When I spoke to Ryan Gosling a couple of years ago about his role as an escape driver in the thriller Drive, he told me that he couldn’t care less about cars, and he had to learn to appreciate them just for the role and that he actually prefered motorcycles. Meeting him at The Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, he reveals to me the source of his affection for the two-wheel machines began at 10 when he witnessed a biker being knocked off his motorcycle while on his way to school.
“He was bleeding and looking up at me and my first thought was I got to get a motorcycle,” he chuckles. “So clearly there’s something wrong with my brain. So I did my sister’s paper route and I bought one that didn’t work and I just sat on it for 2 years in the backyard and pretended to ride it.”
Well, in his latest movie The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling gets what his heart desires as he inhabits the role of a high-wire motorcycle stunt performer, Luke, who, upon losing his job in the carnival, turns to bank robbery in order to provide for his former lover Romina (Eva Mendes) and their son with tragic consequences.
Not only did Gosling get to spend ample time riding a bike, he got to be trained by the best stunt biker in the business, Rick Miller. “When Batman gets on a motorcycle, it’s Rick Miller in the Bat suit,” he enthuses proudly. “It was a great experience.”
But he insists that he was drawn to playing this character for other reasons. “I was attracted to this idea of someone who is kind of an amalgamation of all these masculine cliche’s: muscles, tattoos, motorcycles, guns and then when presented with this child, it’s like a mirror in realising that those things don’t make a man at all and that he’s far from being a man. I think that there’s a tragedy in that and I thought that was interesting.”
Indeed, those are the kind of misfit outsider characters in low-budget movies that often attracted the 32-year-old star such as the confused, self-loathing neo-Nazi Jewish teen in The Believer (2001), the small town loner with a sex doll for a girlfriend in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and a crack addict middle school teacher in Half Nelson (2006).
Ironically, his sense of alienation was what incited the Canadian-born actor to pursue a career in performing from a tender age. “I never really wanted to be a kid,” he smiles.”When I was younger, I was bullied and in retrospect I think I deserved it.” In fact, he got himself in so much trouble at school that he ended up being home-schooled instead. His misery ended when he won a spot alongside future singing stars Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears in the Disney Channel’s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1992. Although he failed to match up to the the other child performers, he was undeterred and at 16 he moved to LA to pursue his dream.
His break into serious acting came when he was offered the role of a neo-nazi jew in the Sundance-winning The Believer that would completely change his perspective on his craft. “Overnight after Sundance, people were talking to me like I was a serious person, so I started to take myself very seriously and play the role of an actor.” In fact, he took his acting so seriously that even after the success of his romantic film The Notebook, he repeatedly rebuffed Hollywood’s tempting offers, carving a career in independent movies that assured his street cred with art house audiences and film critics, but kept him relatively unknown to the the wider public.
“It’s funny because up until The Notebook I couldn’t get even an audition for a leading man part, so I accepted the fact that I was going to have a career as an a character actor and my brain was wired that way,” he says.
In 2011, however, Gosling’s foray into mainstream movies like political drama Ides of March, action-thriller Drive and romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, elevated him to an instant pop idol: a heart-throb to the ladies and a source of envy to men. “It’s certainly not one that I would give myself,” he says uncomfortably. “I’m not sure that I know what that ripple effect of that really is in the long run. At the moment, it just feels sort of surreal.”
Indeed, the star seems to be utterly disinterested in fame and its trapping, insisting that he even avoids the internet lest he be drowned by the avalanche of attention that could distract him from his main goal in life: performing. He admits that the only perk he enjoys from his success is the ability to choose interesting roles to play. In fact, his star power has reached such high voltage that sometimes he chooses the director of the movie. Last year, he selected Nicolas Winding Refn to helm Drive. But he says that there is a caveat to his new powers.
“In the beginning, you’re just trying to get a part, and you feel that if it doesn’t work then it’s because they didn’t use the right take or whatever,” he says. “But now I have so much choice that it really becomes evident that the onus lies more and more on me if something doesn’t work because I chose to do it. Maybe I picked the wrong director or whatever, so it becomes a much bigger mirror.”
The onus of responsibility though hasn’t vanquished his ambitions to write and direct a movie, How to Catch a Monster, which he is about start shooting this spring in Detroit. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Christina Hendricks and his real-life girlfriend Eva Mendes, the film is about a single mother-of-two who is swept into a macabre and dark fantasy underworld while her teenage son discovers a secret road leading to an underwater town.
Gosling says that he is going to parlay what he has learned from his directors into directing his movie, without emulating them. “When you’re a film-maker you have no place to hide,” he says. “It’s the most exposing place you can be. As an actor you can hide behind your role but when you’re the film-maker and especially if you’ve written it, the film will say everything about you and it’s best to just be yourself because it’s really the only thing that you know how to be.”
Speaking to Gosling, one gets the impression that he has insulated himself in his own world, utterly focused on his craft and completely indifferent to his fame. He speaks with such self-deprecating humility that makes one forget that he is one of the hottest star in Hollywood. “I think of myself that the more I work the more I realize that the less I know.” he smiles.