America Ferrera & Greta Gerwig on ’Barbie’ & Reimagining Old Hollywood

On a bright but freezing January day in New York, America Ferrera was swirling a martini glass beside a baby grand piano in the Presidential Suite of New York’s Carlyle hotel, swathed head to toe in ivory silk, her hair styled into a high-volume bob so shiny it was nearly reflective. As she fished the olive from her drink and placed it suggestively between her front teeth, cocked her head, and gave the camera a sly side-eye, she looked like the type of bygone Hollywood heroine who could segue from hot-blooded seduction to melodramatic meltdown without mussing up her peignoir. Greta Gerwig, who directed Ferrera in the role of Gloria in last year’s pinked-out cultural juggernaut Barbie, calls that cinematic archetype a “broad.” It’s what inspired her for the day’s photo shoot, which she masterminded with the artist Mickalene Thomas.

“I love the word ‘broad’ because I think it’s so descriptive, particularly of certain women in film—those hopeful, dangerous, seductive characters we see ourselves in, the women we want to win even though maybe we shouldn’t,” said Gerwig, pointing to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity as one defining example. “And I think America could totally play those parts.”

It was during the editing phase of Barbie, she says, that she began to imagine that possibility. “You spend a lot of time looking at someone’s face, and you can’t help but picture them in different roles,” she says. “You’ll see a little moment and think, God, they would be good doing this other thing! You get kind of excited about it.”

America Ferrera wears a Fendi dress; Cartier watch; Jimmy Choo sandals.

Michael Kors Collection jacket, shirt, and pants; Graff ring.

Miu Miu dress; Graff earrings; Bulgari ring; Celine by Hedi Slimane sandals.

Equally thrilling for her: the prospect of working with Thomas, best known for her exuberant multimedia portraits of Black women, which she paints using personal and archival photographs as references, and embellishes with rhinestones, acrylic, enamel, and collage. (An exhibition of Thomas’s work will be on view at The Broad in Los Angeles in May.) As Ferrera changed into a backless gold gown and positioned herself against the gilded wallpaper in a narrow hallway, Thomas grabbed her camera and arched into a one-armed bridge pose, crab-walking into a corner to get the perfect angle. “I learned this move from David LaChapelle,” she said over her shoulder. “This is why yoga is so important for photographers.”

Gerwig had seen Thomas’s solo show, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” at the Brooklyn Museum a decade ago, and it left an impression. When asked to suggest a collaborator for the shoot, she quickly determined that Thomas was, she said, “the dream. I wanted something that felt big and bold, and Mickalene brought exactly that kind of drama.”

The choice ended up being ideal for Ferrera, too, who prefers to work with female photographers. “I feel different when it’s a woman behind the lens,” she says. “There tends to be less direction about what to do with my body, and that kind of direction is one of the most uncomfortable things for me because I’m not a model, I’m an actress. My overwhelming experience with male photographers is a lot of ‘lift your head here’ and ‘move your arm there’ and ‘arch your back’—almost being moved around like a doll, which makes me feel totally lost. With women, there’s a little bit more freedom and focus on your soul coming through.”

Christopher John Rogers gown; Chopard High Jewelry earrings; Graff ring.

Like Gerwig, Ferrera is a huge fan of old movies. As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Honduran immigrants, she worshipped Bette Davis and watched Now, Voyager on repeat. But, she says, she wasn’t immediately convinced that channeling a golden-age siren would work for her. “The idea of going back in time felt kind of anachronistic to me because women like me weren’t in those roles, so I would be playing this thing that I had never really seen myself in,” she said. The fact that she would be working with Thomas allowed her to embrace the concept. “Seeing Mickalene’s work and how she honors women of color, I felt like, Okay, I can make it feel natural.”

Not just natural, said Thomas, but powerful. “It’s important for us, women like you and me, to own these spaces as well,” she says. “Just because we weren’t represented in that era in the visual sense doesn’t mean we didn’t cultivate that culture. We were also a part of the conversation. We were there!”

A week later, the women reconvened on Zoom. Gerwig—who was back in London, where she’s living temporarily while her husband and frequent cowriter, Noah Baumbach, is filming a movie—joined a few minutes late because her dog had eaten a bowl of raisins that her 5-year-old, Harold, had left on the floor. “I didn’t know raisins were toxic for dogs,” she said. “It was an exciting thing! We took her straight to the vet, and they gave her a shot. They said, ‘She’ll be sick now for the next 30 minutes.’ And it was terrible! She made a sound at the end that I’ve never heard from a dog: Quack! Quack! I was like, ‘That’s not right!’ ”

Fendi dress; Chopard earrings and necklace; Cartier watch.

Ralph Lauren Collection dress; Van Cleef & Arpels ring.

Happily, Wizard—as the mini Bernedoodle is called—was now fine, and the subject quickly turned to the photos, which they all agreed came together with a rare degree of synchronicity. As Ferrera said, “There was this wordless faith that we were all on the same page.” It helped, of course, that she and Gerwig had spent more than a year essentially living inside each other’s brains. Their relationship on Barbie went beyond that of actor and director. Ferrera, who is gearing up to direct her first feature, an adaptation of Erika L. Sánchez’s young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, about a teen grappling with the death of her seemingly flawless sister, asked Gerwig for advice and ended up shadowing her not only on set but in the months leading up to filming. “Even when they were in London and I was in New York, I would Zoom in for their visual effects meetings. And then, once I got to set, she let me sit in on her and [cinematographer] Rodrigo Prieto’s meetings, and she shared all the ways she preps,” said Ferrera, who hopes to begin shooting her movie later this year. “It was amazing but also daunting. I’m glad I’m starting with a smaller production.”

