Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Dhanush, Julia Butters, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, Jessica Henwick, Joe Russo and Anthony Russo
An Incredible Cast Is Assembled for The Russo Brothers’ Action Thriller The Gray Man
by Brad Balfour
So far this summer, I’ve put in my time superhero-fied watching Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love & Thunder and secured my dose of sci-fi horror by seeing Nope. I also got an animation jones fulfilled by taking on Minions: The Rise of Gru, Lightyear and Paws of Fury. Now it’s time to take on a solid two hours of guns and glory through a screening of Netflix’s latest power play, The Gray Man. The body count is high, the blasts are mondo-destructive, and Ryan Gosling is born to be wild.
In July 2020, the Russos were hired to direct an adaptation of Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man for Netflix, from a screenplay by Joe Russo, with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to further polish the script. This film is a successor to their four films – released from 2014-2019 – in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.
Endgame took in over $2.798 billion worldwide, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Owing to their successes in the MCU, the brothers were tagged as the second most commercially successful directors of all time, behind Steven Spielberg.
So, if they had wanted to create their own franchise, they had the juice to get the $200 million needed to green-light this project. The story they made from Greaney’s Gray Man novels goes something like this:
The CIA’s most skilled mercenary known as Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) – aka Sierra Six – accidentally uncovers dark agency secrets. He then becomes a primary target and is hunted around the world by the psychopathic former agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) and his many teams of international assassins.
Six, an incarcerated murderer, is recruited as a CIA black ops mercenary by section chief Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). Sent on a hunt for his target Sierra Four, the stone-faced killer realizes he’s being duped by top CIA chief Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), the man who replaced his boss. Once he’s handed a medallion with a thumb drive inside containing unquestionable evidence that Carmichael has gone off-course, Six is forced to go on the run with these incriminating secrets in his possession.
He’s joined in his efforts by agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who gets caught up in fighting off the machinations of Carmichael, who has hired Hansen, once a colleague of Gentry. Hansen leads the manhunt to kill Six and get the drive. Needless to say, he doesn’t. But along the way, Lloyd captures Fitzroy and his niece, Claire (Julia Butters). He then attacks and kills Six’s contact Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard) and sends master Tamil assassin Avik San (Dhanush) after him and Miranda. The whole berserker crew ends up in Prague where dozens of cops are killed, buildings are blown up and bystanders are collateral damage. Needless to say, Six, Miranda and Denny, plus his second-in-command Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), survive. The sequel has already been greenlit.
At a virtual press conference for the hyper-paced action feature, cast members Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling, Dhanush, Julia Butters, Billy Bob Thorton, Alfre Woodard, Regé-Jean Page, and Jessica Henwick, dish with directors Joe and Anthony Russo about the film’s genesis.
Joe and Anthony, what sets The Gray Man apart from other spy thrillers?
Joe Russo: This is a modern story. Bond is about 60 years old at this point and Bourne is about 20 years old. This film is connected in a lot of ways to issues that are going on in the world now. The character is exceedingly existential, quite funny, and we just find that it fits our sense of humor. It’s the kind of film that we feel would work well with today’s audiences.
Ryan, is The Gray Man one of your films that required the most of you physically, and how was your training for this movie?
Ryan Gosling: There was, as you can imagine, a lot of training for the film. I had an incredible amount of help. There was an amazing stunt team. At first, they went through all these different styles of martial arts and tried to curate it for me and the character. Then we had this amazing advisor named Chili Palmer, who’s an ex-Delta Force member. I tried to join myself at the hip with him. He offered all this amazing tactical advice, but also these really amazing ideas like, you should always have Skittles on you. Or, if you’re going to go to sleep, tie your shoelaces to the door because if someone comes in, you’ll know. All these little details weren’t in the script but were things you could only learn from experience. I thought [they] really made the film special and added this special sauce to it. So, we had a lot of help.
You’re running a lot in this movie [laughs].
Ryan Gosling: A lot of running. I would go back to the pre-movie me and tell him to work on his cardio. I didn’t expect all the Prague running.
