Ryan Gosling reunites with La La Land director Damien Chazelle to tackle the harsh realities of space travel — and likely pick up a haul of awards along the way — in Neil Armstrong biopic First Man
Empire’s exclusive interview with Ryan “Ry-ry” Gosling and director Damien “Cha-cha” Chazelle to talk about the follow-up to their smash hit musical, Grease 2. Did you know this is a live-action Buzz Lightyear film? True story!
As Ryan Gosling tells it, his previous feature film collaboration with director Damien Chazelle, La La Land, was the result of “a bit of a bait-and-switch.” What the pair had initially met up to discuss working on back in 2014 after the release of Chazelle’s celebrated drummer drama Whiplash was a biopic about American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person, for those who’ve been living in a nuclear bunker for the last five decades, to walk on the Moon in 1969. “There was no script, just a book [First Man: The Life Of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen],” says Gosling. “And we met to talk about it as it was something he was considering doing, but he had to do this musical thing first.” That “musical thing”, of course, went on to scoop half-a-dozen Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. (Although infamously it missed out on Best Picture, which after an announcement mishap went to — uncanny lunar reference alert! — Moonlight instead.)
With Oscar buzz building to a rocket-booster roar, we got Gosling to deliver the skinny on the latest Gos-’zelle team-up…
How did Damien pitch the idea of a Neil Armstrong biopic to you?
The initial thing he was most compelled by was, in retrospect, just how hard these space missions were. To imagine how extreme and dangerous they were and how could we create for the audience a kind of really visceral experience and put them in the pilot’s seat where they feel the stakes and the claustrophobia and the impossibility of it all.
It’s safe to say most people on the planet have heard of Neil Armstrong. Was there much left for you to discover about him?
I started reading James Hansen’s book and I realised I knew nothing about Neil Armstrong and I thought that was so strange because I really thought I knew who Neil Armstrong was. But he had such a compelling and complicated and fascinating life and I really knew nothing about it. And I realised that Neil had done such a good job, and his wife Janet, of keeping their personal life out of the spotlight at the time and keeping the focus on the missions. I realised there was an incredible story there that hadn’t really been told.
Neil Armstrong risked his life regularly as a test aircraft pilot. Do you feel like you came to understand why he was comfortable taking such extreme risks? He seemed fearless. Yeah, and it’s not just Neil, I think it’s a lot of these astronauts. I tried in my interviews with them to find out what that was, and of course, they’re very humble and don’t want to really discuss what they think might make them different or special. But I do think there is some kind of extreme, almost superhuman ability to focus and an amount of patience. They’re able to intensely focus on one thing to such an extreme that they can exclude everything else, including fear or any doubts. That’s an incredible ability to have.
A lot of these guys were test pilots and it’s a special kind of person that wants to test an aircraft that’s never been flown. And part of your job is to push it to its breaking point so you understand where its flaws are.
Is there extra pressure involved playing such an iconic, world famous person?
Sure, any time you’re playing a real person you need to be very careful when you make the decision to do that because there’s a lot at stake. And you’re also sort of wedded to the truth in a way because you don’t have the freedom to just create what you think might be most interesting for the audience in that moment. You’re tethered to a certain degree to the research you’ve done and to what you feel like you’ve learned.
With Neil being such a private person though, there must’ve been a lot you had to create from scratch.
You are forced to imagine scenes that aren’t documented. Especially in the case of Neil, where we’re recreating scenes from his home life, when obviously there is no written record of what was said. But we did have a huge amount of help from his family. His sons were very involved. His late ex-wife Janet was very helpful. They read many incarnations of the script, gave a lot of notes, told a lot of additional stories that would help. If I was in a scene and I wanted to know how Neil might react, I would email his son. His sister June let me in the room Neil was born in at the farm they grew up on in Wapakoneta, Ohio. I had a lot of help and a lot of people invested in us getting this right. So, a lot of pressure, but it was an exciting challenge.
Speaking of pressure, after reading an early version of the script Neil’s son Eric is quoted as saying “You mess with canonical history at your own peril.” [Laughs] That sounds like him.
I imagine that means we shouldn’t expect you and Damien to chuck in, say, a cheeky Michael Jackson-style moonwalk on the Moon as a nod to your previous work together on a musical... [Laughs] No, we didn’t do that. Even though there was opportunity to [do something], because Neil loved musicals and he was a musician, as was his wife Janet. So, there were opportunities to do it, but we didn’t.
So there’s a bit of a musical thread connecting La La Land and First Man, even though it’s not fully explored...
We kept it as a subtext. Though I did discover that he loved the theremin, which is an instrument I’m a fan of too. We found this record that he used to like, ironically called Music Out Of The Moon [see panel on page 53]. It was a record he was a fan of even before he was an astronaut and it’s all theremin. So, Justin, our composer, went and learned how to play the theremin as part of our score.
That is very cool. The song and dance routines in La La Land would’ve been a big challenge for you. What was the biggest challenge for you on First Man? There were a lot of them. Astronauts, especially Neil, have to become experts on such a staggering spectrum of things. Obviously you can’t do that as an actor, but you can try to find a way to represent that quality and all the technical aspects of these missions. It was all pretty challenging but again, we had so much help. Anytime we were shooting mission scenes, someone that was either on that mission or had flown a mission like it was there with us helping walk us through every technical aspect of it that might be helpful for psychological or emotional perspectives. A lot of times they had a microphone and they were just talking into my ear while I was shooting a scene.
That’s handy. Did you do any special training with NASA?
Yeah, NASA really opened their doors. I spent a lot of time with Joe Engle — he’s the last living pilot of the X-15 [a hypersonic rocket-powered experimental aircraft used by NASA and the US Air Force]. We would sit in a mock cockpit and go through the scenes and talk about everything on a technical level. Joe would be there to try to explain to me very patiently what everything meant, and where your hands would be, or what button you’re pushing and this particular thing happens, or what that feels like. It was really immersive, and I’m boring myself as I talk about it. Periods of it were exciting, I promise!
I believe you! Honest. Obviously the Moon landing is an iconic moment in world history. Has this whole process of filming First Man altered your perspective on it?
Yeah, and one thing that was common when talking to astronauts was they all talked about the perspective that space exploration gives you. Neil’s son gave me an interview that Neil did at home that was never released where he’s talking about the perspective that space travel gives you. A lot of astronauts say, “The mission was to explore the moon, but we ended up discovering the Earth.” Something about seeing the Earth objectively in the vastness of space, it gives you a perspective that’s hard to get in any other way.
It would make most things look quite trivial by comparison, I imagine.
But at the same time, they also talk about how, you know, one astronaut was saying to me that he had come back from a space station a few months earlier. But then two days after you get back to Earth, you’re back to honking at people in traffic. It’s a hard perspective to hold onto. Hopefully the film in some small way communicates a bit of that to the audience.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) looks to the stars.
Clockwise from main: Astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) suits up for action; Gosling and Emma Stone in the Damien Chazelle directed La La Land; Armstrong and wife Janet (Claire Foy).