For the sake of argument, I think it’s safe to assume that terms like “anatomically correct sex doll” and “sweet and tenderhearted” have rarely, if ever, appeared in the same sentence —at least not with a straight face (trust me, I’ve googled it). And yet somehow screenwriter Nancy Oliver has taken what on its surface sounds like a strange joke and fashioned it into a strangely compelling story.
With the help of Ryan Gosling in the title role and director Craig Gillespie, Oliver’s Lars and the Real Girl for the most part manages to fuse the profoundly personal and the perversely plastic into a believably warm, human and—I kid you not—innocent and deeply chaste tale.
Complex and Graceful
The 27-year-old Gosling has been performing since he was a pre-teen on the “Mickey Mouse Club” but, unlike many of his Mouseketeer colleagues, Gosling has grown up gracefully and avoided most of the pitfalls of young celebrity. He has quietly made thoughtful choices with regard to the roles he plays, opting to take on complex characters in interesting movies, like The Believer and The United States of Leland. The highpoint so far in his short career came in 2006 with his portrayal of Dan Dunne, a drug-addicted, inner-city middle school teacher in Half Nelson. The role earned him critical raves and an Academy Award nomination.
As Lars Lindstrom, Gosling has found yet another unique character to inhabit. Living in a garage next to his childhood home in a small, bleak midwestern town, Lars is a painfully isolated young man who prefers not to be touched by anyone and avoids human interaction at all costs. This begins to change once Bianca—the Brazilian-Danish real doll he orders over the internet—shows up on his doorstep.
Rather than reject Lars’ delusional relationship with Bianca, the townspeople embrace this emotionally troubled young man’s version of reality as a way of embracing Lars himself. At its best moments Lars and the Real Girl is an unabashedly optimistic meditation on the transformational power of love and community.
BustedHalo: You had a pretty immediate reaction to the script. I read somewhere that you got it on a Friday and by Monday you had signed on to do the film. Was this normal for you? Did you change the role at all from how it was written on the page?
Ryan Gosling: It was a big deal to me, and I thought it was a perfect script, but you could only ruin it. Because of the experience of reading it, she [Bianca, the real doll] does become real to you. So as his relationship with her becomes more complicated and people in the town start to develop their own relationship with her, it’s in your imagination at this point and she starts to become real to you. When you watch it as a film, it’s a doll and she never becomes real. I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking: “Oh no, she will never become real. She’s always going to stay like that.” It’s a totally different experience reading the script than it is watching the film. But I think they are both interesting in their own right. I said to Craig: “How are you going to shoot her?” and he said “I’m going to shoot her as though she has a nudity clause in her contract” and he meant it. He required that everyone on the set treat her like an actress. She got magazines on the set, she had her own trailer. They changed her in her trailer. When she came on the set she was treated like any other actor.
BH: Would you call this a fable?
RG: I think it has fable-type elements. It’s like an adult children’s book. I thought it could be a guaranteed failure it was such a tricky role, but I loved the script and I thought it was about a guy with a sex doll and it will never hold up for a whole film. I was crying at the end of the script; I wondered ‘who was this woman, this writer, Nancy Oliver, who got me to this place I couldn’t have imagined.’ It reminded me of Harvey, one of my favorite films, of Being There, Harold and Maude, a little of The Velveteen Rabbit. It reminded me of movies that are all of a genre unto themselves. There aren’t many of them and I don’t know why, but they just appear now and again. I just think it’s similar in the sense that there’s something about Harold and Maude, Being There and Gene Wilder as a performer. They all break your heart and make you laugh at the same time. Gene Wilder is everything, he’s my Marlon Brando. I think he is one of the greatest actors of all time because he gives you everything at once. Some actors give you “the serious” or “the scary” or “the funny” or “the sad.” But they give you one thing and do it great. But he gives you everything at once and you have to figure it out. I think [his performance in] Willie Wonka is one of the greatest performances of all time. That is one of the most multi-layered characters I’ve ever seen. He is terrifying in some scenes.
BH: Why do you think the townspeople go along with Lars’ relationship with Bianca ?
RG: I think they do it for themselves. I don’t think that they do it just for Lars. I say that because I saw her effect on myself and everyone on the crew; she’s interesting, she asks you to look at yourself and she forces you to be creative and to develop a relationship with yourself that you haven’t developed. She forces you to be intimate with yourself, so you get something; everybody gets something out of their relationships with her. Initially, the idea is that this will be a conduit to understanding Lars but eventually it becomes a conduit to understanding yourself.
BH: Is Bianca an ideal woman?
RG: (laughs) Um, she’s an ideal co-star, I can tell you that. It’s a narcissistic endeavor. It’s like having a relationship with yourself. It’s like the first time you fall in love, you are kind of acting out your own ideas of what love is and there’s not much to do with the person you are with. There’s all this posturing and you are playing out this role of lover and you are just acting out on some representation of that.