How do you balance the comedic moments and the action-packed serious ones? Do you prepare differently depending on the tone of the script?
Ryan Gosling: You prepare differently. It depends on the filmmakers. The Russos have a really cool process, one I’ve never done before. At the beginning of the film, we sat with all of the department heads. They put the script up on a big screen, and everybody starts talking about it as they work through it. At first, it makes it not precious and very collaborative. Also, it really gets you on the same page, literally. You know what movie you’re making. It became clear that we were shooting for the stuff that I grew up loving in the ’80s and ’90s, that had a sense of humor about itself. It also helps because it’s not often that you find yourself falling through a trap door and ending up in a well in some guy’s Czechoslovakian apartment. The fact that you can comment on that: the Russos open it up, so you can say in the movie, “Okay, this was unexpected.” It sort of helps [laughs]. It gives you a gear in the movie that you don’t have in a lot of other films. This was a unique process in that way. I really enjoyed it.
Anthony Russo: Ryan reminded me of something last night where, just to give you an example of how we like to work with actors, he was in a car with Ana. He tried to joke, and I walked up to him after the take and I said, “Yeah, that’ll never make the movie.” The line actually made the trailer.
Chris, you’ve portrayed excellent villains before in your career, but this is your first time doing so with the Russo Brothers; you played heroes a lot for them. You certainly seem to be having a blast in this role. Would you say playing such a complicated character as Lloyd gives you a more liberating opportunity as an actor?
Chris Evans: Playing a villain is always a little more fun. You have a bit more freedom, you get a lot more jokes, but working with the Russos is what gives that sense of trust and freedom. When you trust the filmmakers, you’re more willing to take risks, and certainly a character like this demands risks. Without the Russos and the relationship and rapport we have, I don’t know if I would have had such a rewarding experience.
Since you have worked with the Russos previously, how has your work with them changed in The Gray Man?
Chris Evans: It’s just a matter of evolving our trust, our understanding and communication. Film is this landscape… You can get lost in a semantic fog. There are all these creative minds on set, and you’re all trying to do the same thing – trying to communicate that vision can be tricky. You develop an understanding of the person’s language, and they understand my strengths, understand things that I don’t necessarily want to do and the things that I can’t wait to do. That familiarity is what breeds trust. That trust is what makes the risk-taking process of filmmaking feel less like a risk.
Ana, What was it about The Gray Man that caught your attention?
Ana de Armas: I wasn’t busy then [laughs]. No, I was very, very excited that the Russos thought of me. As soon as I got on the Zoom call with them, and they presented this story and character to me, I was in. I wanted to work with Ryan and Chris again, and I have all this amazing cast behind me. I just loved the character. I love who this woman is, her background, training and mentality – and how badass and fearless she is – all of that.
What was the most interesting thing that you learned from the CIA agent who helped you with your training? Always bring Skittles, tie your shoe to the door [laughs]?
Ana de Armas: Well, that was Chili. I was very lucky to have Chili train me on the military part of the character and learn the mentality of having that experience physically. Enduring the pain of what it’s like, this training of shooting and putting on all the weight of these weapons and just running around. I started running like a chicken at the beginning with this vest around me. I didn’t know how to move or squat or do anything, and I really enjoyed the process [of learning]. The pre-production, for me, was really fun because I could see myself improving [laughs]. Thank God. Then I also needed this other side, a more psychological part of it. Like, what do you do? At the end of the day, you’re on the mission, out there risking your life. These other people around you, they’re at the office. Ultimately, you’re the one calling the shots. You’re the one who has to make a decision to solve the problem at the moment. So, the CIA agent was very helpful. At the end of the day, it’s all about doing the right thing.
You can see that in your performance. She’s so decisive and doesn’t take a lot of time hemming and hawing over decisions.
Ana de Armas: She has to. She has to be three steps ahead of everyone else, especially on this one [laughs]. Yeah, that was really fast at making trouble [laughs again].
That leads to the most fun banter though.
Ana de Armas: Guys, I wish we had more arguments in the movie. We can do that in the next one, right?
