It is fairly impossible to fathom, but Ryan Gosling, the prince of indie moviedom, whose brooding expression and sleepy good looks inevitably trigger comparisons to James Dean, got his start on The Mickey Mouse Club.
It was a long time ago, sure. But not that long ago. After all, Gosling is only 30 years old. But it’s true; there’s even a YouTube clip to prove it. There he is, crooning along with a mini-Justin Timberlake, his clothes eight sizes too big, 1990s style, his soulful eyes squinted shut to help him get through a high note, as a crowd of tweeners squeal in adolescent lust. Yes, this is the same Ryan Gosling who, two decades later, garnered a cult following for his role in the quirky Lars and the Real Girl; was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Half Nelson; and is now back with two more critically acclaimed performances: in All Good Things and Blue Valentine, which comes out Wednesday and is already being showered in awards love. Both Gosling and his co-star Michelle Williams are nominated for Golden Globes in the Best Acting in a Drama category.
But back to The Mickey Mouse Club. How? Why? Huh?
Sitting in luxurious hotel suite in Beverly Hills one recent morning, clad in silhouette-hugging jeans and a beige zipper sweater that doesn’t conceal a small tattoo on one wrist, Gosling does not flinch at the question. Or even act defensive. In fact, he laughs.
“I was 11 years old,” he says, in his gravelly voice that carries an incongruous hint of Brooklyn (Gosling is Canadian). “I was at a dance company and everyone was going out for this audition, and I went. I’d never been to an audition before. I got it somehow, and then I moved to Florida and worked on that show for two years.”
Of his Mickey Mouse co-stars turned superstars Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, Gosling says: “All those guys were just impressive. Not just their talent, but they had such a focus at such a young age. They what they were kind of destined to do, and they worked at it, and they achieved it.”
Asked if he related to that kind of dedication, Gosling says: “No.”
“I knew when I got there that that wasn’t my destiny… I didn’t want those things. I wanted something else, and it kind of inspired me to figure out what that was.”
It seems safe to say that by now he’s figured it out. Among a large group of younger fans, he will always be best known for his role in the weepy The Notebook. But that aside, unlike other actors of his generation—James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire—who regularly flit between shoestring-budget indies and commercial blockbusters, Gosling has demonstrated a consistent dedication to picking difficult, emotionally charged roles in small, intimate pictures; the kinds of movies that are about the performance, not the money. Or even the attention. Although Gosling received praise for All Good Things, in which he plays a character based on Robert Durst, the Manhattan real-estate heir suspected of killing his young wife in the early 1980s (Rex Reed called Gosling “a memorable study in unhinged self-destruction as a man driven to madness”), the film, which received mixed reviews, has remained on the sidelines this awards season, in part because it doesn’t have a well-funded distributor to bankroll a campaign.
Ryan Gosling: “I thought, ‘Michelle Williams is trying to kill me.’”
Needless to say, Blue Valentine, which is a much bigger showcase of Gosling’s talents, given that it hangs solely on the deteriorating relationship of a young, married couple played by Gosling and Williams, does not suffer from this problem. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein—whose Weinstein Company acquired the film, and who spearheaded the decision to severely edit the film after viewers griped it was too long—has been actively touting the film ever since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a year go. Typical of Harvey, he parlayed a fracas with the MPAA over an initial NC-17 rating for Blue Valentine (due to an oral sex scene) into even more publicity. (The rating was recently overturned.)
Blue Valentine wears its indie cred hallmarks on its sleeve: shaky camera-work; a structure that defies three neat acts; and a lingering attention to the mundane tribulations and disappointments of everyday life. It also has some of the rawest performances of the year, something director Derek Cianfrance—who spent 12 years trying to get the film made—influenced by insisting that his stars not discuss the movie before filming.
“When Michelle and I did the first half of the film”—which focuses on the love-bird stage of Dean and Cindy’s relationship—“we really didn’t know each other. Even though we’d been attached [to the film] for years, we’d only had dinner once. And we never rehearsed or talked to each other about the characters. So we met onscreen, and in every scene, we were revealing ourselves to each other. [Cianfrance] didn’t want us to talk about it, he wanted to capture that.”
Cianfrance then stopped filming for a month in order to allow the actors to transition to the next phase of their characters’ relationship—the isolation and disconnect that sets in when hopes aren’t realized, hair loss sets in, and overfamiliarity dulls the senses.
During that month off, Cianfrance wanted to “destroy the newness,” Gosling says. “Michelle and I spent as much time as we could together, and he made us fight. It was all-day fighting about whatever he wanted us to fight about.”
Williams and Gosling lived in the claustrophobically small house they shot in (though Williams went home at night to be with her young daughter), “and we burned all of our wedding pictures. We fought all the time. We just, you know, tried as much as we could to get rid of all the pleasantries and be in each other’s space so much that we wanted the other person out.”
To further amp up the film’s docu-style realism, Gosling and Williams often improvised scenes, in some cases going to death-inviting lengths to convey their characters’ emotional despair. In one sequence, shot on the Brooklyn Bridge, in which Cindy has a secret that she refuses to tell Dean, Gosling said that before filming, Cianfrance instructed Williams: “‘Whatever you do, don’t tell Ryan your secret.’ Then he said to me, ‘I don’t care what you have to do, but you have to get her to tell you her secret.’
“And we shot for hours. And the sun was going down—we were actually stealing that shot, because we didn’t have a permit to shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge, and if we didn’t get it that night, we weren’t going to get it. And so the sun was going down, and she wasn’t telling me. So the only thing I could think of doing was to climb over (the fence on the side of) the bridge. And I never thought she’d let me get that far. I got to the other side. I just looked underneath me, and it was just—water. And it was so high, and I thought, ‘Michelle Williams is trying to kill me.’”
This is unlikely. The pair has been incredibly cozy on the press tour for Blue Valentine, to the point that there have been rumors that they’re dating. Both have, rather coyly, denied it.
Of acting opposite Williams in Cianfrance’s unique work atmosphere, Gosling says: “It’s a hard thing to express, but you’re rooting for them”—meaning Williams—“because she’s achieving this emotional state of mind, but you’re also trying to break her achieving it, because it works against what your goal is, so it’s a weird atmosphere. It induced you into this kind of crazy state. But that was what [Cianfrance] wanted, because love makes you crazy.”
That’s all he’ll say. He smiles sweetly and waits for the next question. Never is it more clear that he’s been doing this since he was 11.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.