Ryan Gosling is not being serious.
He swears it feels like he’s unintentionally yelling at me, even though he’s speaking in his trademark laconic drawl — the one that’s made him the go-to leading man for near-silent, damaged loner roles. I tell him his voice sounds fine. He disagrees. Then, he accuses me of yelling. I apologize, before realizing he’s just mucking about.
You can’t blame the guy for taking the piss out of things. He’s sitting in what he describes as a “strange hotel room” in Los Angeles, talking via speakerphone, flanked by note-taking members of his team. It’s apparent this isn’t really his scene. Not that he’s being a bad sport; he’s got a new film to promote, action-comedy The Nice Guys, and knows talking about himself to journalists is a necessary part of that process. You get the sense, however, that controlled environments grind his gears.
So he decides to violate protocol: he picks up the receiver. “Now we can talk like, you know, Canadian gentlemen,” he says. “And not be yelling at each other like this.”
At 35, he’s up for some career radar jamming, more willing to subvert people’s expectations than ever.
It’s a gesture both cavalier and charming — one that, for a fleeting second, makes me feel like the object of a Hey Girl meme. Even the straight male psyche isn’t immune to the power of the Gosling mythos, the version of the actor relayed to us via the pop culture machine. Through that lens, Ryan Gosling is the chivalrous Canadian whose perpetually bemused stares fuel Internet fantasies. The Human Ken Doll who breaks up fights at Manhattan intersections. So genuine and pensive and approachable that throngs of online groups — from feminists to typographers — claim him as their own. The Nice Guy.
And yet, no one takes Gosling’s public image less seriously than the man himself. He’s aware, better than most, of the schism between perception and reality. At 35, he’s up for some career radar jamming, more willing to subvert people’s expectations than ever. He’s spent the last decade creeping around America’s cultural zeitgeist like a vine (and through Vines), becoming one of the most sought-after Serious Actors in Hollywood. And while he could easily continue climbing, he seems just as content snipping through the tangles of success and laughing it all off.
It’s fitting, then, that Gosling’s now squaring up to be film’s next great comedy star. And he’s not kidding around.
GOSLING WAS ONCE bound for an eternity in small town Canada. Born in the somnambulant suburb of Cornwall, Ontario to devout Mormon parents, just about every man in his family worked at the local paper mill. As a kid, he struggled with a learning disability, got bullied often, and was prone to acting out. His existence had but one bright spot: “My uncle was an Elvis impersonator.”
So enthralled was young Ryan by his uncle’s unconventional gig that he eventually joined the act himself. But then, as Elvis impersonators do, his uncle quit. “Life got really boring. I missed that feeling — the way it feels to put on a show. I tried to find my way back into that on my own somehow.”
This performing thing, he realized, represented an escape — from the boonies, from school, from alienation. So he buckled down, taking ballet classes, transforming himself into an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment dynamo. It paid off; at age 12, he scored a spot in Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, moving to Florida to join the famed Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera/Justin Timberlake class. After the kids’ show was cancelled in the mid-’90s, he tried toughing it out in the wilds of Canadian episodic television.
If you grew up in Canada, your initial brush with Gosling was likely on Breaker High — the cruise-centric teen sitcom in which he first flexed his funny bone. Looking back, Gosling 1.0 is nearly unrecognizable: a gangly, narrow-faced 17-year-old with a penchant for mushroom cuts and silk shirts. But his comedic chops, playing a wannabe ladies’ man, are undeniable — all goofy charisma, smug eyebrow raises, and constant pratfalls. The kid didn’t mind making an ass of himself. In fact, he wanted to make a career of it.
“Breaker High was a great experience,” he says. “They gave us a lot of freedom to try out our ideas. I grew up watching comedies more than dramas, so it really felt natural to be doing that. But when I moved to LA, there just wasn’t a lot of that stuff available to me. And these more dramatic parts were good opportunities.”
It was Gosling’s first starring role, as a Jewish neo-Nazi (edgy!) in Henry Bean’s 2001 The Believer, that whetted his appetite for the dark and dramatic. His performance — growling out his dialogue through a sickening snarl — was powerful enough to garner comparisons to Taxi Driver-era DeNiro. Turned out he had a knack for playing gritty, emotionally complex outcasts. Of course he did. Gosling got isolation.
Then came that damn kiss in the rain. His swoony turn in 2004’s The Notebook was his Big Hollywood Moment, earning him space on teenage girls’ bedroom walls forever. The role cemented Gosling as a heartthrob, even if, to him, it was mostly a ticket out of drudgery. “Working at the paper mill in Cornwall — that’s what was in the cards for me, I thought. So I was really just trying to keep acting somehow, to see if there was something else I could do instead.”
CURIOUSLY, even years after breaking out of suburban hell, Gosling still seems particularly claustrophobic.
It’s like he’s got a nagging dread of being boxed in as the actor — and by extension, the person — the world expects him to be. Just when we’re all waiting for him to zig, he doesn’t simply zag — he skips town and changes identity.
