Ryan Gosling on the violence of femininity

The star of the adrenalized Cannes' hit "Drive" talks about why he didn't want to make another macho film

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 23, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)

at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)    (Joel Ryan)
at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan) (Joel Ryan)

CANNES, France -- "Drive," the stylish Los Angeles heist movie that has emerged as a smash hit at this year's Cannes Film Festival, started with a first date. That getting-to-know-you encounter was between Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, who had directorial approval on this long-simmering adaptation of James Sallis' noirish novella. In conversations here, both men have described their relationship in highly sexualized terms, while occasionally resorting to awkward reminders that in fact they're both straight, ha ha ha, and nothing like that really happened.

As they tell the first-date story now, Refn was ill with the flu and after they met for dinner Gosling wound up driving him home. (Refn does not drive, an irresistible if irrelevant footnote to this movie.) The ride was uncomfortably silent until Gosling switched on the radio, and REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" began to play. Refn cranked it up and started singing along. Suddenly he understood the movie, he told Gosling: A guy driving around in Los Angeles at night, listening to the radio.

As the actor and director were changing tables during interview sessions at a beachfront restaurant here, Refn took Gosling by the wrist. "I've been telling them that you took advantage of me, Ryan," he said. "You got me alone in the car when I was tired, and you played soft-rock music to get me in the mood."

"Then I gave you a baby," said Gosling, with an almost angelic smile. "A movie-baby." Before moving on to his next interview, he murmured, "I hate following Nicolas. People are always asking me, 'So -- does Nicolas really make love like an eagle falling from the sky?'" He shrugged. "I guess."

Both guys were still riding high on the explosive success of the previous night's premiere screening -- Refn would eventually win the festival's best-director prize, and if there were an audience award at Cannes, I suspect "Drive" would be the runaway winner -- so the pseudo-erotic giddiness was pretty understandable. By the time Gosling got to my table and sat down, he was in a calmer mood, eager to discuss his nameless character's psychotic personality, the hidden influence of underground film pioneer Kenneth Anger and the reasons why "Pretty in Pink" isn't quite a masterpiece. When he took off his linen jacket to reveal his muscular arms in a striped tank top, with a single, simple tattoo on his upper left triceps, you could almost feel the eyes of onlookers as they casually pretended not to stare. But as undeniably handsome as Gosling is, much of his allure derives from the sense that he's been elusive and highly selective in his acting career as an adult, and seems more interested in making good movies than in making millions of dollars.

So "Drive" is now officially a huge hit, at least at Cannes. It could be because we're all beaten down after two weeks of challenging art films, and we wanted a change of pace. What was your reaction to the screening last night?

I was shocked. I didn't expect people to cheer like that. At one point after the film I think we started dancing -- people were clapping on the beat and stuff. I didn't expect it to be so much fun. I didn't expect people to have so much fun, and I'm sure you're right, it has a lot to do with the timing.

I'm sure they brief you on how it's going to go -- we'll pick you up at a certain time and at this point you walk up the carpet, all of that. But what's it like when you actually do it -- a red-carpet premiere at Cannes?

I had spent the night before -- at 2 a.m. we went to the Palais, just five or six of us, and we sat and watched a little bit of the print, just to check the color and sound. Apparently they only go to 7, but we made them go to 7.5. It was loud in there, but I think it could have been louder. It was a very special experience to get to be there alone, see the film, walk around in the theater when it was empty. It made going there the next day less nerve-wracking.

Then of course REO Speedwagon was playing when we came down the red carpet, I was wearing a blue tuxedo and I felt like me and Nic were going to prom. [Laughter.] And then everyone just seemed to have so much fun at the screening. It was just a magical night.

At the press conference, Nicolas said something about your character being psychotic but not a psychopath, and I wasn't sure I understood that. How do you understand the Driver?

He's someone who's seen too many movies. He has seen so many movies that he's begun to confuse his own life with one.

Are you talking about violence of his character or the sense of restraint? Because both of those things are in there.

Well, both. The duality of the film really came from the fact that we were watching "Pretty in Pink" and we agreed that if there was a good, old-fashioned head-smashing in it, it would be the perfect film. The lack of violence was keeping, say, "Sixteen Candles" from being a masterpiece.

In some ways the Driver is kind of a macho icon, like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, and in some ways he's not. I noticed that he never lies and never brags. He doesn't threaten anyone, unless he means it. He never tries to come on to the girl.

Yeah, I guess you're right. It never felt right to talk much. We never talked about those classic, archetypal characters -- the strong, silent type -- but every time I started talking, it didn't feel right. Maybe that's just me.

This movie has basically no exposition or back story, so we really don't know anything about the Driver or his past -- how long he's been working as a stuntman and getaway driver, where he comes from, any of that. Did you and Nicolas work all that stuff out?

Well, I'm used to figuring out the minutiae of the character, and Nicolas could care less. He wants to think in dream logic, and it was so freeing to think that way. This movie's a dream that's turning into a nightmare, and you're experiencing this story from the inside of Driver's world. This could just be his fantasy or his nightmare. It's not literal. So we didn't really think about those things.

You made this movie with a foreign director who's never worked in L.A. before and doesn't know how to drive. It seems like that would pose a distinctive set of challenges.

I've never made a film like this before, so I don't know what it would be like with someone else. But it was a nice chemistry -- my favorite thing to do in Los Angeles is drive around at night and listen to music. I like to listen to this radio show where family members call in and dedicate songs to other family members who are in prison. Some woman will dedicate a song to some guy named Winky who's getting out in six months: "Stay safe and keep your head down." So I started taking Nic into that world, which is driving around at night and listening to music, and the spell that a car puts you under. You get in the car and turn the key, and suddenly you've arrived at your destination and you don't remember how you got there. That kind of trance that it puts you in. The movie became more about driving than about stunts, and more about being in the car than about the car itself.

