Greta Gerwig stars in the 2013 black and white film ‘Frances Ha,’ which features the Unitarian Universalist congregation she grew up in.
The title character of Frances Ha, played by Greta Gerwig. (© Pine District, LLC, courtesy IFC Films)
Actress Greta Gerwig has emerged as one of the brightest lights of the independent film scene, establishing herself as a writer, director, and actress to watch through such acclaimed films as Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, and Greenberg. She co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach her most recent movie, Frances Ha (IFC Films, May 2013), about a rootless young woman’s quixotic pursuit of a living space of her own. Frances’s journey includes a visit to Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California, and a Christmastime visit to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento church that is her family’s spiritual home.
Taking a break from her European promotional tour for Frances Ha, Gerwig, 30, shared her thoughts about her UU upbringing and its influence on her work.
UU World: What prompted the decision to include a visit to the Sacramento church in Frances Ha?
Gerwig: Because the character goes home for Christmas, it seemed natural to include a church scene. I think holidays are where most people go to places of worship and we wanted to include that element in Frances. To me, it means “home.”
UU World: Did you grow up attending the UU church? Do you feel that the experience has influenced your work as an actress and writer?
Gerwig: Yes, I was born into the UU community. My parents were married [at the UU Society of Sacramento], and I had my “naming ceremony” in 1983 with the then-minister Ted Webb. My parents ended up leaving the church for a time in the 1990s but have since returned. My mom likes to say that having a time of a “walkabout” is almost part of being a Unitarian. I think religion has always been something that has occupied me as a person, and Unitarianism is the most complete expression of my multiple and, at times, contradictory thoughts about the spiritual life. I think the openness of the community allows for a greater variety of personal faith and ideas. It isn’t oppressively open, but generously so.
UU World: What are the elements of the church and its tenets that most resonate with you?
Gerwig: There is a gentleness and equanimity that expresses itself through the church that I think is incredibly rare and should be the cornerstone of any spiritual or religious practice. I love how open the church is, but that it also provides the structure and community of religion. I think I keep returning to a UU church again and again because it resonates with something deep inside of me that feels that all I really know is that I don’t know. Unitarian Universalism is the best place for me to experience the fullness of that sentiment of not knowing.
UU World: How did the minister and the congregation react when they were approached about being part of the film?
Gerwig: They were incredibly helpful and easy-going about the whole thing—they gave us total access to the space and Doug Kraft, the minister, and his wife, Erica Kraft, both participated fully by acting in the film and playing music. Members of the congregation also showed up on the shooting day and acted as extras.
UU World: Is the Frances Ha character highly autobiographical for you? What inspired you and Noah Baumbach to tell her story at this time?
Gerwig: Frances is a totally fictional character with some autobiographical elements. I think of the personal parts of the movie as garnish, as seasoning, not the meal. In its bones, the story is fictional and imagined, but it represents the best effort of my creativity to date.
This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (page 52).
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