Not an Action Figure

Photo: Art Streiber; Styling by Sharon Williams/Celestine Agency; Grooming by Kim Verbeck/The Wall Group

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.

His choices are daring—like the unconventional romance Lars and the Real Girl, in which he played a young man in love with a sex doll. Gosling pulled that off by digging into the character, with his usual Method-like tenacity. “I like to put it on the line,” he says, “whether it works or not, who cares?” And if he can’t do it his way, he really doesn’t care. Soon after Lars, Peter Jackson asked him to play the father in The Lovely Bones. His exit from the project, over “creative differences,” was typical. Among other things, he showed up on set 30 pounds heavier, to more credibly play a man ten years older than his then 26.

Which brings Gosling’s grand total of movies since 2006 to a whopping two—a number he’ll double this month, with All Good Things and Blue Valentine. “A friend of mine in the business told me Ryan was considered ungettable,” says Andrew Jarecki, the director of All Good Things. “He’s offered 50 big films a year, and he does one, maybe.” (Overstatement noted, but Gosling’s desirability is in remarkable contrast to his modest bankability.)

“To some extent, I think every actor would like to have been in The Notebook,” says Jarecki. “For Ryan, establishing an enormous audience means he now he gets to experiment.”

In All Good Things, he plays a character based on New York real-estate scion Robert Durst, who was linked to the disappearance of his wife (played by Dunst) and a female friend; he was suspected (but never convicted) of their murder. Durst did go to jail for killing a neighbor in Texas. He was hiding out there—disguised as a woman. Gosling liked the role because “a lot of women think they’re with the guy from The Notebook” when, in fact, they are with a homicidal nut-job.

Gosling is sitting on a couch, in a big, puffy sweatshirt, looking defiantly ordinary and talking excitedly about YouTube videos, Disneyland rides, and monster movies. When he’s not working, which is a lot of the time, he, like Franco, can’t stand still. He sings and plays in the band Dead Man’s Bones; haunts magic shows run by the original Magic Castle crew in Hollywood; takes shifts in a downtown L.A. deli, just for the hell of it; and waits tables at Tagine, a restaurant in Beverly Hills that he co-owns. At one time he was making “spooky leg lamps with sagging fishnets” out of prosthetic limbs. “He’s constantly pulling things out of his pocket—secrets that seem to be in contradiction to who he is,” says Michelle Williams, who co-stars with Gosling in Valentine. “Can you imagine someone as masculine and alpha as Ryan also likes to take ballet lessons?”

Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, is the film that best captures Gosling’s particular brand of manliness—the back-and-forth between tender, boyish goofiness and a more virile, dangerous, and unpredictable sexuality. The film tracks the six-year devolution of a romance between Dean (Gosling), bighearted and blue-collar, and Cindy (Williams), the shy young nurse he marries and has a daughter with. The film is ultimately devastating—at times harsh and claustrophobic, like a pomo Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Ryan plays his character with such brutal honesty,” says his friend Mark Ruffalo. “It’s when acting becomes being.”

Gosling was intrigued by the script’s evocation of “erosion and what a powerful force that is, that can turn a mountain into a rock. The film is like that Supremes song ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ ” he says. “It’s a mystery and you in the audience are the detective because the characters in the movie are too close to it—they’re not able to see what went wrong, what happened. They still love each other, but they’re not in love: Why?”

He tried to persuade Cianfrance to shoot the two parts of the film—the couple’s courtship and the crumbling of the marriage—six years apart, to match the timeline of the script. “We couldn’t get anyone to finance that idea,” says Gosling. So the director enabled his star’s love of improvisation and full character immersion as best he could. After completing the scenes of Dean and Cindy falling in love (which includes an enchanting ukulele moment), and to prepare for the bad times, Gosling and Williams moved into a Pennsylvania house for four weeks with the young actress who played their daughter. They had a pretend Christmas and birthdays, and Gosling “would make us ice-cream shakes to put on weight,” says Williams. “We’d clean up the kitchen, take out the trash, do a budget—I’d do a budget and Ryan would try to put in $500 a year for cigarettes.”

Big blowups were improvised, some lasting hours, and there was no way to fight fair with Gosling. “You’ve got to fight dirty, you’ve got to bite his ear,” says Williams, “because if I tried to match his energy and speed, I would never win.” She was initially hesitant about working with him. “With all that capacity, Ryan could be a steamroller. I know guys like that, and they take up all the air. I thought, I’m timid and I’m not going to be able to breathe. But within minutes I knew how wrong I had been. He’s incredibly sensitive and generous and will do anything to help you.”

The improvisation paid off in sex scenes with Williams that are difficult to watch—not because of any physical act, but because they are so emotionally raw. Blue Valentine was given an NC-17, a decision Gosling called “misogynistic” in a statement to the MPAA: It’s “okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex.”

Gosling makes it hard not to sympathize with Dean. His desperation for Cindy might be off-putting in less charismatic hands, and her reasons for her discontent are purposefully vague. But Gosling, who was home-schooled by his mother (and whom friends call a proud mama’s boy), is on her side. “Michelle’s is the more interesting role,” he says. “There’s this idea that if a woman has a husband who loves her and isn’t cheating, she should be happy. But what if you’re not happy?”

Next spring, Gosling will headline two big studio films: the Warner Bros. comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, with Steve Carell, and his first action film, Drive, in which he plays a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. You could argue that it’s a sissy move, the very thing he professes to hate, but he’s doing it his way. The comedy is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the wicked minds behind Bad Santa; and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn—known for highly violent art films—is directing Drive (a choice orchestrated by Gosling). In addition, Gosling is in talks with George Clooney about starring in the film version of Farragut North, and Cianfrance, who just announced a second drama with Gosling, is hoping to do a musical with him. “Ryan is the closest guy that could be Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, all wrapped into one.”

Gosling might dislike the current business of Hollywood, but, actually, he’s a die-hard fan of the classic studio system. “It used to be mandatory to sing, dance, and act—to do comedy as well as drama,” says Gosling. “You came out here and trained. Over time, [actors] got compartmentalized. If you tried to play a character that was south side of a character you were made famous for, you were kicked to the curb, or shamed into getting back in line. The idea,” he says, “is to go back to the way things used to be.”

Watch the Video

Gosling Throws a Molotov Cocktail at Our Photo Shoot
Video by Johnny Tergo

Not an Action Figure