Adam McKay’s The Big Short — the subject of this week’s Vulture cover story — stars Ryan Gosling as a version of Greg Lippmann, a slick Deutsche Bank trader (he also gives some interstitial, direct-to-camera informative narration). We spoke with him about how to play a guy who bets against the American economy, how to order drinks like a “Tony Robbins on His Day Off,” and the importance of his hairpiece.
Were you an Adam McKay fan before this?
I am a huge fan. His movies aren’t even like movies, they’re more like friends of mine. Like it feels like you have to check in with Step Brothers every once in a while, just to see how it’s doing. Adam sent along the script, and I was just really impressed by it. I knew that he was freakishly smart. But the fact that he was tackling this subject matter, in this way, was just really interesting to me.
Was the subject matter something you were familiar with?
No, I wasn’t. I mean, obviously I was aware that something happened. But like most people who will see the film, I felt like it was something I would never completely understand. But Adam’s perspective was unique in that he believed it was accessible, and he was trying to explain it in a way that was entertaining. The film’s point of view is that the language of high finance feels alienating because it’s designed to alienate you, to make you feel like you can’t understand it, so that basically you won’t ask too many questions. And this was like, Let’s pull the curtain back on that whole machine.
Tell me about your character, Jared Venet.
I like to pronounce it Venay. He wears many hats in the film. He’s the narrator and the tour guide of that world, the high finance world, but he’s also a character in the present of the movie. I thought it was a really smart device on Adam’s part. It knows that it’s a movie, and we are actors, playing real people, and that this happened, or didn’t quite happen like this, and I think it makes it more entertaining and engaging, and it’s a way to sort of earn the audience's trust, it’s not trying to fool you, it knows what it is and what it’s doing, and you should trust it when it tells you something is important.
The character is based on Greg Lippmann, a Deustche Bank salesman who sold insurance on mortgage-backed securities to the hedge funds in the movie, who, in real life, as in the movie, didn’t find him particularly trustworthy. (Though at one point, one of the characters says, “He’s so transparent in his self-interest, I can’t help but trust him.”) What do you think? Is this character a good guy or a bad guy?
Jared’s job is to make money for his bank. He didn’t create the system. He didn’t invent the idea of the CDO, and he hasn’t been going to the ratings agencies and having them rate things dishonestly. He has never been a party of that system. Unlike his peers, he had that instinct, that things were too good to be true, and he understood the genius of these credit-default swaps betting on this system to fail, and he went to his bosses and told them the payoff was much bigger than the risk. And in doing so, he took on a lot of humiliation. He was known among his peers as Bubble Boy and Chicken Little because he stood by this idea when it was unpopular. What’s difficult is all of these characters are sort of walking a morally ambiguous road. But the film is not walking a morally ambiguous road. It doesn’t celebrate the heist of it all. It never celebrates their financial successes. My favorite part of the film is a line Brad says to two of the characters, where he tells them, “You just bet against the American economy, and if you win, hardworking people will suffer, so try not to celebrate.”
Though you do see Jared/Greg smoothing out his $47 million check at the end, after the collapse. You had dinner with the actual Lippmann, who didn’t want his name used in the film. What was that like?
He was very helpful, in a way, in sort of helping me to understand as much as is possible the sort of financial lay of the land at the time. He understood the character was loosely based on him, and his purpose in the film was to educate the audience on the overall story. And he was helpful in sort of adding flavor to the character so that he wasn’t just a narrator. Unfortunately, I ended up looking more like Dustin Diamond than the real guy.
Yes, tell me about your look. Did you go on a special diet? How did you achieve that sickly pallor?
It was really just powered by the wig. It was a hair-fueled performance. It’s really like a Samson kind of a story. It took about a half-hour to put on every morning. It was kind of a nice way to start the day. I have never really worked much in that way, you know, in terms of, like ... altering my appearance.
You mean, no one has ever hired you to be ugly before?
Uhhh. I just remember, the first time I stepped out of the trailer in makeup, Steve Carell was there, and he looked at me and very seriously said, “Never do this again. Do it for this, but never, ever do this again.”
I know you got to do some ad-libbing. When I was on set, during the scene in the casino, when you’re at the bar with the guys from Front Point, at one point, you asked the bartender for a “Matt Lauer, no strawberry.”
There was also an “Andre the Giant With a Tractor Pull.” And a “Tony Robbins on His Day Off.” They didn’t make the cut.
You can’t be too funny in a movie about the financial crisis, I guess.
That was something we were all aware of. We knew this wasn’t one of Adam’s comedies, and he wasn’t making it because it was funny. At the same time, he can’t help but have a sense of humor, and everything gets sort of filtered through that, and he encourages everybody to improvise within the realm of who that character is. And then he keeps mostly what he wrote, but he leaves some things to keep it feeling spontaneous.
Did anything else get cut that you were bummed about?
We played a lot with the idea of Jared wanting to be very clear with the audience about the differentiations between real life and the story, and what he did and didn’t say, him being aware that he’s in a movie and the story has to be condensed, and getting more and more vexed by the process over the course of the film. But in the end, there was so much ground to cover, that was a layer that didn’t end up serving the story. So that was too bad. Also, the Tony Robbins on His Day Off. But I think we should all try to order that and see what happens.