LEGACY and loss are the predominant themes in Ryan Gosling’s new film The Place Beyond the Pines.
They do not, however, have any metaphorical bearing on the next stage of his career, though a skim of some pop culture internet sites late last month would have suggested otherwise. “Ryan Gosling to retire from acting,” screamed headlines.
They were referring to comments made by the 32-year-old Canadian, taken entirely out of context. Gosling had merely stated the obvious: that cinema fans can’t move for seeing his face/films (besides the been, gone and uninspired Gangster Squad, he will have three more films released this year alone) and, perhaps fortunately, he will shortly sidle behind the camera to direct his first film, How to Make a Monster. He wrote the script and is producing too.
How did he manage to persuade the money men that he should not also star in it? He snorts with a sort of derision, fortunately not intended for me. “God, no,” he says, these two words being the loudest he will utter on this New York afternoon, which we are spending in a dreary hotel room. “Guys like Ben Affleck and George Clooney are going around making that look easy. It’s not. Sure, I was under pressure to star in it but I’m writing, producing and directing it. I don’t know how guys do that and also act. They must be savants or something.”
Those who really cannot do without Gosling will have a Ryan Gosling reservoir of cinema to dip into as their man embarks on his temporary performing hiatus. First up is The Place Beyond the Pines, his second film for Derek Cianfrance, who directed 2010’s Blue Valentine, the wrenchingly intimate portrait of marital breakdown that won Michelle Williams, though not Gosling, an Academy Award nomination. He also has an as-yet-untitled Terrence Malick project due for release this year, plus Only God Forgives, which reunites him with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, and displays his unrecognisably bloody and swollen face on the poster – the result of a vicious Thai boxing match.
None of his four 2013 films could be said to pander to his adoring female demographic. In the same way that his severely depleted hairline in the second half of Blue Valentine made him almost unrecognisable, a nasal, high-pitched squeak of a speaking voice in Gangster Squad was similarly unnerving – Gosling himself admitted that he was shocked when he first saw, or rather heard, his performance.
To be fair, the first five minutes of Pines do not lie within this remit. The film’s opening shot is a seemingly gratuitous close-up of Gosling’s abs, famous since they were centre-stage in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid Love. His biggest moneymaker to date, it also starred Steve Carell and, as love interest, Emma Stone (with whom he was romantically reunited in Gangster Squad). It is only when the camera pans up to reveal Gosling in all his bleached-blond, sloppily tattooed ‘glory’ that the mood darkens, as is Cianfrance’s wont.
This time Gosling is a fairground stunt bike performer, societal drop-out and far-from-proud owner of an amateurishly executed dagger face tattoo. Did he fight the abs shot? “Look, it’s only happened twice,” he chuckles. “I have made a lot of movies and I don’t see it happening again. Let’s just say I’m not going to make a habit of it.”
As with an inordinate number of Gosling’s screen inventions, the character of Luke immediately appears both inscrutable and dangerous. The tattoo was Gosling’s idea, and when he told his director he felt stupid and wanted to abort the idea Cianfrance (unusually for Hollywood) did not cave to his star. “I was upset,” shrugs Gosling, looking a smidge embarrassed, “because I’d really regretted it instantly. I said to Derek, ‘This looks ridiculous, I can’t do this to me or your movie’. He said, ‘Well that’s what people do with face tattoos, they regret them. This movie is about consequences, and now you are stuck with it.’
“I’m glad now that he held my feet to the fire in that way, because it did give me the sense of shame and embarrassment that I don’t think I could have acted in the film. I didn’t want to be photographed or even look at myself in the mirror because I felt ridiculous, but of course I started to feel probably exactly how this character felt.”
In The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling’s show revisits Schenectady in upstate New York, where two years previously he had hooked up with Romina (played by Gosling’s girlfriend of the past 18 months, Eva Mendes). When Luke discovers Romina has had his baby, a son, Jason, now a little over a year old, he runs away from the ‘circus’ and resolves to reform himself into a present father, if not partner – Romina’s live-in boyfriend is raising Jason as his own. “When Luke is presented with this child he didn’t know that he had, it’s like a mirror is held up to him and he realises that he’s not a man at all, that, at the heart of it, he’s an empty person.”
Rumours swirled recently that Mendes was pregnant. They are patently untrue, given that she’s walking around today in a red polka dot vintage dress belted tightly at the waist. But did working so closely with a baby bring out any sort of paternal urge? “The kid’s real name is Tony Pizza, and it’s hard not to like a guy named Tony Pizza. I think I just really liked that guy, and if all kids were like Tony Pizza then yes, I would have them.”
Besotted with his boy but lonely, Luke bonds with a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn), equally alone, who lures him into a desperate bank-robbing scheme with the promise that he will be able to provide for his son. Gosling had a long-held fantasy about robbing banks on motorcycles and making a clever getaway on four wheels. While filming Blue Valentine, he shared it with Cianfrance, who noted that he not only shared precisely the same fantasy but was writing a script about it. Both knew kismet was at play and their professional relationship would endure.
When it did, as with the facial tattoo, Cianfrance was all about career (Gosling’s, as much as his), not kid gloves. “When I first started robbing the bank,” remembers Gosling, looking less than enamoured of the memory, “I looked down and people were smiling and filming me with their cell phones. They were just having a great time being robbed. Then Derek came up to me and was very angry. He blamed me for not being scary enough. He said, ‘Look at these people, they’re having a good time.’ He made me do 22 takes of trying to scare them, and I think at a certain point I got desperate and developed this kind of squeal which seemed to work.”
