By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Seven years ago, after years of unprecedented industry growth, the U.S. housing market collapsed as the global economy took a nosedive. In “The Big Short,” which is based on Michael Lewis’ bestseller about the crisis, four individuals were able to predict and take advantage of this catastrophic economic event, and came up with an ingenious way beforehand to cash in.
While Wall Street bankers and government regulatory agencies ignored the ticking time bomb of the housing bubble, an unorthodox Silicon Valley money manager named Michael Burry (played in the film by Oscar winner Christian Bale) invented a financial instrument called a credit default swap, which was a means to “short” the then booming housing market. It didn’t take long for slick young Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, “Lars and the Real Girl”) to catch wind of Burry’s strategy. He convinced hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) that he also should invest millions in credit default swaps. Initially skeptical, Baum and his team of wisecracking young analysts undertook their own investigation, heading off to Florida, the Ground Zero of the housing boom, where they discovered first-hand dozens of grossly under-qualified homebuyers and mortgage brokers routinely obtaining loans for them, confirming the stats they were seeing on paper.
At the same time, two upstart money managers (played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) also stumbled on the housing market bubble. Hoping to break into the financial market big leagues, they enlisted a banker-turned environmental doomsayer (played in the film by a scruffy Brad Pitt, who also is one of the film’s producer) to use his connections to help them make their own bet against Wall Street. Their bold investments led them to the underbelly of modern banking where they discovered they have to question everyone and everything.
At a press conference, three of the comedy’s stars—Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling—were on hand to discuss the film, working with director Adam McKay (“Step Brothers,” the “Anchorman” movies) and the tackling serious, complex subject matter and making it fun and entertaining.
Bale, with a full goatee and mustache, was dressed in all black. Carell, with a blue sweater vest and glasses, projected a university professor look. And Gosling, who is almost unrecognizable film with a curly black ‘do, was in swoon-worthy mode in a dark grey jacket over a white t-shirt and dark slacks, and closely trimmed beard and mustache.
Q: Ryan, what was it that attracted you to this particular character and movie frankly, and what made you really want to do it?
Gosling: The Jheri curl. Adam said … and I said, “You had me at Jheri curl. (He laughs.) I love Adam’s movies and in some ways, they not even movies, they’re like friends of mine or something. I’ll check in with “Step Brothers” just to see how it’s doing.
I love them, and so to be able to work with him at all was exciting, and then to get this script and to see that it’s sort of a departure for him. And to be able to be a part of that as well just made it more exciting. But I learned a lot; I am still learning about it. I learned a lot from the script and then, obviously, through Michael (Lewis’s) book and then through the research process, and even through watching the film, I’ve learned more.
Adam has, especially in combination with Michael, their work—it’s very unique, this film. It’s very inclusive and there’s no like grandstanding. I think in the hands of a lot of other filmmakers, it could have been very, very different. Adam just has a way of maintaining his sense of humor about something that’s very upsetting, and I think it’s very unique. It just was a very exciting thing to be a part of.
Q: Christian, you are alone, or nearly alone, in most of your scenes. Is that easier or more difficult for you to work that way? And secondly, what was it like for you to actually see the film for the first time, having not worked with most of the lead cast?
Bale: I didn’t work with anybody. I met Steve for the first time last night. Ryan and I had met before. I really loved just working by myself. (He laughs.) It was great. It’s so much fun, and then you have the voice of God which was Adam, who’d be on the mic, and he’d just talk **** to me whilst I was in the office or just make fun of what I was doing, or whatever. But it’s amazing how much you can get done when there’s nobody else. (He laughs.) Because we shot for nine days, I think, and man we just banged out the pages so quick. Like Steve was saying, we could play around with it so much. And when you’re by yourself, there’s really no continuity you have got to worry about at all. So each and every take, you just do whatever the bloody hell you want, so I loved it. I want to make every film that way from now on.
Q: Steve, your co-star Hamish Linklater said you invited him, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong to dinner at your house before filming began so you could get to know each other.
Carell: Yeah, and after that dinner, we all piled into a rental car that Rafe (a British actor) had rented, and Rafe is not used to driving in this country and is unfamiliar with New Orleans (where the film was shot) as well. We were driving in the rain, mostly the wrong way and down the wrong side of the road, so that was a frightening and bonding experience.
Q: Did you meet the men you depict before you shot the movie and do you see this movie as great roles for you or as a public service?
