“Gene Wilder is my Marlon Brando.” —Ryan Gosling, 2007
Ryan Gosling might emanate coolness and sexual charisma in movies like Blade Runner, Drive, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, but you don’t have to dig too deeply into his résumé to find equal helpings of quirkiness. The former Mouseketeer earned his first Academy Award nomination for playing a heroin-addicted school teacher, got fired from The Lovely Bones for showing up with 60 extra pounds of character weight, and insisted (and then regretted) that his modern-day outlaw in The Place Beyond the Pines sport a face tattoo.
But no role represents Gosling’s offbeat leanings better than Lars Lindstrom, the sweet but socially stunted oddball who comes out of his shell only after he takes his relationship with a lifelike sex doll public in Lars and the Real Girl. In the 2007 indie, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Oct. 12, Lars’ brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) worry that Lars has suffered a breakdown when they realize his new girlfriend is an anatomically correct mannequin named Bianca — but the doctor (Patricia Clarkson) in their small Wisconsin town thinks that all Lars really needs is some time and understanding from the locals. Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) was nominated for an Academy Award for her script, and Craig Gillespie (United States of Tara), a renowned commercial director who was hungry to prove himself with a feature, delivered an incredibly uncompromised vision to the screen. “The film wisely never goes for even one moment that could be interpreted as smutty or mocking,” Roger Ebert wrote upon the film’s release. “There are so many ways Lars and the Real Girl could have gone wrong that one of the film’s fascinations is how adroitly it sidesteps them. Its weapon is absolute sincerity. It is about who Lars is, and how he relates to this substitute for human friendship, and that is all it’s about. It has a kind of purity to it.”
In addition to Gosling’s sensitive, textured performance, Lars is a complex and thoughtful depiction of loneliness, community, and fraternal bonds. Gillespie, who directs Margot Robbie in the upcoming Tonya Harding figure-skating film I, Tonya (out Dec. 8), reflected on the charming film that revitalized his own career, Gosling’s improvisational magic, and the fate of his shy leading lady.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you read a script’s logline — “Guy falls in love with a sex doll” — I imagine that your mind can go in 1,000 different directions as a director. For example, there’s probably a great Farrelly brothers comedy in there somewhere based on that brief pitch. Did the concept initially turn you off?
CRAIG GILLESPIE: It actually did. John Cameron [Bad Santa], who’s the producer on this, called me up one day and he said, “Hey, I have this script I want to send you” — which I was flattered by. And then he says, “It’s about a guy that falls in love with a sex doll.” I almost wanted to say no right there on the phone. But because it was John and I respected his work so much, I said, “Send it over.” I wasn’t even in a hurry to read it; it sat there for three weeks. And then I was walking by my living room, and my wife was reading it. She said, “Have you read this script?” I’m like, “The one with the sex doll?” And she was like, “Yeah, it’s really good.” I said, “Really?” So I read it, and Nancy Oliver did an amazing job.
Looking back at old interviews, it looks like it took three years at least before it got off the ground —
Actually five years.
Five years. Did it scare the studios?
Yeah, it was such a tricky tone, which is funny, because I always saw the tone so clearly with what Nancy had written. For me, it didn’t feel tricky at all. But I can appreciate that it’s a very delicate dance and nobody wanted to put that in the hands of a first-time director, which is what I was at the time. So I couldn’t get any traction, and we pretty much went everywhere with it. Then, I managed to shoot Mr. Woodcock. Just getting the onus off of not being a first-time director managed to let me get it set up.
You mentioned you always had a strong take on the tone, based on Nancy’s script, but her story is extremely earnest and optimistic. Did you have any doubts that you could deliver that tone onscreen, because this story that you tell only works if the audience doesn’t laugh at Lars and if they actually make the leap with him when Bianca shows up. Did you have doubts that you could get us there?
