Film

Ryan Gosling’s New Frontier Is The Blockbuster Epic

We asked him what it was like to be punched in the face by Harrison Ford.

Ryan Gosling might be the last bastion of Old Hollywood stardom.

He still feels distinctly unattainable, despite how he’s embedded himself in the public celebrity consciousness. Unlike the zany, reachable stardom shilled by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson and the bulk of the Hollywood Chrises, Gosling is one of the last young Hollywood stars to really feel like a celebrity, in the traditional sense. Mysterious, private, glamorous and — most importantly — always just out of reach of us mere mortals.

This is why his prevalence in meme culture is so interesting. We find ways to try and reduce his celebrity, to bring him down to our level — he’s Feminist Ryan Gosling, he won’t eat his cereal, he’s a bird if you’re a bird — but still he retains that celestial loftiness that has mostly disappeared with the last celebrity generation, led by your Brad Pitts, Angelina Jolies and George Clooneys.

It’s why, regardless of what you think of La La Land or Gosling’s performance in it, his role in that film works so resoundingly well. He is Old Hollywood good looks, charm and masculine gruffness — a patchwork of Bogart, Grant and Peck with an added contemporary softness.

It’s interesting, then, to reflect on Gosling’s bizarre but suspiciously well-crafted career. There are few celebrities who have made zero missteps in their film trajectory, but Gosling’s run so far is arguably close to perfect. He made his mark on the indie scene performing diverse and complex roles in Lars And The Real Girl, Half Nelson and the excruciatingly depressing Blue Valentine. But he’s also played broader, as a delectable lover in tearjerker trash The Notebook, as a jacked dope in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and as a loutish private eye in The Nice Guys. Then there’s whatever the hell he was doing in Drive.

Now he’s on the precipice of a new kind of stardom: the unwieldy sort that comes when a star turns to a mammoth Hollywood franchise. Some stars commendably wrangle franchise attachment: The Hunger Games launched Jennifer Lawrence’s hugely successful career, Michael Fassbender has survived his involvement in the seemingly indestructible X-Men franchise, and Tom Cruise makes myriad franchises his business every year, even though he sometimes feels well past his prime. But Divergent has killed Shailene Woodley’s initially promising career, and Alexander Skarsgard had to work very hard in Big Little Lies to convince us to forget his turn in the indisputable flop The Legend Of Tarzan.

By far the saddest casualty of the Hollywood franchise is Chris Evans, a man who often publicly laments his choice to don the Captain American costume, and who is virtually unbankable outside a Marvel movie. But I think, again, Gosling has dodged the bullet. He’s chosen the wisest of all possible franchises to which to attach himself.

This week Gosling premieres his action epic chops in Blade Runner 2049, the surprisingly excellent sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult 1982 hit Blade Runner, itself based on Phillip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The film is a straight-up action film cloaked in art-film trappings (provided by the excellent Arrival director Denis Villeneuve and his production team), that apes cult cred off its beloved source material.

It’s a blockbuster that isn’t a blockbuster — brilliant.

Blade Runner 2049 is enjoying a swathe of highly enthusiastic reviews as it premieres worldwide this week, and it’s primarily impressed everyone by going from a film whose very existence we all questioned, to one of the best reviewed films of a (so far) stellar cinematic year. It’s hard not to compare 2049 with the OG Blade Runner, but there’s no doubt this new film deserves to exist: it’s riffing on the original, but it still presents an utterly compelling new tangent from which the original story diverges.

Yum.

And a large part of that appeal is Gosling’s open-faced, seething malaise as our blade runner hero, K. Many have argued, and I agree, Gosling is the only contemporary star who could even attempt to match the raw sexual appeal and gruff charisma of the young Harrison Ford — who is proving, with his resentful reprisals of all his best old roles, that he still retains much of that original attraction as a septuagenarian. But Gosling does well, and Blade Runner 2049 will count as another point on his impressive tally of successful roles.

Before the film’s premiere, I asked Gosling if he was nervous making the leap to franchises. “Not really in this case, because it’s Ridley and Hampton Fancher, who wrote the original, and Harrison Ford,” he said. “They all decided that this was the way the story should evolve and this is the time that it should happen, and I kind of felt like, ‘Well, who am I to argue? I should be happy to be a part of it.'” 

“It wasn’t at all like the experience I thought I would have on a big-science fiction film.”

The humility in that response eschews the obvious intelligence behind Gosling’s film selections; it’s clear at this stage he knows exactly what he’s doing when he signs onto a film, even something so out of his range as a sci-fi/action epic. But for Gosling, 2049 appealed in the same way a bare-bones indie flick would — “the script”.

“Even outside of the original film, the script is very, very moving and complicated and haunting,” says Gosling. “It asks similar questions that the original does, but it’s still very much its own film.” Like many of the best dystopian epics, Children of Men, Fury Road, and TV hit The Handmaid’s Tale, the film evolves from the idea that reproduction is central to progress. What is it to be human? it wonders. Or, in the case of the replicants in Blade RunnerWhat is it to be made, not born?

Vital postmodern questions aside, the success of Blade Runner 2049 (even in the trailer) hinges on the construction of a visually arresting future world.

“It’s an incredible universe that Ridley created,” Gosling tells me, “and it’s exciting dive into that and to expand on that universe and extend that story and those themes.” Beyond the characteristic rainy Los Angeles of Ridley’s original — grey buildings accented in bright neon — Villeneuve has built even stranger and more impressive landscapes, all wrought in orange, white and rusty-brown.