Cianfrance has also been vocal about his disdain for graphic violence, and this view seems to have rubbed off on Gosling, who initiated some quite spectacularly nasty violence of his own in Drive. “Yes, in Drive, I smash a guy’s head in an elevator and you never hear about it again. In this film there are only two shots fired and they resonate through the entire movie.”
It’s almost impossible to reconcile the Gosling sitting next to me today with his Pines incarnation, or indeed many of his chameleon-like characters. He is wearing an obviously beloved, beyond-faded T-shirt, a black leather jacket, beige jeans and beaten-up, once-black laced boots. He has not been in any proximity to a make-up or hair person, nor is there evidence of any recent encounter with a razor.
Even more unusually, he strolls into the room with an entourage of zero. But then there is nothing by-the-book about Gosling. Today’s perch is a cheap chair, the leg of which he keeps bringing down on to the top of one knackered-looking boot. Either he can’t sit still or he likes to be poised and ready for action.
A video was released last month of Gosling aged 12, being interviewed about his new job as a Mouseketeer on America’s once-famed children’s variety show The Mickey Mouse Club. There is nothing at all to suggest that this shy boy sporting something like Donald Trump’s comb-over and a fashion-backwards denim shirt would grow up to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. Even during The Mickey Mouse Club’s run, Gosling was frequently sidelined in favour of co-stars considered more talented – Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. He and Timberlake were flatmates in Florida, where the programme was filmed, and when Gosling’s mother returned to their Ontario home, Timberlake’s mother became his temporary legal guardian.
Perhaps Gosling was an obnoxious child star and got his ego out of his system then. Most likely not. But either way, he wouldn’t change it. “I think it was helpful for me, for sure, being a child actor. What’s also good about it is that it’s constantly humbling,” he laughs. “All you have to do is Google someone who is a child actor and, well, they can’t really go around pretending to be anything else. A lot of times I wished I could have hidden those things, but in the end they were very much an asset to me.”
Certainly his career success improved some aspects of his young life. Routinely bullied at school and diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he was installed in a class for special needs students. His parents had split up when he was younger, he and his older sister Mandi staying with their mother. In response to her son’s difficulties, his mother resigned from her job and home-schooled him. Gosling told me last year that growing up with his mum and sister had a profound effect on his psyche. “I think like a girl,” he said, without a hint of embarrassment. When in LA, he lives with his sister.
Aged 19, Gosling scored the title role in the US TV series Young Hercules, filmed in New Zealand. A step up from The Mickey Mouse Club, it was too little too late for an impatient Gosling, who had already decided he wanted to be a serious actor and would no longer star on TV. Significantly, he had already acquired the agent, manager and lawyer who still represent him today. “I have a history with all of the people in my life, and it’s just an important thing to me. I like to have that with my directors as well.”
He certainly has that with both Cianfrance and Winding Refn, and a different association with Henry Beane, who cast him in 2001’s The Believer as a chilling Jewish Neo-Nazi. “I was sort of gift-wrapped a career by Henry Beane, who gave me this opportunity coming from doing Young Hercules and The Mickey Mouse Club. He gave me the opportunity to break out of that in a way that I don’t think I could have without that chance. I couldn’t get an audition for The Believer or a movie like that because of my past. And yet after that film, people started talking to me like I was some serious person all of a sudden.”
If The Believer convinced Hollywood that this child had a future in film drama, The Notebook – 2004’s film version of the Nicholas Sparks novel, starring fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams – upped his reputation once more. Gosling had long resigned himself to life as a character actor rather than a leading man. “I was never sent out on auditions for those kinds of roles, and I had never even tried to get commercials because the people who looked at my headshots didn’t think my face would sell anything. Before I did The Notebook, I could never get a job with a leading role so I just started doing these character parts and became sort of limited to playing psychopaths. The Notebook really got me some room for myself. Nick Cassavetes [director] liked that I wasn’t a handsome leading man.”
In what is clearly a further effort to stay ahead of the career curve, Gosling will begin shooting How to Catch a Monster in Detroit this summer. Is he nervous? “I was scared until my cast came on board [Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks; his co-star in Drive, Saoirse Ronan; Ben Mendelsohn; Matt Smith; and Mendes]. I just love them so much and think they are the greatest. I can’t wait to see them in a movie together, and I think that as long as I have them I am going to be all right.”
He declines to offer much further by way of comment, nervous about jinxing himself, but he does so kindly. “I’ll be so happy to talk to you when it’s done. If you still want to talk to me then.” I sense that it is the influence of Cianfrance that will be closest to the camera he’s behind. “He has this way of unearthing what’s naturally cinematic about life and framing it in the moment, kind of catching life on the wing, and finding a way to have life torpedo the scene, and interfere with it so you have this kind of magic. Everybody in his movies is at their best, because of the environment he puts them in.”
Everybody? “I used to walk down the street and see billboards of actors they were trying to sell as leading men. I’d think, ‘That guy is not a leading man, nobody’s going to buy that.’ Then suddenly, the guy becomes a huge deal.”
He shakes his head vigorously, then laughs loud and long, as well he might. “Now I’m the guy on the billboard living the lie.”
• The Place Beyond the Pines is released on 12 April; Only God Forgives is released on 19 July