How do you make dolls with a thorny history into modern movie characters? Run toward the complexity, say the star-producer and her castmate.
By Nicole Sperling
Reporting from Beverly Hills, Calif.
Mining a cultural artifact like Barbie can be treacherous. Hew too close to the original material and you’re considered reductive. Stray too far and you’re disrespectful. Add in the fact that Barbie is one of the best known — and most problematic — brands in the world and it’s easy to see how it could all go so wrong.
Yet, it was exactly that tricky calculus that drew Margot Robbie to this roughly 60-year-old plastic figurine that simultaneously projects unhealthy body ideals and female empowerment. Though Robbie may look like the stereotypical Barbie, she herself was not much interested in playing with the impossibly perfect doll as a child. (She preferred the outdoors in her native Australia.) Still, as a committed producer on films like “I, Tonya” and “Promising Young Woman,” she tracked the progression of Mattel’s efforts to create a live-action “Barbie” movie precisely because of its difficulty.
“She is so iconic, but she’s also so complicated,” said Robbie, who produced “Barbie” with her husband, Tom Ackerley, and their company, LuckyChap Entertainment.
“There’s been real issues with Barbie over the years and there’s been real love,” she said in her Australian lilt. “The conversation has kept evolving. I think ultimately it is a conversation we’re having about ourselves, but it’s easy to put it on Barbie.”
Robbie along with her Ken, Ryan Gosling, and I were speaking in Beverly Hills a few weeks before the film opens on July 21, a date that has turned into a gender battle at the box office between “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s three-hour historical drama about the making of the atomic bomb, “Oppenheimer.”
That hasn’t stopped Robbie and Gosling from vibrating with excitement over what they’ve created and the deep understanding their writer-director Greta Gerwig had for the material. (Gerwig co-wrote the script with her partner, Noah Baumbach.)
Gosling compared her work to Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can: “It’s like showing you this thing that you’ve seen a million times as art,” he said. “Once I read the script, I felt like I was seeing all these things that were around me in a completely new and deep and hilarious way.”
Gerwig in an email likened her stars to “top-flight race cars just hanging out and sometimes racing, but just for fun,” and added “I think they were both just delighted by the other.”
In our conversation Robbie and Gosling spoke about Friday-night script readings with Mattel executives, how Ken is regarded in the Gosling household and leaning in to the thorny aspects of Barbie. Here are edited excerpts.
Barbie really didn’t impact your lives significantly as children, did she?
MARGOT ROBBIE I don’t know if I had my own Barbie, but I played with my cousin’s. I think we did all the things that every kid does, like bang them together. I didn’t really know what that was about, but I was trying to figure it out.
RYAN GOSLING I was working. I was dancing at the mall and singing at weddings.
No time for Barbies.
GOSLING $20 a song.
ROBBIE That’s great.
GOSLING I let that guy retire because he got me here. But I had to pull him out of retirement for this film. One last heist.
What was it like when you first sent the script to Mattel?
ROBBIE Tom and I would call the key executives at Warners and Mattel beforehand. We’d make sure we’d do it on a Friday night. And we would say, “Go make yourself a drink, your favorite cocktail. We want you to sit down. Now make yourself another one of those cocktails, then start reading the script and just go on the ride.” In other words, we thought they were going to be like “No,” and maybe if they’re a little bit tipsy, they’ll open their minds to how fun this is.
Then it was a process. We’d have like six-hour chats with the teams at Mattel and we’d be like OK, tell us exactly why this line scares you? We’d already done the process of understanding what they’ve built. We spent time at Mattel headquarters, we went into their factories, we watched them make a doll and we talked to people who make them. They knew we were coming from a place of respecting the brand.
But at the same time, you need to be able to point out all the things that people have found problematic about Barbie. Greta would say, run toward that, that’s going to be more interesting.
What were their biggest concerns?
ROBBIE There was a long laundry list of concerns. By the way, we had total freedom. They weren’t allowed to dictate the movie, but we didn’t want to make a movie that they weren’t going to be supportive of as well.
