"I don't have any answers about why I act. It's like a compulsion,"… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
He's played a Jewish neo-Nazi, a crack-addict schoolteacher and a man who falls in love with an inflatable doll.
But suggest to Ryan Gosling, an independent-film poster child for the better part of a decade, that he chooses roles for their complexity rather than their commercial appeal and he'll wave you aside.
"When I make these movies, I don't think, 'I want to make a little indie movie and I want to stay in the indie world because I think it's cool,'" says the twinkle-eyed Canadian actor. "I make these movies and think, 'This is the one. This one is going to be "The Blair Witch Project."' I'm sure of it while we're making it. And then it comes out and it does no business."
It's not clear yet if the 30-year-old's latest film, "Blue Valentine," which opens Wednesday in Los Angeles, will become a Burkittsville-level phenomenon. (Probably not.) But it's certain to burnish his already shiny reputation for artistic purity. The actor spent an on-and-off-period of four years shaping the character and discussing the role, one that he got so carried away with that in one scene he spontaneously climbed a fence along New York's Manhattan Bridge and teetered 200 feet above the East River. (A producer came running from the other end of the span to stop the scene, but he finished it anyway.)
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, the harrowing romantic drama stars Gosling as the working-class, functional alcoholic Dean. Through a series of cleverly interwoven flashbacks and flash-forwards, Dean is seen falling in and out of love with wife Cindy ( Michelle Williams), with whom he is raising a child.
Other actors may have played Dean in a single key, but Gosling moves fluidly between different moods: torment, agitation, sweetness. As he has with many of his other characters — the neo-Nazi in "The Believer," the teacher in "Half Nelson" (which earned him a lead actor Oscar nomination at the age of 26), the whimsical romantic in "Lars and the Real Girl" — Gosling is able to inspire an unlikely mixture of repulsion, fear and sympathy.
Compared to some of the exotic characters the actor has played before, the Dean role feels ordinary, even pedestrian. Yet Gosling says this part is closest to his heart — precisely, he says, because it's the stuff of everyday life.
"I feel like 'Blue Valentine' is the biggest dog on my porch because it's the most universal experience: What happens when love goes away," Gosling says, sipping a latte at a Studio City cafe as night falls on a recent Friday, his red-and-white plaid shirt buttoned up against the evening chill. "It's the ripple effect of that lost love, the shadow it casts."
Born and raised in Ontario, the often mischievous-looking (and mischief-making) Gosling got his start as a Mouseketeer on the "Mickey Mouse Club" alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Dropping out of high school, Gosling cut his teeth on a host of television shows, including the adventure- fantasy "Young Hercules," before becoming an indie sensation with "The Believer" in 2001. He went on to achieve mainstream heartthrob status playing the lovelorn Noah in 2004's "The Notebook."
While "Notebook," adapted from Nicholas Sparks' novel, concerns love at its most requited, Gosling has more often been interested in romance of the tormented variety (or, in the case of "Lars," the demented variety). It's a subject he says has fascinated him because he's seen how affection can turn to disgust despite so many good intentions. "There's something I often see in people who've been married — a deep undercurrent of resentment toward the other person because they need them," he said.
To tap into the brokenheartedness at the center of "Blue Valentine" (or "tuning into that frequency," as he puts it), Gosling looked at his own relationships (he dated "Notebook" costar Rachel McAdams and is frequently rumored to be dating other actresses, including Williams), at his parents, at his coupled friends. He recalled how a pair of married friends argued strenuously, before they divorced, about the correct way to wash dishes.
"You could tell these were people who didn't know how to address the bigger problems in their relationship," he said. "People are fighting about these things that are not really what they're fighting about."
Cianfrance, meanwhile, had been wrestling with the same questions. He began the script when he was single, and although he now has a wife and child, he says he finds the issues timeless. "I wanted to make a film that's intimate, emotional and honest about the real lives of two people," said the director, who premiered his first feature, "Brother Tied," at Sundance in 1998 but spent 12 years working on this one and endlessly adjusting the characters.