Is Ryan Gosling the new indie guy?
Ryan Gosling grew up in the limelight with Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. By the age of 18, though, he'd had enough. Now, after a string of slow-burn indie movies, he has found himself in a new wave of smart, low-key leading men and has genuine Oscar hopes. But can you be a Hollywood heart-throb without selling out?
"I'm interested in love and the lack of it," says 30-year-old Gosling, "and the crazy things we do to get it."
This, he thinks, is the central theme that runs through his films. Gosling looks sad and tired as he talks about love, but that's probably because he's been discussing it all day, sat in a rather cold, dark hotel room.
"The knight slays the dragon and then lives happily ever after with the princess in the castle," he says. "But when they've moved in together, they have to share a bathroom. How do you keep love alive in a domestic situation? What is it about that that dismantles love?"
Exploring love and its absence has made the Canadian actor a star. It was self-loathing that first made Gosling's name with his startling portrayal of a boy who joins a fascist group in his 2001 film debut, The Believer. Undying love drives The Notebook, the sexy, weepy hit adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' best-seller that propelled Gosling to box-office fame in 2004.
Lars and the Real Girl, the quirky indie hit of 2007 in which he starts a relationship with a desirable woman, is about fear of intimacy. And love of banned substances was the theme of Half Nelson, the 2006 film for which, at 25, he became one of the youngest-ever nominees for a best actor Oscar.
Gosling is one of those exceptional cross-over stars who has the presence to carry a mainstream film such as The Notebook but whose love of acting leads his film choices. He picks indie roles that offer a challenge over action films that offers big pay cheques. He's one of a growing band of actors who include 127 Hours' James Franco and Inception's Tom Hardy whose versatility and skill win them as many fans as their looks.
New York magazine recently heralded Gosling as the epitome of "the new (brainy) leading men". Teenage girls love him, but critics possibly love him even more. For the ten films he's appeared in, he's been nominated for 32 different awards.
With four movies, this year is set to be Gosling's. They are an impressively diverse bunch of projects that see him team up with everyone from George Clooney and Steve Carell to esteemed documentarian Andrew Jarecki and art-house director Nicolas Refn Winding. If you hadn't heard of Gosling, or always meant to check out his films but never got round to it, this will be the year that you discover how good he really is.
Blue Valentine, in which he co-stars with Michelle Williams, is a deconstruction of devotion. Gosling describes it as an anti-romance and it's a good word for the film, which details a young couple's marriage from falling in love to falling apart six years later. The romance and divorce unfold in intercut scenes, making the former seem bittersweet and the latter all the more upsetting. Don't take a date to go and see this film, but do make sure you see it - the acting is unbearably good.
"Director Derek Cianfrance wanted this movie to celebrate people's faults, to demystify romance and to make something that felt real," says Gosling. "I was excited by that."
The film certainly should feel real. There was a month's hiatus when Gosling and Williams moved in together and played house, living with their onscreen daughter (actor Faith Wladyka). They acted out birthdays and Christmas, and spent a lot of time arguing. Gosling also underwent a radical physical transformation, bulking up and balding, which he says was like looking in a funhouse mirror.
"Most movies when you're acting you're trying to block out the lights and the trailers. Here, you had to remind yourself you were making a film," says Gosling. "Michelle and I found it hard to take off our wedding bands when it was over. We'd built this castle and then had to tear it down."
Annoying, then, after all that work that the film got mired in a classification rating battle in America over an explicit scene.
Authenticity is very important to Gosling, and he says what he really wants to do is make films where actors don't seem carved out of marble or like deities. He says he wants to see the people he grew up around in films because "they're way more interesting than those you see in movies at the moment".
This is an admirable ambition, but odd when you think that most of the people who Gosling grew up with are already in movies. He was born in Ontario, Canada, and after being bullied, he was home-schooled by his mother Donna until he was 12.
At that age he auditioned for the All New Mickey Mouse Club and moved to Florida so he could perform on the TV show alongside Aguilera and Britney Spears. While his parents divorced, he lived at Timberlake's house for a while.
He became a local celebrity in Canada at the age of seven when he performed a weird, explicit dance in a talent competition and ended up dancing on TV. He used the same moves to stand out at the Mickey Mouse Club auditions.
While Aguilera et al started their all-singing, all-dancing careers, Gosling took a different lesson from his days in Walt's kingdom. "Disney World is one of my favourite places as Disney had this idea that he believed in and he made his fantasy a reality no one's done that except him.
"When I was a kid I used to walk around the park thinking I wanted to be someone who believes in his own ideas this much."
He nearly gave up performing at 18 after a childhood spent in kids' shows such as Young Hercules and, of course, the All New Mickey Mouse Club. He couldn't do any more of the sort of acting that didn't involve thought and "just sold ad space". His agent dropped him. But then he read the script for The Believer and convinced the film's director, Henry Bean, to let him audition.
"I got the part and my life changed. I went to Sundance [Film Festival] and when I left I had a career and I had choice. People talked to me as if I was an artist, and I tried to act smart and pretend to be one. I took it too seriously for a while, but then I realised that you don't have to be serious to be good and I've loosened up now..."
Gosling certainly has a productive year ahead. After Blue Valentine, there's All Good Things, co-starring Kirsten Dunst, which is a murder mystery based on a true story. Then there's the comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love with Steve Carell.
"I worked with him on a TV pilot when I was a kid. I remember watching him and he was so funny that the boom guy laughed too much to hold up the boom. It was the first time it occurred to me that you could be so good it was a problem."
After that there's Drive, which co-stars Carey Mulligan and sounds like an action film (stunt driver moonlights as getaway car driver) but is directed by Danish arthouse director Nicolas Winding Refn and promises to be something very different. "I need help describing it: it's a cross between Blue Velvet and Purple Rain. It's like a dream version of an action movie. It's absolutely unique."
Last but not least, he's just started preparing for a role in George Clooney's next film, Ides of March a political thriller based on the 2004 play Farragut North by Beau Willimon. Unsurprisingly, he's a fan of Clooney. "He's so enthusiastic and passionate it's contagious. Plus, George and politics, it's his world."
Gosling has made efforts to raise political awareness of world issues. His pet project for a long time was a script he wrote about child soldiers in Uganda, and he tried to make a documentary on the refugee camps in Darfur. "They both failed. I've not done very well," he says and then shrugs ruefully.
Gosling keeps busy when he's not acting. As well as his films he tries other jobs. He works in the kitchen at Tagine, the LA restaurant he co-owns. He also worked in a corner shop, making sandwiches. He says all the men in his family are grafters (his father and uncle both work in a paper mill back in Canada) and he's the same. You feel good if you've done hard work. You sleep better. You get stuck in your head if you have too much time to think."
With his penchant for quirky or gruelling roles in indie films, his political aspirations and his purposefully anti-Hollywood stance, it would be easy to find Gosling pretentious. But despite his tiredness, his earnest integrity seems rather charming. "You know, it's not like I set out to be ‘the indie guy'. I really believe my films are going to be successful, that I'm making The Blair Witch Project something that will transcend expectations and resonate with people. When my films don't do well, I'm hurt and surprised. It's discouraging."
He stares at the empty sofa and the blank wall behind it. "I mean, maybe I'll have kids and my priorities will change, but I still feel that one of these days I'll make a movie and it's going to work."