Striding into a photo call in the Hollywood Hills on a recent summer evening, decked out in a crisp Gucci blazer and a vivid Hawaiian shirt, Ryan Gosling practically looks reborn — relaxed, refreshed, and every bit like a guy who’s just come back from a much-needed four-year vacation.
Rested and refocused, he’s finally ready for action. Literally: he trained for seven months to take on the role of a rogue CIA agent in the $200 million Netflix summer blockbuster The Gray Man, the most expensive Netflix movie ever and a success that has already spawned plans for a spate of spin-offs and sequels.
As a matter of fact, this long-awaited return to leading-man status heralds an entire new act in the ever-evolving career of Ryan Gosling, as the London, Ontario-born actor embarks on a number of hotly anticipated new projects. From donning tousled blonde locks to appear in Greta Gerwig’s buzzed-about Barbie movie — whose behind-the-scenes snaps have already become viral meme fodder — to re-teaming with Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance for a sure to be intriguing remake of Universal’s classic 40s horror picture The Wolf Man, Gosling seems primed for a renaissance.
That’s not to say there was anything wrong with the old Ryan Gosling. Across his two previous outings as Sharp cover star — gracing the magazine first in 2013 on the eve of Gangster Squad, the second three years later to promote the release of Shane Black’s uproarious action-comedy The Nice Guys — he proved to be exactly what you’d hope for in a homegrown Hollywood superstar. Unlike other handsome, effortlessly charming actors of his generation, Gosling has largely avoided the kinds of effects-driven studio tentpoles that tend to relegate even the most gifted thespians to spouting one-liners in front of green screens while wearing spandex and a flowing cape. Instead, he makes more discerning (if unpredictable) choices, preferring to work with auteur directors like Terrence Malick (Song to Song) or Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), test himself with genre fare that expands his skillset (singing and dancing in La La Land, sci-fi swashbuckling in Blade Runner 2049), or even direct audacious, boundary-pushing films of his own (2014’s underrated Lost River).
In 2018, Gosling reunited with La La Land director Damien Chazelle on First Man, an ambitious biographical drama about the 1969 moon landing, in which Gosling turned in a stirring, understated performance as a grieving Neil Armstrong. Since then, there has been precious little of the actor to go around — an absence made all the more acute by the fact that, until the sudden hiatus, Gosling had been amazingly prolific, spending the previous decade banging out one high-profile hit after another, from modern romantic drama classic The Notebook to Adam McKay’s goofball Wall Street crash explainer The Big Short (in which Gosling gave us the now-iconic line “they call me Bubble Boy”).
Gosling has lately been inescapable in the news and across social media of late, thanks to a few tantalizing glimpses of Gosling on the set of Barbie in the full Ken ensemble — replete with six-pack abs, bleach-blonde hair, and a stonewashed denim vest. Barbie finished production this past July, but we will have to wait until next year to learn exactly how Gosling embodies the world’s most famous boy-toy. In the meantime, we’ve got his small-screen comeback in the form of The Gray Man.
Filmed during the pandemic, The Gray Man is an easy-going, low-stakes espionage thriller that leans heavily into its generic roots, coasting on its leading man’s breezy charisma and the kind of shoot-outs, fist fights, and car chases that will make any action flick go down smooth. In other words, it seems like an ideal vehicle with which to reintroduce Gosling to the world. Helmed by the brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, the production put Gosling through the wringer, as the complex stuntwork required him to do some seriously breakneck stuff, including a jump across the roofs of derailing tram cars in Prague. “It took a lot of physical training, tactical training, and then doing the stunts themselves, which we had to reshoot multiple times,” Gosling remembers. “This is the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done.”
Gosling grew up idolizing the action stars of the ‘80s, like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and especially Jean-Claude Van Damme — ask him, and Gosling will tell you the story about trying (and failing) to learn the famous Van Damme splits. So naturally the actor has always dreamed of making a true dyed-in-the-wool action flick in the tradition of that era. The biggest challenge apart from the stunts, he says, was in creating a character that incorporated everything he loved about classic male action heroes while still adding something fresh and unique. For Gosling, the twist came down to a matter of reluctance. “My character doesn’t even want to be a spy,” he laughs. “He just wants to have a normal life and by a normal guy, but he’s pulled out of prison and sucked into this.”
The character, who goes by the codename Sierra Six, gets by without the help of technology or the usual spy gadgets, instead relying purely on the strength of his ingenuity and — in the tradition of every great fictional spy — a deep reserve of snappy one-liners, each as dry as a vodka martini. He is, as Gosling describes him, “an analog hero in a digital world,” which was very much essential to the appeal. “He is very pragmatic. He has his wits, he has his human ingenuity, and he just keeps on swinging,” he says. “I love those types of characters.”
As part of the process of creating a living, breathing character for the film, Gosling worked closely with TAG Heuer to create a partnership that would help defined the look and style of man he was playing on screen. Wearing the TAG Heuer Carrera three-hand throughout the film — the same timepiece he shows off in a new campaign with the watch manufacturer — helped Gosling express something about the character in an unspoken, legible way. He learned the power of these kinds of simple costuming decisions early in his career. “When I did Half Nelson, I picked a calculator watch, because my character is a teacher. But we broke the strap replaced it with a rubber band,” he says. “I thought, wow, okay, this is actually an opportunity to add a layer to the character.”
It was with Drive, in 2011, that Gosling began to really embrace the possibilities of a unique timepiece in a cinematic context. In that film, Gosling played a professional wheelman with a reputation for taciturn brilliance; saying little, and following a strict, meticulous plan, he was capable of pulling off jobs few thought possible. His watch became a key prop in suggesting the depth of his character’s attention to detail. “I took my watch and I put it on the steering wheel, and I thought that was the way to suggest the character was very discerning with what he trusted and just how important time was to him,” Gosling says. “The watch became a way to communicate something about the character that I thought was very helpful.”
As the Gosling renaissance continues, there’s much more for the actor on the horizon: a space adventure from Lego Movie directors Lord and Miller, an adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novel Memory tentatively titled The Actor, a new movie version of the 1980s TV series The Fall Guy. He’s back in the saddle full-time now, although he has, he says, greatly enjoyed his time off, which he took mainly to spend time with his children, Esmerelda, 7, and Amada, 6, whom he raises with his wife of more than a decade, Eva Mendes.
“The days are like years and the years are like days,” Gosling reflects, thinking about the passage of time as he spends it balancing work and family. These days, Gosling can be found cruising around Los Angeles in his 1973 Chevrolet Malibu (the same one he rode in Drive), taking Esmerelda and Amada to local farmer’s markets, and otherwise continuing to chart the course of the next act of his career. For him, it’s all about time — how much of it you have, how much of it you have left. “Since I’ve had kids, I have been thinking a lot about time. You only have so much of it with them, and you want to make the most of it,” he says. “You don’t want to waste it. Every second counts.”