Perhaps it was destiny that led Canadian actor Ryan Gosling to channel Gene Kelly in La La Land, the new musical by Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-nominated director of Whiplash. Gosling, a native of London, Ontario, first honed his skills as a musical performer after moving to California where he sang and danced alongside Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as a 12-year-old star on The All New Mickey Mouse Club TV show. While younger generations may be unaware of Kelly, the legendary Hollywood song-and-dance man who turned Singin' in the Rain into a film classic, Gosling patterned his performance largely out of admiration for Kelly's artistry.
"I've always loved An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain," Gosling says. "Gene Kelly gave us of the single greatest song and dance numbers ever when he performed Singin' in the Rain, [Damien and I] had the opportunity and honour to meet with Gene Kelly's widow in preparing for the film and she showed us his original leather-bound script for the film. That's when we saw that he had written some notes and ideas about that legendary title sequence. I was really struck by one note he made. It said: 'Hand the umbrella to a passerby when the number's over.' That kind of shows you how sometimes a great scene like that is the result of one guy making notes in a script."
La La Land is a delightful and glorious throwback to old-style Hollywood musicals that is being touted as a sure-fire Oscar contender. The film played to rave reviews at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in September, and Gosling's spirited song-and-dance numbers opposite co-star Emma Stone recall the kind of magic that Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers once brought to the screen.
Ryan Gosling co-stars as Sebastian, a cynical jazz pianist on his way up in Hollywood, who accompanies Mia (Stone), a barista and struggling actress, to numerous auditions while she maintains an indomitable faith in herself despite repeated rejection. An uplifting musical romance, La La Land owes much of its magic to the irresistible chemistry between Gosling and Stone, who first endeared themselves to audiences in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and then Gangster Squad (2013).
In person, Gosling is extremely affable and easygoing. Prior to the premiere of La La Land at the Toronto International Film Festival, he spent considerable time talking to and taking selfies with the massive crowds that lined the red carpet. The 35-year-old Ryan Gosling lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend of the past three years, Eva Mendes, 41, and their daughters, Esmeralda, 2, and toddler Amada, born April 29. He is currently shooting Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's original 1982 sci-fi cult classic, directed by Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners).
La La Land appears to be enchanting audiences. What do you think makes this story so appealing?
I think people are drawn to the relationship between the two characters. Not everyone might like musicals, but in this case you're emotionally invested in the story because you feel very close to Mia and Sebastian. I wanted to do the film because I think it takes you on this beautiful ride and you can really relate to the characters and the journey they take together.
Do you think the film captures some of that old Hollywood musical spirit?
I'm a big fan of musicals and Damien (Chazelle, the director) is a serious student of the genre and his ambition was to capture the spirit of those movies and also pay homage to the city of Los Angeles. There's a sense of heightened romanticism to the relationship between the characters and you really feel that Damien has created this wonderful feeling of nostalgia in the way he tells the story. That's part of the inherent beauty of the musical genre, because you can combine both phantasy and an underlying drama that is going to touch people.
Had you seen Chazelle's previous film, Whiplash, prior to his contacting you to work on La La Land?
I loved Whipash and I was very anxious to meet him and see what he had in mind for this film. We met for dinner at a restaurant near my house and I saw immediately how much he loved movies in general and how he wanted La La Land to have that old style Hollywood magic.
It follows in the tradition of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie and Damien wanted to create this world where people could escape to and want to see it in a movie theatre together with other people rather than something you would watch on your computer or iPhone.
Everyone is very impressed with your song and dance work in the film. You have an early background as a dancer growing up in Ontario, don't you?
I had taken a lot of dance classes as a kid because it was a great escape from school where I kept getting into trouble and did badly in my classes. I went to the Top Hat Dance School in Cornwall where I grew up and also to the Elite Dance School in Ottawa. Dancing helped give me a lot of self-confidence and it was a great way for me to feel creative and get to express myself.
Did any of the dancing you did while you were part of The Mickey Mouse Club help prepare you for this project?
[Laughs] When I signed on to the film, I foolishly expected that my lost dance skills would come back to me pretty quickly. Like getting to ride a bicycle again. But I was wrong! Nothing came back. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. I mean, the kind of dance numbers Emma and I had to learn were very intricate and obviously very far from '90s hip hop dancing I had done (on The Mickey Mouse Club show). We spent three months learning to tap dance and it was hard work.
For me at least it felt like starting from scratch. Plus I had to learn to play jazz piano and work on my singing although fortunately for the public I only have a few duets with Emma! But I had a lot of fun dancing with her because we've known each other for a long time and she's a very good dancer. The choreographer had to have a lot more patience with me!
The suffering actors go through during auditions is one of the key aspects to the story. You've talked about some of the humiliation that comes with auditioning for parts in Hollywood. Did you draw on those memories for your character?
Right from the beginning Damien wanted Emma and I to talk about our worst auditions. My worst experience came when I was called to read for this very important casting director. I had to do a scene where someone very close to me had just died and I spent the previous night trying to work myself into this very emotional state so I would be able to get right into that for the audition.
So I get there and I'm doing the scene, I'm crying and fully into it and then the phone rang and the woman (casting director) answers the call and starts talking for a few minutes. I'm just sitting there wondering if I should stop crying or just keep going. Finally, she gets off the phone and asks me to pick up where I left off. But I couldn't do it, of course. I wasn't a good enough actor then and I'm not good enough now to be able to do that. But at least I finally had the chance to put that experience into a scene in the film.
Did you feel that you were getting caught up in the spirit or nostalgia of La La Land while you were shooting it?
Oh, I had a lot of fun making it. I'm very excited about people getting to see it. Most of the time I'm playing brooding or very troubled, quiet kinds of guys. I often take my work and myself too seriously so getting to do this film and Nice Guys (his previous movie co-starring Russell Crowe) was a great way for me to be able to get to talk a lot, open up more, and make people laugh and enjoy themselves.
You're now father to two young daughters. How does it feel?
It's wonderful. I enjoy being a father more than I could ever have imagined... It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. Now that we have two girls I find myself wanting to stay at home with them all the time instead of working. I love telling Esmeralda stories. She has so much energy and it is so curious about everything - it's tough keeping up with her.
Your second daughter is named Amada. Where does that come from?
Amada was the name of Eva's grandmother. It means "beloved" and that's exactly what we felt when we saw her for the first time. She's a little angel.
Check out the latest trailer of La La Land below: