Since he first became a household name in 2004 weepie The Notebook, Ryan Gosling has demonstrated a remarkable versatility in his performances, a quality further demonstrated in his latest film, a cinematic musical called La La Land.
In the musical, La La Land, Ryan Gosling stars as Sebastian, a frustrated piano player who falls for the irresistible charms of Emma Stone’s aspiring actress, Mia. “I saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Gosling of his initial attraction to the film. “It was an original musical created specifically for the screen. It was an opportunity to work with Emma. We were going to be shooting it in Los Angeles, in real locations, and it was an opportunity to work with Damien Chazelle who’s at such a fantastic point in his career.”
One of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year, La La Land comes from 31-year-old director, Damien Chazelle, who became an overnight sensation when his second movie, Whiplash, was nominated for five Academy awards (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) last year. “I originally wrote this well before Whiplash,” says Chazelle of La La Land, a modern-day musical steeped in the genre traditions of Hollywood’s golden age and the French New Wave. “Ryan and Emma, of course, had the two things that I really needed to make this gambit work, which is old school charisma, they feel like old school movie stars – and yet at the same time they’re also very real and relatable,” says the director. “And they were also willing to take the plunge. It was a big challenge for both of them to do this.”
Since his 2001 breakthrough in The Believer, Ryan Gosling has remained a favorite among film fans, worldwide. His movies include the 2004 box office hit, The Notebook, Half Nelson (for which he received an Oscar nomination in 2007), Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Blue Valentine (2010), Drive (2011), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), The Ides of March (2011) and most recently, Adam McKay’s The Big Short. We spoke with him about his latest film at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
Why did you want to make La La Land? What attracted you to the project?
I saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was an original musical, created specifically for the screen. It was an opportunity to work with Emma Stone. We were going to be shooting it in Los Angeles, in real locations, and it was an opportunity to work with Damien Chazelle who’s at such a fantastic point in his career.
It was a tall order. But it was also a great opportunity.
Are you a fan of musicals, yourself?
I’m more a fan of the movies that this film references – the films of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, musicals of the ’50s and late ’40s. But I never imagined that I would have an opportunity to make one. I just thought it was so ambitious for Damien Chazelle to want to make an original musical. He already had been working on it for years; all the music was ready and he already had the film shot in his head. He was somebody who was obviously possessed by this idea. As an actor, that’s who you want to go to bat for. You want to give yourself over to a director that’s willing to put it all on the line.
What was the biggest challenge making the film?
Well, the character is a genius piano player and I’m not (laughs)… I knew from watching Whiplash that it was important to Damien, who’s a musician himself, that the playing feel authentic. Also so much of the way that Damien wanted to shoot this film was in long, single-takes, without any cuts. So there was nowhere to hide. I had to really learn how to play those pieces, if I was going to do the film. You also really have to be able to do those dance routines from beginning to end without messing up too badly because, again, the whole take is built on being able to not cut. So those were challenges.
What did you do to get ready?
I played [piano] for four hours a day for about two and a half months, along with dance practice.
So you can play the piano now?
I can play the pieces in this film, which, thank god, they’re beautiful, because it would be pretty annoying for everyone in my house, otherwise (laughs)… You know the whole house was a fun place for the months that I was preparing, because I was watching musicals or playing piano or listening to music from the film. It was an amazing preparation. I’ve never had something so energizing before – going from piano to dance to singing or just working on the film, in general. It was really exciting.
What kind of films did you grow up watching?
I grew up on comedies. Abbott and Costello, Gene Wilder – broad comedies.
You took a bit of a break from acting and now you’re back with Nice Guys (opposite Russell Crowe) and this film. How did you make it fun again for yourself?
Well, I really loved directing my film (Lost River, 2014). It was energizing for me… I was really inspired after making that film.
Did it change your approach to acting?
Paul Bettany had a funny line. He directed a film recently as well (Shelter, 2014) and he said, “I’ll never argue with a director while the sun is going down, again.” (Laughs)… So yes, you have more of an awareness. It’s easy when you’re an actor, or in any department, to just see the film from that perspective. The costume person thinks the movie is about costumes. The stunt people think it’s a stunt movie. Actors think it’s all about performance. But when you direct a movie, it’s all of those things and so it’s helpful to keep that in mind when you go in and you’re playing a role.
Tell us more about your character, Sebastian.
He’s a jazz pianist. Maybe if he had been born 70 years earlier, he would be considered in the company of his heroes. But in a contemporary climate, he’s just a background player at a bar. And so he walks a line between being a purist and a snob. He’s trying to find a way to not compromise himself to the point where he feels it’s a betrayal of everything he’s worked for, but at the same time he’s not a kid anymore and he has to find a way to make a living.
Was that something you could relate to?
I have more choice in what I do right now than this character does. But I certainly could understand his frustration.
How did you approach the dance numbers?
The way Damien structured it…Well, for example, there’s this one big number that you’ll see in the film. It starts with Emma and I doing a scene, which turns into a song, and then it becomes a whole dance number. And it all happens just as the sun is going down on Mulholland Drive. We had practiced it for three months, so that when we got there… it’s a six-minute take without any cuts and we have to not only get the scene right and the song right, but the dance routine right. We have to do it all in choreography with the camera, and we have to get it before the sun goes down… It was a challenge. But what an incredible challenge. All of us working together for the same goal, every department knowing what their job was. It was exciting to see a crew, actors and a location, all working together to create this one magical moment.
What was it like working with Emma Stone again?
This is the third time we’ve worked together (Crazy, Stupid, Love, 2011; Gangster Squad, 2013; La La Land, 2016). You spend so much time the first time you work with somebody being polite, trying to respect their process. But once you work with somebody a few times, that goes away and you really are just working together immediately. You’re not precious with each other. You don’t have kid gloves. You’re able to just roll up your sleeves and really get to work.
According to Emma, the last time you danced together (in Crazy Stupid Love), she was afraid you were going to drop her.
I never did! So that’s all in her head (laughs)…
Were you a good dancer prior to making La La Land?
I thought I had it in the bag because when I was a kid I was doing ‘the running man’; I thought I’d mastered that and that it would apply to every other genre of dance. Turns out tap dancing is a lot harder than ’90s hip-hop (laughs)… It was a bit like that movie The Cutting Edge, where the hockey player has to figure skate. I wasn’t familiar with any of this kind of dancing. I had taken a little tap before, but it’s different when you have to do it in time with someone else.
After all the hard work, do you still have the musical bug?
Well, I’m still playing the pieces from this movie… I think that’s a testament to how good the music in the film is, that I still love it. You know, I think this a very special film. It’s very ambitious. It celebrates film and filmmaking. It pays homage to the films that came before, but it also tries to take things a step further. It’s an exciting film to watch and an exciting one to have been a part of.