Alfre, if you look historically at spy movies that have come out, it seems that an iconic woman is at the helm of the agency. How does it feel to be taking on such a role in this movie? It’s the role of a woman who always gets things done.
Alfre Woodard: I really like that I would go to work for these two guys. I learned a lot, not only about what I have to do. The big draw for me was that when I read it, I was excited. It reads just as exciting as it is on film. I wanted to impress my grown-up children with the cast. But really, it was that it was taking place in Thailand, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, and London, so then I said, “Yes.” Then they told me that I was just going to be in Long Beach… But they were really nice to me. I wanted to kick ass, but they said, “You’re dying so you can’t…” But I really enjoyed the fact that Ana kicks butt. You kick ass.
Billy, your character is one who’s seen and done some intense things. There’s so much history between all the characters in the movie, but at the same time he has these super protective relationships, both with Six and Claire (Butters). How do you think your character balances that rough history with these intensely personal and protective relationships?
Billy Bob Thornton: The thing that really interested me about the character is that here’s a guy who’s a high-level spy, and you have to be cold-blooded in a lot of ways. You have to make life and death decisions all the time. When you bring in personal relationships, it’s like, “How do I remain a human and yet do my job?” That interested me about people in general but, being the protector of my niece and everything, it comes naturally because I’m a parent. I had to lean more into, “How do I remain this guy?” But protecting her, that was easy.
There’s a great scene between Fitzroy and Lloyd where you’re getting your nails pulled out in the grossest and most uncomfortable, but badass, way. Can you talk a bit about that scene?
Billy Bob Thornton: That was a really interesting scene. What’s great is the way Chris was playing this character. As opposed to playing him like the typical bad guy, he was so casual about everything. He could say the worst thing to you and be so casual about it. I had to really work myself up, because I sometimes got lost in his funny way of being this guy. For one scene, it’s like, “Okay, the only way to do this is to tell him to take a hike.” I just have to say, “I don’t care what you do,” and show no pain; that’s what you’re trying to do. I chose to just growl at him and tell him that I didn’t care what he was doing to me, “You’re not hurting me.” That’s the way we did the scene. In terms of the nails, he only pulled one of my real ones off. After that, I went to Joe and Anthony and said, “I’m not doing this, guys.”
Joe Russo: But our visual effects artists were able to model all of the fake nail pulls off from the real nail pull. So it worked…
Regé-Jean, your character is an American in this movie. What was the prep process for you to shift into that character and what sort of work did you put in to develop your American accent?
Regé-Jean Page: It was very similar to the prep that you put into any role. I try to come at each script like a duckling that’s never seen a script before in my life, and you start fresh. I always make sure that this guy has a background, that he had a reason to be the way he is, because the immediate reaction to Lloyd is that you look at him and go, “Who does this?” It’s very much the reaction to Lloyd. But I wanted to give him a bit of depth. I wanted there to be something interesting and blue-collar in his background. Something east coast and aspirational into why he’s pushing himself so hard, why this enfant terrible has risen so high so quickly and pushed so hard. All of that comes into the melody and nuances of where that accent comes from. I do the same with British accents, it’s always building the person and then how they speak.
You were pulling from blue-collar, east coast [roots]. Were there any specific inspirations or villain inspirations? Early on we realize he’s not a great guy [laughs].
Regé-Jean Page: Nothing in particular. It’s always a collage effect. You steal little pieces, but also you never say where you steal from. That’d be [telling].
When audiences see this film, they learn very quickly that Denny Carmichael is not someone who should be messed with. Did you enjoy taking on someone who has such an openly dark side?
Regé-Jean Page: It’s hugely freeing. The difference between villains and heroes, generally, is that villains are not burdened with a conscience in the same way as heroes are. They don’t have any barriers between themselves and their goals, or at least not the same barriers. My job was just to bring some relish to being unrestrained. My favorite villain in literature is Iago in Othello. People enjoy watching him enjoy himself. I feel that Denny and Lloyd are cut from a similar cloth in that way. They enjoy themselves, just in different ways. I tried to bring some relish to the deviousness. It’s good fun, hopefully for myself and for the audience.
