At dusk, Ryan Gosling comes hurrying down the driveway of his house, apologizing for not being quite ready for our night out together. He’s wearing a suit. He’s barefoot. In one hand, he’s holding a box of coconut water. In the other, a rifle.
“I didn’t know you were already here,” he says, pushing the gun, which turns out to be of the BB variety, into my hands. “Here’s something to do while you wait.” He sets the drink box on a stone ledge, as a target, and disappears back up the drive.
“Don’t shoot your eye out,” he calls over a shoulder, leaving me and our driver for the evening standing near the garage. She looks at me, looks at the gun, gets in the car, and rolls up the window.
A few minutes later, Gosling’s back, fully shod, and we’re off, twisting and turning down the hills of Studio City. To recap: We are in a chauffeured car, which is nice, and we are wearing suits, which is awesome. We are wearing the suits because Gosling wants to show me some of his favorite places in Los Angeles, and the first is the Magic Castle. Which is weird.
“Do you believe in magic?” he asks. I allow that I might but say I’m skeptical about encountering it at the Magic Castle—a hulking Hollywood theme restaurant that you enter through a bookcase after saying “Open sesame” to a statue of an owl. He nods, as though he expected as much. “You’ll see.”
The plan does make some kind of convoluted sense, if only in its pointed strangeness. There may be some who would dispute the popular notion that Gosling is the best young actor in Hollywood. Nobody would say he isn’t the most idiosyncratic. The path of the Reluctant Movie Star has been well worn at least since Brando, but few have walked it as doggedly and resolutely as Gosling. His breakout film, The Believer, in which he played a Jewish skinhead, could have been seen as a bracing corrective to a childhood spent mugging on The All New Mickey Mouse Club. But while many self-serious actors profess to follow a strategy of “one for you, one for me” (as though, say, The Hulk is a gift to anyone), Gosling’s motto has continued to be “none for you.” With the exception of the star-making weepy The Notebook, all his movies have been the cinematic equivalent of Bhutan: small, odd, and metaphysically mysterious. Certainly, his two current ones—All Good Things, in which he plays a murderer, and Blue Valentine, a bruising portrait of a dissolving marriage for which he is expected to score his second Oscar nomination—do little to alter the perception that he will only do those things that appeal to his own, confident sense of what’s worth doing.
The result, to use the only metric Hollywood really understands, is that Gosling has left scads of money on the table. Just by way of crass comparison: Even allowing for The Notebook, the per-film gross of Gosling’s career is $18.3 million; the same for James Franco: $83 million. We can leave Johnny Depp unmentioned. To a degree that can’t be written off as mere affectation, Gosling has shown a unique commitment to undermining the career he was expected to have.
Put another way: James Franco comes down the driveway barefoot with a rifle, you applaud a nifty piece of stagecraft. Gosling does the same thing and you don’t know what to think. Except that it will be an interesting night.
Open sesame. Through the bookcase we go.
It was without a shred of irony that Gosling has described the Castle as one of his favorite places. He’s positively beaming as we sip old-fashioneds and sit next to a piano whose keys are being tinkled invisibly. According to a sign, the player is a dead woman named Irma, and Gosling’s enthusiasm makes it feel like bad form to offer alternative theories. “I come from a family of believers,” he says. When he was a child, in Ontario, his mother became so convinced that a house of theirs was haunted that they actually moved. If you’ve ever wondered who gets converted by Mormon missionaries knocking on their door, the answer is Thomas and Donna Gosling.
For the Goslings, the willful suspension of disbelief amounts to something of a family value. “My mother still believes in Santa Claus. We tried to break it to her once, but she wasn’t having it,” Gosling says. “There are very few believers in the world, but my mother is one of them. I don’t know if she’d admit that this is why she does it, but it’s just more fun to believe in Santa than not to.” (The earnest party line is that Santa doesn’t need to bring presents to their house, because they can afford them.)
We’re joined by Rob Zabrecky, a cadaverous young magician and actor and a friend of Gosling’s. Zabrecky has agreed to stage a séance for us in the Houdini Room—a small parlor decorated in memorabilia from the great escape artist and tricked out with a plethora of animatronic effects. As Zabrecky summons Harry’s spirit, books fall from the shelves, candles move back and forth across the mantel, and in a grand finale, the table thrusts itself several feet off the floor with our hands resting on top of it. Throughout, Gosling grins happily, laughing at even Zabrecky’s lamer jokes. He’s seen the show twice before.
On the way out, he thinks for a moment and deadpans, “The thing I can’t get behind in ghosts is clothing. Why would ghosts wear outfits? As soon as someone reports seeing a naked ghost, I’m in.”
