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Joe Russo: 'The Gray Man is a homage to ’80s action films'

Joe Russo talks about making Captain America evil, directing Ryan Gosling and Dhanush, and his favourite episode of Community

Ryan Gosling in ‘The Gray Man’
Ryan Gosling in ‘The Gray Man’

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They brought Captain America to life, then made him wield Thor’s hammer in Avengers: Endgame. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are now among the most commercially successful directors of all-time, but the Russo Brothers began by directing some of TVs most groundbreaking comedies, Arrested Development and Community

Also read: Ryan Gosling on playing a reluctant spy in The Gray Man

Ahead of their massive action film The Gray Man (Netflix) which comes out July 22 and stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana De Armas, Dhanush, Billy Bob Thornton, Regé-Jean Page and Wagner Maura, I spoke to Joe Russo over the telephone about directing Dhanush, making Captain America evil, and what lessons the blockbuster directors learned by directing Community.

Your hero is called Six, and when asked about being called Six, Ryan Gosling says ‘007 was taken’. Is it then fair to call The Gray Man your version of that particular globetrotting action hero?

Look, we’re very self-reflexive filmmakers. We’re pop-culture enthusiasts. We’re aware we’re swimming in a well-worn genre, but in a lot of ways Six was designed to be the anti-Bond. This is a character who’s the product of abuse, who was conscripted by the CIA out of prison, given no choice. This is someone who is just fighting for his freedom. He doesn’t have the time to indulge, in a way, that other characters in the genre may, with flashier elements of being a spy. So that joke is a way to say ‘Yes, we’re aware we’re playing in this genre, but hopefully we’re bringing something fresh to the table.’

The cast is quite incredible. I’ve been an admirer of your work ever since Community and Arrested Development. Did directing sitcoms with such sensational characters get you guys used to directing big ensembles? Is it easier to do each character justice?

A hundred percent. Given the notion that you have to work for 10000 hours to reach expert level at a given craft, we certainly ate up a chunk of those hours in television. In television you’re telling a story every week, and on shows like Community and Arrested Development, we’d sometimes have 20 or 30 characters that would come through the story in 22-23 minutes. And you have to justify the existence of each of those characters, either through storytelling, humour or some sort of effect on the plot. Yes, so we became really adept at juggling lots of characters. 

We like characters that pop, and that all have competing points of view. You drop them all into a story opposite each other and let them fight it out, see what happens. Our mission here was to create a big world that hopefully you hadn’t seen before, populated with all kinds of characters who are grey. Who are in competition with one another, who all have competing agendas. In a way, they’ll hopefully reflect how complicated the world is at the moment.

You’re calling all your characters grey, but to be fair I don’t think there’s much that’s grey about Lloyd. You guys first made Chris Evans the biggest boyscout — the one superhero who would chastise the others about swear-words — and now how much fun are you having in making him relentlessly evil? 

When we were working on Endgame, we asked Chris what he wanted to do, and he said ‘Look, I’ve been fortunate enough to have done really well with Marvel’ — and we’re in that same position as filmmakers — ‘that all I want to do is just take risks moving forward.’

Chris is a very savvy guy. His character was intended to be an agent of chaos who has some hints of extremism in America at the moment. This guy, the way he dresses, the way he does his hair, it’s meant to be reflective of some of the more extreme groups that we have floating around. Chris thought it was a great challenge to try to bring this character to life. He’s a sociopath, he’s completely self-interested. You’re right, he’s the only character who’s not grey. He’s a malicious and scary person.

Chris has incredible range as an actor. You play one character for a decade and people start to see you a certain way, they identify you solely with those characteristics. He’s very different from Captain America in person. He’s energetic and fun and witty, cracks a lot of jokes. I think with Lloyd you see the extent of his range.

Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, is playing an infallible action-figure. You even refer to him as ‘a Ken Doll’, which I’m sure you couldn’t resist. When creating a character like that, how do you make sure this unbeatable guy comes across as vulnerable or human?

Its interesting, because this is a character who’s had his humanity stripped away from him. He’s been trained to move in and out of the shadows to assassinate people and escape. He’s expendable and he knows it, he’s just an asset. Ana De Armas tells him that halfway through the film. His role in the agency is to be expendable. 

Ryan is incredibly gifted at conveying emotion through facial expression. This is not a character who says a lot, because he doesn’t want to expend the energy which is constantly being used for survival. I think this is what makes him an anti-Bond character, who doesn’t have the time or the energy to do anything flashy, anything showy. All he’s concerned with is his freedom. Ryan understood that, and I think he plays this tortured, thoughtful, imprisoned CIA agent beautifully.

Many of the Marvel films, including yours, are praised for the humour and the characterisations, but often critiqued for the huge action set-pieces at the end. How liberating has it been to make something that is essentially wall-to-wall action?

That was the design of the movie. When we read the book [by Mark Greaney] what we fell in love with was that it was inventive and clever and relentless. We’re always trying to give audiences a specific experience, and in this case the intention is that you sit down to watch the movie and you forget everything else while you’re watching it, because the ticking clock is so propulsive. 

It was a fascinating exercise for us as filmmakers. A lot of times we just make the movies we want to see. I love movies like this! I love movies where a lot of thought and effort and energy has gone into the action set-pieces in a way that I’m sitting in a theatre and I forget to eat my popcorn.

Speaking of movies you love to watch, ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ showed off your love for 1970s spy movies, so when it comes to action filmmaking, what are your influences?

[John] McTiernan was a big influence on us. We love his films . Pound for pound, you go back and look at what he did making those movies. They’re still iconic and timeless action films [McTiernan’s films include Die Hard, Predator, The Hunt For Red October]. There’s a real complexity to the ensembles, the characters have complex motivations… In a lot of ways, The Gray Man is a homage to 80s action films.

What brought Dhanush to your notice? He’s such an exciting Indian leading man, and it’s interesting to see him on a playing field of this scale. Will we see more of his ‘sexy Tamil’ character going ahead?

We love that character. It’s one of my favourite things in the film, and I think that his two action sequences are two of the best in the movie as well. He’s an incredibly gifted physical actor. 

Dhanush understands action like very few actors that we’ve worked with. He contributed a lot to the choreography of those sequences. We would love to continue working with him, and his character is designed in such a way that there’s potential future storytelling for that character.

I have to ask you which is your personal favourite episode of Community. The one you’re proudest of?

Oh boy. That’s a great question. You know, I’m going to pick two, because they’re a two-parter, but the back-to-back paintball episodes [Season 2, episode 23 and episode 24] that I directed. The ones that spoofed Sergio Leone and Star Wars. 

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