Ryan Gosling says his love for gangster movies began long before his role in the new crime drama Gangster Squad.
"My first foray into the genre was Dick Tracy and I was 10," the 32-year-old Oscar-nominated actor recalls, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel. "I became obsessed with it and collected all the mugs from Burger King, so when I read this script - it wasn't quite as theatrical as that, but it did have a cartoonish quality that made me really interested."
Set in Los Angeles in 1949, Gangster Squad is based on the true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), the Brooklyn-born Mob king who ran drugs, guns and prostitutes in Los Angeles and had government officials in his pocket to avoid prosecution. The film's title refers to the group of six LAPD officers - assembled to secretly work outside the system and bring down Cohen - led by Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Gosling). Emma Stone plays Cohen's girlfriend, Grace Faraday, who also falls for Wooters.
"Jerry and John are gone now, but some of their family came to the set and gave us advice," Gosling says. "It's tough when you're playing a real person, especially when you're not necessarily striving for historic authenticity and you want to pay homage to the genre," he says.
"I kind of played Wooters like Bugs Bunny, when Bugs would dress like a lady to get out of trouble, and I didn't know how that was going to fly with the kids, but in the end they understood it wasn't supposed to be reality and they were very supportive."
Director Ruben Fleischer is a long-time fan of gangster films such as The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential and Goodfellas, but had no experience with the genre when he signed on with only two directing credits under his belt - Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less.
"Sean Penn was the only person I could see playing Mickey, but he took some convincing, because not only is he one of the great actors of his generation, he has also directed more movies than me," the 39-year-old filmmaker says. "So I didn't get a lot of sleep the night before Sean's first day on set, but he was incredibly generous, and there was almost a mentoring quality with him that gave me confidence."
Brolin co-starred with Penn in the 2008 drama Milk and acknowledges their friendship has a long history. "We've known each other since we were kids, when his dad directed my dad in a TV movie," the 44-year-old star of No Country for Old Men and True Grit says, referring to Penn's father, director Leo Penn, and his own father, actor James Brolin.
"We met again many years later and reconnected, so by the time we worked on Milk we were really close friends."
This gave Brolin the confidence to poke fun at the 52-year-old Oscar-winning actor's intensity on set.
"I hope there's a gag reel," he says, grinning, "because there were lots of times we were being serious in a scene and when I was off-camera, I'd start making stupid faces at Sean to try to break him and he'd crack up and say, 'Stop f---ing with me!'"
The stylised period film was full of other reunions. Fleischer cast Stone in his 2009 film Zombieland and she had acted out a romance with Gosling once before, in the 2011 comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Gosling says: "When we made the first movie, we were used to trying to find the comedy in the scene, and suddenly we were both trying to act like Bogart and Bacall in this one, so we felt pretty foolish."
Stone's star is rising fast following her Oscar-nominated performance in The Help as well as being the leading lady in the blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man, although the 24-year-old admits to feeling nervous when she's working opposite Penn.
"When I was in a tough scene, I liked to stay in the energy and the character, but what was amazing about Sean is that he could really turn the character on and off, which is the sign of a great actor, I think."
GENRE crime drama.
CRITICAL BUZZ Big expectations thanks to A-list cast and a new take on the gangster genre for the next generation.
STARS Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone.
DIRECTOR Ruben Fleischer.