The 41-year-old actor headlines Netflix's The Gray Man, starring as a reluctant CIA agent tangled in a global conspiracy. Directed by Marvel alums Joe and Anthony Russo, The Gray Man is part globe-trotting spy thriller, part smash-'em-up spectacle, and Gosling brings a snarky, everyman charm to the role, popping bubble gum and cracking dry quips as he casually takes out baddie after baddie. Along the way, he collects both enemies and allies: Gosling's Blade Runner 2049 costar Ana de Armas pops up as a sympathetic fellow agent, while Chris Evans steals scenes as a gleefully sociopathic assassin, sporting a crisp mustache and improbably tight white pants.
With the film in theaters now and coming to Netflix July 22, EW sat down with Gosling and the Russos to talk about The Gray Man's ambitious fight scenes, bonding over pizza, and the dangers of dropping it like it's hot.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Joe and Anthony, you've wanted to make this movie for years. What was it about Ryan that made him the right person to be The Gray Man?
RYAN GOSLING: Do you want me to leave? I'll leave.
JOE RUSSO: [Laughs] We've been obsessed with Ryan for the last two decades, just like everybody else. So, to get the opportunity to work with him was fantastic. This is a really interesting character who craves anonymity, who slips in and out of the shadows. There are long stretches of the movie that don't have a lot of dialogue. Then, there are moments where he does talk, where he has to be very quirky and funny. It's very hard to find an actor who possesses Ryan's range in that regard. He's incredible with minimalism. He can convey an entire interior life with just a few looks. He plays the tension incredibly well, but he's also hilarious and quirky in the moments where the character needs to be.
ANTHONY RUSSO: The character arc is that he begins the movie in this place of living in the gray. The movie is very much him coming out of that and emotionally committing. When we started to think about Ryan, it just felt like the perfect marriage of actor and role. I don't know if there was anybody that could convey that guarded version of the character, but also give intense intelligence, emotion, and charisma.
Ryan, you hadn't really worked on an action thriller of this scale and style before. Was there anything about making this movie that surprised you?
GOSLING: I wasn't expecting any of it, really. I always wanted to make an action film. It took a while. Took a long time to find the right one. But when I read this, I knew that this was it, obviously, because the Russos were manning the helm. They've been doing this for the last decade. As much as I think I love action movies, they love them more, so I couldn't have been in better hands. Because I was out of my realm of experience, I just went along for the ride. And it was a hell of a ride. I think by action movie standards, this is pretty insane, right? This has nine action set pieces.
JOE RUSSO: It's pretty intense, yes. It almost killed all of us.
ANTHONY RUSSO: But no one more so than Ryan, honestly. The movie is designed around him, so it was on his shoulders.
JOE RUSSO: There's a different skillset required for an actor when you're making a movie like this. It's extremely physical. It can be painful. There is a Cirque du Soleil-level of choreography going on. People are throwing punches at each other at a very high speed, and if somebody misses by an inch, someone has a broken jaw. It requires incredible precision and a lot of training. You have to imagine trying to memorize a fight for one action sequence, let alone nine. Seven months of Ryan's life were just moving through really intense, highly specialized choreography.
Paul Abell/Netflix Ryan Gosling as Sierra Six in 'The Gray Man'
Ryan, is there a stunt or new skill you learned for this film that you're particularly proud of?
JOE RUSSO: Eating pizza.
GOSLING: Yeah, the skill I learned was to avoid the Russos' tent because they always had delicious food there. [Laughs] They were on a mission to find the best burger in Prague, and doing a fight scene with a belly full of burgers is something I would not recommend to anybody.
JOE RUSSO: He was in incredible shape throughout this entire film. Incredible shape. And Anthony and I are Italian, so we love food. Every day [we were like], "You want to get a fried chicken sandwich? What about some pizza today?" Meanwhile, Ryan's got this dried chicken breast thing, and he's drinking green juice.
ANTHONY RUSSO: There's Ryan, just working so physically hard, day after day. And we'd just sit there, watching him and eating while he works.
GOSLING: It was like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory in your tent. It was just the best of the best. Everything I ever wanted to try and didn't even know existed.
JOE RUSSO: That was a skill he learned: dietary discipline.
ANTHONY RUSSO: I did feel awful about it, I have to say.
GOSLING: It didn't stop you though.
So when you wrapped, did you finally get to eat what you wanted?
GOSLING: Yeah, I went pretty hard.
JOE RUSSO: You might have eaten an entire pizza.
GOSLING: I housed a pizza.
Paul Abell/Netflix 'The Gray Man'
One of the cool things about this film is the use of color and tone, especially in those action scenes. The film opens with an incredible action sequence featuring fireworks. Joe and Anthony, how did you want to approach the visual style of those big sequences?
JOE RUSSO: There's a tradition of lush, elegant production design in giant espionage movies. We wanted to have fun with that. The movie is called The Gray Man, and [he's] a character who's intended to move in and out of crowds without being seen. It had to be more interesting than starting off as a dark noir movie. [We wanted] to put him in a very colorful environment and put him in a red suit and see how he blends into an extravagant festival that's going on.
ANTHONY RUSSO: One thing that was fun about the opening sequence is that we start the movie in a place that's a little more familiar for the genre. It's a colorful club, Ryan's stylishly dressed, et cetera. Then, all of a sudden, something happens where the entire plot flips on its head and it becomes a different movie at that point.
