“My mom and sister are acting like they won the lottery. They’re going crazy,” said the actor Ryan Gosling of his two Oscar-night dates, six days before the Academy Awards.
Mr. Gosling is nominated for Best Actor in an already talent-heavy category. There’s front-runner Forest Whitaker, sentimental favorite and dark horse Peter O’Toole, the heartwarming Will Smith, and Leonardo DiCaprio with his apparently pitch-perfect South African accent (bling-bang!). Mr. Gosling, as a struggling, drug-addicted junior-high-school teacher in Half Nelson, is a welcome interloper.
The film was made for under a million dollars, gobbled up by ThinkFilm at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and quietly released last August. Thanks in part to Mr. Gosling’s much-raved-over performance, the movie has continued to build buzz throughout the awards season.
With his lanky good looks and emotive brow, the 26-year-old actor had already made a name for himself in the loveably sappy The Notebook, and won critical acclaim for 2001’s The Believer. But in Half Nelson, Mr. Gosling gives a startling performance. In a brief scene, his character finds himself buying crack from one of his young students in a seedy motel room. The moment is wordless, but Mr. Gosling manages to convey a lifetime of emotions: disappointment, shame, regret and devastating bemusement at the inevitability of life.
Half Nelson was filmed in Red Hook and Fort Greene, where Mr. Gosling lived, and where he worked on winning over the neighborhood, trying to sweet-talk the local ladies sitting out on their stoops. “They didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” he said, though he did start receiving some homemade carrot cake. “But they saw I was working so hard for it,” he said.
Mr. Gosling was talking via phone from his home in Los Angeles after a recent two-week trip to Uganda. He was scouting for a movie he’s written and will direct this summer, about the effect of war on children. On his trip he met a 3-year-old girl named Joyce who had once been wrapped in a carpet by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and set on fire. Eighty percent of her body is now covered in burns, and she suffers from tuberculosis and H.I.V. Mr. Gosling is trying to set up a fund for her.
Of Hollywood’s latest interest in all things Africa, he said: “I just hope it’s not a fad, you know? I hope it’s indicative of a greater awareness of this [continent] that is in deep suffering. We live in plain view of all of them—in this completely excessive way—while they starve.”
He acknowledged that in the current climate of Angelina Jolie and Bono humanitarianism, celebrity do-gooding is often viewed with skepticism.
“It’s like people nominate regular people to be celebrities to live in a way they can’t and it’s like your job to live above your means and live excessively,” he said. “If at any point people try to move away from that and try to use all this excess luxury around them to help raise awareness of important issues, it’s almost like a betrayal. Like you’re not doing job of living it up … people are like, I didn’t make you famous to bum me out.”
Mr. Gosling was born in Ontario, Canada, and first got a whiff of showbiz life while co-starring with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the New Mickey Mouse Club talent show from 1993 to 1995.
“When I got hired on that show, they thought that I could do more than I actually could,” he said. “When I got there they instantly realized that I wasn’t as talented as the rest of them. You’d be hard-pressed to find me in that show; I’d come in at the beginning and at the end—sometimes a little something in the middle—but for the most part, I didn’t work very much. I spent the years riding roller coasters and hanging out in Disney World.”
But quite unlike his onetime co-stars, or other Us Weekly favored targets, Mr. Gosling manages to fly under tabloid radar—even with a romance with A-lister (and fellow Canuck) Rachel McAdams.
“We live a simple life—or try to,” Mr. Gosling said. “That’s what we come from, and that’s what we are. We try to maintain that at all costs. It sounds like it’s harder than it is. I think it’s probably exhausting to go out to all those places and get photographed. It’s easier not to. There are certain restaurants that you go to and know they’re going to take your picture.
“And,” he added, “the food’s not that good.”
Mr. Gosling is slated to star in three movies released in 2007, with the first one, Fracture, out in April. “Anthony Hopkins,” he said quickly, speaking of his decision to make the film. “How many opportunities am I going to get to work with Anthony Hopkins?”
But he’s continuing to duck and weave the blockbusters, choosing instead the smaller, quirkier projects and less-well-known directors. “It wouldn’t work out well for anyone,” he said, laughing at the idea of his playing a superhero, but he insisted that he doesn’t discriminate against budget.
“To be honest, I think I’m looking for something that there’s not a lot of,” he said. “Even if Hollywood movies pretend to be about people, they’re still science fiction. ’Cause nobody looks like that or talks like that. It’s fantasy. And independent movies are often so humorless and dark and bleak that they’re nothing like life either.
“I’m looking for something that strikes some kind of balance—things that aren’t about characters but about people,” he continued. “I think there are many stories I’d like to see that aren’t being made. Life is full of endless material.”