What’s Ryan Gosling’s secret to his on-screen poise, his ability to disarm and provoke merely by his laconic presence?
“Just try not to blink,” he says with a self-deprecating smile.
But Gosling’s uncanny, communicative stillness – along with his sensitive vulnerability, his serious dedication to his work and, well, the guy ain’t bad looking – has made him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, a widely beloved, new-generation idol. It might be the only role he’s uncomfortable playing.
Rather than exude preternatural cool, in a recent interview with the Associated Press Gosling spoke more with the uncertain, self-critical grasping of a still-developing actor. Ironically, he’s looking forward to taking a step back just when moviegoers can’t get enough.
But first, this spring will bring two new films from Gosling, starting with The Place Beyond the Pines, his second collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance ( Blue Valentine).
In Pines, which opens Friday, Gosling plays a tattooed motorbike rider in a traveling circus who, visiting an old fling (played by Gosling’s real-life girlfriend, Eva Mendes), finds out he’s the father of her toddler – a discovery that prompts an awakening in him, along with a desperate urge to support the child. He takes to robbing banks; his story composes the first section of a triptych connected by a violent incident that reverberates across generations.
“One thing that kind of handed me the key to the character was that I totally overdid it with the tattoos,” says Gosling, who has a teardrop inked beneath his left eye in the film. “I said to Derek, ‘I got to lose this face tattoo. It’s the worst. It’s so distracting and it’s going to ruin everything.’ And he said, `Well, I’m sure that’s how people with face tattoos feel. So now you have to pay the consequences of your actions.’ So I had to do the whole film with it and now see it on posters. It gave me a sense of shame that I feel was inherent to the character.”
Having started performing as an 8-year-old (coming from an Ontario, Canada, home of divorced, working-class Mormons), the 32-year-old Gosling still considers himself an ensemble player and character actor.
“There’s a lot of pressure to be the lead of a film,” he says. “I have done it. It’s not my favorite way to work.”
Gosling’s break came in 2001’s The Believer, in which he played a neo-Nazi. A new level of fame came with The Notebook, the 2004 romance co-starring Rachel McAdams that made Gosling a bona fide heartthrob.
“By virtue of being in a movie like that, it just changes people’s perception of you,” he says. “But it doesn’t make it true.”
Since then, he’s largely eschewed the conventional movie star path. Instead, he’s worked in naturalistic indies like Half Nelson (Oscar-nominated for his performance as an inner-city teacher) and the offbeat Lars and the Real Girl (as a delusional introvert with a life-size doll for a girlfriend).
He was atypically active in 2011, with three varied roles: an idealistic press secretary in Ides of March; a suave ladies’ man in Crazy, Stupid, Love; and a quiet, proficient getaway driver in Drive.
Gosling often obsessively plunges into a character. For Lars, he lived with the doll. In Blue Valentine, he stayed in a house with his movie wife, Michelle Williams, for a month. For Pines, he mastered a motorbike, which he kept and still rides.
He grants that he tries to stay “hyper-focused” to shield him from the “seductive environment” of film sets. But he declines any Method acting mantle: “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “I haven’t quite figured out what the balance is between being able to be lost in it – or try to, anyway – and then step outside of it.”
A self-declared “mama’s boy” having growing up with his mother (who home-schooled him) and sister, Gosling regularly inverts traditional movie masculinity for more vulnerable, conflicted portraits. He calls his muscly Pines character “a melting pot of all these masculine cliches” who, faced with a child, realizes “none of those things make a man.”
With his kind of consuming devotion, it’s little surprise that Gosling’s personal relationships often blur with his fictional ones. He’s had lengthy relationships with several of his co-stars, including McAdams, Sandra Bullock ( Murder By Numbers) and Mendes, who’ll also co-star in his first directing effort, How to Catch a Monster.
“Working with someone is the best way to get to know someone, especially if it’s a creative endeavor,” says Gosling. “When you work creatively with somebody, it’s very telling and you sort of fast-track with everyone.”