Gosling’s love of the Magic Castle makes more sense if you take into account that his favoritest place in the L.A. area is Disneyland, a place he visits with some regularity. Often he will go alone, donning hat, sunglasses, and iPod to ride the rides over and over again, listening to Brian Eno or Glass Candy. His favorites are Disney’s immersive universes: the Haunted Mansion with its dancing ghosts, the Enchanted Tiki Room with its singing birds and walls come to life. “They’re like waking dreams,” he says.
A preoccupation with dream worlds seems like a reasonable survival strategy for life in Cornwall, Ontario, a mill town on the border of Quebec and the United States. The business of Cornwall was producing paper, and that, in turn, produced a sulfurous rotten-egg smell that made the town a regional joke. Kind of like the New Jersey of Ontario?
“That makes it sound a little glamorous,” Gosling says.
Certainly it’s the kind of place from which a boy more interested in Fred Astaire than hockey might emerge with a deep affinity for the world’s misfits. Gosling’s father was largely absent, either on the road as a traveling salesman or otherwise occupied, leaving Donna alone with a daughter and an increasingly hyperactive son. “He was like an escape artist. He’d run out of the house naked,” Donna says. “I told all the neighborhood kids, ‘If you see Ryan, don’t come get me. Sit on him and send someone else.’ ”
By third grade, Gosling was falling way behind in school. Donna decided to teach him herself. The two spent an intense, bonding year. Donna would cover the walls of the basement with rolls of paper from the mill. On them, Gosling would draw, scribble, make random connections, then tear them down and start again.
“I had no pals,” he says. “None.” Today you can see that loneliness in the way Gosling so effortlessly and empathetically slips into the skin of the oddballs he plays. You can even hear it in his strange speech pattern: the halting cadence, the accent some strange hybrid of Brooklyn and Canada. It can sound as if English isn’t his first language or as if he’s just arrived from another planet.
Then, deus ex Mickey: After auditioning among more than 17,000 kids across the continent, Gosling found himself Orlando-bound as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. Among his young castmates were Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. Here, at last, he figured, he couldn’t fail to find his tribe. But he was soon discouraged. For one thing, the rest of the cast and their families lived together in an apartment complex in Kissimmee. The Goslings, for whom the show had become a sole source of income, stayed for the whole first season in the Yogi Bear trailer park down the road. Gosling also worked less than some of the other kids, so he would grab a golf cart and head to Disney World, wandering the park alone.
“I loved the idea that Walt Disney had this dream of a place and then made it a reality,” says Gosling. He goes on to make a comparison almost certainly unique in the history of human speech. “It’s the same way I felt when I saw Blue Velvet. It’s so clearly one person’s singular dream. The fact that somebody believed in their idea so much to make it a reality… I want to be that kind of person.”
Our car zooms through Hollywood. We’re late for our post-dinner stop—another of Gosling’s favorite spots, and another place we’ll see Zabrecky perform.
We pull up at a looming Spanish-style mansion on a residential street in Hancock Park, pass through the gate, and emerge in a lush garden strung with lights. There’s the sound of rushing water and a bridge that turns out to pass over a natural stream. Following a few stragglers, we hurry down a set of stone steps and through a door into what turns out to be a tiny theater. This is Brookledge, owned by the family that founded the Magic Castle and before that by a magician and entrepreneur who installed this private theater.
The lights dim, and Zabrecky, now done up in spats and tails, his face corpse-pale, comes down the aisle and begins to tap-dance. Girls in black-light skeleton costumes join him. There follows an hour of determinedly amateurish, defiantly analogue vaudeville. Gosling laughs loudest and claps longest at each act. When a contortionist is performing, he can barely control himself. “Oh boy,” he winces as she dislocates each shoulder. “Oh no,” he pounds his leg.
By the end, it seems clear why (in addition to loyalty) Gosling has chosen Zabrecky to provide so much of the evening’s entertainment. “He’s a real song-and-dance man,” he says admiringly. And it’s hard to watch Gosling on-screen and not suspect that he’s fighting his own inner vaudevillian, that somewhere beneath that composed, controlled skin lies a Justin, Christina, or Britney waiting to burst forth into song. There’s a scene in The Believer that hints at something essential about Gosling. He plays Daniel, a fiercely anti-Semitic skinhead who happens to have been raised Orthodox Jewish. What Daniel hates most about Jews is their cerebrality, what he disdainfully calls their “abstraction” from the real world of violence and action. So when the leaders of his fascist organization come to him and say they want him to be their chief fund-raiser instead of a thug, he reacts in horror. Despite his best efforts, his “Jewishness” has shone through.