At the press conference you said something about how you didn't want this movie to be macho.

I just think there's enough of that. This frat guy mentality, posturing and secret handshakes. It's just been done. I thought it would be nice to make this film with a certain femininity about it. I mean, the female praying mantis eats the male praying mantis when she's done mating with him, and she does it because the protein ensures the health and well-being of the newly fertilized eggs. What could be more brutal than that? But it's not personal. It's just her nature. There's a violence to femininity that we wanted to explore.

So do you think of the character as feminine in some ways? He has this very calm, polite, civilized manner so much of the time, and then when he explodes into violence it's pretty terrifying.

I think we tried to make a werewolf movie without the makeup. There's a violence in him that he's afraid of. He's in a race to try and find a good cause that he can channel it into, before it turns on him.

He clearly falls in love with Carey Mulligan's character, but when he figures out that she's married and that her husband is coming home from prison, he's totally respectful of that. He backs off, although it's not so clear that she wants him to.

Well, it's a non-sexual connection. That was key for us, when we took out the sexuality and it became more about how he was her knight, and his duty was to serve her in any way, and to die for her. That was his destiny. She was a princess locked in the tower, and he needed to defend her and slay a dragon.

Look, you're this very accomplished young actor with great cheekbones and visible triceps. [Laughter.] You must be shown every crappy action script in the world. What makes this a movie you wanted to pull the trigger on?

It felt like this was an opportunity to play a character that had seen all those films, like I said earlier, and who was reinventing himself as some amalgamation of all those heroes that he had grown up worshiping.

You're working here with so little dialogue. You have to express so much with just your eyes and your face.

Well, it was complicated not to try to tell the story. That's what you get trained to do as an actor, help communicate the story. In this movie my job was to let Nicolas tell the story, and just to be there. To help create space, space for the audience to think whatever they want to think, and not try to control what they're thinking every minute. It's hard just to allow there to be space.

You had to create chemistry with Carey in near-total silence. So much of your relationship is just looking at each other.

It was funny on set, because sometimes we would just stare at each other for hours. It became like a joke. One time I went in to do a scene with Albert Brooks, it's a big scene and he's got a lot of dialogue. He asks me if I want a drink and I don't answer him, and it was driving him nuts. After I did the first take, he said, "You'll say something. I'll ask you if you want a drink and you'll nod your head or shake it, but you'll give some indication. This not talking thing, it's not working. It's interesting, you've tried it, but it's clearly weird. You'll say something."

Did you crack? Did you say something?

No. No, but while you're doing it you're constantly feeling this pressure to do something. But then you reach these moments -- for instance, there's a natural harmony between a man and a woman and a child, when they're all in the same space with one another. If you allow there to be silence, you can hear it. You don't have to act like a man, or act like a sexy woman, or act like a cute, ironic, funny kid in order to communicate. That almost drowns it out.

Obviously the driving scenes are a big attraction in the movie, and they're really distinctive. I assume those take a long time to set up and shoot.

It was frustrating, because I learned how to actually do those stunts, and I just wanted to do them. You have to shoot them and set up rigs and lights, and that part of it is very frustrating. It does look beautiful. I can tell you that the process of learning to drive like that was pretty exciting. I went with the stunt coordinator to this church parking lot with a new Mustang or a new Camaro, and we would do stunts until it started smoking or caught on fire. Then some tow truck would take it away and we'd go home and wait until they found us another car. I've never had more fun on a film, ever. But it's a skill you can't use, a hobby you can't really indulge. There's no place to do it!

When you talk about the Driver as a guy who has seen too many movies and begins to identify with them too much, do you ever feel that way yourself?

When I was a kid, in first grade I saw "First Blood." And the next day I filled my Fisher-Price Houdini kit with steak knives and took it to school and threw them at the kids at recess.

No, you didn't!

Yeah. I got suspended and my parents banned me from watching R-rated movies. I could only watch National Geographic films, Bible movies or Abbott and Costello.

Wow. So for you there's an element of this movie, under the surface, that's critical of exactly this kind of movie, that sees them as a problem.

Well, yeah. I'd say going around smashing people's heads in is a problem. I think he is psychotic. Look, as much as we changed about the novella, certain things had to remain. He had to go around killing people in the end, and how do you ever justify that? Why didn't he just call the cops, as opposed to going on this revenge spree? He had to be a character with an unnatural and unhealthy sense of romanticism. This killing spree he was on was for love, so we had to try to understand the world of somebody that would do that.

That's why we incorporated the stuntman element, and make it about the world of Hollywood. We even incorporated our own film set into the film. When he goes to the film set and gets the mask -- becomes the werewolf -- you can see fake heads in the background that we actually use for a character in the film, before we blow them up.

Right, and when you go on the movie set your white satin jacket is stained with blood, but nobody even notices because it's a movie set. Speaking of that, Nicolas claims the big yellow scorpion on the back of your jacket comes from Kenneth Anger's underground art film, "Scorpio Rising."

It's the scorpion from "Scorpio Rising." When it was official that he was doing the movie, the first thing he did was tell me to watch "Scorpio Rising."

The connection's not all that obvious.

No. It's just a bunch of guys taking their clothes off and putting them back on. Great music. What he meant was Kenneth Anger more generally, I think.

Maybe there's a pop iconography in that movie that suggest your character.

Yeah, there is. So we borrowed the scorpion as, like, our Batman symbol in the sky.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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