Don't change the channel
Hollywood's man of the year? Look no further than Ryan Gosling. That, back in February, the Academy overlooked him for his wrenching turn in marital drama Blue Valentine now seems but a distant blip in a year to remember. Three new films - one comedy, one style-heavy thriller, one political drama - look set to cement his blossoming reputation. In a recent poll on movie ticket website Fandango, Gosling was voted best new leading man, grabbing 62 per cent. The next in line was Justin Timberlake, with 18 per cent.
'He's a huge star - he always has been,' says Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive, in which Gosling excels as a getaway driver (drawing comparisons with everyone from Robert De Niro to Steve McQueen). 'Few people are born with it. And he's certainly born with it.'
That may be true, but the 30-year-old Canadian has never been at ease with the Hollywood machine. 'For a long period of time he was sort of the reluctant star,' says George Clooney, who casts him as the ambitious press secretary of a Democratic presidential candidate in his new film, The Ides of March.
Indeed, after the success of shameless romance The Notebook in 2004, Gosling ducked the studio fodder on offer, instead playing a man in love with a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl and a crack-addicted teacher in Half-Nelson. The latter won him an Oscar nomination. 'I started realising there are filmmakers out there who are trying to honour how complicated people really are,' Gosling says when we meet in London's Soho Hotel. 'It's more interesting to play those characters, who are more interesting than heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.'
There may be other reasons why the Ontario-born Gosling is spooked by fame: he had his first taste of it when he was 12 years old, when he beat 17,000 other hopefuls to become a Mouseketeer on Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club. From there, he went on to Canadian television series Breaker High before heading to New Zealand to play the title role in Young Hercules. 'The director would ask us to deliver a cliffhanger so people would watch the commercials and come back to the episode,' he recalls. 'I thought, 'I don't believe in any of these products enough to be selling them'. I wanted to make movies, where they can't change the channel.'
Bullied in school - one story has it that he threw steak knives at other students - Gosling also saw his parents divorce when he was young. His father, Thomas, a paper mill employee, added to the pressure, pinning his hopes on his young son. 'He wanted to be famous, and thought I could give him a different life,' Gosling says. 'It was terrible. It made me hate it, because it wasn't about me at all, and my happiness. It was about him getting out of this life that he didn't like. It was why I stopped doing things that he could brag about. I wanted to do movies that he couldn't brag about. I think it was a rebellion thing.'
If that inspired his early art-house streak, Gosling now seems ready to adopt the mantle of a Hollywood player - albeit on his terms. With his baby-blue eyes, sandy hair and six pack, he's certainly built to lead.
Note the scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love, the first of his new films to arrive in Hong Kong, where co-star Emma Stone expresses her admiration for his upper body. 'It's like you're Photoshopped,' she gasps. But then Gosling is a master at transformation. For The Lovely Bones, he put on 27kg - only to fall out with director Peter Jackson and lose the role. 'I was fat, bald and unemployed, walking around the yard. It was not a fun time.'
One of the smartest Hollywood comedies made this year, Crazy, Stupid, Love sees Gosling play Jacob, a suave singleton schooled in the art of flirting with the opposite sex. One evening, he takes pity on fellow barfly Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), a middle-aged father going through a divorce from his wife (Julianne Moore). 'I try to teach him the ways of ... how to pick up women,' says Gosling. Arriving in the wake of Blue Valentine - in which he plays a man going through a messy marital break-up - Gosling admits it was the perfect pick-me-up.
Moreover, it fulfilled a long-held ambition: to work with Carell. 'When I first moved to Los Angeles, I did a pilot TV show when I was 17,' he says. 'I had a small part and so did Steve. I remember watching him shoot one day and he was so funny that they couldn't make it through the takes.
'The crew was laughing - the guy had to put down the boom and laugh. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that you could be so good that it was a problem. I made a promise to myself that I would work with Steve one day.'
If this is his first genuine comedy, still, Gosling got a taste of the pleasures making such a film can bring. Off-camera, Carell had him in hysterics. 'He's an assassin. He just finds your button and presses it. And he keeps a straight face, but he's always trying to sabotage you. He'll just find a way to look at you. It's like a sucker punch. You start laughing, you get in trouble.'
With his films grossing a total of US$127 million worldwide to date, Gosling now looks bankable. But the way he sees it, when he was making films such as The Believer - in which he played a neo-Nazi skinhead - his ambitions lay in a similar direction. 'It's not that I want to make small movies that no-one ever sees,' he protests. 'Every time I make these films, I really think they're going to be bigger than Avatar. It never happens, but every time I'm sure that this is the one.'
That hope might come true with Drive. Violent, stylised and sexy, it's never going to pull in the crowds like Crazy, Stupid, Love. But, in winning Refn the best director award in Cannes, this retro-noir blend of Walter Hill's The Driver and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samoura? is also likely to garner Gosling cult kudos for years to come. 'We really tried in some ways to honour the spirit of those films, but try to make something that was our own,' he says. 'Like somehow make a film that was tough, that wasn't posturing or macho.'
Then there's his Oscar-worthy turn in Clooney's film, an exploration of the win-at-all-costs mentality that elections bring. 'My character is the one who takes this downward spiral. He's an idealist but he loses his idealism, and he becomes involved in the dirty pool of politics that he swore he would never do.'
Currently filming Mickey Cohen bio The Gangster Squad, which has reunited him with Stone (with whom he's linked romantically), there's even talk of another reunion, with Refn, for a remake of 1970s sci-fi Logan's Run.
Reluctant star? Not any more.
Crazy, Stupid, Love opens on Thursday; Drive opens on November 10; The Ides of March will be released later in the year