When I ask him what it’s like to act in a made-up world (something Gosling, having previously avoided SFX epics, is not used to), he explains, “Actually, it wasn’t very made-up. [Villeneuve] really went to every length that he could to make this environment real. Most of the sets are practical sets. Very little green screen. Props were fully functioning. It was a living, breathing universe, as far as all of us could tell.”

This is surprising, and impressive, once you see the film for yourself and appreciate its epic scale. Gosling too seems impressed by it all. “It wasn’t at all like the experience I thought I would have on a big-science fiction film,” he admits.

The look of the film soothes my concerns about the greywashed action blockbuster palate that’s so prevalent in recent flicks like The Avengers, The Mummy reboot and Rogue One. And it probably owes a great debt to Fury Road — indisputably the greatest action film of this decade, and the last to use that bombastic orange colour, and a good deal of practical filmmaking, to shock audiences out of their franchise-film dejection.

2049‘s specific look is also disturbing, as with many dystopian narratives, for how it suggests climate change might ravage our world. This part in particular resonated with Gosling when he read the script. He tells me he was drawn in by “the effect that we have had on the environment, and what it might be, and look like, to live in those nightmarish conditions.”

Gosling, a consummate professional as all traditional stars must appear to be, is quick with considered responses to all my questions. This is what it’s like, I realise, to talk to a bonafide A-Lister, someone ruthlessly trained for intense media attention. But one part of 2049 does shake his steely sensibility: Harrison Ford.

“What’s Harrison Ford like to work with?” I ask him slyly, “because I hear he punched you in the face on set.” Gosling starts, then stutters back, “Uhhh… he, he, he… Look, he did.”

Gosling seems a little less at ease with the accident than Ford, who when asked about the incident in GQ responded, “Gosling’s face was where it should not have been”. However, Gosling recovers quickly, explaining, “But, you know, it was just fun.”

He’s as experienced as he is talented,” he goes on, “and there’s just a lot to be learned from him on and off camera.”

When I ask him what exactly he’s learned, he’s animated once more. “Just the way that he approaches character and story, and his process on set, and the way he has an incredible balance between taking it very seriously and somehow not taking it seriously at all. He’s a very incredibly smart and gracious guy.”

We move on to some of the other stars Gosling has had the chance to work with. I’m fascinated by his ability to create such spellbinding chemistry with other people on-screen — most famously, Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid Love, and Stone again in La La Land. It’s a compliment he brushes off immediately.

I don’t think that’s to my credit, really,” he says. “They’re great actors, and it helps when you like them as people.

“In the case of Steven and Emma, we’ve worked together a few times, and that really helps. I think you spend a lot of time when you first work with someone kind of being polite. It’s nice when you get through that, because then you really — you’re not careful, and you can just hit the ground running, and you know them well enough that you can sort of help each other in the scenes. I hope I get a chance to work with Harrison again, because I’d love to get to that place with him, too.”

Gosling’s respectfulness toward his colleagues is a running theme in our conversation — and delightfully Canadian, I think — because when I ask him how he picks his projects he says, “It’s a filmmaker’s medium, so really it’s predominately about the filmmaker. Obviously, I have to feel a connection to the material and the character, but the deciding factor is whether I feel like I understand the director’s vision and feel like I can help him execute that.”

I ask him which is harder, drama or comedy (because by now he appears an expert in both) and he says, “Drama is a little more difficult, because it’s harder to know if it’s working. Comedy is funnier, especially when you’ve finished it and you’re watching with the audience. They’re laughing or they’re not, so you know if it worked or not. But with drama it’s much more personal and dependent on each person watching it, and harder to know how it’s resonating.”

“Indie films are still where I feel the most comfortable.”

When I ask which medium he prefers, he replies shrewdly, “You know, I wish that there wasn’t one or the other. The idea is when you can work on films that allow for both, they work really well together. So I think ideally you’d be able to embrace both of them in one.” 

We return to 2049 and he still seems in awe at the scale of it. I ask him if he’ll keep returning to the indies after this. “Yeah. That’s sort of where I started,” he says, “and still where I feel the most comfortable.

“I was very lucky on this film, too. Denis comes from that world, as well, so he handles the scale of it all in a way that makes it he’s also trying to create intimacy. I think that’s the thing that you feel that you’ll lose on a bigger film, but Denis found a way on this movie to maintain that, which is hard to do.”

When I ask him what’s different about working on a blockbuster, he thinks for a long while. “Everything!”

… Everything?

“Yeah,” Gosling says. “Everything. I’ve heard to compared to steering a cruise liner versus a speedboat. They’re very, very different. I was really… It was incredible, this Blade Runner experience. It was just so massive: the sets, the scope of the story, the scale of it all. It’s just unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

His awe makes sense, because 2049 is an entirely different kind of film experience. And when I ask him what part of Blade Runner was most challenging, he gives a wonderfully normal-guy response. “I think not talking about it,” he says, “having everyone sign a waiver when they came to set, not really being able to share the details with your friends. Even in these interviews not being able to talk about it much.

“But it’s also part of what’s made it a special experience, because so much care has gone into every detail of the film, every prop, every piece of clothing, every frame, every line, and even through this process to the very end, what information is shared and what’s not, all in the effort to create the best experience for the audience.”

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.