Leading Man

09.16.11

Ryan Gosling, Existential Action Hero

How did Hollywood’s quirky indie dude become the A-list’s new prince? Chris Lee sits down with Ryan Gosling to find out.

Over the course of his 18 years in show biz, having cracked into popular culture as a pre-teen Mickey Mouse Club star and blossoming into A-list Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic yet compulsively watchable young Serious Actor, Ryan Gosling has portrayed an eclectic grab bag of disturbed young men and winsome doofuses, violent sociopaths and studly lotharios, the overwhelming majority of his roles in low budget indie features.

Despite breakout parts in mainstream hits such as 2004’s The Notebook or this year’s ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling has come to stand as something like the anti-Shia LaBeouf – a guy with a seeming allergy to big budget fare, the strict avoidance of superhero movies and a proven ability to deliver compelling performances in exquisite little films such as the tortured romantic breakdown Blue Valentine and the sex doll dramedy Lars and the Real Girl.

Questioned about how he selects or rejects his parts, though, Gosling can get a bit tongue tied. After careful deliberation, seated in a plush hotel a day after his new movie The Ides of March premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, the 30-year-old Canadian-born actor chose to explain his process through musical metaphor.

“It’s like when a song comes on, you feel like dancing,” Gosling said. “There are lots of songs you could dance to but they don’t all make your toes tap.”

That kind of selective toe tapping has led to his appearance in two splashy new films: Ides, which comes out on Oct. 7, and the arty vehicular thriller Drive that pulls into theaters today.

In Ides, the actor portrays a whippersnapper campaign aide de camp stumping for an idealistic candidate on a presidential run, a role he committed to based on the powerful allure of the project’s co-star/screenwriter/producer George Clooney.  And a fluke occurrence resulted in Gosling’s signing on to Drive: hearing a certain REO Speedwagon song on the radio.

Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North and set in the final frantic days before a heavily contested Ohio presidential primary, the movie’s action follows the backroom betrayals and hard-knuckle machinations that attend an Obama-like liberal progressive governor (played by Clooney) on his path to land the democratic nomination. Gosling’s character experiences a Michael Corleone-like transformation, starting out as an idealistic, if hard-charging, campaign manager but ends up wresting no small amount of political clout through Machiavellian power moves.

“When George Clooney wants you in his movie, you just do it,” Gosling explained. “He said, ‘I want you to be in this movie because I want to steal your soul.’ He wanted to watch this character make choices that would create an internal climate in his soul.”

And living up to expectation, Clooney’s on-set joie de vivre left a lasting impression on the actor. “I didn’t expect him to be as enthusiastic about filmmaking,” said Gosling. “He’s like a kid in a candy store when he’s on set. He just loves making movies. It’s all he wants to talk about. He’ll talk you through every scene and play all the parts … He’ll even hum the music he wants over the top of which line. He’ll explain to you how the camera works and lighting cues. He becomes possessed by it.”

An initial meeting with director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Danish-born, New York-raised filmmaker responsible for the brutal thrillers Bronson and Vahalla Rising) didn’t go nearly as smoothly. The two suffered through an abysmal dinner where they failed to find common ground on how to make Drive. They were prepared to go their separate ways. Then, as Refn and Gosling were driving back from the meeting in the same car, fate tuned in on the FM dial.

“I turned on the radio and REO Speedwagon came on,” Gosling recalled. “And he started crying and singing REO Speedwagon at the top of his lungs. And he said, ‘This is what the movie should be about. This film should be about a guy who drives around Los Angeles at night listening to music because this is the only way he can feel.’ What was strange is that it was the same feeling I had had, too. And this was nowhere in the script. We were both struck by how the two of us being so wildly different could share the same dream. We wanted to make a movie that represented that moment in the car when REO Speedwagon was playing.”

Drive premiered to critical praise at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival (where Refn won best director) and also screened in Toronto, where a hive of buzz surrounded the movie. And that’s in no small part due to Gosling’s performance as a character known only as the Driver, a movie stuntman who moonlights as a guy behind the wheel of a getaway car by night. He’s an ass-kicking hot-rodder of few words, a Steve McQueen-esque presence with a toothpick lodged firmly in the corner of his mouth and a take-no-shit attitude, who falls for a single mom (Carey Mulligan). Out of some warped sense of honor, the Driver decides to help her ex-con husband pull a dangerous heist in order to keep her character out of harm’s way.

If that all sounds like a Sylvester Stallone rehash, the movie’s stark production design and the deliberate tonal oddness push it into David Lynch territory. Refn and Gosling envisioned Drive as “a violent John Hughes movie – like Pretty in Pink with head smashing” – and the filmmaker devotes substantial screen time is to synthesizer-surged driving sequences that mostly unfold with a kind of hazy serenity on Los Angeles’ neon-lit boulevards.

“I had this feeling the movie shouldn’t be about driving fast or car chases, as much as just driving and the spell that driving car puts you under,” Gosling said. “Driving can be an existential experience. You can put your persona and your identity in the passenger seat because you’re not being watched. You get in and you get out and you don’t really remember the trip. So I was hoping we could use the car as a vehicle to transport the audience into the driver’s subconscious.”

When Gosling isn’t portraying a man of action – he’s set to re-team with Refn for a remake of the ‘70s sci-fi thriller Logan’s Run but turned down the lead in a big budget Lone Ranger movie after suggesting he play the character as a gay man – the actor has shown his real-life hero stripes by defusing a street fight in a YouTube clip that went viral last month.

In the meantime, he feels gratified by the fact that cheesy pop music put him in the driver’s seat.

“It’s nice when the circumstances create a film,” Gosling said. “This movie wouldn’t have been made if REO Speedwagon didn’t come on the radio.”