In Act I, Scene II of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a soothsayer repeatedly warns the Roman Emperor, “Beware the ides of March.” And right he was to issue the warning, as Caesar’s assassination, itself the culmination of a political conspiracy with unforeseen consequences, went down on March 15th, the ides of March. When a contemporary political drama bearing the title The Ides of March comes along, it’s obviously going to deal with some weighty subject matter, specifically the sort of grown-up machinations at work in Shakespeare’s play (albeit with less stabbing, warfare, and togas).
The film, which arrives in theaters today, is the fourth directorial effort of George Clooney, known best to audiences as internationally-beloved movie star George Clooney. After receiving an Oscar nomination on account of his politically-charged, fact-based drama Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney co-wrote this adaptation of Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North with his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, and he plays a role as Governor Mike Morris, a presidential candidate in the midst of a heated primary.
While the seasoned professionals on the campaign are played by the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, and Marisa Tomei, it’s Ryan Gosling who plays the protagonist, press secretary Stephen Myers. Over the course of the primary, the seemingly idealistic Myers becomes romantically involved with Molly Stearns, an intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, and the two characters end up acting out crucial, unexpected roles in the campaign. IAR's own Jami Philbrick had the chance to participate in roundtable interviews with both Gosling and Wood, as the actors discussed their roles, working with Clooney as a director, and their perspectives on the movie’s politics.
The spine of the film, despite all the complicated political maneuvering that takes place, is very much the internal struggle of Gosling's character, and the actor, who just earned many an accolade for his quiet but dangerous lead performance in Drive, likened his approach to the material as one befitting a very different genre. “I always thought of it as kind of a monster movie about a two-faced man and realizing that he was the two-faced man,” he said. “And I’ve always wanted to, in some ways I’ve always been trying to play the two-faced man and then when I saw this poster I realized that I’d finally done it.”
"His dilemma is a very real and understandable one," Gosling continued. “It’s very accessible because he’s a person who I think has good intentions, wants to create change in the country, but also realizes that he can’t affect change unless he gets into the White House. If his candidate doesn’t win, he’s going to be completely ineffective so he’s forced with this moral dilemma, which is, ‘Do I dance with the one that brought me or do I jump ship and change people’s lives?’”
While the story centers around the journey toward disillusionment inadvertently undertaken by Gosling's character, it's also very much an ensemble piece, with various characters all using often ambiguous means to achieve very clear goals. “The strong part of the film,” he explained, “is that you can understand every character's point of view. They have clear point of views and they believe that where they're coming from is right and they're not wrong. To them, where they are coming from is right you know, which makes it so complicated because everyone has these conflicting agendas. It's also an environment which you can't be honest so the truth is never really being acknowledged. It's all rhetoric because you have to be careful about what you say so you can't get to the heart of anything. Everything stays on the surface.”
Rachel Evan Wood plays one of those characters with a well-established point-of-view, a young yet politically experienced intern who eventually complicates matters tremendously for Stephen. While her role may superficially indicate a certain type, Wood saw a dichotomy at work, saying, “I think she really does kind of believe in George’s character and in his campaign. But, I think she’s also just kind of used to being in that world and around these guys. You know, her father’s a politician, she’s really used to it, and so that’s one of the reasons why she’s not intimidated by any of them. And I think she’s just having fun, you know. She’s still very mature but she’s also just living in the moment and just having a good time, and I don’t think she’s really out for any ‘game,’ you know, or any, I don’t think she’s doing it for any manipulative reasons. I think she’s just, she’s just being a 20 year old. But it gets her in trouble, that’s the problem.”
Gosling read a similar sort of duality into his character, as well. Of Steve, he said, “I think two things can be true and I think that that’s the case here. I think in the beginning when things are going well it’s easy to believe that his intention…for him to believe his intentions are altruistic, but when the fit hits the shan, a lot of these ugly qualities are unearthed and he becomes a really ugly person.”
Wood has been acting for seventeen years, and has shared scenes with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Mickey Rourke, Holly Hunter, Michael Douglas, Al Pacino, and Larry David. Though she and Gosling were both tackling heavy material with The Ides of March, the two enjoyed working together. “We had a great time,” she said. “I mean, Ryan’s amazing. He’s like the best leading man that you can ask for right now. So whatever rehearsal time that we had in the beginning we just kinda used to get to know each other and get really comfortable so by the time we were doing all of that, you know, we were just laughing and, you know, it was like a tennis match, we were just trying to see who was going to break first. But we got to – George is great about letting us improvise and be really loose and, you know, like, the whole thing with the tie was just totally on-the-spot, and I was just trying to screw with Ryan and make his tie look as bad as possible (laughs), so that’s all that that was. But yeah, amazing, I think Ryan is extremely talented, but also just a really cool and interesting guy, so he was amazing.”
That creative, frequently lighthearted atmosphere on-set begins with Clooney as the director, Wood explained. “I really like working with directors that are actors because you speak the same language,” she said. “So that’s one of the reasons why George was so amazing; he knew exactly what to say to get what he wanted and…he made sure that everyone was really having a great time, you know. I think he knows that if your cast and your crew are happy then you’re going to get good work. And so, that’s actually really rare, and that’s why I loved working with him.”
"It’s very important to him that you have a good time, that everyone has a good time," Gosling agreed. “He’s constantly entertaining the crew and doing impressions and telling jokes and pulling pranks and taking everyone out to dinner and he just wants to make sure that you don’t feel the pressures that he feels.”
For years, Clooney has earned a reputation for a gleefully juvenile sense of humor that involves playing frequently inappropriate pranks at unexpected times. Gosling took his director and co-stars penchant for tomfoolery in stride, saying simply, “Sometimes you end up with wet pants. Sometimes you think you’re getting a hard-boiled egg at the craft service table and it’s raw. Sometimes you’re getting shot at with a Nerf gun from behind the monitor when he doesn’t like your performance.”
For Wood, Clooney's reputation itself now has the effect of being pranksterish. “One of the worst pranks he could possibly pull is to let everyone know he has a reputation for being a prankster,” she said. “So literally, everyday on set, you’re just like, ‘when is he going to do it?’ Like, you’re just looking over your shoulder, you’re so paranoid the whole time. That’s, like, the worst prank ever.”
Prankery and movie star antics aside, the film does deal with themes that are relevant in our lives and valuable to our political discourse, a fact not lost on the actors playing out those themes onscreen. “A part of the reason why I did the film was just to become more informed politically,” Gosling said. “You have a certain amount of prep time and in that prep time all you’re doing is researching and learning and you have access to people you would never have access to specifically when George is involved so it was like…access to that world was an opportunity for me to become informed. I don’t know if it may be more cynical, it just armed me with more information.”
Despite this, he also didn’t feel that The Ides of March should be overtly politicized, saying, “I don’t believe that the film has a political message in any way so I don’t think it’s cynical or realistic. I think it’s just a thriller. There’s no political agenda in this movie, it’s just supposed to be a good time at the movies. And it could just as easily be said in Hollywood or in Washington and then in Wall Street.”
Wood was similarly dismissive of the notion that the film reflects or espouses a specific political perspective. “It’s about moral dilemmas,” she explained. “It’s about thinking about, What kind of person do I want to be at the end of the day and how am I going to get to sleep at night? If I really believe in something great and in the greater good, what will I do to get there, you know, and is it worth it, or does it, does the way you get there kind of define…I don’t know, it makes you ask questions. That’s what I love about the movie is that there’s not really, like, a clear message in it. I think if anything it just, it makes you question things and you have to answer them for yourself.