La La Land is a whimsical musical film about trying to carve out a career (and romance) in Los Angeles, where struggling actor Mia (Emma Stone) endures one rejection after another, and aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) similarly strives to launch his life's work. After a botched first meeting, the two finally connect and hit it off, dancing around the Griffith Observatory and kissing in funiculars downtown all the while encouraging each other to chase their dreams. Set against director Damien Chazelle’s glimmering vision of LA — which manages to make sitting in freeway traffic seem semi-appealing — Sebastian and Mia’s problems, at times, look more romantic than debilitating. Every time there’s a setback, one offers the other a rousing speech or dramatic gesture, their troubles and answers summed up neatly in a fun musical number. At one point, Sebastian literally drives hundreds of miles to urge Mia in person to go out for a part.
It turns out real life is not an idyllic musical. Gosling and Stone know it all too well.
“The chances of anyone getting anything was so slim,” Gosling told BuzzFeed News in an interview alongside Stone and Chazelle in early December. He recalled the first time he won a role that he really wanted in a film he really loved: the lead character Daniel Balint in Henry Bean’s 2001 drama The Believer. The Drive actor said his career was “gift-wrapped” after that film, but breaking through came after many years of rejection. Initially, the casting director for the movie refused to even see Gosling for the part because, back then, he’d starred only in The Mickey Mouse Club and a handful of other children’s shows. He landed the role after nearly a dozen auditions and hours spent trying to convince the director that he could handle the role. It was only after he signed on that he realized he had to actually “come through” and deliver on his promises. “That was a whole other situation,” Gosling said with a laugh, sitting around a table in the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
Stone went through a similar struggle before making her feature film debut in 2007 teen comedy Superbad. “I was kind of beholden to what auditions came in and whatever I could get,” the actor said, explaining how she tried out for “anything that [she] could go in for,” a process that was both “fun and awful.”
For years, Stone auditioned for Allison Jones — the casting director responsible for the ensemble behind many of Judd Apatow’s films — but “nothing really worked out,” she explained briskly. “So I think, yeah, facing rejection day after day can be really, really tough.” And though Superbad was her first major successful audition, she admits her memory of winning the part is “not that exciting of a story”: Jones had asked her to read a script on tape one Saturday. And there was no dramatic “you got it” phone call like the Mia receives in La La Land.
Even La La Land director Chazelle — who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the award-winning Whiplash — endured setbacks at the beginning of his career and still feels guarded. “I think I’ve developed a post-traumatic fear of screenings,” Chazelle said, thinking back on a screening for one of his earlier films at a film fest. “My most memorable Q&As from that movie were where … your average questions would begin with, ‘Uh, yeah, I had a problem with the movie,’” he said, imitating and gesturing with his hands the way his naysayers had done. “The moderator spent the entire Q&A teaching me what a tripod was.”
The first time he realized people loved his work was not a dramatic one. “I just didn't want a mass exodus. The fact that people didn't walk out, and people clapped … I remember that moment being, like, very new,” Chazelle said, recalling the first time Whiplash screened at 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Despite the hurdles, Gosling, Stone, and Chazelle had their own wells of encouragement, though not through the larger-than-life ways La La Land’s Mia and Sebastian do. When Stone was only 15, her mother relocated with her to Los Angeles from Arizona so she could pursue acting. Similarly, Chazelle’s manager, Gary Ungar — who also works with Guillermo del Toro — was the first person to express confidence in his work.
For Gosling, it was a casting director he encountered at the beginning of his career (whom he did not name). “[She] stopped me in the middle of the audition … said she didn’t need to hear any more because she hadn’t felt this way since she discovered this actor that I won’t name. Then a few weeks later, a friend of mine auditioned for her; she stopped him in the middle of his audition and said she hadn’t felt this way since she discovered this other actor,” Gosling said blankly before his face broke into a smile. “I tried to block it out. ... Even though I had a lot of evidence to support that she was just saying this to a lot of people, it was nice to have that experience.
“It’s so fragile, your sense of yourself, when you’re young. It’s those people who give you those little bits of something firm."
Gosling also had some comforting words for anyone who’s been turned down: “One thing you don’t realize in the beginning [of your acting career] is how lucky you are not to be getting parts. At the time it feels devastating because you think everything is your chance,” he said. But a lesson he says actors should remember is, “You’re more lucky for the things you didn’t get than the things you do, ’cause they could change the course of your life.”
Stone agreed with her co-star, referring back to her earlier years spent auditioning for Jones. “The things that I went in for with her over three years were things I wanted so badly,” she said. But had she won any of those roles — “TV shows that would’ve gone on for years” — she never would have done Superbad and her subsequent roles. “It is funny how the things that happen in your life can feel terrible in the moment but lead you to those places.”