Ryan Gosling can play it serious ("Blue Valentine"), funny ("The Nice Guys"), suave ("Crazy, Stupid, Love."), enigmatic ("The Place Beyond the Pines") and, of course, he can sing and dance ("La La Land"). In "First Man," he keeps within the boundaries of serious, and adds a layer of tragedy on top of it. Gosling takes on the role of Neil Armstrong, the first man to leave his footprints on the moon, when the Apollo 11 mission brought him and his crew there in July 1969.
The film is more a study of Armstrong the man than of the historic NASA operation, and Gosling puts on a series of faces, many of them with very little expression, most of them in extreme closeup, in an attempt to let viewers understand what was going on in the mind of the solemn and determined astronaut in both his professional and private lives. It's Gosling's second starring role for director Damien Chazelle ("La La Land"). He spoke about the challenges of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: Did you know much about Neil Armstrong before reading the script?
A: He was always synonymous with the moon for me. But, like the moon, I knew very little about him. When I met with Damien he told me he wanted to sort of uncover the man behind the myth. Once I started to learn about Neil, and his wife Janet, I realized that this incredible life was really deserving of the tribute that Damien wanted to pay to it. It was an incredible opportunity but it was also a tremendous responsibility.
Q: You haven't played many real people in films (his Jared Vennett in "The Big Short" is loosely based on an actual bond salesman), and Neil Armstrong is an icon. What were your biggest concerns about the role?
A: The greatest challenge of this movie, and there were many, is that Neil's sons, Mark and Rick, were going to see the film after it was made, and I thought about that often. But they were extremely helpful and supportive and always available to answer questions. I was also able to meet and spend time with Janet, and with Neil's sister June. I've never had more help on a film, between family, friends, and colleagues of Neil, as well as the thoroughly researched book by Jim Hansen, who was constantly on the set. Everybody gave us every bit of information they could, so if something was inaccurate it wasn't because anyone left it out.
Q: There are so many scenes of you cooped up in small spaces, first in an X-15 rocket plane, and later in the Gemini and Apollo capsules. Was all of that as uncomfortable as it looks in the film?
A: Yeah, I just kind of sat in there ... for hours. When we were shooting the mission sequences, there was always someone there who had been directly involved with that mission in some way. For instance, when we did the X-15 sequence, Joe Engle was there, who is the last living X-15 pilot. (Apollo 8 commander) Frank Borman was also around for some of it. They were obviously there to help ensure the accuracy, but I think they were also there to ensure that it was impossible for us to complain. Because they REALLY experienced it.
Q: You get to say the iconic words that Armstrong said when his foot first touched the moon's surface. What was going on in your head at that moment? Were you nervous about getting it right?
A: It's one of the most famous things that's ever been said. And it was a huge responsibility to get it right. Not just sonically, and I didn't want to parrot it. I just feel that the line says so much about what I admired about Neil, which is his ability to see everything in broader terms. That he could see a giant leap in one small step. That he could see himself both as a man representing his country and a human being representing mankind. It's such a profound thing to say, and something that always fascinated me is who is this person that would say that? Who is the person that could make this heroic moment not about himself, but about everything? And to put it so eloquently and so beautifully. It was an honor to be able to say it and to try to understand the man that would say it.
Q: After making the film, and now knowing about all of the challenges and difficulties, given the opportunity, would you want to go to the moon?
"First Man" opens on Oct. 12.