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Not an Action Figure

This year, Ryan Gosling and a band of similarly arty, polymathic weirdos are leading a revolt against the plastic leading man.

The Molotov Cocktail—a Stoli bottle filled with flammable strawberry liqueur—was his idea. He wanted it to look legit, so he studied James Nachtwey’s documentary photos of rioters in Gaza to get the position of his hand on the bottle just right. The original plan was to toss it at a blown-up photo of himself, but the necessary printer wasn’t available. Also, there was the possibility of burning the building down. So he found a target at the end of the Culver City alleyway behind the photographer’s studio, practicing for a while with empty bottles. Then, as the camera clicked away, Ryan Gosling lit up and hurled, laughing dementedly at the subsequent explosion, before blowing it all out with a fire extinguisher. (Recorded for your pleasure, here.)

Playing the ukulele was Gosling’s idea, too.

Like a lot of men in their twenties and thirties (and he’s just 30), Gosling is meandering toward adulthood. He has a boyish enthusiasm for risk and danger, and some of his affectations can border on precious. But his charm is too inexorable for us to care. (How else to explain that, even when the Canadian admits to faking his gravelly Brooklyn accent, you like him all the more.) “Ryan is kind and adorable,” says actress Kirsten Dunst, “yet also really dark and weird and manipulative. Everything you’d want in an actor.”

But in a leading man? Dark and weird have not, historically, been Hollywood’s go-to qualities for its top stars. Yet thanks to a new crop of brainy, complicated, and highly autonomous actors—James Franco (Howl, 127 Hours), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ([500] Days of Summer, Hesher) in America; Tom Hardy (Bronson, Inception) and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank) in Europe—a new prototype is seeping into the mainstream.“Some of us are tired of all the sissies in this town,” says Gosling. “The ones who go along, flow with the flow, line up where they’re told to line up at. The studios want you to make the same movie over and over again—if that’s the movie they liked, that’s the movie you should keep making.”

He doesn’t name Sam Worthington or Taylor Lautner or Chris Pine or Shia LaBeouf (recently ranked by Forbes as Hollywood’s best investment), but does he need to? Gosling says he doesn’t care about franchises or Q ratings or branding or doing two for the studio and the next one for himself. “I know it sounds dramatic,” he says, “but every movie I make is the first and last. It’s important for me to think that the things you’ve made, they’re in the past. It’s what you’re making now that matters.”

Perhaps this trend is not so surprising, given that Hollywood outlier Johnny Depp is the biggest star in the world. But these younger men are out-kooking even Depp, with Franco as lead kook. After beginning in the usual way, with the requisite franchise role in Spider-Man, he’s become something else entirely: “Franco’s turnaround is a work of art in itself,” says Gosling. “Basically dismantling this image which he’d constructed and building up something new—it’s very impressive. He’s getting a goddamned Ph.D.! Look around,” he goes on. “There’s a reaction against [conventional wisdom], there are people pushing back. Fassbender and Hardy—they show up and put who they are on the line; they don’t try to trick you. They’re not lying. They’re not playing good guys or bad guys. They’re not playing one note, even if it’s a great note. They’re adding dissonance.”

With Franco as a surprise choice to host the next Oscars, Hollywood appears to be sanctifying these new oddballs. Gosling could well be in the audience at the Academy Awards in February, as a nominee for Best Actor in the tortured love story, Blue Valentine. It’s a performance that seems designed to deconstruct the action-figure leading man even further, if not douse it in flames.

Gosling’s career didn’t start out in revolt. He got his big break at the age of 12 in The All-New Mickey Mouse Club. His fellow Mouseketeers—Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera—would graduate to stardom a lot faster than he would; his next big gig was in the TV series Young Hercules, slaying centaurs on episodes with titles like “Lyre, Liar.” But once he got noticed—as a conflicted, raging Jewish neo-Nazi in the 2001 film The Believer—he rarely veered from the singular path that would make him a Sundance Film Festival regular. The Notebook (2004)—with that MTV Movie Award–winning kiss-in-the-rain with Rachel McAdams—threatened to upend his indie credibility. But who knew it was going to make all that money. Gosling could have cashed in with The Notebook in England or The Notebook in Space; everyone was telling him to go big, then bigger. Instead, he gambled on first-time feature filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, playing a charismatic, drug-addicted teacher in 2006’s Half Nelson, and got his first Best Actor nomination.

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