As Ryan Gosling turns from a series of serious films to comedy, James Mottram talks to the actor whose star continues to rise
An actor can choose a film for many reasons. A big paycheque or a tropical island shoot, perhaps. Or sometimes it's just the perfect antidote to what's gone before - which is what led Ryan Gosling to Crazy, Stupid, Love.
A performer not known for prodding our funny bones, the 30-year-old seems most comfortable in emotionally wrenching, low-budget movies such as Half Nelson in 2006 (for which he won an Oscar nomination) and last year's Blue Valentine.
"I can't imagine going back and doing another independent drama for a while," he says earnestly at a London hotel.
A marital drama in which he and Michelle Williams tear strips off each other, Blue Valentine's authenticity was such that, in order to prepare for their roles, the actors lived together like a family for a month. While Gosling won a Golden Globe nomination for his work, it's no surprise that he felt the need for levity straight afterwards. And who better than comic actor Steve Carell to raise a smile?
"When I first moved to Los Angeles, I did a pilot TV show when I was 17," Gosling says. "I had a small part and so did Steve Carell. I remember watching him shoot one day and he was so funny that they couldn't make it through the takes. The crew was laughing - the guy had to put down the boom and laugh! It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that you could be so good that it was a problem. I made a promise to myself that I would work with Steve one day, that we would make something together."
In the wake of Blue Valentine, along came Crazy, Stupid, Love, arriving like a blast of laughing gas. "It was just a completely different experience," says Gosling. One of the smartest Hollywood comedies made this year, it sees Carell play a middle-age father whose wife (Julianne Moore) suddenly divorces him. Crying into his beer, he then meets Jacob (Gosling), a designer-wearing Lothario schooled in the art of flirting with the opposite sex. "I try and teach him the ways of ... how to pick up women," smiles Gosling, flicking his blue eyes mischievously.
Needless to say, Gosling spent most of his time with Carell in stitches. Turns out the star of The Office is just as funny off camera. "He's an assassin. He just finds what your button is and presses it. And he keeps a straight face, but he's always trying to sabotage you. He'll just find out a way to look at you. A lot of his stuff is really straight. He hits you in this way, and you can't really tell that it's coming. It's like a sucker punch. You start laughing, you get in trouble."
Interestingly, when he first met Carell, the teenage Gosling was already an industry veteran. Born in Canada to a blue-collar family (mother Donna is a secretary; father Thomas worked in a paper mill), Gosling and his sister Mandi spent their early years singing at weddings. Performing in his uncle's Elvis Presley tribute act, he then beat 17,000 other hopefuls when he was just 12 to win a role as a Mouseketeer on Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club, starring alongside the likes of future stars Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.
He spent two years on the show, and I ask whether Gosling's parents were supportive of this unconventional childhood. "My father [was] for the wrong reasons," he nods. "He wanted to be famous, and thought I could give him a different life. It was terrible. It made me hate it because it wasn't about me at all, and my happiness, it was about him getting out of this life that he didn't like. It was why I stopped doing things that he could brag about. I wanted to do movies that he couldn't brag about. I think it was a rebellion thing."
It's why Gosling found his way into playing a neo-Nazi in The Believer and murderous teenagers in The United States of Leland and Murder by Numbers. The only outright commercial vehicle was 2004's romance The Notebook, which introduced Gosling to Rachel McAdams, the co-star he then dated for three years.
Not everything has gone his way, though; he gained 60lb to star in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, only to leave the project after he and his director didn't see eye-to-eye.
"I was fat, bald and unemployed," he recalls. "It was not a fun time."
Now it's different. In more demand than ever, Gosling is on the verge of genuine stardom this year with two career-making performances. Forthcoming is the superlative Drive, a violent and stylish thriller he describes as a "cross between Blue Velvet and Purple Rain", in which he plays an unnamed getaway driver (a role destined to draw comparisons with Steve McQueen). Moreover, Gosling hand-picked Danish-born filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn to helm it; a choice that reflects rather well on him, given Refn claimed Best Director at Cannes this year.
Then comes a genuine Oscar contender. Opening at the Venice Film Festival last night, The Ides of March is a biting political drama directed by George Clooney. Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, a conflicted campaign manager for a presidential candidate (Clooney).
"My character is the one who takes this downwards spiral," he explains. "He's idealistic but he loses his idealism, and he becomes involved in the dirty pool of politics that he swore he would never do."
Currently prepping LA mobster tale The Gangster Squad with Sean Penn, Gosling is also set to take the lead in a big-budget remake of the 1970s sci-fi classic Logan's Run. Yet he bristles when asked if he's left behind independent cinema for good.
"I love those films. Every time I make a movie ... it's not that I want to make small movies that no one ever sees. Every time I make these films, I really think they're going to be bigger than Avatar. It never happens, but that would be my dream - to make a small movie that did that."
His world domination starts here.
Crazy, Stupid, Love is now showing in the UAE