They’ve only directed some of the biggest movies in the history of time. Joe and Anthony Russo have teamed for four Marvel Studios epics. Each one bigger and more full of action than the last. But even after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its follow-up Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, the brothers Russo are not content to leave action cinema behind. Their latest is The Gray Man, an espionage thriller set to debut in theaters July 15. In it, Six, a super-secret government assassin (Ryan Gosling), finds himself on the run from a sadistic mercenary named Lloyd (Chris Evans).
We caught up with Anthony and Joe at their AGBO production company offices. They talked about their love of spy movies, reflecting the mood of the day, and turning Captain America into a detestable creep.
Nerdist: Though obviously The Gray Man isn’t a comic book adaptation, it feels like it shares a lot of DNA with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Surely that was intentional.
Joe Russo: A hundred percent. We’re not shy about that. I mean, we’ve said that it’s complimentary to Winter Soldier in a way. He isn’t superpowered, Gosling, but it plays in a lot of the same themes. It’s different, the color schematics are different in the movie, but it is ultimately, we like telling parables through action thrillers. And this is very simply a movie about good and evil, but this is a movie where no one wears a white hat. Everyone in the movie has some semblance of great in them. It’s just that Lloyd is a killer who leans towards sociopath and you know, Six is a killer who leans towards humanity. It’s that simple. We feel like it’s very reflective with what we see going on in the world today.
It’s interesting you say that; it does feel like The Winter Soldier was reflective of government mistrust in 2014 while The Gray Man certainly feels more indicative of 2022.
Anthony Russo: That’s awesome to hear from you because that’s extremely important to us.
JR: Yeah. We’re very impacted by what’s going on. And we try to filter that into commercial storytelling in a way that even if it doesn’t consciously affect you, maybe it subconsciously affects you. Maybe you understand in the simplest way that “Yes. Okay. Maybe everything’s all f***ed up right now and everyone’s all f***ed up,” but you can be someone who leans towards humanity rather than leaning away from it. And that’s really who Six is in the movie.
I remember in the lead up to The Winter Soldier, there were specific 1970s paranoid thrillers that you looked to for touchstones. Were there any other movies you looked to for inspiration in The Gray Man?
AR: Certainly we were more conscious of the classics of the genres. I would say when you’re trying to create a spy character, there’s a strong tradition that you’re naturally falling within. So we were conscious of that and we were very conscious of like, “Well, if we’re going to explore this genre, which is a much loved genre for us as well as for audiences in general, like what are we bringing new to the table in this exploration of genre? How can we find a way in that leads us to a new expression in terms of what these movies are?” And there was just something about this idea of the spy’s spy.
This idea that all spies are secretive, all spies are unknowable. All spies know how to move without being noticed or seen, or it’s hard to pin them down, et cetera. But nobody more so than the Gray Man. The Gray Man is this person who has created, selected for this program that doesn’t even, where there’s not even records kept of it within the CIA. He was selected from prison because of his lack of attachment to other people. He’s the most extreme version of what a spy can be. And that was exciting to us, both on a character level, but also on a stylistic level in terms of how we could explore that idea within the genre.
You adapted The Gray Man from the novel by Marc Greaney. Were you looking for a spy novel specifically to adapt as a post-Marvel project?
JR: We were, we found it while we were working on Winter Soldier. We had not been asked to do Civil War yet. And so I did an adaptation of it while we were shooting Winter Soldier. I was just working on it in between takes and then we got Civil War and the two Avengers films. So we put it aside and it sort of went on our journey on its own. And then we came out of those two movies, the two Avengers movies. We wanted to pick this back up again as we started AGBO.
We thought the book was really inventive and felt very current in a lot of ways, we like current politics in our action thrillers. And in a lot of ways, the character is an anti Bond. As Ant said, he’s a former prisoner, he’s an assassin. This is a murderer. He’s not some suave sophisticated character. He is someone who is brought in to kill people. And what’s compelling is it’s a redemption arc for him as a character. He’s so disenfranchised that he identifies with Sisyphus. And basically sees himself as someone who just traded one set of bars for another set of bars.
Other than the fact that he’s an amazing actor, what led you to thinking of Ryan Gosling for the role of Six? And did you have him in mind specifically as someone who would counterbalance Chris Evans?
AR: Well, it’s so strange because when he popped into our heads. Look, of course we’ve always loved Ryan Gosling as an actor, but he seems so perfectly aligned with this character in many ways because Ryan is a master of minimalism. Ryan Gosling is capable of conveying a very complex inner life and with a lot of charisma by doing very little. And that was key to this character.
This idea that this is a character who doesn’t want to be seen, doesn’t want to be noticed. Who’s always conserving his energy for when he may need it. Because he never knows when that’s going to happen. You know? So the idea of the spy’s spy, it seemed like Ryan just perfectly lined up with the anti-Bond. How can we explore a character like that while at the same time maintaining maximum interest in who that character is?
Ryan Gosling is uniquely, I think, suited to bring a character like that to life. So we really gravitated to him. And then of course the character of Lloyd Hanson in the movie that Chris Evans plays, that character was crafted as the antithesis of the Gray Man. So the Gray Man is quiet, the Gray Man has a code, he has discipline. Lloyd is the loudest thing you’ve ever seen, he dresses loud, he speaks loud. He doesn’t care what he breaks.
Chris Evans, for a generation of moviegoers, is Steve Rogers, the ultimate good guy. But we saw in things like Knives Out that he can play smarmy and sinister really well. Lloyd is, as you say, the antithesis of heroic. How did you work with him to get to that level of villainy? Clearly he’s unleashing himself in a lot of ways.
JR: He is. And what’s great was Chris, is that we were talking to him at the end of the Avengers movies and talking about what he was going to do next in his career. He said, “Look, I think I’m comfortable enough in my life now. And I’ve done well enough that I’m just going to take risks.”
So it was appropriate for us to ask him to play the sociopath and not the hero because we felt like it’d be more challenging, an exciting role for him. And if you know Chris in real life, he is very different than Captain America. He has high energy. He’s funny, he’s quirky. And I think most people think he is Steve Rogers. He’s not, and that’s why we know how good of an actor he is. And it’s how truthful he can be as an actor. This is definitely a character that’s created for scene stealing and to be out there and entertaining in his insane villainy. And so we really just cut him loose and said, “Go nuts with it.”
AR: We have an analogy for this experience in our careers. When we were making Welcome to Collinwood, which is our first real movie, it was being produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. And George Clooney ended up playing a smaller role in the film. It has to help us get the movie made. And I remember when we were talking with George about the role and we’re like, “Oh really, really sorry, George, that it’s a smaller role.”
He said, “Are you kidding me?” He goes, “My job as a leading man is to show up and let everybody else steal the scene from me.” He’s like “Now I get to steal the scene.” So he relished playing that role in that movie. And I think it’s very similar to Chris. Again, he’s used to having to carry the lead. You have to be the character that’s relatable, understandable; he got to walk away from all that for this role, which I think is really liberating to performers.
The Gray Man hits theaters July 15 and Netflix July 22.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.