(L-R) Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie and Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad (© 2012 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC./Photo credit: Wilson Webb)
While Ryan Gosling gets the girl, er dame (Emma Stone), Josh Brolin gets the glory and Robert Patrick gets the shot, every time, diminutive and squeaky-voiced Giovanni Ribisi gets a moustache, gadgets and the responsibility of playing Conway Keeler, the so-called Gangster Squad's conscience. He's the only member of the covert police force, brought together to take down brutal crime boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who ever worries how dirty their hands are getting to keep the city safe and there's plenty to worry about.
Ribisi, dressed in a white dress shirt, black pants and skinny tie and looking much younger than his 38 years, welcomed a slew of journalists into a downtown Toronto hotel room to talk about his role in the Ruben Fleischer period piece that's based on a real group of cops who were told to leave their badges at home while trying to stop an evil empire from spreading and save the soul of Los Angeles, the very city where Ribisi was born and raised.
Asked whether filming the movie on location stirred up any feelings of hometown pride, Ribisi agreed that L.A. has its own distinct, beloved charm.
"I think that Los Angeles does have a heartbeat and a heart and soul and it's the City of Angels; there's nostalgic, romantic ideas [there]," he offered. "So there is pride and it was a rare thing growing up to be a native Angelino because it was a destination spot for the city of dreams and the stars. And now there's a lot more of us there."
A movie as much about a rogue group of good guys battling evil as it is a movie about movies made in, and about, L.A., Ribisi dug the film noir influences, name-dropping era-specific techniques like chiaroscuro lighting and the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown, and admitted that the movies of that time were part of what made him initially interested in the craft.
"It's one of the reasons why I wanted to be an actor. We had this local TV station in Los Angeles that used to play all of the movies from the 1940s and '50s and it really brought filmmaking to a whole new level," he said. "This movie has that element of course, and it was shot with anamorphic lenses so you get all those lens flares and the action sequences, there's the phantom slow-motion cameras, with the Tommy gun [makes gun loading sound] it was so great, so effective, so it bridges into a modern universe as well, stylistically."
Though contemporary effects are used throughout Gangster Squad, the film concerns itself with a code of ethics and values that are specific to its post-war timeframe, when men coming back from battle were lost and damaged and life as they knew it had forever changed.
"[The director] Ruben and I had a conversation early on about the fact that Keeler is the moral compass of the group, or the conscience of the group," he revealed. "Because you have a film here, much like in the tradition of film noir, where the heroes of the film are...it's not black and white, there's a grey area there. And in our case, this is where the good has to become the evil, and I question that in the film. What I thought was great...it speaks to the notion about a time where there were a different set of values. And that's where my character was coming from; he wanted to create a better city for his progeny."
(L-R) Ryan Gosling, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick star in Gangster Squad (Photo credit: Wilson Webb)
Along with a unique set of old-school morals, Gangster Squad showcases a long-abandoned way of presenting oneself, a time when getting dressed was a meticulous task that evoked personal pride and not reaching for the nearest clean shirt, something Ribisi admired, saying his favourite part of filming the period piece was "being steeped in the style of the era."
And he couldn't help but notice how well one of his co-stars filled out the 1940s duds.
Calling Ryan Gosling a "sexy beast," and then immediately following with "Sorry. He's gonna love that I just said that. What did I just do?" Ribisi revealed he had much admiration for the handsome thesp and was continually impressed while working with Gosling, who plays a cop with little motivation to do more than chase skirts with shots of whiskey, on their first movie together.
"He's just a guy who has endless ideas and inspiration and I think he could do anything. He's directing a movie right now, right? He's one of those guys that when you're watching him you can't take your eyes off of him, you're actually asking yourself, 'What's gonna happen next? What's he gonna do next?'"
And the same could be said for Ribisi, an actor since the '80s who grew up on TV and the big screen (Saving Private Ryan, The Gift, Lost in Translation, Boiler Room), and who clearly has a lot of love for his chosen profession.
When asked how he's managed to survive in the industry for 30 years, he admitted to not having the answer.
"I have definitely fought for being involved in movies and tried and I think that, it is what it is. I'm definitely happy in my life but I don't feel like I've done my best yet; I'm still searching."-- Gangster Squad opens in Cineplex theatres January 11.
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