After a three year hiatus from acting, Gosling’s pulling a Leslie Nielsen. He’s a dramatic actor playing against type, pivoting into the comedic realm. Take last December’s The Big Short: Gosling stole scene after scene as a sardonic bank bro, hilariously tearing into his poor assistant with flippant asides. Shortly after, he hosted Saturday Night Live, uncontrollably giggling his way though sketches. Now, he’s in The Nice Guys, a ’70s buddy detective comedy directed by Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’s Shane Black — the guy who helped Robert Downey Jr. redefine his career in 2005. The film sees Gosling play the bumbling foil to Russell Crowe’s seasoned hard-ass. He chews the scenery, screams like a girl, and does shockingly well-timed slapstick. “I spent lots of time working out the physical comedy. It’s not something I’ve done a lot of, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t shadow a private eye or anything. But maybe I… I’ll just say that I did.”
It’s silly, decidedly non-sultry stuff — and perhaps that’s the point. For years, Hollywood’s tried courting him as a bankable male pin-up. Offers have come piling in for superhero blockbusters, romantic features, and tentpoles, and each time the Gos has played aloof, saying he’s busy. He’s opted instead for twisted indie dramas, playing a crack-addicted teacher (Half Nelson) and a synth-pop-obsessed psychotic (Drive). Just listen to all that goddamn integrity: “They’ve been smaller films, but they’ve felt like better opportunities to challenge myself and see what I’m capable of.” It’s only made Hollywood want him more.
There’s perhaps no actor whose public persona is more at odds with their work.
That’s not to say Gosling hasn’t had his moments of indiscretion. Remember when he agreed to play a shirtless lothario in 2013’s star-studded rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love? Sure, it was a rare chance to showcase his raw comedic talents, and his character was a total dick. But most Tumblrers were too busy pasting Virginia Woolf references on screenshots of his torso to notice.
About that Hey Girl meme — Gosling prefers to distance himself from it. He tends to fall back on the same oddly poetic analogy whenever it comes up in interviews: “I don’t think it’s really about me. I think it really is sort of like, I’m a pigeon and the Internet is Fabio and it just happened.”
He’s got a point; in a way, it isn’t about him — not the real him, anyhow. There’s perhaps no actor whose public persona is more at odds with their work. Gosling can do things like claw into Kristin Scott Thomas’ womb in Only God Forgives, but it still won’t stop US Weekly from plastering him on their cover. Even fronting a macabre indie-rock band, Dead Man’s Bones, seems only to bolster his reputation as a super-sensitive dreamboat. He’s an A-lister with few A-list movies to his name; too handsome and too charming for people to realize just how weird he is.
And he is, to be sure, pretty fucking weird. If you’ve got the stomach for it, see Lost River, Gosling’s directorial debut, which he’s spent the last few years making. The fantasy neo-noir film — a Lynchian fable about American decay, starring his partner Eva Mendes — wavers between horrifying, hysterical, and just plain WTF. When the outré art flick debuted last year, it was ruthlessly panned by critics. Famous actors can anticipate some censure any time they swerve into the world of directing, but when they veer off this far, they can expect a full-on firing squad.
So, Gosling’s got his hands in the air. Only he’s waving them like he truly, honestly doesn’t care. Rather than getting stranger, he’s just as fine undermining his public image the other way: by getting goofier.
THERE IS, of course, some overlap between Gosling the Myth and Gosling the Man. For one thing, he really is a bona fide nice guy. You can tell by the way he’s always game to ham it up, or shoot the shit about music (“Cornwall has a great hardcore scene? Really?!”) And all those tales of his civic heroism — saving a woman from being hit by a speeding taxi, scooping a dog up from the middle of a busy road — are verifiably true. The guy feels an innate pull to do the right thing. Even if he brushes it aside modestly: “I think it’s just a Canadian thing.”
Sure, he’s got weird skull tattoos and has starred in some messed up movies, but despite his best efforts, Gosling’s got too many good qualities to be viewed as controversial: ethical, conventionally attractive, Mormon. He likes to downplay that last part. “My parents, they went through phases, and we went through phases with them. Being religious was one. But also, they were bodybuilders for a certain period of time. And they were religious about that. I think it was right around the time Pumping Iron came out. My mom took the Arnold side and my dad took Ferrigno’s.”
Funny guy, right? No wonder he wants to do comedies! In a way, though, it’s the perfect metaphor: if we’re to believe Gosling’s story, then building is in his blood. And right now, building is what he’s doing. By shaking up his leading man expectations, he’s bolstering his repertoire, sharpening his toolset, proving he’s got the range to do any type of film he damn well pleases.
“I’m scared to hang up,” Gosling tells me. “I don’t really know what they have in store for me.”
He’s joking again, because of course he knows: later this year, he’ll star in La La Land, another comedy (shocker!) that will see him sing and dance opposite Emma Stone. (And we all know he can sing and dance.) Okay, so it sounds like the type of film big studio wet dreams are made of. But the beauty of being Ryan Gosling is, as long as no one’s holding you down, you’re good. When you’re this reckless with your reputation, it’s hard to be bothered by anything. You can film your artsy revenge thriller by day, be the best-dressed man at the awards show by night, and sleep like a log.
The serious roles? They’ll still come (no really, he’s got a Terrence Malick film in the pipeline). But, as of right now, Gosling’s just having a laugh.
The Nice Guys hits theaters on May 20th.