Ryan Gosling is a smooth customer. Lacking pretension so much that one can’t even find a hint of his intending to steer clear of it, the actor recently celebrated his 26th birthday on November 12th. This following a year that has seen his directorial debut come to pre-production light, a coveted spot amongst GQ’s annual “Men of the Year” issue and, oh yeah, one of the most acclaimed performances of 2006.
The critically hailed star of “The Believer” and “The Notebook,” Gosling finds himself in the thick of the year’s awards race for his riveting portrayal in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson.” The film received five Independent Film Spirit award nominations this morning, including Best Male Lead for Gosling.
Greeting me via telephone from Toronto, where he is nearing the end of principle photography on Craig Gillespe’s “Lars and the Real Girl,” the actor seems to have tripped over his sister’s computer chord and is having some trouble with the usual “hellos.” It’s all for the best, really, because when you have a conversation with Ryan Gosling, the last thing you want to do is bog things down in formalities. Gosling is a real guy, attracted to real ideas and, above all else, real characters.
“I had read the script and thought it was about people I had met, people I knew or was like in some way,” he says. “When I go to the movies, I want to feel like I’ve met someone. People who do things out of character, who don’t have a clear character arc, those are the people I’m interested in seeing in a film.”
In “Half Nelson,” Gosling stars as Dan Dunne, a charismatic junior high school history teacher in a drab and dismal Brooklyn neighborhood. Dan’s professional environment is one of enlightenment for his pupils. He captures the spark of their educational hunger and even finds time to coach the girls’ basketball team. But personal demons can haunt even the saintliest of souls, and Dan’s crutch is drug addiction. The allure of the crack pipe frequently pulls him away from the buoyancy he works so hard to construct for his students, dragging him through the realities of crushed idealism.
In some ways not the most sympathetic of individuals, Dan provided for Gosling a character of tangibility and truthfulness.
“I think you have to love and hate the characters you play,” he says. “They’re people. It’s not as simple as sympathizing with them.”
To prepare for the role, Gosling moved to New York for one month before shooting even began, immersing himself in the life of his character. He lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn and spent time shadowing 8th grade teacher David Easton. Speaking matter-of-factly about his methods, Gosling mentions, “There’s a million ways to get there, but it’s a challenge when there’s no real reference for the people you play.”
What might also be considered a challenge for some actors is sharing the screen with untrained thespians. But Gosling seems to have found a preference of sorts, so much so that he plans on casting his upcoming directorial debut, “The Lord’s Resistance,” with non-actors across the board.
“I love working with non-actors,” he says. “Actors are so manipulative, and non-actors are not. They push you in ways that the best actors in the world can’t.”
One such non-actor is Shareeka Epps, receiving equal praise for her portrayal of Drey in the film. One of Dan’s students who happens upon his secret early in the first act, Drey seems weathered and accustomed for her years, but exuberant and youthful all the same – qualities Gosling also found bursting out of his co-star.
“Shareeka has no reverence, which I really respected,” he explains. “She doesn’t approach any scene with any preciousness. She’s brutally honest and not ashamed of how she feels.”
Finding himself in the heat of contention for Best Actor consideration at this year’s Oscar ceremony, Gosling is predictably apathetic about the awards process. One almost doesn’t want to approach the subject with him, given the expected response from an actor so obviously concerned with the work above anything else. But this is a business of sound bites, and even the most apprehensive awards hopefuls can give you gold in that regard.
“It affects me,” he says of the Oscar race, “in the sense that I’m happy that a film that cost $500,000 can get to a point where this many people are aware of it. Awards – I don’t know who that’s up to, but I appreciate that the film is being received the way it is. I had one of the best experiences of my life on this. We never had to hit any marks. We never had to say anything twice or worry about continuity. You never felt like you were in a scene in a movie. A lot of directors never see it that way. Anna and Ryan have a great eye for the way that we are and the lies we tell about who we are, and that’s rare.”
From here, Gosling will assuredly take it all in stride. The aforementioned “The Lord’s Resistance” is high on his list of priorities. Telling the story of the Lord’s Resistance militia in Uganda, the film looks to be another pointed political entry in the current canon of Africa-centralized cinema. Even still, don’t expect the actor to look too far ahead at the kinds of films he wishes to make, in front of or behind the camera. He holds such judgment to a case-by-case basis.
“I’ll have to wait until I’m tested,” he says. “Films I love have a certain allowance for accidents. When I was a kid, my favorite films were the ‘Abbot and Costello’ movies. I love Werner Herzog’s films, Terry Malick, John Cassavettes. But I’ve got a lot of things I want to do in my life, and not just acting. There’s no anxiety about not having enough time to do all the movies I want to do or anything, but I have to keep it interesting for myself. I don’t want to make the same movie over and over again.”