Carell: I did. I met the person this was based on. We had breakfast together and I went over to his apartment and met his family, and he came to set a few times as well. So, yeah, I got to pick his brain and find out about how he factored into this world. I was frankly surprised to be offered this part and was very excited. Although I felt like one of these things is not like the other when you say Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale (are in this movie with you). I was talking to Adam before I started and Christian was shooting his stuff and we were talking about characters, just checking in. And I said, “How’s it going?” And he said, “Oh my God, Christian is unbelievable. It’s incredible, it’s transcendent.” And I was thinking, “Great, now I have to follow that!” So it was intimidating.
This entire cast, it’s just full of great actors. I think every part really stands on its own. There are really wonderful, complex, nuanced performances all across the board. So that was exciting for me, to just be a part of that ensemble.
Q: Christian, did you meet your counterpart?
Bale: Yeah, I did ask the makeup and hair department—I don’t know if they did or not—but I asked them, “Can you just drop it when Ryan and Steve are working? Just how much their favorite week of shooting was the first week.” I hope they did it. I said, “Be subtle about it.”
And yes, I did meet with (the man I play) Mike Burry, and I just think the guy’s wonderful. He’s such a charming man, and so phenomenally interesting. We talked for hours and hours, and he’s incredibly generous with his time and his thoughts to me. I really wish I could see (the movie) with him one day. I don’t know what kind of an ass would say his performance is a public service? I mean, really, right, who can say that without looking like a real ********? I mean, it was a great character.
Carell: (quips) I consider (my performance) more of a gift.
Gosling: Yeah, I got a chance to meet the guy that my character is based on. The situation was a little different in my case because the character I play in the film has a role in the film but he’s also the narrator and the sort of tour guide through this world. At times, I felt like a talk show host. I was just kind of breaking the fourth wall in order to introduce a new guest or a new segment. We really had to take some liberties with that character because obviously it’s very different from the real person. But yeah, I had an opportunity to meet him. And I agree it was tough to follow the first Christian week. The first thing I said to Adam was, “How’s it going?” He said, “Christian can play double kick on the drums. What are you going to do?”
Q: The film really has at least one scene that touches on everything that happened during the crisis: the Realtors burying their head in the sand, the bankers bragging about their bad loans and the landlords running away with tenants’ money that were paying rent. So, even though there’s only one scene about each thing in the movie, did you get the sense that you were acting out scenes that happened thousands of times?
Bale: Well, I was all by myself in the office (set), right, so it didn’t really apply to me.
Q: Are you guys into numbers? Do you sometimes read the Wall Street Journal, or are do you follow investments?
Bale: I’m terrible with numbers, so no. It went in one ear, it stayed there throughout filming, and as soon as I was done filming, it went out the other ear again. But what I found is that in watching the film, like Steve was saying, it’s entertaining first and foremost and so you get it. It’s not a big complex math class, which, little people like myself go into PTSD mode whenever you start hearing figures like that. It’s not like that. It sort of slips in very nicely and easily, and even if you don’t remember exactly what the names were—and that’s the whole point, right—these industries try to make you feel dumb, and it works. But you understood the point, and that’s the essence of it, is getting down to what it really means for people on the street and every day. And so, I was really surprised and kind of proud of myself that I did get it all. And how much fun it was actually, in getting there as well—fun in getting that and tragic in understanding the consequences.
Q: Steve, you brought up that you saw this cast and was blown away by it, and yet, to me, you were the star of the film.
Bale: (with feigned indignation) What?
Carell: (with mock smugness) So that first week (in which Bale’s scenes were shot) wasn’t so great.
Q: Out of all the characters, I think you were the one the audience related to, so how did you go about playing that character and making it so relatable to the audience members?
Carell: I saw him as a human being; he’s a guy. I identified with the fact that he felt very much alone, and that he was approaching this seemingly against insurmountable odds. He saw himself as this knight. It’s complicated, obviously, because it’s morally and ethically ambiguous because he was certainly going to benefit from it all. And there were tragedies; there were things about his personal life that informed how he navigated this world as well. But I like the fact that all of these people—they’re humans. There’s a scene in which Brad (Pitt’s) character turns and says, “Don’t dance.” I think that’s such a crystallizing moment because that, to me, is the entire movie boiled down to just one small, seemingly inconsequential moment. “Don’t dance.” The way he delivers that as well. It’s so heartfelt and so human, and he’s so connected to the tragedy behind all of this.
There is an enormous conflict going on within all of these characters, and it was challenging. And, of course, the language was challenging. Like Christian said, you try to learn as much as you can, you get a grasp on it, and then you’re at the press junket, and you have no idea what you’re talking about.