For me, the most stressful part is actually the casting. Because that’s going to set the tone of the film and let the audience know how to participate. I absolutely was dying to have Emily Mortimer, because she had such a beautiful balance between the compassion and the humor. Just her nature, her expressions, sitting at a dining room table, looking over at Lars, it just breaks your heart and makes you laugh. And then the other really hard part of that equation was Paul Schneider. A lot of actors came in and were very empathetic as the brother, and wanted to try and work it out. Paul came in and his take was that he was angry about it, and frustrated that he had to deal with it his whole life. Again, it felt very real and very relatable, but it was also funny with Paul. Some actors don’t have that. I really fought for those actors because once it got up and running and Ryan was attached, it became a very coveted script for actors. We actually had an embarrassment of riches.
I’m trying to think back to where Ryan was at this point in his career. Half Nelson hadn’t come out yet, so he was most famous as the heartthrob in The Notebook —
Yeah, and in my mind, it was The Believer, when he was 19, which really showed incredible intensity and chops. I hadn’t seen Half Nelson until we were literally three weeks from shooting. But I had a huge amount of respect for Ryan, and in fact, after I did Mr. Woodcock — that’s a long story of that movie and you can look it up and I ended up getting kicked off the film — but there was this brief period when there was a lot of buzz about it, and off that buzz, we thought now would be a good time to try and set Lars up. My first choice was Ryan, so I decided to send the script to him on a Friday. And the script’s been dormant for five years. Send it out on Friday… he came in and met me on Monday, and we sat down for 45 minutes and talked about the movie. And we just offered it to him. That happened incredibly quickly. I just felt that he had all these qualities I needed, like the earnestness and the accessibility and the vulnerability. And he was going to be fearless with it. You have to go all in with it. But it was always a priority for me — which you mentioned — I never want to make fun of my characters. That was sort of in the script, and there is this earnestness to it. At one point, I just wanted to add a contrarian scene where there were some people in the town that were giving him friction. So we created this scene at a hockey game, where there were some teenage kids taunting him, with Bianca sitting there. We wrote it and auditioned people for it, and then I thought, “You know, it just doesn’t feel like it’s part of this film,” and we ended up not doing it. That was that one moment where we decided to take the high road and keep it earnest, which is really what’s unusual about the film. Usually, there’s that dark moment where somebody challenges him.
Absolutely. It’s so interesting you say that because I wanted to ask about another moment that is in the film, at the bowling alley where Gus’ work pals come in and you think for a second that they are going to embarrass Lars and that’s going to be the cruel Karate Kid scene where the bullies set him back. But instead, you go in the other direction: They join Lars and Margo and bowl with them.
Yeah. I honestly was the one who was the strongest advocate for [the hockey scene], but it just left a bad taste in your mouth without really helping the journey. There’s one other scene that was taken out, which is Lars getting in the bathtub with Bianca, which was a scene right after the bowling. I don’t think it hurt the film not having it in there, but I actually always liked it. It was just a very complex moment for the character where he was very confused, sexually, about what was going on — because he had that very flirtatious moment at the bowling alley.
Did you have to de-cool or de-glam Ryan to play Lars?
Ryan turned up 20-30 pounds overweight — with a mustache — a week and a half before the shoot. I wasn’t expecting it. We hadn’t really talked about it, but I appreciated it and I appreciated why he was doing it. The mustache for him was a real touchstone, and of course, the studio called and they’re like, “Is there any way you can talk him out of the mustache?” I was like, “No, it’s a real part of his character, and I’m not going to ask him to not have a mustache.” And they were good; they didn’t push it. But it was a question that came up.
Back in 2007, Ryan answered lots of questions about how “method” he went to play Lars, putting his mind and body into the character. Did he really sleep in Lars’ garage apartment?
Yeah, he spent the first week there. The problem was, it was so loud outside. We were shooting nights in there and the crew was working there during the day creating snow, so he couldn’t sleep. People were chatting right outside his window. But yeah, he spent that first week there.
Did he ever take Bianca off set for a date?
