When Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 flew from Earth to the moon, all of NASA’s combined computers had millions of times less computing power than the smartphone in your hand. Stepping onto the moon for the first time in 1969 was one of the most unlikely human achievements of the last century, something that gave Ryan Gosling pause for thought when he played Neil Armstrong in ‘First Man’.
Self-deprecating yet confident, stylish but flawed, humorous and then dead straight, Ryan Gosling, even in real life, has a versatility that raises him up from the standard. And as an actor, he gets the props. Maybe it is that ability to flex and bend that keeps Gosling interesting – after all, he has been ‘at it’ now for well over 20 years.
So, what did it mean for Gosling to explore the shift in perspective that the first man on the moon gave humanity, as well as the mental and physical challenges of filming; plus is he going to direct again and why does he fear the coldness of Canada?
RSNG This is a pretty major story to tell – do you feel you did it justice?
RYAN GOSLING, ACTOR ‘Of course. Actually Claire [Foy] and I were discussing at the start how this was something that had never really been done with any seriousness in the past. Here’s a guy who put everything on the line and, ultimately, we remember him in success, but there was no guarantee of that – in fact this was such a step into the unknown that the whole thing was shrouded in doubt.’
‘With the technology back then it’s incredible they achieved what they did and came back to tell the story’
RSNG How is this different to a lot of other space movies?
RG ‘On this occasion it’s really a movie about the man, rather than the mission. Sure, it’s about the mission, but there is almost a biography here of Neil Armstrong – there is a lot here on his family, his emotions, his fears. There’s also a real point made about the technology that was at play back then, and just what these astronauts were dealing with. In many ways it’s incredible they achieved what they did, and that they were able to come back to tell the story.’
RSNG What was the training like?
RG ‘It was pretty tough. There was a lot of CGI in there but we also spent a lot of time with NASA getting to grips with some of the demands on astronauts, and the sheer number of retakes meant we were probably exceeding the usual demands of a training mission.’
RSNG Did you feel like you were fulfilling a kid’s fantasy by doing all that stuff?
RG ‘Not so much with me – that wasn’t really my childhood. I was much more about the stage, singing, keeping my feet on planet Earth; the boring stuff!’
RSNG This is another film set back in time, following on from so many others of yours. Has that been a conscious thing? Do you have an added appreciation for that era?
RG ‘No, I have a connection to the 80s. The 60s and 70s don't look quite as fun to me, although aesthetically there seemed to be much more energy and style in the 70s – it was less serious and self-conscious.’
RSNG You seem at your happiest when indulging in comedic sensibilities?
RG ‘I like doing comedies. A lot of it depends on my mood and wanting to do something different.’
RSNG Could you put any comedy slants into First Man?
RG ‘What First Man taught me about space travel is nothing is funny in space, or when travelling in space.’
RSNG You’ve spoken about a fairly rebellious childhood in the past?
RG ‘I wouldn’t say rebellious, but I wanted to push things; I wanted to try out things. I remember that after watching Rocky I went to school and, believing I knew how to fight, I challenged a classmate much bigger than me. I got punched in the face and then I was the one who apologised.’
‘I was always looking for trouble, and I was actually called ‘trouble’. I suffered from ADHD and I had a lot of difficulty socialising. I had no friends and I hated being a kid. I couldn't wait to get older and become an adult. I think that's one reason I wanted to be an actor, just so I could have a job and find something that would give me a different kind of life.’
RSNG You’ve gone beyond becoming an actor and into direction – you’ve had mixed experiences, so do you want to go back there?
RG ‘Yes, definitely, I'd like to direct again. I mainly want to keep challenging myself and collaborating with the best people and do as much interesting work as I can. Fortunately I have a lot of good friends who are very supportive and believe in me. They encourage me to keep pushing myself.’
‘I want to tell a story where I have control over the final product; I want to bring my own vision into making a film. People who watch movies have this impression that actors are really the important part of the process, but in reality there's this little man behind the curtain who has an idea, a vision of what should be taking place in front of the camera. A film set is really a director’s world and I wanted to experience that, and now I've seen how hard a job it really is.’
‘What surprises me most about directing is there's always something going wrong. But you need to pretend that everything's under control and project a lot of confidence. So you need to do a lot of acting as a director, too and look very much in charge and keep the atmosphere very positive and creative.’
‘You spend most of your time solving problems and often you only have a few minutes to figure things out. Like a scene that's not working and you need to finish the shot to move to the next location but you can't do that until you fix the dialogue or something else to make that scene play properly. Or your DP [cinematographer] is telling you that the sun's going down, you're losing the light, and you still have more shots left to do.’
RSNG Is the mechanic still the same with the actors?
RG ‘Well, the greatest satisfaction is working with the actors, many of who I had already worked with before and admired greatly, and seeing how they bring their own perspective and magic to the characters they're playing. I saw a big part of my job as trying to create an environment where the actors could be as creative and involved in the process as possible.’
‘I want them to be able to bring their own ideas and experiences to each scene, and feel that they are part of an artistic collaboration. I don’t want it to be all about me and my vision but I want them to contribute in their own way, and that the movie would be a collective work and not just mine.’
RSNG You also get a say on locations – where appeals most if you had to shoot in the US?
RG ‘Well I do love New York and always have done. I can walk around more or less freely and it feels real there. There's such a strong sense of identity and culture to the city that you thrive on that kind of spirit. I love it there.’
RSNG You prefer it to LA?
RG ‘Oh yes – I couldn't live in Los Angeles anymore, even though I loved the weather and the palm trees. You spend half your life sitting in traffic and driving from one place to the next. Everything in LA seems to be centred around the film business and it just pervades everything you do.’
‘It was probably -20°C outside and I saw a dead cat on the street – it was frozen solid’
RSNG Is it better than Canada?
RG ‘Canada wins at many things, but the cold there does get to you, and I couldn’t live there again. I still shake my head when I remember the day I was walking to school early in the morning and it was probably minus 20 outside, and I saw a dead cat on the street. It was frozen solid and I just picked it up and swung it like a bat against a tree.’
RSNG Did your love of dancing come about because you were desperate to keep warm?
RG ‘Hey, not bad! Dancing is fun and I've always enjoyed it even though I'm not that good at it. I remember watching Justin Timberlake while we were working on The Mickey Mouse Club together and I saw how talented he was as a singer and dancer. I didn't have that kind of talent. But dancing is something that makes me feel good.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Ryan Gosling in the trailer for The First Man, out now in cinemas: