Besides starring in “The Big Short” — the forthcoming comic drama about the Wall Street outsiders who anticipated the subprime mortgage collapse and made a mint betting against the American economy — Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Finn Wittrock all have something else in common. Basically, how little they actually understood about the recent housing and credit bubble before researching their roles. “I thought I knew, but I didn’t really know anything at all,” Mr. Gosling said.
To help moviegoers understand, the director Adam McKay, adapting Michael Lewis’s best-selling book of the same title, took a lively kitchen-sink approach. He used such devices as celebrity tutorials on complicated concepts (Margot Robbie plays herself as she explains mortgage-backed securities) and Mr. Gosling’s breaking of the fourth wall. The plot itself is easily digestible: Mr. Carell’s character, Mark Baum, is a blunt-talking hedge fund manager who gets into the credit default swap business with Mr. Gosling’s flashily attired loudmouth, Jared Vennett. Mr. Wittrock’s Jamie Shipley, who is one half of a more bush-league investment team, enlists an ex-banker (Brad Pitt) to help his group capitalize on the impending crisis.
Recently, Mr. Carell, 53; Mr. Gosling, 35; and Mr. Wittrock, 31, got together in a hotel room in Beverly Hills to swap stories about power-learning Wall Street jargon, what they learned from the traders they played and being part of a cast so sprawling — including Christian Bale — that many of its members never laid eyes on one another until the publicity tour. “I still haven’t met Christian yet,” Mr. Wittrock confessed. “We were in totally different worlds.” The film opens Dec. 11. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q. Adam McKay has joked that the man who made “Step Brothers” might not be the first choice to direct a film about the breakdown of Wall Street. Did a comedy guy tackling a serious subject cause any trepidation?
Ryan Gosling His movies, they don’t even feel like movies to me — they’re friends of mine that I check in with. Like, “Hey, ‘Anchorman’! How are you doing?” To read the [script] and be a part of what is a sort of departure for him felt like even more of an opportunity. I did hear Adam liked to do a lot of improvisation, and I was nervous about that. Obviously the language of that world is very dense and specific and complicated. So I tried to have an arsenal of terms to use.
In the end, how much of the dialogue was on the fly?
FINN WITTROCK As much as we wanted. Often you’d do one or two passes as written and then sort of let loose. Then the way it was cut and shot, so many pieces were used. It wasn’t like they used the one take we improvised on or the one take we didn’t. It’s like a collage.
STEVE CARELL It was a different kind of improvisation. No one was searching for a joke, for a laugh. It was all character- and story-based. That’s where the information that we had to bone up on came into play. You have to be on point with this kind of improvisation.
GOSLING Adam really expected you to know the subject matter, too. He’d yell out things like, “Lay into him about your negative carry,” and I’d be like, [timidly] “Now?”
WITTROCK [in a tiny voice] “Can I look at my notes real fast?”
That sounds daunting.
GOSLING But it also bonds all the actors in the scene, because you’re all immediately working without a net.
CARELL It forces you to listen to one another. You’re not anticipating what you have to say or going through your jargon in your head trying to get it right before it comes to you. It was fun, and very similar in certain ways to “Anchorman,” because we had that freedom to explore.
Improvisation may be a holdover from Mr. McKay’s other movies, but not the look of this one. Can you talk about that?
GOSLING He shot the movie very differently. By basically putting a couple of cameras in the corner of the room with zooms, you never knew who they were shooting or when or how. There were no marks. You weren’t aware of, “This is your moment.” You could be giving it everything you have, and they could actually be shooting someone’s hands writing something on a desk. There were no cameras between you and the actors or between you and the ideas that you were trying to express. The first scene I did was in this Las Vegas showroom where I had one line. I thought I was safe, you know? I’d say, “Here’s your key cards,” and that’s it. It turned out to be a five-minute scene, and they were always on me.
WITTROCK Wasn’t that when you met [Jeffry Griffin, the actor who played] your assistant? Wasn’t he an extra? And Adam just loved you two together and put him wherever you were, right?
GOSLING Yeah, he was just supposed to be in that one scene, but we ended up doing every scene together. [Laughs.]
Each of you spent time with your real-life counterparts. Steve, the brashly eccentric character on whom your character was based, Steve Eisman, even came to the set several times. What was he like?
WITTROCK He has no filter. I remember him going up to Hamish [Linklater] and going [brusquely], “You’re too tall to play Porter.”
GOSLING [Laughs.] On my first day, he came to set. He was standing next to Steve, and I was totally blown away by what a great job Steve was doing — just his look, the nuances, things people won’t really know, because they won’t be familiar with [Mr. Eisman’s] mannerisms. It was really impressive.
CARELL He doesn’t see himself as that brash. He’s a very charming guy, incredibly smart, but he speaks his mind. There’s no fear to him. At all. He’s the type of person that I don’t think is intimidated by any situation. He sees himself as a loner and as someone who was fighting a fight in a very solitary way. Adam asked if I’d put on some weight, because — not that he dressed poorly, but he could wear very expensive clothes and look bad. So I started eating pizza and Chinese food, and we were in New Orleans, which helped as well.
Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money” [and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine] was a consultant on the film. What kinds of questions would you ask him?
GOSLING He’d download us with as much information as possible — even down to clothing. He was very specific about how each sect within the financial world dressed and behaved. He explained the different cliques almost like a John Hughes movie would, or maybe “Mean Girls.” What brand you wear meant something in terms of where you’re at and who you are. Zegna versus Canali. There’s a real difference, and which you wore said something about you.
All three of your characters knew when no one else did that the subprime meltdown was on the horizon. What’s it like to be play someone who is either smarter or more observant that everybody else?
WITTROCK My guy, his [real] name is Jamie Mai, said that he still has this sense of frustration that no one paid attention. They were screaming about this as loud as they could, but everyone turned a deaf ear. A lot of our guys didn’t want to use their real names for this movie — we had to change their last names. I think they felt they were burned in the process of trying to get their voices heard.
In the film, Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a partly blind stock market investor with a penchant for gratingly loud music, flailing on his drum kit and working alone. Did any of you hear about what he was up to during his nine days of filming his mostly one-man scenes?
CARELL I was in touch with Adam before I came out to New Orleans to talk about the character. You know, “I’m trying this,” and “What about that?” And I asked, “How’s it going with Christian?” And he says, “Unbelievable. He learned to play double-kick drums.” Then I thought, Oh, so I’m up next? That was a little intimidating.
Who wants to explain in a very simple way what a synthetic collateralized debt obligation is?
WITTROCK Is this a test?
GOSLING [Groans.] Oh God.
CARELL [Takes a deep breath.] You have CDO A and CDO B, and you can combine those two and put them into a CDO C, which is then made up of CDO A and B. CDO C is the synthetic CDO. [Smiles.]
GOSLING Nice! [He and Mr. Carell high-five] [Editor’s note: That’s actually the definition of a CDO squared.]
Where do you plan to keep your hard-earned money?
CARELL My mattress.