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Greta Gerwig's rising star no surprise to some

28-year-old has 3 major releases this year


Actress-writer-filmmaker Greta Gerwig has three major movies in release just this year, and there's also a reportedly completed project that she wrote and stars in coming soon.

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Greta Gerwig has a remarkable career on her hands.

The 28-year-old actress-writer-filmmaker already has three major movies in release just this year: Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, Daryl Wein's Lola Versus and Woody Allen's To Rome With Love. There's also a reportedly completed Untitled Greta Gerwig Project, which she wrote and stars in.

Gerwig has succeeded through a combination of unaffected craft and artless talent. You see her up on the big screen, but you don't see an actress or even a character; you watch a person. She skipped through rough-edged, no-budget art films to more polished, modestly budgeted indies, and now to the point where she's been on a set with Allen.

All that Gerwig has achieved doesn't surprise anyone who knew her or worked with her in her formative years in Sacramento, Calif., where she was born.

Writer-director Anthony D'Juan was an artistic associate with Ed Claudio's Actor's Workshop when she attended classes there, and D'Juan directed her in a 2001 production of The Seagull.

"Everything that she is now, was completely apparent from the beginning," D'Juan said.

"From the first moment I saw her act I thought, 'I just need to get her into something I've written so I can document she was in one of my plays,' " D'Juan said.

He wrote the play Theory of the Dream for Gerwig, and she performed it in 2002 at the Actor's Workshop. A review of the production in the Sacramento Bee praised the young Gerwig's "sharp performance."

"Gerwig imbues her character with a spirited resolve that compels us to watch ..." I wrote about the 18-year-old actress 10 years ago.

After Gerwig's 2010 breakthrough in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott gave her on-screen presence a thorough analysis.

"She comes across as pretty, smart, hesitant, insecure, confused, determined -- all at once or in no particular order. Which is to say that she is bracingly, winningly and sometimes gratingly real," Scott wrote.

Does Gerwig posses some ethereal innate talent or has she absorbed a meticulous and now invisible level of craft?

It's likely both.

Sacramento acting guru Ed Claudio worked consistently with Gerwig from the time she was in elementary school through her high-school years at St. Francis.

"She was a natural actress and always made really good, sharp choices that were right on target. When she played Nina in The Seagull, she was Nina," Claudio said.

"As an acting teacher, the best you can do with people like that is draw out their talent, encourage them, and help them grow," Claudio said.

In the earnest micro-budget early movies that first earned Gerwig recognition, her naturalistic style was quietly melded with a deliberately handmade aesthetic.

Still, she stood out in the modest movies made with understated auteur Joe Swanberg. In Hannah Takes the Stairs and the more dramatically striking Nights and Weekends, which Gerwig also co-wrote and co-directed, her characters are the movie's real centers and she is performing, not simply playing an extension of herself.

Particularly in Nights and Weekends, which dissects the messy dissolution of a romantic relationship, Gerwig shows a dramatic range open to many possibilities.

Gerwig has a confident physicality and makes subtle adjustments from character to character.

Tall, lithe and athletic (she was a nationally ranked junior fencer as a teenager), she's not afraid to deglamorize her striking personal appearance. For Greenberg she said she imagined a character whose "thighs rubbed together when she walked." As Sally, Jesse Eisenberg's doctoral-candidate girlfriend in To Rome With Love, she makes herself just a bit shlumpy next to Ellen Page's nubile neurotic.

Gerwig works often and moves easily between small indie features and larger mainstream efforts such as the new Allen film. Her ability soars even when the movies she's in are falling flat.

If you need an example, just watch the 2011 remake of Arthur starring Gerwig and British comic actor Russell Brand. While you couldn't say she elevates the pedestrian material, her game Naomi Quinn emerges unsmudged from the celluloid wreckage around her.

In the similarly predictable No Strings Attached, Gerwig as star Natalie Portman's character's best friend drifted above the middling reviews of the film and occasionally earned standout notices, such as this mention from Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek: "And it's a stroke of genius to cast Greta Gerwig. ... Gerwig's space-case sense of timing gives her an air of mystery rather than predictability: Someone needs to cast her in a screwball comedy about a seemingly ditzy Nobel Prize-winning genius."

There is an unaffected grounding in Gerwig that is not an act. The magic she works in front of the camera seems there for the long run as well.

"She always, always had it," playwright D'Juan said. "She could just make the words work."

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