After the massive success of their last flight of fancy, La La Land, director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling have decided to take a flight of a very different kind in the form of First Man, which casts Ryan in the role of astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was no less than the first human being to set foot on the surface of the moon.
That historic event took place on July 29, 1969, and while all of that will be covered, the film also explores the decade leading up to that moment from Neil’s perspective. As the studio explains it, “Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film explores the triumphs and the cost — on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues, and the nation itself — of one of the most dangerous missions in history.”
Explains Damien in comments provided by Universal, “Ryan and I have more than simply an ‘actor-director’ relationship.’ That’s what accounts for the documentary feel of this film. When I first discussed First Man with him, I saw it as a ‘mission movie.’ He’s the one who interpreted it as a story of grief.”
What perhaps surprised him more than anything was the way that Ryan seemed to so effortlessly embody the late astronaut. “What struck me about Neil,” says Damien, “was how reserved, restrained, and un-showy he was. He was not the prototypical cowboy or fast-talking pilot. He was a man of very few words — the quiet person who sits in the corner, but who immediately takes gauge of everything: the smartest person in the room.”
His partnership with Ryan during La La Land allowed him to experience the actor’s range, especially the way he has of underplaying a scene. “Neil always insisted there was nothing special about him,” he explains. “He said he was just one of many, and circumstances enabled him to be the first man on the moon. There was this normality to him, and Ryan’s style is so subtle that he was able to do justice to that.”
For his part, Ryan was intrigued by the approach being taken by Damien as well as the book it was all based on. “I think as soon I learned what the moon was, I learned that somebody named Neil Armstrong walked on it,” Ryan reflects. “He was synonymous with the moon, but I realized, after reading James Hansen’s book First Man, that I knew very little about either one of them. On an emotional level, I was surprised to learn just how much loss Neil and his wife Janet [played by Claire Foy] experienced before and during those historic missions. On a practical level, I don’t think I fully appreciated how dangerous those missions were. How claustrophobic and frail those space capsules were: how primitive the technology was by today’s standards.”
“I’ve always been interested in the extremes of a story,” he continues. “What is unique to this story for me is just how extreme those extremes can be. I can’t imagine a greater duality than that between the intimacy and singularity of the Armstrongs’ personal life and the infinite nature of space that it’s intertwined with. These astronauts were using their comparative flashlight of scientific knowledge to contend with the infinite mysteries of the universe and, at the same time, taking out the trash and mowing their lawns back on Earth.”
Producer Marty Bowen says of his leading man, “Ryan has a commitment to doing excellent work. He is keenly aware of the legacy he’s leaving behind and often, like-minded people find one another in material that they can connect with. It makes sense that Ryan and Damien want to work together. When you watch La La Land, the character that Ryan plays is someone who’s obsessive about his craft… because Ryan’s obsessive about his craft. What he brings is his humanity. It’s his understanding of sentiment… and not sentimentality. So often people want to overwhelm you with their emotion. It’s the truly great craftsmen who know how to dispense it in a way that keeps you leaning in.”
Ryan admits that becoming Neil would have been impossible without the help of numerous collaborators. “I was very privileged to meet with Janet Armstrong before she passed away,” he says. “I was also very fortunate to talk with Neil’s two sons, Rick and Mark, and spend time with Neil’s sister, June, at their farm in Wapakoneta, OH, where Neil was born. The Armstrong Air & Space Museum, and both NASA’s Cape Canaveral and Houston facilities, opened their doors to me. There were also experts on set daily to advise on the specifics of every mission we were trying to replicate. I also had almost constant access to author James Hansen and his book First Man; a work of more than 700 pages of meticulous research. I’ve never had so much help researching a role or been involved with so many people who were so enthusiastic and happy to provide it.
“My first instinct in preparing for this role,” Ryan elaborates, “was to learn how to fly. Neil was flying before he could drive; it seemed an integral part of who he was, so I thought I should start there. At a certain point in my training, I was asked to force the aircraft into a self-imposed ‘stall,’ and I had a moment of clarity. This was a terrible idea. I understood in that moment why Neil was destined to be one of the world’s greatest pilots and why I was not. Like many other astronauts, Neil began as a test pilot. It takes a certain kind of person to knowingly get into an aircraft that has never been flown and take it to its breaking point, for the sole purpose of finding its flaws so that we might move our understanding of aeronautics forward.”
First Man launches in theaters on Oct. 5.