It must have been the glasses. As Ryan Gosling sat down for an interview at a beachfront bar in Cannes one afternoon last May, it took a moment to connect the man with the movie star. Behind a pair of thick horn-rims, his cautious gaze had none of the laser intensity that makes his blue eyes so electrifying onscreen. It was like talking to the Clark Kent version of the Hollywood heartthrob. And despite the fake American twang that he adopted as a young actor—because he “thought guys should sound like Marlon Brando”—in the way he parried questions with polite, self-deprecating charm, you could still see the Canadian in him.
Gosling wanted to be an American action hero ever since he was a kid, a scrawny working-class child born in London, Ont., and raised in Cornwall by Mormon parents. Rambo was an early role model. “When I was in first grade I watched First Blood and I filled my Fisher-Price Houdini kit with steak knives and brought them to school and started throwing them at kids at recess,” he recalls. “I got suspended and my parents nixed R-rated movies. The writing was on the wall when I saw Rocky for the first time. I went and picked a fight right afterwards and got my ass kicked. The movies took me into their dream.”
Now he’s living it. This week, as the juggernaut of the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 8-18) launches the fall season of Oscar-pedigree movies, Gosling’s career is on fire. With sensational lead roles in two films at the festival—as a smouldering action hero in Drive and a ruthless election strategist in The Ides of March—he has emerged as TIFF’s It Boy. His talent has never been in question. At 26, as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson, he became the first Canadian in six decades to be nominated for Best Actor. And ever since he romanced Canadian sweetheart Rachel McAdams in The Notebook (2004), he has been an unlikely and enduring heartthrob. This is a ladies’ man with range, able to carry on a credible love affair with a blow-up doll in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), and coax an Oscar-nominated performance from Michelle Williams as her alcoholic husband in Blue Valentine (2010).
But at 30, Hollywood’s most confident iconoclast has graduated from serious actor to serious movie star. He’s done it by putting a smart, sensitive, postmodern spin on classic American machismo. In Crazy Stupid Love, his first studio romcom, he brought wry, deadpan candour to the role of a pickup artist who coaches Steve Carell in the mechanics of manhood—a hunk with a heart of gold. The scene of him stripping off his shirt for a slack-jawed Emma Stone (“Seriously? It’s like you’ve been Photoshopped!”) ranks right up there with Brad Pitt flashing his miracle abs in Thelma & Louise.
Now in Drive, a vicious R-rated thriller that opens Sept. 16, Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver with ice in his veins who moonlights as a getaway driver. Co-starring with Carey Mulligan, he has almost no dialogue. He’s a time bomb of silent, simmering menace—a thinking man’s action hero in the slow-burn style of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. In The Ides of March (opening Oct. 14), Gosling reverses his engines, starring as a brilliant press secretary to a Democratic contender for the presidency portrayed by George Clooney, who also directs. Ides is this year’s Social Network, a whip-smart tale of betrayed loyalty and diabolical intrigue, as Gosling leads a thespian master class with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.
While his roles in Drive and Ides are wildly different, both feature unorthodox heroes with an almost bipolar ability to shapeshift from tender virtue to ruthless retribution. And they send the same message: no one messes with Ryan Gosling. It’s a notion that has not been confined to the screen. A dedicated boxer, Gosling tries to fight once a week. Last month he popped up as a real-life action hero when he stopped a fight on a Manhattan street—flexing his biceps in a tank top as he separated the combatants, while a star-struck bystander immortalized the moment for YouTube.
Unlike some A-list colleagues who have become fodder for ill-fated blockbusters—fellow Canadian Ryan Reynolds comes to mind—Gosling seems to be at the wheel of his own career. Drive’s Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising), didn’t cast him; Gosling recruited Refn. “Drive is in a tradition,” says the filmmaker. “It was Steve McQueen who wanted Peter Yates to come to America [to make Bullitt] and it was Lee Marvin who wanted John Boorman to come to America to do Point Blank.” Salvaging Drive from a big-budget studio script that had languished for six years, Refn and his star had it stripped down to a lean L.A. slice of neon noir. Gosling’s criminal is a sensitive psycho, a dark knight rescuing his neighbour (Mulligan) and her son from gangsters.
“I guess I wanted to make a superhero movie but all the good ones were taken,” he says. “This was an opportunity to create one.” Asked if Drive’s hero resembles Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he replied, “Yeah, but it’s a guy who watched Taxi Driver too many times. To me it was like a werewolf movie without the special effects. It was somebody who felt he had this violence inside of him and was worried it was going to hurt somebody, so he tried to focus it into something good.”
In Drive, when the violence finally explodes, it’s brutal: Gosling doesn’t just kick someone’s head in, he kicks it all the way through to the other side. But then Refn boasts that his favourite movie is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even though he and Gosling kept referencing Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles: “If Pretty in Pink had a head-smashing in it, it would be perfect.” A young, Danish Quentin Tarantino, Refn is one of those punk auteurs whose movies are fuelled by watching movies. Yet what’s most daring about Drive is not the violence, but Gosling’s ability to sustain tension without saying a word.
“I’d just done Blue Valentine, which was a lot of improvisation, a lot of talking,” the actor explains. “I was tired of talking. So my first feeling when I read Drive is we could just take out all the dialogue.” By contrast, The Ides of March is full of talk, crackling along at a West Wing clip, yet its most dramatic moment is a long, unrelenting close-up of Gosling. As the camera settles on his glacier-blue eyes, without so much as a gesture, he makes you feel you’re staring into a soul in the act of freezing over. “The thing with Ryan,” says Refn, “you can look at him for hours. Very few actors have that. It’s a born gift.”
Gosling may be Hollywood’s designated dreamboat—his ex-girlfriends range from Sandra Bullock to Rachel McAdams, and he’s been recently linked to Blake Lively and Olivia Wilde. But to hear him talk about his “pact” with Refn, as if they’re blood brothers, he sounds more like a man’s man. “We’d make the movie during the day, edit it in his house at night, then get in the car and drive around and listen to music,” says Gosling. “The film is the essence of the experience of making it.”
Gosling is already set to shoot another movie with Refn, as a cop who settles a score in a Thai boxing match, and he’s reuniting with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, driving again but on two wheels—as a motorcycle rider in a heist film. “I found my guys,” says the actor. “I got a team I know. We’re just getting started.”
For such a palpably intelligent actor, Gosling can’t seem to get enough of the physical. He did as many stunts in Drive as he could get away with, and he rebuilt the movie’s Chevy Malibu—everything but the transmission. He’s also making furniture again, a craft he learned for The Notebook. This Renaissance Dude also learned guitar, piano and bass for his band, Dead Man’s Bones—singing what he calls “spooky doo-wop” with a children’s chorus.
Gosling has come a long way from the 12-year-old kid who broke into showbiz on The Mickey Mouse Club—along with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But he still has a childlike sense of play. In Cannes, I ask about the cartoonish tattoos on his muscled arms. Covering his left shoulder is a small boy catching an apple falling from a tree. “That’s from a kid’s book my mom used to read me, The Giving Tree,” he explains. And the spiky thing on his forearm is a werewolf hand. “I thought they could cover them up with makeup, but they’re always showing.”
Gosling calls acting “a compulsion,” as if it’s a phase he may grow out of. (He’s developing two films as a director.) “You can’t act forever,” he shrugs. “Some people manage, but they’re the marathon runners. You have a shelf life as an actor, so you have to find another way to express yourself.” If all else fails, he could always dig up that set of steak knives.