THEY WERE BOTH CHILD SCREW-UPS — the kind of unfocused kids who make parents weep.
"I was bad at everything. I used to sit in the back of the class my whole school career. My father said to my mother, 'There's something radically wrong with this boy.' He despaired of me," says Sir Anthony Hopkins with a chuckle.
"I was always picking fights. Because I thought that was what the girls would like," says Ryan Gosling. "I'd pick on the toughest guys because the girls liked them. So if I beat them up the girls would like me. But it never worked. I was just in so much trouble. They called me 'Trouble'; that was my nickname."
Years later (about 60 for Hopkins and a mere 10 for Gosling), the pair, small-town guys from modest backgrounds in Wales and Canada, respectively, are celebrated actors, an Oscar winner and a nominee, with the psychic gratification of proving wrong all who ever doubted and gratitude for those who incongruously believed in scrappy boys with no discernible talent. The duo star as antagonists -- the proverbial cat and mouse -- in the thriller "Fracture," which opened Friday, but it's clear as they sit in the coffee shop of Santa Monica's Fairmont Hotel (a favorite hangout of Hopkins) that they barely know each other.
Both seem surprised and amused to know they shared an early disdain for school. "I became an actor because I didn't know what else to do," says Hopkins. "If you're creative or artistic, I think you live in another world. It's difficult to grasp onto things."
In person, the man famous for playing one of the most diabolical killers in the world -- the depraved and brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- is jolly, erudite and interested in other people, although he alchemically exerts an almost gravitational pull to himself. Dressed in a slouchy khaki blazer over a striped polo shirt, he speaks in a quiet rasp, with an air of devilish glee. He describes himself as "hyperactive. I wish I could sit and relax, but I can't. I have this driving force in me that makes me move and get out of bed in the morning. It may be a kind of neurosis, but I feel happy."
On a typical nonworking day, he flits between reading, playing the piano and, more and more, painting. "I paint and paint. I could do five paintings in a day," he says. Recently, he's sold a bunch and given the proceeds to charity.
By contrast, the lanky Gosling, with his lopsided features and slacker jeans and sweater, is at once more earnest and wary. With the exception of the romance "The Notebook," he's generally steered away from big studio movies in part so he can retain his mystery as an actor. "I'm sick of me already," he says. "All this talking about myself, with this award thing and this movie coming out. If I'm sick of me and I'm me, I can't imagine what other people are thinking. You do something that's too big, and it's hard for people to buy your characters after that. They always see you as that person."
Still, the lure of working with Hopkins proved irresistible to Gosling, who had initially turned down the role before the veteran Brit signed on. With a career built largely on playing dysfunctional, lost young men in such indies as "United States of Leland," "Half Nelson," for which he received the Oscar nomination, and Showtime's "The Believer," in which he played a rabidly anti-Semitic KKK follower who turned out to be a Jew, Gosling had never acted before with any of the titans of the industry, the De Niros or Streeps, who have defined modern acting.
"He's a master, and it's important to watch masters work," says Gosling. Whenever the younger man starts praising him, Hopkins looks down at the ground with embarrassment, although when he looks up, he appears to have enjoyed the adulation.
BOTH actors elevate what is essentially a rote genre thriller about an icy genius (Hopkins) who shoots his adulterous wife in the face, confesses to the police, then proceeds to get off, having committed what seems to have been the perfect murder. Charged with prosecuting him is Gosling's character, a D.A. who's pulled himself out of poverty to become a lawyer and now is on his way to a blue-chip law firm. In another era, it would have been the quintessential Tom Cruise role, the bright young man in too much of a hurry, but Gosling seems congenitally unable to play any part straightforwardly.
"I liked it because he was the good guy in the movie, but he's not really that good. He's just not bad. It's not in his nature to be heroic or do the right thing. He's a selfish, self-centered, egotistical, ambitious guy, and he's not judgmental of those qualities," says Gosling, who borrowed freely from some talent agents he knew. ''He has to do the right thing, but it's annoying to him."