There are no neat antecedents for the five men on this page. Like Ryan Gosling, none is a traditional leading man, action figure, or romantic-comedy arm candy. They are all too intense, too weird, too complicated. None is bankable. Do they think about their image at all? If so, it’s not central to who they are—acting might not be either: Polymaths Gosling and James Franco could well consider it a sideline. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is possibly more interested in collaborating with other artists on hitRECord, his online production company. Jesse Eisenberg—arguably the first egghead movie star—hosts Olympic-class wordplay on his website OneUpMe.com.
They are never predictable and often unlikable; their good guys are flawed, and when they’re bad, they’re horrid: Tom Hardy delivered the most aggressively strange badass in recent memory in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, then played Heathcliff. Hardy is known for his ballsy range, but that could be said of any of them: Fassbender will play the young Magneto in the next X-Men, Rochester in a new Jane Eyre, and Carl Jung for David Cronenberg. Eisenberg—who cut his teeth playing sympathetic motormouths in comedies like Zombieland—was clearly yearning to bite into a role as juicily cerebral as Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network’s ultimate asshole. In (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt made the romantic-lead-who-never-gets-the-girl more appealing than the guys who do;he followed that with Hesher’s singularly unpleasant sociopath. Franco, in one year, captured the devilish brilliance of Allen Ginsberg in Howl and the rash bravado of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours.
Finding an actor with the charisma to spin a hit out of 90 minutes of a man and a boulder would have been tough even five years ago. But you can imagine all these actors doing something interesting with the role of Ralston (even if that involved Eisenberg talking his arm off). It would be hard to beat Franco’s performance, but that’s not the point. It’s that finally, there is a deepening pool of leading men who thrive on complexity. Even in a big studio film, these actors bring the raw nerve of the indie sensibility, and in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.