In honour of Ryan Gosling (and our celebratory week of Gosling!), a kid from Canada who had his eye on the camera even before it looked at him, we give you the many reasons why he's A+ in our books
The YouTube Kid
He may have been born in London, Ont., and raised in the Ontario cities of Cornwall and Burlington, but Gosling’s true home always seemed to be on the screen. From early YouTube clips, we can see a kid with a preternatural poise and talent, who seemed to know long before any of the rest of us did what everybody now knows. He was born to be a star.
The YouTube clip of him on a school stage as a preteen is particularly illuminating: After a few moments of the kid belting out an astonishingly authoritative version of When a Man Loves a Woman, he’s seen sharing the stage with a young girl in a dance number. The music is C&C Music Factory’s floor stomper Everybody Dance Now and Gosling’s moves are, like his Percy Sledge, almost unnervingly assured. This must have come to the attention of the people looking to reboot The Mickey Mouse franchise in 1993 – one of the next YouTube clips featuring Gosling sees him sitting comfortably and politely for an interview with Canada AM. He’s in the studio in Ottawa, the Parliament Buildings visible behind his shoulder, and he has landed the job. He’s not yet 13, but he displays no trace of nerves or self-consciousness, nor is he cocky or visibly coached. He’s just happy to be where he belongs, talking about how he was selected from some 17,000 kids to become the next Mouseketeer.
But of course he’s comfortable. This is exactly what was supposed to happen.
For the next few years Ryan Gosling will serve an apprenticeship on kids’ TV, singing, dancing and goofing his way to the next phase: the indie-movie head turner.
The indie star
Like a lot of people who saw The Believer at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2001, I walked away with one question: “Who was that kid?” In Henry Bean’s low-budget account of a self-loathing Jew who conceals his identity to become a member of a neo-Nazi group, Ryan Gosling, 20 at the time, gave a performance of extraordinary power.
A few years later, I saw him play a crack-addicted New York high-school teacher in Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson and was again knocked sideways. From what depths did this kid from London, Ont., who’d danced and sung his way through his adolescence, summon such extraordinarily convincing pain, paradox and raw, percolating self-hatred?
By the time he appeared in Derek Cianfrance’s fiercely anti-romantic Blue Valentine, after flirting successfully with mainstream stardom in such movies as The Notebook and Fracture, the pattern was apparent: Here was an actor who both needed and was drawn to risky sensibilities to fully exploit his talent, who could easily be a multiplex cash cow but kept straying from the pasture to higher if tougher ground.
Now that he’s firmly embedded in the A-list firmament, Gosling remains conspicuously committed to his indie-movie coming of age: His new film, The Place Beyond the Pines, re-teams him with Cianfrance, and his next, Only God Forgives, sees him working again with the provocation-prone Danish-born director of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn.
Up next is a movie with America’s most respected non-compromising domestic art-film maker, Terrence Malick. Meanwhile, Gosling is also going behind the camera, directing How to Catch a Monster. And he’s taking a hiatus from acting. One imagines he’s waiting for something challenging to come along.
The Canadian Chameleon
It’s a matter of record that back when he was starting his career, Ryan Gosling made a conscious decision that sounding Canadian just wouldn’t cut it for the kind of tough-guy characters he dreamed of playing. So he buried all traces of his Southern Ontario upbringing beneath a curious vocal amalgamation of Brando, De Niro, Pacino and Bugs Bunny Brooklynese.
When it comes to the question of just how Canadian Gosling is – a question it would occur to no one but another Canadian to ask – this facet of his professional development is especially instructive. For if it’s true that Canadians tend to define themselves in negative terms – what they aren’t as opposed to what they are – Gosling’s decision not to be too conspicuously Canadian is as Canadian as it gets.
He is more comfortable with it now and has spoken candidly about how coming from Southern Ontario shaped his sensibility and has prevented him from ever feeling something less than slightly alien. His being Canadian is now expressed as an asset, and a valuable tool in the performer’s kit: It facilitates the process of pretending that you’re somebody else.
Consider Gosling’s remarkably chameleonic career: On TV, a kid-show performer, singer, dancer, sketch artist, teen sitcom star. Onscreen, a Jewish neo-Nazi, a crack-addicted middle-school teacher, an idealistic political aide, a man in love with an inflatable doll, an inarticulate working-class dad, a professional driver with sociopathic tendencies, a bar-crawling pickup artist and, currently, a bleached-blond tattooed motorcycle stunt driver. In other words, there is no clear persona, or type.
It would seem Ryan Gosling may be more Canadian than maybe even he suspects.
Hollywood’s next (if cautious) big thing
2011 was the year that Ryan Gosling broke big. He appeared in three major studio releases – Crazy Stupid Love, The Ides of March and Drive – and as a range of leading men: a predatory womanizer, an idealistic young campaign manager and a professional getaway driver with a murky past and proclivity for wrenching violence. So the question, which began back with Gosling’s first standout feature performance in The Believer back in 2001, remained perfectly apropos a decade on: Who is this guy? And where is he going?
The latter is anyone’s guess, which is the sign of a truly interesting movie star. Gosling’s past provides very little by way of predicting his future, but that’s also why it’s tempting to speculate. In the offing, there are two unreleased features: Only God Forgives, which sees Gosling working again with the Danish director of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, and the as-yet-untitled Terrence Malick project which installs the actor in the promising company of Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Benecio Del Toro.
There is also Gosling’s directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, based on the actor’s own script. And then there’s his recent announcement that he’s taking a break from acting for an undisclosed amount of time. And so the unexpected multiplies. What kind of recently confirmed A-list movie star walks away from the gravy train just as it pulls in? Or turns to directing a movie he doesn’t star in? Who is this guy, anyway?
Good question, and I hope it isn’t answered any time soon. In the movie business, not knowing is a rare and valuable thing.