Jessica, Your character has this really interesting arc in the film. She’s watching the chaos ensue [from] Denny’s orders, and then decides to step in and do something about it. Talk about that turn in making her this dynamic and complex character?
Jessica Henwick: I didn’t approach it as a turn. I wanted it to be shocking, but I also wanted you to go, “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” I mean, to be surrounded by two douchebags for that long? Who wouldn’t snap? I didn’t want it to be, like, “Oh, I don’t understand why she did that” moment.
She has a great line at the end of the movie that’s basically, “Don’t underestimate me,” and we see that throughout you bring a lot of complexity to that.
Jessica Henwick: Thank you for reminding me, I didn’t remember that line.
Julia, you get a chance to work alongside some pretty iconic actors and actresses in this movie, though they also get to work alongside icon Julia Butters as well. Did you enjoy the opportunity to work with this amazing cast and did you learn anything from your screen-time with these individuals?
Julia Butters: Working with these folks here was a delight because I’d seen [laughs] half of them [guesting] on SNL before anything else. Ryan and Regé-Jean were from SNL, and I was a fan. So, thank you guys for that.
Ryan Gosling: Julia Butters knows who I am.
Julia Butters: It was amazing working with these people. I respect them so much and think they’re incredibly talented. I’m more of an observer than someone to ask for advice, whether watching Chris twitch into Lloyd, literally physically or [laughs] watching Billy just take seconds to calm down and think. I honor them so much in their process. For me, taking notes by watching what they do is my form of learning. Just seeing how professional they are and growing up seeing that through everyone I work with, I really try to get as much as I can from observance. Thank you so much for being amazing. And the Russo Brothers too, you guys are just incredible. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of this.
Dhanush, this is your first Hollywood blockbuster, though you’re no stranger to blockbusters. How has this experience working with the Russos and this cast been for you?
Dhanush: It was amazing. I had a great time understanding how Hollywood works. I’ve done about 50 films, 22 years of work in the Indian film industry. You don’t often get a chance to feel like a newcomer again because the first time it all happens in a blur, you don’t realize what’s happening. But this time, I had an opportunity to look at myself like a newcomer. It was really amazing. Growing up watching Hollywood films and to be in one is really nice [laughs]. I’m thankful to the Russos for finding and casting me and it’s just amazing.
What was the learning curve for you with the fight choreography? Was it challenging to keep your character’s drive and energy at the forefront of the action? You’re no stranger to action, but action with the Russos is on a whole other level.
Dhanush: They started from the basics. If your left hand is here, where should your right leg be. It was amazing, right from the basics. The stunt crew takes you through, and then it gets intense, and gets to the point where it feels dangerous. It’s very quick and very fast [laughs]. It was very challenging, but fun. Towards the end, you feel like you’re a pro, you move so quick. They make sure you’re so good before you go on. It’s funny, because one week before the shoot, I sprained my neck [laughs again]. So, it’s a month, month and a half of training, and then just one week before you start filming, I have a sprain, and you’re, “I’m not able to move this side, or this side.” I was like, “Oh, damn, what am I going to do now?” The physio just had a week’s time to get me ready. I have to match Ana’s speed. Somehow, they found a way to make me fit for the stunt sequence. It was amazing, a great experience. Avik San’s supposed to be very calm, mysterious, and composed. But I have to have this kind of movement and energy coming out of my body. And the grunts without… I didn’t know how to do it. I have to be calm, but… [makes noise]. It was challenging. It’s a good question actually. But it was something that keeps you thinking all the time; it’s always really great to do something like that.
Jessica, Alfre, Ana, and Julia – you four play clearly strong characters in this film. Who wants to talk about why it’s important to see leading women within the action spy genre?
Alfre Woodard: It’s important because we are the stronger gender [laughs]. The guys have to have these kinds of women in their lives so we just need to make sure, thankfully, that they know that. Whether they’re moms, aunties, daughters, and all. Ryan is just rocked by strong women in his life. We’re just presenting real life. A lot of times you don’t get that in film.
