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How Choreographer Mandy Moore Harnessed the Kenergy of Ryan Gosling and 62 Kens for “I’m Just Ken” Oscars Performance

Though she had a ticket to sit in the audience at the Oscars, choreographer Mandy Moore, who helmed Sunday’s show-stealing “I’m Just Ken” number, couldn’t help but stand in the wings and give all the Kens a pep talk before they headed onstage.

“It was so hype,” Moore said of the energy backstage.

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The performance saw Barbie movie star and Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling, in a bright pink bedazzled suit and cowboy hat, lead an army of 62 Kens, as well as his fellow Barbie movie Kens — Simu Liu, Ncuti Gatwa, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Scott Evans — in an all-out dance number that paid homage to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, included “street-style dancing,” filled the stage with Barbie cardboard cut-outs and ended in a Rockettes-style kickline.

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Onstage, Gosling was accompanied by “I’m Just Ken” songwriters and producers, Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, as well as guitarist Wolfgang Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, who played a solo at the end.

The goal, says Moore, was for the audience and television broadcast to feel like they were at a rock concert with a stage filled with “hundreds of Kens.” (The team settled on 62 after finding that 100 wouldn’t actually fit on the stage).

The dancers only had about a week of rehearsal and one full run-through, said Moore, a So You Think You Can Dance choreographer who worked with Gosling on La La Land and with Taylor Swift on the Eras Tour. Many of the creative ideas originated with Gosling and director Greta Gerwig, including the decision to reference the Marilyn Monroe film, with Gosling speaking out about including his co-stars and the cameraman in the performance.

Moore spoke with The Hollywood Reporter a day after the Oscars on how the number, which brought the Academy to its feet, came together.

While this had been in talks for a while, you said you only got the green light to do the number about two weeks ago. What was the rehearsal process like? 

It was fast and furious, 100 percent. I started rehearsals with the Kens, the dancers, last Sunday, and the week before that Ryan had been doing some private vocal and dance sessions to just get his vocal up to speed and then also his body moving and just continuing to talk through kind of the general structure with him, because he was so involved creatively, so much of this came from his head and his talks with Greta and Mark and Andrew. So my job was just to make sure that we could make it all happen, and put it on its feet with all the people and just make the vision come to life.

Were you able to rehearse the full number beforehand? 

We ended up doing the rehearsal process in tiers. So, rehearsing with Ryan prior to having the dancers to understand structure, flow, creative. And then my first rehearsal with Ryan and the dancers, I had 20 dancers, basically those guys that started with him on the stairs, and the guys that like lift him and the Kendelabra guy, we call him Kendelabra guy, not candelabra, who he fist bumps in the beginning. And then Ryan went away for a couple of days because he had already had some preplanned things, and I continued to work with more dancers. And then on the camera block day, which was Friday, I brought in another 24 dancers to fill out the rest of the picture. And then Ryan came back in and was in there for camera block day, as well as Mark and Andrew and Wolfgang. On that Thursday, I also was able to meet Simu and Kingsley and Scott and so taught them some movement, but then Ncuti didn’t come in until Friday, so he learned it on Friday. And then Slash did not arrive until yesterday morning. So we did one run-through yesterday, kind of mid-morning with everybody in there finally, and then we went live.

So you only did one full run-through? 

Yeah. A lot of times live works like that, especially when you’re working with people of this stature. They’re A-listers. They have crazy schedules, they’re off on tours. I’m also very used to that with live, and so I just have to create the number in a way where I can slot people in very quickly.

How did you think about translating this number from screen to the awards show? 

What was nice is we were doing a departure from the scene in the film. Ryan [and Greta] took inspiration, obviously, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” moment, because that visual is so strong, him in a pink suit and all the rest of the guys in the black and then, giving it a little tweak with the cowboy hats and instead of candelabra women, having the Kendelabras and staircase. The visual is a really great homage to something so iconic.

And then, in this new version with all these men and this different style, he wanted the language of the movement to also be different, because in the film, they’re fighting during the song, but there’s also the dream ballet. And so we really took a 180 from that and went a lot more street style, rugged, a little rascally, some social dance steps in there.

Letting the Kens be like rock stars was also a big thing. Greta, on our initial Zooms, had just said, “My only dream for this is that everyone is up and singing at the end,” and so you have to create a performance that allows people to do that. And Simu did a video right before, on the commercial break, and told everyone it’s OK to get up and use your phones like you’re at a rock concert.

It seems like the audience in the theater had a huge response to it. 

It was mayhem. Ryan was so nervous, he was like, “Is nobody gonna stand up?” and I’m like,
“Ryan, they’re gonna stand up. It’s going to be fine.” But that is a real thing, you get really nervous about that when you’re putting together something like this, where you’re basically making a rock concert, and if people didn’t stand up, it would fall very flat.

They started standing almost immediately. And I love that shot of Billie Eilish laughing and Margot at the very beginning, because it also allowed everyone to understand that it’s OK to have fun and let loose a little bit. It’s serious in that it’s really good, but you’re just having a bit of fun with “I’m Just Ken.” It’s such a huge swing for Ryan, and I’m so impressed and have mad respect for him, because that is a big thing to have to perform in front of your peers like that.

Whose decision was it to include Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig, America Ferrera and Emma Stone in the number? 

It was definitely Ryan and myself. We looked at the seating plot and the Oscars producers, but Ryan really spearheaded that, he said, “I really want to make sure that I got Margot in front of me and Greta and America.” And then when we saw the seating plot, and I was like, “Emma is right there. Why don’t you go to those three first” — because he was like, “I just need to pay respect to these ladies. They are amazing. And they’re the whole reason I’m here” — and then I was like, “Why don’t you do the second one to Emma? She’s right there. It’d be such a good little Easter egg for everybody. You’ve done so many films with her.”

How about the decision for Ryan to grab the cameraman’s hand at the end? 

We were in rehearsal. And, you know, he was like, “OK, so I’m going to jump down. We’re gonna go Greta, Margot, America, and then I’m gonna go over here with Emma.” And he was like, “I think I should take the cameraman’s hand, and we should see the cameraman because he’s also a Ken” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And he’s like, “I’m gonna take him up onstage. And then he’s gonna be a part of it and he can kind of shoot our last selfie moment.” I was like, “Yes, please,” because then you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re kind of using the cameraman as the audience, right? Like you’re bringing the audience in and up. And that was a big part for Ryan, too. He just wanted to feel like he’s inviting all his friends into the party. And I thought it was such an inspiring moment. He’s like, “I’m gonna kiss his hand. Can you just make sure he’s cool, if I kiss his hand?” I was like, “Yes, I will make sure he’s cool.” And he was very cool.

It sounds like you also had a lot of input from the whole film team.

Yeah, Mark and Ryan and Andrew and the Oscars team. That’s what I think is so interesting about the Oscars is that it’s these different teams coming together to celebrate this film, but for a television broadcast. It’s a really neat collaboration when it goes right. I think it’s a really cool thing, because you have so many highly creative people coming together to make a thing. And there’s this kind of odd baton pass, where you are kind of taking the baton from the people that made the film, including Jennifer White, who was the original choreographer. She made something for the film that was definitely the foundation for what we made what we put onstage for the Oscars. Without those characters and those bodies moving in the way they did in the movie, we wouldn’t have what we had at the Oscars last night.

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