Ryan Gosling has made a name for himself playing characters who live on the fringes of society: his breakout role as a Nazi-sympathizing Jew in The Believer, a half-baked teacher in Half Nelson, a man in love with a blow-up doll in Lars And The Real Girl, and most recently, a fledgling musician whose temper and lack of ambition prove destructive to his family in Blue Valentine. In his latest film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, he plays a stunt driver (simply called Driver) for Hollywood films who moonlights as a getaway driver for hire, where he encounters all sorts of shady characters, including a pair of particularly ruthless businessmen played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Gosling about working with Brooks, the role REO Speedwagon played in creating the feel of Drive, and the hypnotic effect of cars.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to this role in Drive?
Ryan Gosling: Well, I always wanted to see a violent John Hughes movie, and I always thought that if Pretty In Pink had a head-smashing scene, it would be perfect. So I guess I saw potential for that. And also I’ve always wanted to play a superhero, but all the good ones were taken. I thought this was an opportunity to create my own.
AVC: Your character’s almost passive, though.
RG: I don’t think he’s passive. He goes around smashing heads.
AVC: Only occasionally, though. For most of the film he’s very inward.
RG: Yeah, I agree. He’s an internal guy. I guess it is whatever you want it to be.
AVC: He’s simply called “Driver.” Do you feel he has any identity outside of driving?
RG: No, I don’t. I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies. He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood.
AVC: Why do you think his day job as a Hollywood stunt driver isn’t enough for him?
RG: I think that he’s psychotic, but he’s not a psychopath. He’s a myth as well, you know? We tried to treat the film like a fairy tale, like Los Angeles is this fairy-tale land based on fantasies, and he’s the knight in his mind and Irene [Carey Mulligan] is the damsel in distress. Bernie Rose [Albert Brooks] is the evil wizard, and Ron Perlman’s the dragon he needs to slay.
AVC: What do you imagine his dream life would be?
RG: I think you wander into that in the film. Cars can have a hypnotic effect. You can get in a car and get out and not really remember the trip. We tried to make this film about driving, not about driving fast or stunts. When you drive, you can kind of put your identity aside in the passenger’s seat, because you’re not being watched, and you can just be the watcher. So you wander into this driver’s conscious and kind of experience his life through his point of view.
AVC: And yet as detached as he is, isn’t there something inside him that leads him to forge a personal connection with Irene?
RG: He’s enacting these movie fantasies on her as though she’s some kind of damsel that needs to be rescued. It obviously doesn’t go over very well. We spent a lot of time rewriting the script. Originally, it was intended to be a big-budget film made with a studio, and it didn’t really involve a character driving around and listening to music because it’s the only way he can feel. It didn’t have a fairy-tale quality. It was much more realistic. It was a great script, but it was so authentic to gang culture and this world in Los Angeles that it would almost have to be a Ken Loach-style film to match the authenticity of the script. That’s just not the dream Nicolas and I were sharing.
AVC: What was your involvement in that process of revising the script?
RG: Well, Nicolas forced Hoss [writer Hossein Amini] to live in his attic and to write for him all day, and I would go Nicolas’ house. First, we took out all the dialogue and only kept what was necessary. I don’t know if you know the story, but when Nicolas and I first met, it didn’t go very well. We weren’t going to make the movie together. He didn’t talk to me, and I couldn’t get through to him. In retrospect, he said he was high on cough medicine, so that’s that. When we got in the car, I had to give him a ride home. It was an awkward drive, so I turned on the radio and REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” came on the radio, and Nicolas started crying. Then he started singing, and he said, “This is it. This is a movie about a guy who drives around listening to pop music because it’s the only way he can feel.” I had the same dream for the movie, and I thought, “This is odd that this guy’s from Copenhagen and I’m from Canada, and we’re wildly different people, yet we’re sharing the same dream for a film where that’s not in the script. So how are we both having the same thought?” If REO Speedwagon hadn’t come on the radio, we never would have made this movie. It meant something to me, and it meant something to him when most people would just think, “Yeah, you guys are a couple of nutjobs. It’s just a song that came on the radio.” But to us it meant something. We spent the movie trying to discover what that was. The two of us comparing and contrasting our dreams created the film.
AVC: Is that where the film’s ’80s vibe came from?
RG: Yeah, the films we were referencing when we were making this were, you know, John Hughes movies and Purple Rain, but with more violence.
AVC: How was it having Albert Brooks as your nemesis?
RG: He was the only guy for the job. If he didn’t want to do it, we didn’t know what we were going to do because, for us, it had to be him. He possesses that character. You can’t see anyone else as Bernie Rose once you’ve seen him.
AVC: It’s surprising how scary he is.
RG: Yeah, he’s scary because you like him so much. Christina Hendricks also knocked my socks off in that hotel room scene. Take after take after take she just was incredible. I didn’t have many scenes with her, but I just loved working with her. I can’t wait to work with her more. So different from Mad Men. And the same with Bryan [Cranston]. It doesn’t get much better than Bryan. He just brought this character from kind of a cliché into being this really unique and memorable guy.
AVC: His character’s like a father figure for yours. How did that dynamic play out off-screen?
RG: We didn’t really get into the backstory too much, because as far as Bryan Cranston’s character was concerned, my character just showed up and has been working there for a while. In terms of Driver, if he had a past, he’s erased it, so it’s not important. He’s now a character in a film, and his identity is nowhere to be found.
AVC: You’ve said that he’s a Travis Bickle-like character. Do you see other parallels to Taxi Driver?
RG: Well, I think not really, because so much of what that character was going through was based on coming back from Vietnam, and it was a much more political film about the realities of what people were experiencing at the time. This film is much more of a fairy tale and a myth.
AVC: Do you feel they share the same fantasy of needing to rescue the girl?
RG: Yeah, I think they share that fantasy of needing to be a hero. I think you have to find a way to identify with them in order to play them. I guess there’s something about you don’t know why you’re attracted to a character, but you’re attracted to them enough to want to— it’s like when a song comes on, and you feel like dancing. You don’t know why; you just want to dance. It’s hard to analyze that feeling, and if you do, you get far away from it.