Some things are tiny, like her referring to herself as Stereotypical Barbie. The word “stereotypical” has negative connotations attached to it. They asked if we would consider a different word. Sure, I said, “We could call her Generic Barbie or Original Barbie or Blond Barbie.” But the word “stereotypical” is important because she is already putting parameters around herself that she is, later in the movie, going to step out of and break free. So that’s important for her journey. She needs to start there, referring to herself as Stereotypical Barbie, because she’s already putting herself down without realizing it.
Ryan, can you describe how you felt after you first read the script?
RYAN GOSLING Well, the title page said “Barbie and Ken,” and the “and Ken” was scratched out. It was obviously not what I expected. It’s so elegantly and brilliantly designed by Greta and Margot to be like a theme park or something, where you don’t really need a map. It’s already engineered so that you hit all the spots they want you to hit without you knowing it. I went on the ride and I’m still going on it. I don’t want to leave the park. They are kicking me out. “The park is closing, sir.” But I ordered churros and they are coming, I swear.
What do you two say about this mini-hubbub over Ken’s age and Ryan being too old to play him?
ROBBIE Barbie and Ken are technically in their 60s. So whatever. The first thing I thought when I heard that was, in “Grease,” they are supposed to be high schoolers, and not once in the 150 times that I’ve watched “Grease” over the years did I ever not enjoy “Grease” because I was like, “I need to go check what age they were.” They found the most charismatic, talented people to dazzle me. And that’s why I love that movie.
GOSLING I mean, in fairness, I doubted what I’ve come to understand as “Kenergy.” But at the end of the day, I trust Margot and Greta. They have such a clear vision for this that I decided to just Ken as hard as I could.
Who was Barbie to you, Margot?
ROBBIE One of the first things Greta said was that she wanted Barbie to go on the classic hero’s journey, like the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. And I was reading the Joseph Campbell book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” at the time and I was like, “I know exactly what you mean.” I hadn’t played a character that’s been on that classic hero’s journey before. So that was really interesting.
Was there any one aspect of the character or story that you were apprehensive about?
ROBBIE I didn’t want her to come across as vapid or unintelligent because she is really intelligent. She just hasn’t been exposed to so many concepts. It’s more like a difference between being naïve and being ditsy. Then also, figuring out the relationship with Ken. She doesn’t respect Ken at the beginning.
Ryan, how did you prepare for the role?
GOSLING It was a hard thing to prep for in a way because you can’t go shadow him. They had written the part with such empathy for his plight. And there was such nuance and insight into what that experience might be that when I was in my backyard one day and I did see a Ken face down in the mud by a squished lemon, I thought, “Oh, yeah, his story does need to be told.”
That was how your daughters treated Ken?
GOSLING Barbie landed in my house at the same time as the script, basically. What was interesting to me is that my kids [he has two daughters, ages 7 and 8, with Eva Mendes] don’t just brush their hair and dress them up. None of them have names that are Barbie. They all have complicated back stories, lives, relationships, hopes, dreams. It’s incredible how intricate the world is that they’ve created.
How did your daughters respond when they found out you were playing Ken?
GOSLING They were confused. Why Ken? They don’t even call him Ken. One of them is named Darrell. And Darrell works at a grocery store. One of the Barbies’ names is Gym Class. And Gym Class met Darrell at the grocery store, but Gym Class, she’s focusing on herself right now.
They essentially felt like Ken was beneath you?
GOSLING He’s such a nonpresence in their world, they were like “What is there to play? Is there meat on that bone?”
How do you describe the tone of this movie, because it’s very specific?
ROBBIE If I’m a studio head and I have to give it a genre, I guess I say it’s like a comedy adventure. I hate putting them in boxes, pun intended. I just wish everyone could meet Greta, and then I could say the tone of the movie is Greta. She is so smart and charming and funny. And so accomplished, but wears it lightly, and she’s so warm. Everyone feels like they can talk to her. I just find the movie is just all the things I love most about Greta.
GOSLING I wouldn’t dare Ken-splain the Barbie movie.
[Gerwig suggested “Anarchic dance-party emotional meltdown spiritual quest” and added, “Is that a tone?”]
What’s interesting, Ryan, is you’re essentially playing the traditional female part: you are in support of the lead, there is much more focus on your physique than Barbie’s. You have to dye your hair. How did that feel?
GOSLING I loved it. I felt at home. It came naturally. I grew up in a house run by women. I live in one now. My sister didn’t have Barbies, but she’s my older sister and she was my hero. She walked me to school and kept me safe; she was the school president. She was my leader and I was happy to follow. This was so much about becoming a kid again, in a way, that I fell easily into that dynamic.
How did you two work together? I heard Margot brought you presents, Ryan.
ROBBIE I just bribed him really. That’s the basis of our relationship.
GOSLING It started as a joke in a text.
ROBBIE Just come do the Barbie movie, I’ll buy you a present every day.
GOSLING There was suddenly this pink present from Barbie to Ken, every day, for a very long shoot. It felt unsustainable. I thought this has to stop at some point. There were times on set where I got a puka shell necklace. Thank you very much. You don’t have to keep doing this. I’m sure you have other things to do, like produce a movie and star in a movie, and run a company. And produce other people’s films. You don’t have to keep concerning yourself with this.
ROBBIE I commit to a joke. I really do.
What was the weirdest present?
GOSLING She gave me a book as a joke about horses [If there is anything Ken loves as much as Barbie in the film, it’s horses.] and I read it and loved it. I feel it would make a great film. It was very unexpected. And I thought, do I have to make this movie? Does Margot have to produce it?
ROBBIE When he came to set, he said, “The book is so good.” I thought he was doing a bit like Ken and I was like, “Oh, yeah, a man and a horse.”
GOSLING Don’t give too much away. I really don’t want too many people to know about this book.
ROBBIE He put it in the scene when I come to his door and he’s like, “Wow, you caught me reading” and he holds it up quickly.
GOSLING Well now you’ve pointed out the book.
ROBBIE We’ll get the rights.
You shot most of Barbie Land at Leavesden Studios outside London and then you went to Los Angeles to film at Venice Beach. What was that like?
GOSLING I didn’t anticipate when I was Kenning in Leavesden Studios that I would have to Ken in public. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.
ROBBIE We went from never being self-conscious in Barbie Land to quite appropriately getting to the real world and being on the Venice boardwalk, wearing something not so subtle, and hundreds and hundreds of people were watching. It was perfect because that’s exactly how Barbie was meant to feel at the moment: exposed and vulnerable. I knew we were going to go shoot on the boardwalk and in my head, I kind of assumed how that would go. It was going to get a little chaotic. But the energy was pretty intense. I just wanted to go back to Leavesden, where we had our bubble, which is exactly the journey Barbie goes on.
Did you feel the same way, Ryan?
GOSLING Well I hadn’t practiced my Rollerblading. I never felt more like Ken in my life because Margot was trying to hide her disappointment.
ROBBIE I was not!
GOSLING Margot is one of the most prepared and capable people that I’ve ever met. You could put her in any situation and she would be capable of handling it. If you were on a plane and an engine went out, you’d want Margot to be on that plane. So the fact that I hadn’t practiced Rollerblading, I could see in her eyes, she was just deeply disappointed. She was trying to hide it. And what was really amazing was she had family there and they didn’t hide it. They were like, “Margot would have practiced.”
ROBBIE My Aunt Jackie does not have a filter on anything she says.
So Aunt Jackie was disappointed in your performance.
GOSLING She was so confused because her experience with acting is Margot, and if you’re going to Rollerblade in one scene, you’re going to practice that for six months to a year beforehand. You’re going to be the best Rollerblader anyone’s ever seen.
ROBBIE I remember thinking at the time, I’m never going live this down. Like Jackie, you’ve totally stitched me up here. And I was right, we’re never going to get past this.
GOSLING Totally. I’ve never been Rollerblade-shamed like that.
Nicole Sperling is a media and entertainment reporter, covering Hollywood and the burgeoning streaming business. She joined The Times in 2019. She previously worked for Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times. More about Nicole Sperling
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