BH: Can you talk about the theme of growing up and maturity in the film? There’s a discussion you have with Gus about how you know when you are a man. There’s also that quote in Corinthians that comes up in the film: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” What is Lars’ journey in the film in connection with growing up? How does this doll help him to cross the line of maturity that he hadn’t done before?
RG: I think he’s makes a choice to love and what he does is very brave. To be such an introvert and so afraid of what people think of you and what you think of yourself…and then you do something you know people will judge you for but you do what you know you need. And so he does it. Lars is a kid; there is a kid in all of us. Just because he has the body of a man, he’s not moved on. He’s really in touch with that side of himself. He’s never had that, so for him, he has a deep connection to this object. At the same time I don’t think that [Lars and Bianca’s] relationship is [sexual]. One of the things they are always fighting about is that she wants to be physical and he’s not ready
BH: Your background is Canadian and your family is Mormon. Did the bleakness of this film’s setting and the religious aspect of the story resonate even more with you because of that?
RG: I was never really Mormon. My parents were; my mom is really cool. She always said that this was an option, but not the only option. You need to figure it out for yourself and she never really pushed any of us. I never identified with that (the missionary/apostle)~ it was my parents’ thing. But there are good things about going to church when you are young; it socializes you, you shake hands and talk in public and sing in church. The setting for the film looked a little nicer than the community where I grew up, but the people were similar.
BH: For a film like this, what drove you to sleep in the garage where your character Lars lives? Did you get the sense you needed to do that from reading the script?
RG: Things like staying in the garage I am embarrassed to talk about because it’s pretty desperate. You do whatever you can do to try and understand the character because they’re paying you and you feel like you should be doing something. I feel like when I did Lars, for the first week, no one would talk to me. I thought everyone was rude and I looked at my driver and I said: “Hey, Man, you are a really rude guy. I’ve been talking to you all week and you haven’t said a word to me.” And he said that he was told NOT to talk to me, that I was a real “method” actor and I that I had to be called Lars and you couldn’t look me in the eye and stuff. I thought about how this impression got out there that I am some method actor. I’m not trained, I’m not method, but I think things like me staying in the garage makes me seem super-serious; I’m just trying to do my job. We did a lot of takes [on this film] because every scene was an investigation. We had to walk a line in this movie that we had no reference for, so I’d do stuff and go too far and then failed almost every day.
BH: Besides being a great honor, what did the Academy Award nomination do for you? Did it change your status?
RG: To those who value it. It is whatever you want to make of it. It honored my family and all the people who put a lot of work to get me to where I am. I couldn’t do it without them. For me, the rewards are for my mom, anyway. And she was thrilled.
BH: You’ve worked for large studios, independent films and TV productions. How have the demands of these three different levels helped or hurt your work?
RG: I think it depends on how you look at it. I think all these experiences helped me. I think with studios, you have less freedom on them, there’s no way around it. They are putting a lot of money into it and they have to make it back and so if you do something that is really not right down the middle, you might alienate someone and so you can’t do it because you have to appeal to the biggest audience. So in some ways it’s hard to work for studios and yet at the same time you want people to see your movies and studios get them into theatres. Independent films can be painful because everyone puts so much work into them and you just can’t get them to the people. You know if you can get it to the people and let the people decide, it’s my feeling. But it’s all these people making choices for you and like only people in New York will like this film…It’s insulting.
BH: I’m sure there are a lot of opportunities for you in terms of roles and bigger, more commercial films and yet you keep making interesting, non-commercial choices in terms of roles and movies. I understand you are trying to make a film about child soldiers in Uganda. What draws you to a project like that?
RG: This job takes you to a lot of interesting places and you can use this job in a way to travel and meet people you could never meet in another type of job. I got to meet people who are now heroes of mine like John Prendergast and Betty Bigombe and people like that are like knights in the world. They took me to refugee camps in Darfur and to Uganda to meet child soldiers and I wish everybody could have that experience and in a way I want to bring that experience to people. I want to make a film so that people can know about that. I didn’t know about all of this. We have these ideas about Africa that just aren’t true because we are inundated with images of kids with flies on their faces and we have no idea of what these people are really like. We hear what is happening but we have no idea who it is happening to and it’s only because I am an actor that I got to go there and meet these kids. I was so surprised at how creative and smart and interesting they are. They are really funny and sarcastic and they have a lot of ideas about what’s happening to them and they think it is BS. They see MTV and people throwing money at the camera and they don’t understand why things are the way they are and to be honest, I don’t either. For me, I’d love to make a movie with them to voice their frustrations.
BH: Do you think you’ll get it made?
RG: Trying to finance this movie is turning into a hobby because no one wants to be the one to say no to the child soldier movie and no one wants to say yes either. But if you put a Hollywood actor in it, they’ll make it. The name is The Lord’s Resistance.