No, he didn’t. But just out of respect for his process and the way we wanted to conduct the set, we actually had a wardrobe team dedicated to Bianca. She would always get taken back to her dressing room to get changed, so as to not take her out of the spirit of the film. We stayed really diligent to that. And it was a very complicated process. There’s a whole algorithm of which body type she was in, and hairstyle, and freckles/no-freckles. She went through this whole evolution throughout this film.
I read that you personally went to to the factory in Southern California to pick out the perfect Bianca. Was it trial and error or did you just envision the one in your head that was Bianca?
It’s ridiculous, the number of permutations [these dolls have]. I think this one guy’s company had something like 14 body types and seven different faces and five skin colors. The math just gets endless. So I left there and then I happened to run across a book in a store. And on the cover was that doll, and I saw that it actually was one of [this guy’s models]. So we went back there again and I said, “This is the one I want.” Because there was this really accessible quality to this doll, in the face. It just felt much softer. He said, “Yeah, we discontinued that one because her eyes are at half-mast, and we kept getting complaints that she was either bored or drunk.” [Laughs] So he actually pulled out the cast and redid it for us.
Do you know what happened to Bianca? Does she exist in some museum?
Unfortunately, that silicone, it just keeps decaying. They don’t last that long. I still have the head, but the body starts to fall apart.
Did Ryan already know what she looked like before she’s unpacked from the box?
I didn’t talk to him at all about what Bianca was going to look like. He only got to see her a week before production, at the table read.
What was Ryan’s reaction?
He was very quiet. He processes a lot. We talked a lot about the character throughout the year leading up to production. One of the big things we talked about was everything that’s happening off-camera with him and Bianca. All the conversations they’re having in the room and when we see them at a distance in the woods, what they’re actually arguing about. He had a very full arc for their relationship and what was going on, and how she was, unbeknownst to him, pushing him away and trying to make him grow. So with all that going on, literally the first take we did with Bianca, which was them going to the party together, he comes up to me and he’s like, “I feel like I should be talking to her. If it was my girlfriend, I’d be trying to make her comfortable. Like, walking up to the front door, she’d be nervous.” I said, “Go ahead. Try it.” And so he came up with that whole thing about remembering peoples’ names. After that, I was like, “Talk to her as much as you want.” None of that’s scripted, which to me, takes it to a whole other level.
Tell me a little bit about the lake-side kiss scene. You really have to thread the needle on that scene — both director and actor — because you can make or break the film in that scene.
When we first started screening the movie, that was the scene where I absolutely held my breath. We actually screened it for the first time at the ArcLight for 400 people, and there was so much laughter throughout the film that I was a little shocked by it. And not in a negative way, but like when Paul first meets Bianca and he goes into the kitchen and says, “He’s out of his f–king mind!” you couldn’t hear the dialogue because people were laughing so hard. And there was just a lot of laughter throughout the film. And I thought, “Oh no, it’s coming in too hot; people won’t be able to settle down and get into it emotionally.” So when we got to that scene, I was really quite stressed that you’d hear people chuckling in the audience. And it was dead quiet. And it’s about a 25-second kiss, that whole moment. You could hear crickets. That’s when I thought, “We have the audience, and it connected.”
But leading up that scene, there was a lot of conversation between Ryan and me because there was a monologue that he had, saying goodbye to her. But it just felt like we were saying too much in a way. We kept talking about it, and the day before, I was doing a separate scene in the hospital with Emily and Paul and Patricia Clarkson, and he came up to me between takes and he was like, “I have to kiss her. I’ve never kissed her in the movie.” So the next day, that’s what we did; just two takes. He committed to it. It just felt right, and we had producers behind us that were really strong and backed us. I absolutely love that scene because that to me is when we sort of go all-in and commit to being engaged with this character and it’s truly how earnest it us. The audience needs to be in almost the same place as the rest of the town at that point to accept that.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but have you seen Blade Runner yet?
I haven’t. I’m dying to see it.
The reason I ask will become apparent once you see it, but there are these replicants in the film, and Ryan —
[Laughs] Obviously, Ryan is going to kiss somebody.