Ryan Gosling’s Hollywood dream began with a Bedazzler. In one of his earliest memories, he comes home to find his uncle in his living room stamping jewels onto a white jumpsuit. Cut to 30 years later, and Gosling is a king of Hollywood, palling around with Clooneys, living with a screen goddess (Eva Mendes, his co-star from The Place Beyond the Pines), and plucking from teetering piles any script he fancies.Of course, no story feels that linear to the person living it, but dreams never do. That’s the point of Gosling’s new confection of a film, La La Land, which opens Dec. 25, after winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and being heaped with accolades and award nominations from critic and peer groups worldwide.
Gosling plays Sebastian, an aspiring jazz musician whose prize possession is Hoagy Carmichael’s old piano stool. He falls hard for wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) and we swoon as they seesaw between ambition and love. It being a musical – written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who realized his own Hollywood dream with Whiplash – Gosling also croons and soft-shoes. He’s no Gene Kelly, but that’s the point: In the 21st century, it’s more authentic if the hoofers are rough around the edges. But they’re as starry-eyed as ever.
In an interview during TIFF, Gosling stretched out in a straight-backed chair, trying not to yawn. He’d just arrived on the red-eye from Budapest, where he was shooting Blade Runner 2049 for director Denis Villeneuve.
Gosling is 36, tall for an actor (six feet), and lean as a pine plank. Sloe-eyed, mischievous, he’s handsome without being pretty. He’s a flirt. Today, he’s wearing a sharp suit and a smattering of stubble, and he looks so sleepy, I expect him to scrunch up his fists and rub his eyes like a baby. Gosling’s uncle was Bedazzling that jumpsuit for his new act, as Elvis Presley impersonator Elvis Perry. “Our whole family got involved,” Gosling remembers now. “Even though a lot of people thought it was silly, he didn’t care. He was so good, and so committed, that he created a pretty incredible experience for all of us who saw it.”
Elvis Perry quit his act abruptly, “and life went back to normal,” continues Gosling, who was born in London, Ont., but also bounced to Burlington and Cornwall. “It was like the circus left town. I thought: ‘Can we do that again?’”
His father and uncles worked in paper mills, and “it didn’t get glowing reviews from them,” Gosling says. They worked hard. They were tired, a lot. Because he suffered from ADHD, he hated school (at one point his mother homeschooled him). He wasn’t great at sports. He didn’t know where to put his energy. “Then my uncle opened a secret door,” Gosling said. “I thought: ‘If I could make a living at that, that might be something I could do.’”
He wasn’t sure, however, how to translate his uncle’s experience “into another experience that didn’t involve Elvis.” So he joined a local dance school, which led to an open audition in Montreal for the Disney Channel, which was reviving The Mickey Mouse Club. That led to two years in Orlando, Fla., sharing screen time with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And that led to the real La La Land, where Gosling moved at age 16 and started appearing on television.
“But I didn’t have a fantasy of what it was going to be like,” Gosling says. “I guess I thought it was going to be like my uncle, doing shows in malls.”
It wasn’t. The smash romance The Notebook shot Gosling through all the secret doors, and he cemented his star status with a trifecta of films that showed his range: Half Nelson, where he played a high-school history teacher who freebases cocaine; Lars and the Real Girl, about a loner and his blow-up doll; and Blue Valentine, a wrenching romantic drama he embedded himself in for four years. Aside from a few stumbles – his debut as a writer/director, Lost River, was panned – it’s been a string of mostly sunny days ever since. He is the Hollywood dream, and he’s smart enough to know it.
“I think it’s the best job in the world,” Gosling says. “I never have doubted that. The whole gamut of the experience: collaborating; everyone bringing their ideas to the table; having your own vision for something, and having that merge with other people’s visions; problem solving. Then, having it turn out or not turn out, it’s a crap-shoot every time. It’s a great experience, even if it’s a bad experience.”
The gift he’s most aware of, though, is control. “I never expected to have this much control over what I did,” he says firmly. “It’s never lost on me that I have a say in what I do.”
Now that Gosling’s made it, he wants to be generous with it. Lately, he’s made a switch, from movies that were personal to ones that are more “audience-conscious,” such as The Nice Guys, his first flat-out comedy. Before he met Chazelle, he wasn’t sitting around thinking, “I want to make a musical.” But he did want to make a film that would create “a real experience for the audience, that you wanted to go to the theatre to see,” he says. “Damien talked a lot about that, too, about wanting to make movies that you didn’t want to see on your cellphone. When people talk about La La Land, they talk about the film, but they also talk about how fun it was to share it with a group. You can feel the power of the music, and you can feel the effect of that in the room.”
A few days before this interview, Ford had arrived on the Blade Runner 2049 set. That was a pinch-me moment, Gosling admits: “There I was, standing in that world, talking to him.” The Hollywood Dream’s dream come true.
“I can’t imagine being luckier than I am,” Gosling sums up. “I have two angels for daughters. I have my girl. I get to make films like this. And my [17-year-old] dog is still alive.”