Before they teamed up on Barbie, Gerwig and Ferrera had been circling each other for ages. Close contemporaries (Gerwig turned 40 this past August, Ferrera in April), they kicked off their careers at the same time; in 2006, when Ferrera rose to fame as the star of Ugly Betty—the hit ABC comedy about a style-challenged but wise-beyond-her-years fashion magazine assistant—Gerwig was appearing in early Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg films, making a name for herself as a mumblecore It girl. “I feel like I grew up with her, even though I obviously did not,” said Gerwig of Ferrera. “She was becoming very famous for Ugly Betty right as I was starting out. I remember my friends and I watched her win awards and were like, She’s amazing! We had this feeling about her. She was really doing it in such a clear, big way just as I was fumbling through the beginnings of things.”

For many years the two, both native Californians based in New York, shared the same publicist, who later became Ferrera’s manager, “so we sort of knew each other,” said Gerwig. “I knew if I saw her anywhere, it would be normal if I talked to her.” When Barbie was greenlighted, Gerwig and Baumbach thought of Ferrera for the role of Gloria, an executive assistant at Mattel who inadvertently summons Barbie to the real world and, with a monologue about the impossible contradictions of modern womanhood that ended up being the heart of the film, saves Barbie Land from the patriarchy. “She was in my mind and Noah’s mind when we were writing, even though we didn’t tell her at the time,” Gerwig recalled. “It was the same with Ryan [Gosling, who plays Ken]. And then one day I was like, Oh, I gotta tell them! Luckily, it worked out.” (An understatement, given that both Ferrera and Gosling received Oscar nominations.)

Erdem dress and slip; Boucheron earrings and ring; Chopard bracelet; Celine by Hedi Slimane sandals; stylist’s own scarf.

Ralph Lauren Collection dress; Van Cleef & Arpels ring and bracelet.

The draw, said Gerwig, was Ferrera’s ability to “defy categorization. She can play someone who has something irrepressible inside her; she can play someone who hasn’t given in to her own desires; she can play someone who’s made herself little—she can do all of these different things, and you always believe it! I’ve never seen her do anything on-screen that looks anything other than utterly truthful.”

According to Ferrera, the key to such genuine performances is that a role—be it in a blockbuster or in a photo shoot—make sense in her own mind. Gloria’s famous monologue, for example, resonated with her from the first moment. “I think the reality of the situation is that I’ve been a woman for 40 years and so has Greta, and when I read what she’d written, there wasn’t that much to say about it other than ‘yeah.’ ” Still, she said, “Greta wanted everybody to completely own the work they were bringing to the movie, and so right off the bat, she was like, ‘What’s missing? What else would you say in your words?’ ” Ferrera sent some notes and, she says, “there was a nugget of something in there, which was the line about how we’re always expected to be grateful, which Greta added and then expanded on with ‘but never forget that the system is rigged.’ It was months of sharing articles and newsletters and TikTok videos and TV episodes and op-ed pieces about the experience of womanhood, and seeing how the essence of what this monologue said lived out in real time in the culture.”

In a sense, the speech was the distillation of what Gerwig has been exploring throughout her entire career. In addition to all of her impressive official stats—highest-grossing film ever made by a woman, the only female director to have her three movies nominated for Best Picture—she’s the filmmaker most likely to ace the Bechdel test, which gauges the representation of women in film and literature. Unlike the commercially powerful female directors who have preceded her, most of them best known for hetero rom-coms, Gerwig focuses on relationships between women: between friends (Frances Ha), between sisters (Little Women), between mother and daughter (Lady Bird). And with Barbie, she zoomed all the way out on that subject. To hear her tell it, this wasn’t a premeditated pattern. “I don’t outline, and I don’t write treatments ahead of time. I write about what’s exciting to me, and more often than not, it’s a lot of ladies,” she says. “Sometimes it catches me by surprise because I’m like, Ohhh, I thought this one was, er, different? But I do really enjoy women. I do.”

That was very clear at the Carlyle, as Gerwig DJ’ed on her phone, queueing up Tina Turner and then transitioning into a sultry cover of “You Don’t Own Me.” Standing behind Thomas as she snapped away, Gerwig was a one-person hype squad, singing, dancing, and piping out a steady stream of positive affirmations. “Oh, that’s so beautiful!” she said, as Ferrera pointed her toe and shifted her hips. “So goooorgeous! Ughhh, my god! You’re just so great!”

Miu Miu dress; Graff earrings;Bulgari ring; Celine by Hedi Slimane sandals.

Hair by Nikki Nelms for Briogeo at the Only Agency; makeup by James Kaliardos at the Wall Group; manicure by Deborah Lippmann for Deborah Lippmann at Home Agency. Set design by Griffin Stoddard at Streeters.

Produced by Hudson Hill Production; Executive Producer: Wei-Li Wang; Production Manager: Jacob Gottlieb; Production Coordinator: Arbelis Santana; Photo assistants: Guillermo Cano, Tony Jarum; Digital Technician: Chrissy Connors; Retouching: Dtouch Creative; Fashion assistants: Molly Cody, Celeste Roh, India Reed; Production assistants: Linette Estrella, Trevor Carr, Andy Zalkin, Jack Eddy, Chris Hagan; Hair assistant: Jazmine Henry; Makeup assistant: Hiroto Yamauchi; Set design assistants: Vivian Swift, Addison Vawters, Jordan Yasmineh; Tailor: Isa Kriegeskotte.

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