Russell Crowe has had few chances to show he’s funny. But though “The Nice Guys” is a comedy — and a mystery and a thriller — he never goes overboard trying to make you laugh. His character, the brutish “enforcer” Jackson Healy, is the straight man to Ryan Gosling’s bumbling, girl-shrieking P.I. Holland March, both of them caught up in a violent and often ridiculous missing person’s case in 1970s Los Angeles. The latest from Shane Black — who helped birth the modern buddy action comedy with his script for “Lethal Weapon” — it does give the Oscar-winning actor, now 52, a chance to snarl some sour one-liners, and wear some silly clothes.
Do you tend to think about how your characters dress? For instance, was that loud blue jacket Jackson Healy wears your idea?
You always want to be involved in that. You always have to think about practical considerations. So I actually stole that blue leather jacket off Ryan’s costume rack. They had that jacket for him, but he was about five minutes late for the costume fitting. I put it on and it fit me, so I put it on my costume rack. I only confessed that to him last night, actually. I love that jacket. I told him, “You shouldn’t have turned up late.”
He mostly wears that one costume through the movie.
I didn’t really think he was that complicated in that area. I didn’t think he had that many shirts, that many jackets. So we just shrunk it down to a few things. The way I thought about Healy is that he comes from a service background, most likely the Navy. We see the house he lives in. Where most people will have 10 of one thing, he’ll have one. His space is sparse and the shelves are empty. He can walk from the bedroom to the front door in one linear line, pick up what he needs and be gone. I think those things shaping the character is as important as any aspect of him.
Even the place he lives in gives you insight into who he is as a character.
I thought it was a stroke of brilliance that Shane Black had him living in an apartment above a comedy club. He would sit there, not hearing what was being said but hearing the laughter coming upstairs. That’s such a strange and beautiful thing. [Laughs]
You’ve been speaking about how you were partly drawn to “The Nice Guys” because of its political edge. Can you elaborate on that?
To me this is Shane Black picking a point in history where certain decisions were made and America corrupted its own future. If you look at this seriously, it’s talking about a point in time when the big three car companies in Detroit held America hostage, so to speak. There are lines said that make people laugh but at the same time make them think. Someone says, “When Detroit’s strong, America’s strong.” But we know what has happened to that town since the ’70s. That’s funny, but it’s darkly funny.
You haven’t done a lot of comedies. At the same time this is a comedy that’s also a mystery and a thriller, so you can sort of ease into the genre.
I wasn’t sure when I first read [the script] that I’d read it the right way. When I talked to Shane and Ryan, they said it wasn’t going to be [a comedy]. It took a conversation with them to realize the tone they were going for.
You two do have a classic comedy duo set-up: One is very funny and the other is the straight man.
The two of us looked back through the history of film and glommed onto things we could bring to the fore. One of the decisions Shane made quite early, which we went with, was making sure there was a physical difference between us. Quite often in duos — Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy — there’s a physical difference.
Still, Gosling gets most of the physical comedy. When you’re funny it’s more rooted in character and how you’re reacting to him. You’re not trying hard to make him funny.
You can’t do that. Soon as you do that you’re going to kill it. Soon as you try to make it a series of gags the nature of the film changes. It has to be organic and it has to come from a place of deep belief. These characters are in situations that may be deeply absurd, but they don’t see it that way. It’s just their lives.