Ryan Gosling has always had a different take on things. He grew up in the company of women in his native town of Cornwall, Ontario, where he was raised by his single mother Donna and spent considerable time learning life lessons from his older sister Mandi. That may well account for his easy-going manner with women and the kind of sensitivity he brings to his screen romances.
In films ranging from The Notebook to Blue Valentine to Drive, Gosling’s performances reveal an abiding passion, curiosity, and appreciation for the opposite sex.
“I grew up with two incredible women, my mother and sister, and naturally my way of looking at the world was shaped by a female perspective,” Gosling says. “I’m sure it made me very protective and caring with women, and I’ve always enjoyed their company and that kind of emotional openness. That’s also the kind of fundamental quality you need to bring to your work as an actor.”
The 34-year-old Gosling is now embarking on two distinct new paths in life. First, he’s the proud father of a baby girl born last September to him and his girlfriend, actress Eva Mendes. Second, he’s promoting his first film as a director, Lost River, which enjoyed its North American premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Having played to poor reviews last summer in Cannes, the film was met much more enthusiastically by the indie film crowd who packed the theatre to see Gosling as he joked with audience members after the screening.
Lost River, based on Gosling’s own screenplay, stars his Drive co-star Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) as Billy, a single mother of two who lives in a strange and surreal urban slum (a dystopian Detroit neighborhood called Lost River). There, she struggles to make ends meet while her house faces foreclosure and demolition.
Heavily influenced by David Lynch and his Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, Gosling tries to create an almost psychedelic reality that is reflective of his risk-taking creative ambitions. Saoirse Ronan co-stars as an odd girl who seduces Billy’s son (Iain De Caestecker) while Gosling’s partner Eva Mendes plays the manager of a nightclub.
The film’s single mother theme was inspired by Gosling’s recollections of how his mother raised him and his sister on her own after her divorce from Ryan’s father.
“My mom is very beautiful and was a single mom,” Gosling said after the screening in front of a packed theatre. “When you’re a kid and you have a single mom, all men feel like wolves. Guys would whistle at her — it was very predatory and threatening. As a kid I felt helpless, so you start to imagine all these (scenarios) where you can do something. You see the world through the filter of your imagination.”
Raised by Mormon parents, Gosling’s mother ultimately left the church and Gosling rebelled against his religious upbringing. After his sister read an ad for an audition for Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, Gosling auditioned and soon he and his family moved to California, where he admitted to “corrupting” his fellow Mouseketeers, a group that included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake.
Following his breakout performance in The Notebook, he earned an Oscar nomination for Half Nelson, followed by acclaimed work in The Ides of March and Drive.
Gosling’s next acting appearance comes in The Nice Guys, a crime thriller co- starring Russell Crowe scheduled for release in 2016. He has also shot a film with Terence Malick, as yet untitled, co-starring Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale. As is typical with a Malick film, no release date has been announced.
Ryan, what led you to want to make your first film as a director when your acting career is still taking off?
I love directing and being able to be able to spend so much time with one project as opposed to working as an actor, where you’re only involved for a few months. I also enjoy the collaborative side of the process, where you can work very intensely with the actors and with your cinematographer. My responsibility was to shape the story but after that I wanted the actors to bring their own contribution and inspiration to the film. In the end, your film has gone far beyond the extent of your imagination and expectation of what it would be.
Did you direct out of any frustration with your acting career?
No, I wasn’t frustrated but sometimes you would like to have more control over your own work. I remember listening to Richard Gere when he’s doing commentary on the Days of Heaven DVD. He said something to the effect that he was disappointed in that he felt that some of his best work had been left on the cutting room floor, and he was frustrated that no one would ever get to see it. But he also said that Days of Heaven was the best film he’d ever made and was proud to be in it. I also wanted to be able to use all the observational skills that I’ve developed as an actor and try to see if I could put them to use in telling my own story and learning from that experience.
Your film had a rough ride at Cannes. Was that disappointing to you?
I thought the criticism was harsh and didn’t take into account the incredible performances of the actors. I’m proud of the work we did, and I hope people will find something interesting in it. Cannes was a strange experience. I had never shown the film to anyone outside of a few people in my basement, and suddenly I’m wearing a tuxedo and watching it in a massive theatre with a thousand people. I can’t control how people react to the film, but I believe in it and I’m hoping it’s going to find an audience.
It’s very different from the adulation you often receive as an actor?
I’m fine with that. As a director, you have to take responsibility for your work, and I’m happy to do that. As an actor you can always avoid taking the blame for a bad film by saying you didn’t direct it, you didn’t write the script. I can’t do that here and I stand by the work. Your film speaks for you, whether you like it or not.
What was it like working with Mendes?
She helped me a lot. I picked the actors because I had worked with them before and I knew them and trusted them. They all brought a lot to the film and they directed me in a way, because they added things that I never would have thought of and that in turn influenced how I approached telling the story. It was an interesting dynamic and while we were shooting I felt like I was always having to catch up to my own film. I had that feeling from the very first moment I started thinking about it and writing it. The story took on a momentum of its own and that process continued while we were shooting.
What made you choose to shoot the film in Detroit?
I grew up in Canada, and for us Detroit was a symbol of America. It’s the home of Motown (Records), the Model T, Ford, Techno, Eminem, the middle class. There is so much about the city that represents the legacy of the country. I first became interested in shooting there when I worked on Ides of March (with George Clooney ). It’s a city that’s been decaying and in decline for many years and people call it a ghost town because so many sections are abandoned or derelict. I saw an eerie beauty in those buildings and I wanted to use that to express the sense of everything that has been lost and the ghosts of the past. But Detroit has this whole other side to it. It’s sort of reinventing itself, there’s like a real energy, and the people there are so talented and genuine. There are so many amazing characters there, and I would like to work there again.
What was it like working with Christina Hendricks on the film?
Christina is one of the most pleasant and enjoyable people you could ever imagine working with. We got to know each other on Drive, and I wanted her to be part of my first film as a director and here we are. She almost scares you with how she can switch from laughing and being very easy-going on the set and then turning around and playing some very heavy and serious scenes. As an actor, I admire other actors who have that kind of command of their craft. It’s just an added bonus that she’s also such a really wonderful woman.
How do you feel about becoming a father for the first time?
It’s an exciting time. It’s really nice. I’ve thought a long time about starting a family. I’m a romantic and I’m lucky to have the right woman at my side.
You and Eva previously worked on The Place Beyond the Pines, where you were spending time in a situation where you were helping provide for her and her son in the film. Did that experience resonate with you?
I had a great time. And then that child had really incredible positive energy, was able to put me in a good mood right away. … I enjoy being with children and being a father is something I’m thrilled about.
What’s the worst part of being an actor with the kind of media frenzy that surrounds you?
The worst thing is that when you’re famous you turn into a kind of politician in the sense that you have to be very careful what you say. If you say one odd little thing that comment can be taken out of context and suddenly there’s all these headlines over something you might have said in an offhand way or you were being sarcastic.
Are you still in some way surprised by how you became a movie star?
Oh, yeah. Before I did The Notebook, it was hard for me to even get an audition. I would show up and there would be all these incredibly good-looking guys reading for the same part and most of the time you knew that you had no chance. I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would always be a character actor and going from one supporting role to another, if I was lucky. But when Nick Cassavetes hired me (for The Notebook), that changed everything and suddenly I was able to do the kind of movies you always dream of having the chance of working on. I’ve been very lucky to be in the position I’m in and I’m still having a lot of fun in this business.