Julia Butters: It’s also very important that women in action movies aren’t presented as women wearing high heels, beating the guys, and oh, they’re so sexy. It’s important that you represent them in a way where they’re doing a job. It doesn’t necessarily matter if they’re found attractive, even though this is a gorgeous cast [laughs]. It’s important to represent women as women instead of high heels, long hair, long nails, and whipping the boys. It’s important to represent them respectfully and powerfully at the same time.
Ana de Armas: I feel like this comment was coming right at me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I was a woman in high heels kicking ass in a Bond movie looking beautiful and the way I was supposed to for that movie. But it’s something really refreshing about this one where the focus is not on that. I’m not Ryan’s love interest. We’ve done that, too. We’ve been there. It’s about her power in a different way. It’s really cool. It’s important to put women in action films in that light, and have that vision of it, and accentuate that part of badass women. Does that make sense?
Joe and Anthony, what would you say was the hardest part to film about the Prague Sequence?
Joe Russo: All of it.
Anthony Russo: Yeah, every single element of it. For the Prague sequence, we needed a large section of the city to pull that off. That sequence starts in a major city square, and it continues through a chase throughout the city, so it was very complex. Just to give you an example of how hard it was, there’s a tram that The Gray Man gets on and Ana’s character is chasing him in a car and there’s a lot of other mercs around. It careens through Prague, and in order to shoot that sequence, we were using actual trams. We built a bus that was designed to look exactly like a tram but ran on wheels because sometimes we needed to run the tram faster than the tram could actually go, or we needed to take it down streets that didn’t have tracks, et cetera. We also had a tram that was located at a lot in Prague but was stationary that we would sort of shake, and we had a blue screen around it. You’re building the sequence through all those different locations, we’re shooting with our main cast, we’re shooting with stunt performers for the portions that are too dangerous. It was a very complex process to build that. We’re grateful to everyone in Prague. Prague’s an amazing filmmaking center. They have an amazing crew there. The people are very supportive of filmmaking. You can only pull something that complex off at a place like Prague.
Can you speak to the decision to shoot on location instead of building a set on a soundstage to look like Prague?
Anthony Russo: Yeah, [of course].
Joe Russo: It would have been tough and required a lot of VFX. It is a very tactile sequence. Whenever you go into a town, like we did with Winter Soldier, we shut down a freeway. We went back to Cleveland, our hometown, to shoot the movie and everyone was very happy, and then we shut down the freeway for two weeks.
Anthony Russo: I was going to say, they weren’t that happy.
They’re like, “Go to Prague.” [laughs]
Anthony Russo: That was short lived.
Joe Russo: And then they weren’t happy. It was very short lived.
Anthony Russo: Chris can call us on that one.
Joe Russo: I don’t think we can go back to Prague or Cleveland, but we’re very grateful that we were able to shoot on location.
Joe, you wrote this as well. Having worked with Chris so long, were you weaving some of the comedic elements into Lloyd as well? Or did you guys work together to develop that side of the character?
Joe Russo: It’s really important to us to work with the cast on the scripts. We want them to have emotional ownership over the characters. Everyone here is a great storyteller as well as an incredible actor. They all have an amazing wealth of experience. We encourage our collaborators to bring that to the table. For Anthony and I, we prepare the script so we can throw things away. That’s an old adage in filmmaking, so they’re always available to what’s happening in the moment. If there’s something organic or funny, or if somebody says something funny, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. If it works with the character and with the story, we’ll try it. Everyone here brought dialogue, jokes, character accents in a way that really filled out the film and made it much more colorful.
The Gray Man ends with Sierra Six disappearing. Is there a possibility for additional stories in The Gray Man universe?
Anthony Russo: Part of our motivation to assemble an amazing cast like this who can embody so many interesting characters, was the hope of creating a universe that you wanted to follow all of them, either forward or backward from this moment in time that we caught in this first movie. So yes, hopefully, there will be more stories to tell in The Gray Man world.
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