Similarly, Gosling’s inner charisma has a persistent way of breaking free around the edges of even his most muted performances—the way that the squirrelly little mustache he wore in Lars and the Real Girl subversively made him look like a dashing World War I bombardier. You see a little ukulele here, some singing there, a graceful dance or two. It’s the undoing of a self-hating showman.
“It’s a mystery to me,” he says. “Why I’m compelled to do this thing—making films—which in many ways brings a lot of things I hate. But I am compelled. I can’t stop.”
HIS FAVORITEST PLACE IN THE L.A. AREA IS DISNEYLAND. OFTEN HE WILL GO ALONE, DONNING HAT, SUNGLASSES, AND iPOD TO RIDE THE RIDES OVER AND OVER AGAIN, LISTENING TO BRIAN ENO OR GLASS CANDY.
It’s 11 P.M., and we sit at The Varnish, a nouveau speakeasy entered via unmarked door at the back of a French-dip restaurant—its own kind of adult Disney pavilion. Prohibitionland.
We’re downtown, just around the corner from where Gosling lived until a couple of years ago. He can still recite a roster of the area’s oddballs: the Rooster, who would wake him up each morning with screams of pain and suffering. (“I assumed it was at finding himself still alive.”) And there was Flower Guy and Joke Man and Ricky the Pirate. This was after The Notebook, when he was working in a nearby sandwich shop.
That isn’t a joke: After his one legitimate Hollywood hit, a perennial entry on Most Romantic Ever lists, the movie that still causes women to go to pieces on the street when they see him, Gosling followed up with a gig making sandwiches at a local deli.
He looks sheepish. “I’d never had a real job,” he says. The problem with Hollywood, he goes on, is that nobody works. “They have meals. They go to Pilates. But it’s not enough. So they do drugs. If everybody had a pile of rocks in their backyard and spent every day moving them from one side of the yard to the other, it would be a much happier place.”
Since then, he’s taken on other jobs: He spent a year learning to play the instruments for his band, Dead Man’s Bones. On an impulse, he bought a Moroccan restaurant and then had no money left to renovate, so he spent six months laying plumbing. After Hurricane Katrina, he packed a car filled with supplies and headed alone for Biloxi, Mississippi, to help rebuild a monastery.
Anyway, he really took to sandwich-making. “People used to come in and request me,” he says.
Yeah, I bet they did….
“Don’t say that!” he shouts. “I put love in those sandwiches!”
And later: The bar has closed, but we’ve been allowed to stay because we’re talking to two waitresses about recurring dreams. Dreams are important to Gosling, both in the Disney will-come-true sense and the while-you-sleep sense. To facilitate communication between conscious and unconscious mind, he sometimes sets an alarm to go off every hour during the night, so he can jot dreams down. This may or may not contribute to his being single at the moment.
“I have one where I’m trying to run away, but I can’t. I can’t get my legs to move,” says the pretty waitress dressed in 1940s clothes.
Gosling says: “This is my nap dream. I have it whenever I nap: There’s a wolf, covered in blood. He’s been eating a buffalo, and he’s gotten to the point where the buffalo’s stomach is eaten out, hanging on the ground. But it’s not dead yet. The wolf is taking a break, covered in blood. And the buffalo is just lying there, moaning, waiting for the wolf to come back and finish.”
Everybody is quiet after that. Until one of the girls asks, “Is it scary?”
“It’s awful,” says Gosling. “Because the thing is, I feel for both of them. I understand both sides.”
Gosling’s got his tie off, legs stretched out along our booth, but is otherwise surprisingly unruffled, given that we’re many hours and more than a few drinks in. It’s pushing 4 A.M. He says Blue Valentine is the best film he’ll ever make. “Look, this is crazy. I don’t understand how I’m here, living this life, wearing this suit. I assume I’m going to pay for it someday.”
Do you really? You expect retribution?
“I do. I really do. And that’s okay. It seems fair to me. I just want to be ready for it. I want to meet it like a gentleman.”
He hauls himself up and heads to the piano in the middle of the empty bar, lifts the Lucite case protecting the keys, and starts to play. By the bar, the waitresses sway.
“I was able to teach him how to use a razor. And sometimes he’s even given me Father’s Day cards,” Donna Gosling tells me. “But he’s had to teach himself to be a man. It’s something he’s always taken so seriously.”
When we climb out of the bar, it’s almost morning, and it’s raining on the deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles, so it looks just like a noir picture. A waking dream. Disney couldn’t do it better.
In five days, Ryan Gosling will be 30 years old.