gerwig, who co-stars in the new movie Greenberg, recounts walking around Los Angeles and trespassing at the Chateau Marmont—with $97.89 in her bank account.

I have just gotten the role of Florence Marr in Noah Baumbach’s new film Greenberg. I will be acting opposite Ben Stiller. Florence is simultaneously a hundred girls I’ve known and a completely individual soul. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach wrote this strange, stunning, human love story between Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a 40-year-old lost man, and Florence, a twenty-five-year old lost woman, meeting and trying to make sense of each other and the world in the city of Los Angeles.

There is a Baja Fresh next door to the hotel. Or it looked like it was next door when I drove by it coming in from the airport. In reality, on foot, it takes 20 minutes to get there.

This is my actual Big Break. Or that’s what my mom keeps saying. I have done films before, some of them make me proud. I’m not completely green. “But, Greta: it’s BEN STILLER,” she says. It’s strange that Big Breaks still exist. I think my mom thinks that I’m in There’s Something About Mary 2.

I have $97.89 in my bank account. I Scotch tape the ATM receipt into my notebook. I keep all ATM receipts that fall under $100.00—proof that I can survive and bounce back from what feels like the end of the world. My lease was up in New York, so I boxed up everything I owned. The only clothes I have with me are Florence-esque: a lot of chunky sweaters and old T-shirts. Florence and I do not dress the same. We’re not even the same size—I’ve gained weight to play her. Along with the frumpy vintage clothes, I brought some big earrings and a big belt my mom had given me, because, as she says, big accessories “pull the eye away from your face and body.”

Landing, lines, luggage. Car to the hotel.

I will be moved into an apartment for the shoot, but for now I am staying in the very new, very fancy Sofitel, right across from the Beverly Center. There is a television above the bathtub. There are people to come turn down my bed. There are so many buttons to push.

The hotel is covered by the studio, yes, but “we’re going to need a credit card for incidentals.” Shit. I don’t have a credit card. I smile very nicely at the man behind the desk and kind of shake my head. He, the name tag says Dan—Dan the Angel—understands. He leans in slightly: “Just try not to touch anything, okay?”

I’m sure I can call someone and get a loan or advance or something. But if I do that, perhaps it will somehow tip the scales of the universe. Maybe part of the delicate balance of my extraordinary luck is my current poverty. I don’t call anyone.

I have the day to myself. I think about taking a nap but I can’t sleep. How can I sleep? In junior high I watched Reality Bites until the VHS went fuzzy. In high school I had dorkily memorized every line Jennifer Jason Leigh said in The Hudsucker Proxy. In college I stood in line to hear Noah Baumbach read at the New Yorker Festival. There is no way I can nap. I am going to explore.

The hotel gym offers healthy snacks for their more athletic guests! I put on a vaguely work-out-looking outfit. I go down and put in five minutes on the elliptical to establish my fitness intentions. And then I fill my purse with apples and almonds.

I wander into the lobby, eating an apple. My money situation seems right for Florence. I’m certain Florence spent a weekend or two with no money, lifting up her couch searching for change to buy cigarettes, and maybe even buying Kools because the deli was running a 2 for 1 special.

I’m still hungry. I decide against using the car provided for me. What if I hurt myself? Or someone else? Or the car?

There is a Baja Fresh next door to the hotel. Or it looked like it was next door when I drove by it coming in from the airport. In reality, on foot, it takes 20 minutes to get there. Crossing the street is epic.

The “al fresco dining” is basically in a parking lot. I love it. I love the weather and the chain Mexican food. I see another taco stand down the street. I decide I want to go there next. I almost always want Mexican food, even while I’m eating it.

I walk. I have a map. In the version of the script I have, Florence goes to a party at the Chateau Marmont. I should check that out. It doesn’t look that far away on the on my Streetwise Los Angeles.

I am walking and sweating. This is uphill. Another thing I didn’t notice in the car. Los Angeles has little gaps, little places of life–like the stoplights. There are whole worlds happening at stoplights.

I touch the script in my purse. I cannot believe that I have this part. I love the writing so much, have already read it and re-read it so many times that now I just touch the pages.

I pass a fellow walker–there it is, an instant bond. He actually tips his invisible hat to me.

Arrive at the Chateau. It just feels cool. Cooler than me. “Are you meeting someone here?” I nod. I am ushered to a couch.

For an hour, I sit on the couch and people watch and eavesdrop. No one bothers me. I decide I love it here. Loves: Baja Fresh, Chateau Marmont. In order to look busy, I start imitating the waiting people around me–I look up expectantly every time someone enters and make “Is that you?” eye contact. I’m good at this game. It seems like everyone here is meeting someone they don’t know.

The girl who looks like a supermodel but who is just a receptionist starts giving me funny glances. I think it’s time to go.

I look at my map. I look at the sun. I want to keep moving. I want to do everything all in one day. I need to know this city for the movie, for the character, for my own current peace of mind.

The 4 Metro Local bus line goes straight to Santa Monica—I will go to the beach.

It takes an hour to get there. I watch the neighborhoods change. I listen to Spanish, Korean, English. I smile for no reason.

I put my feet in the water and hear my cell phone die in my pocket. No car, no phone. I basically don’t exist. I walk back up to the 3rd Street Promenade. A man in rollerblades gives me a sample of frozen yogurt. Someone very close by is smoking pot. This is exactly what I thought Los Angeles would be like. Love, everything.

I fall asleep on the bus back. Magically wake up before my stop. The sun is low in the sky.

I charge my phone and eat another gym apple. There are messages! There are things to do tonight! I need to call people back! “Ben, Jennifer, and Noah want to have dinner.” I can’t think of these people as just being “Ben, Jennifer, and Noah.” I don’t think I ever will be able to think of them that way.

I panic. I have no clothes that are appropriate. Why didn’t I think of this?

I am behind the wheel. I am driving there. I can do this. I belong here. The Hollywood Hills look so beautiful with the sun setting over them. I think, sincerely, genuinely: If you live in the Hills, you can never see how beautiful the light looks on them. You can never appreciate the beauty when you are fully in it.

I am outside the door. I tug on my culottes and T-shirt. I tried to dress them up with the big earrings. I knock. I hope my mom is right.

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Greta Gerwig co-stars opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's newest film Greenberg . Greta co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in Nights and Weekends , which sold to IFC; in addition, she was also the lead in the Sony Classics' film Baghead , which debuted at Sundance, and was the lead in 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs .