He’s acted almost consistently since the age of 11 when he began grinding out work at a very adult rate on television, but recently character actor Giovanni Ribisi has already made the transition from adult roles to older adult roles. In a role that he doesn’t get cast in very often, Ribisi joins the ensemble cast of the 40s tough-guy cops and robbers thriller Gangster Squad as an LAPD wire tapper, and the only member of the crew with an established and loving family.
Surrounded on screen by heavy hitters like Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, Ribisi is called upon to deliver heart and relatability to an audience being brought into this world for the first time. He seems like someone who takes immense pride in his work and thoughtful rather than analytical about what his job entails.
Dork Shelf caught up with Ribisi this week to talk about growing up in Los Angeles and starring in a period piece from before his time, transitioning to older roles after starting young, the controversy surrounding the film’s shifted release date, and why he loved being immersed in the world of the 1940s.
Obviously the release of Gangster Squad was delayed by the theater shooting in Colorado, how do you feel about what happened and the correlation between real life violence and movies?
GR: Well, specifically in regards to this film, I saw the first incarnation of it with the scene in the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and given the fact that the film industry on the whole is so global and specifically a film from Warner Brothers like this will reach out to the world, you have to recognize a certain responsibility. This was an instance where it was so close to what happened in Colorado, I completely agree with Warner Brothers and Ruben’s sentiments in changing the ending out of respect to the victims. That said, I think since the beginning of filmmaking and storytelling you have the use of weapons and violence. So I think it’s a shame when Hollywood becomes a scapegoat for that sort of thing. I think there’s a recent rise in heinous acts of violence and it would be a shame to overlook other factors that might or might not contribute to them. There, it was said.
In terms of the scene that was missing, it felt seamless to me. So, having scene the other version, was there anything that stuck out or should have been left in?
GR: No, I actually think the film was improved. It’s essentially where the bad guys get hip to what’s going on and they want to ambush the squad. It’s right when everything starts to fall apart at the scenes and it all starts to unravel. Keeler’s death and all of that. It was the Chinatown sequence that ended up replacing it and I feel like that was actually a major impovment.
Born and raised in LA—
GR: Yes, change in tone already. Yes, I was born and raised in Los Angeles.
So was there any part of this movie where hometown pride was kicking in since there was a lot of talk about saving the soul of Los Angeles?
GR: I will say that being a native Angelino….I think that Los Angeles does have a heartbeat and a heart and soul. It’s the city of angels and there are certain nostalgic, romantic ideas. It has a rich history, go figure. And I think that when you look at all things aside from Hollywood you’ll see that and it’s not necessarily as young as it was 50 years ago. So yeah, there is pride in that. And you know, it was a rare thing growing up to be a native Angelino, because it was a destination spot as the city of dreams. The stars and all that stuff. But now there’s a lot more of us. Sorry, I’ll try to be more succinct in the next one.
Each character in the ensemble has to define themselves right away and it’s a small part you play, so how did you get something out there?
GR: Well, I didn’t really look at it like I wanted to get something out there to shine or get noticed or anything like that. Yeah, for the character Ruben Fleischer and I had a conversation early on about how Keeler is more or less the moral compass of the group, or the conscience of the group. Because you have a film here that much like in the tradition of film noir, the heroes aren’t black and white. There’s a gray area there and it’s very much where the notion of the antihero came from. In our case, this was where good had to be come evil to fight evil and my character questioned that in the film. I thought it was great because it speaks to the notion about a time where there were a different set of values. When people volunteered for war to beat the bad guy and that’s where my character was coming from. He wanted to create a better city for his prodigy.
As a performer how much of this backstory stuff is involved with the development of your character or do you work more directly from the page?
GR: Every project is different and I think everybody’s process has to evolve. It’s within an overall framework, but there’s got to be an organic nature to an actors process because every film is different and every genre is different. I was watching an interview with Jack Nicholson in a documentary that Vivian Kubrick made about The Shining. He talks about how most often all actors in the beginning are all about realism and the experience so that the audience can experience they’re going through from almost a voyeuristic perspective. And he was talking about the fact that Stanley Kubrick said, “yeah ok, but is it interesting?” I think that’s one of the things that you have to consider. I don’t know if I just answered your question, I don’t even know what your question was goddamn it!
I guess a film like this is about the history of Los Angeles, but also about the history of movies in Los Angeles and I guess I’m wondering when you’re working with a director on a film like this are your talking about your character’s motivation or your character’s role as an archetype in a movie like this. Do you watch other films for motivation?
GR: I think it was absolutely both. It was understanding what that archetype was because film noir and gangster stories like this are all based in archetypes. Those simple fundemental values of good vs evil. Then they grew into something that became much more complex, which culminates in one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, which is Chinatown. So there’s that, but then ultimately you do have think, “what story are we telling regardless of genre?” And there’s the technical aspect like, is the scene working. We know the script is good and we respond to that. We know that we have a good director and we know that we have a sexy beast in Ryan Gosling. Why did I just say that? What did I just do? (laughs) But anyways, it’s all about if the scene’s working, if it’s playing right and if it feels good.
You started acting very young and you’ve now transitioned into playing father roles. What do you think has been your key to surviving the industry all of these years?
GR: I don’t know. I’ve never really looked at it like that, I have to say. I went to an acting school for twelve years and my teacher was a gentleman by the name of Belton Gonzalez, and he always tried to instill in the actors he taught that getting a role was in the domain of the actor’s efforts. I’ve really fought for being involved with movies. I really tried and I think that you know it is what it is. I’m definitely happy in my life and I don’t feel like I’ve done my best yet, I’m still searching. So for me, what defines success? (Laughs)
I wanted to ask about the noir aesthetic that the film channels and if there’s anything that you watched in particular or were thinking of channeling into the role?
GR: Yeah, film noir and that style really came from gangster films. With film noir you think of the lighting, what hides in the shadows and the incredible photography of that time. It was also really the time when the actors studio and the notion of subtext was really coming to the forefront of film acting technique. It’s just so…I mean it’s one of the reasons that I wanted to be an actor. We had this local TV station when I was growing up in Los Angeles that used to play all of the movies from the 40s and 50s and it really brought filmmaking to a whole new level. This movie defintiey has that element of course. But there were other things too. Visually, it was shot with anamorphic lenses so you get all those lens flairs. The Phantom slow motion camera is amazing with for the action so you get that (makes machine gun noise with mouth and laughs), you know all the Tommy Gun stuff. It was so effective and helps bridge the movie into a modern cinematic universe as well.
While we’re talking about reference points, I couldn’t help but notice that your character seemed modeled visually on Harry Caul from The Conversation and I was wondering if that was something that was ever discussed?
GR: Oh wow, that’ s a great movie. That film is definitely ever present in my conscious. It’s a great movie. There’s that famous shot where he walks off camera and the camera holds then moves over to him to sort of make the camera personify voyeurism because that’s what the movie is about. And the title even, The Conversation (claps hands) That’s what Keeler is, the voyeur of the movie. But, no. (Laughs)
Was this based on an actual secret police force?
GR: Yeah, this was actually based on a real group and real life events. It’s based on them, but not everything was accurate. It wasn’t anything that I’d ever heard of. Robert Patrick mentioned that there was a little bit out there, but they pretty much kept everything underwraps for quite some time. I don’t even know why they did. It’s interesting because Will Beall the writer actually worked on the police force and I think that’s how he came across the story.
Was Keeler a real life character?
GR: Well, the writing of the character was actually based on two different guys and one of them actually came onto the set. He was I think in his 90s and had all of these stories about doing audio survalence on gangsters, you know living across the hall and doing audio survalence. He’d bugged their room and did the whole thing. He had all these crazy stories about using bubble gum to stick the bug to the wall and having to run out of the room. It was really interesting to have a chance to talk with him.
What kind of research did you do for the technical aspects in your role as a wire tapper?
GR: A lot of push ups, a lot of working out, a lot of time on the tanning beds. No…you know, the initial spark, that’s the biggest question any actor faces. Where do you start? I think you’ve just got to start running. So it began with a conversation with Ruben about this person being the moral conscious and talking about the broader picture of values amongst the society in contrast to today. So it started there and then it was all really about the relationships with all of the guys. Of course then you can get into the history books and the context of Los Angeles at that time and the LAPD around world war two and the great depression which is so interesting, but to me the best part was the group dynamic how everyone got along and those relationships.
What did you enjoy the most about the role?
GR: I would say that it was just being steeped in the style of that era. It was just fantastic. The pants! The way people got dressed was all about presenting themselves to the world. I guess it was a Streetcar Named Desire when they saw Marlon Brando in that T-shirt that T-shirts became popular, but before then everyone wore suits and ties and the whole thing. So there was all that. And then the cars 1947 Crystlers or the Studebaker that I drove. And Slapsi Maxie’s, I mean my god! That place was…you walked in and you saw everyone dressed to the 9s. Just amazing to be there.
Josh Brolin can be quite a merry prankster. Any of that?
GR: Um…no. He didn’t actually. This was my fourth film with Josh and he’s definitely a great person with a wonderful sense of humor, but no this was more of an environment where everyone wanted to do the best that they could.
What was it like working with Ryan Gosling?
GR: Well, I’d never done a movie with him (laughs). He’s just a guy with endless ideas. I think he can do anything. He’s actually directing a movie right now in Detroit I think…or so he says. Yeah, he’s just one of those guys when you’re watching him you can’t take your eyes off of him.
Since you’re here and it was the biggest hit last year, what was up with your dancing in front of the television as the psycho in Ted?
GR: (whispers) I don’t know man, I don’t know. One day we were just working in that house and I said to Seth, “I just wanna dance.” He was like, “ok.” And that was it.