JOE RUSSO: The idea was just to create a relentless experience for the audience. As Ryan mentioned, we all grew up loving action movies. Anth and I are entertained by excess. When we read the novel, it had 11 action sequences, and I remember having to pare it down in the script, thinking, "I just don't know how we're going to be able to fit all this in one film." But that was the intent, to create a film where you forget to eat your popcorn. Or if you're sitting at home watching on Netflix, you put your phone down and you don't check your texts for two hours.
GOSLING: I loved that [opening] sequence. It tied into what I loved about the character, which is that he's a spy who doesn't want to be a spy. He has no romantic ideas about being James Bond. He'd rather be home, watching this movie on Netflix like the rest of us. He's forced to do this, and his choices are die in prison or die as a spy. This is a chance for him to live a little before he dies. So, he gets to eat dinner at a restaurant and wear a fancy suit and watch the fireworks. These are things that would not really register with another character in this kind of movie, [but] everything is more meaningful to him.
Paul Abell/Netflix Anthony and Joe Russo, on the set of 'The Gray Man' with Chris Evans
JOE RUSSO: He's a very modern hero. He's existential. He's obsessed with Sisyphus, the Greek myth of this character stuck in futility. It's what separates him from Bond and Bourne. As Ryan said, it's a proletariat hero. He just wants to get the job done and go home, and he has no desire to romanticize it in any way.
Joe and Anthony, you previously told me a story about filming during a heat wave in Prague, and the whole cast and crew broke out into song, singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." Ryan, what do you remember about that day?
GOSLING: I wasn't there on that day! One of my many amazing doubles was there in that moment, I remember. I was [filming] on the tram, and I remember he was dancing to the song, but he was in the costume.
JOE RUSSO: Oh, that's right. And there were paparazzi there.
GOSLING: Yeah, there were paparazzi. I was like, "When you're in the costume, could you not drop it like it's hot?" [Laughs] He did right by me in every way! But I was like, "Please just don't drop it like it's hot."
But when I was on the tram, it was near the end of filming. I'm running on top of these tram cars, and they're falling beneath my feet as I jump. I remember thinking, This sums up this experience. This is exactly what this movie has felt like.
JOE RUSSO: We saved that for the end. It was the very last thing he did — just in case.
GOSLING: You should always be cautious of what they save for the end of filming.
Stanislav Honzik/Netflix; Paul Abell/Netflix Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans in Netflix's 'The Gray Man'
We also have to talk about Chris Evans' villainous turn in this film. Ryan, what was it like to face off against him and his mustache?
GOSLING: You said it. He ran, mustache first, into this part. [Laughs] He seemed to be having a lot of fun playing this character, and that made it fun to play against. I think everyone had a lot of fun just working with the Russos. Their process is so collaborative, allowing you to personalize your character, or try things you haven't done before.
On the other hand, you've also got Ana de Armas as an ally. What made her the right person for this role?
JOE RUSSO: She's a badass. She really is. She can really embody this character and inhabit it in a way that was extremely truthful. She really worked hard and trained very hard. Something that's really important to us is that as much as possible, the actors are executing their own fight sequences, as long as it's safe. You have to understand that making an action film is using a different muscle as an actor. She just ran at it gleefully and did an exceptional job.
ANTHONY RUSSO: The real challenge of her role is similar to Ryan's character: These are characters that hold their cards [close to their chest]. They don't speak unless they have to. So, she had to create a very rich inner life where we can follow her thoughts and we can see her calculating her way through challenges.
GOSLING: The last film we did, I was a robot, and she was a hologram, so it was limiting. Half of those scenes we weren't even in together because it was plate shots, so she wasn't there, or I wasn't there. So this was fun. She's so funny, and she's amazing at the action as well. Also, she saves my life so many times in this.
Thinking back to filming, what was your most memorable day on set?
JOE RUSSO: I wonder if we all think the same day.
ANTHONY RUSSO: What, the day Ryan ate pizza?
GOSLING: I think for me, it's that day in Prague running on the train car. When the Russos called me about this film, it was the middle of a pandemic. Movie theaters were shutting down; film productions were shutting down. It was this conversation about when and how movies would ever be a thing again. And suddenly, they call and ask if I want to be a part of this globe-trotting epic blockbuster for Netflix. I've heard that with sleepwalkers, you don't wake them up, so I was just like, "Yeah, sure. Let's do that." Then I got my call time, and I was like, "Oh, they're serious."
[I felt lucky] to get to go to work in that situation, and then to end it all in Prague. To get to bring my family to Prague and shoot this incredible action sequence, jumping on train cars as they fall away beneath me, was a pretty cool moment. I really was appreciative to them for being so ambitious and finding a way to make this movie, when it seemed impossible.
JOE RUSSO: I think mine would be around the same day. We were delirious because it was the last day, and we were all happy to finally be finished with this trek. But do you remember when we had to put you on the hood of the car?
JOE RUSSO: We had this car on a swivel, and there was a green screen. We said, "Ryan, you've got to lay down and just hang on, as if the car were spinning at a very high speed. We're just going to shake it a little bit." I remember it was like a Monty Python skit. You were hanging onto the front of a car, and we were like, "Shake the car! No, no, you've got to look like it's really moving at high speed!"
ANTHONY RUSSO: And then Joe got on.
GOSLING: Yeah, there's an amazing take of Joe trying to show me how to do it. He's hanging on the car, and they [filmed] it secretly. It's just him screaming, "Oh my god!" You should have just snuck a frame of that into the movie.
JOE RUSSO: That's the after-credits sequence. [Laughs]