"I’ve never said it in my life," Ryan Gosling protests, playfully exasperated, rolling his eyes and letting out a bemused sigh.
In the public spotlight since he was 14, an Oscar nominee at 26 and one of the top talents of his generation, the 32-year old actor has come to be known for a loving Internet spoof he had little to do with almost as much as his body of work.
The "Hey Girl" meme, the unendingly derivative series of blogs that place equal parts seductive and goofy captions on his photos, is a case of Gosling, in his words, being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." The sites riff on themes ranging from feminism and cats to typography and special needs children, casting him as a symbol and spokesperson for every niche interest imaginable.
Sure, he acknowledged and played along with the craze in a couple of clips for MTV in 2010, but the meme had already been going for two years strong.
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"I don’t think it’s really about me," Gosling tells . "I think it really is sort of like, I’m a pigeon and the Internet is Fabio and it just happened," he adds, offering up an obscure pop culture reference that alludes to a bloody splatter.
It’s also likely a case of the public’s reaction to a little bit of mystery in an age when everyone needs to know everything about celebrities.
Gosling is spending his Sunday in a New York hotel to discuss his latest film, an ambitious and demanding generational drama called , clad in an old t-shirt and entering rooms with Prince playing on his iPhone.
In short, Ryan Gosling is not your average leading man.
Instead, he is a free speaker in an industry of sound bites and a global star who prefers to rough himself up in small, decidedly unglamorous films. a perfect example of his aversion to the astral A-List roles that his fame would suggest have been sent his way over the past decade or so, beginning when he went from former Mouseketeer to the poster boy for hopeless romantics in . And yes, he’s acted for George Clooney and twice romanced Emma Stone in studio films, but Gosling spends most of his time reveling in indie work; he twists and obscuring his looks, embarks on the wild, weird and unexpected — including playing a crack-addled teacher and awkward beau of a blowup sex doll — and teams with like-minded directors he can trust.
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is his second collaboration with his director Derek Cianfrance. As a troubled motorcyclist who drifts across the country, Gosling wears tattered clothing, is covered in ink (including a bloody dagger face tattoo) and gives the air of a white trash James Dean, condemned to crash into tragedy in a hopeless post-industrial wasteland, a rebel without a hope. It’s a role he created with Cianfrance over a five-year span, carefully crafting an empathetic outlaw trying desperately to support a son in a doomed situation. His is one of several storylines in a working class triptych that includes Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan.
"I feel like I’ve spent all this time until now looking for these kind of relationships, and it’s exciting to have them and see where they go," Gosling says. On the other hand, working with directors he doesn’t know well can present the risk of uncertainty.
"You don’t know how they’re going to represent you in the film, so you overdo it to try and get it in there so they can’t cut it out, but there’s just too much," he explains, trailing off on the last point. "With Derek, I feel like I can relax a little and just trust that he is going to communicate and I can just be a part of the scene, I don’t have to be the focus."
The film was made in upstate New York in 2011; more recently, Gosling spent several months in Thailand, getting his ass kicked by professional fighters and capturing it for the world to see — all on his own accord.
"I trained for two or three months and then we got there and realized that it would be cheesy if I just started kicking everyone’s ass,” he confesses, describing the major last-minute rewrite he gave to another one of his upcoming projects, . Made with director Nicolas Winding-Refn, the film is a crime drama set in the world of Muay Thai martial arts, a movie he calls "much more extreme" than his and Refn’s first collaboration, the slick, stylized and violent-in-its-own-right .
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"It would just seem ridiculous: these guys who were training me how to fight, then suddenly in the scene I’m going to beat them in the fight, and they’d say cut, and then I’d get direction from them on how to beat them up [again]?" he asks rhetorically, smirking at the thought of portraying himself as a martial arts master.
"It just seemed like bullshit… In the script, he’s kind of invincible, but in the movie, I don’t think I land one punch on anyone, it’s just having my ass handed to me the whole time… and it’s more realistic."
That decision makes the the polar opposite of , which saw Gosling stalk the neon nights of LA and deliver his own brutal, vigilante justice in between playing getaway driver to criminals.
"I was hoping that could become — we tried to create our own superhero and I think Nick and I kind of hoped that that could be it for us, that could be our franchise," he explains. "I think when we finished we realized it’s much better if the Driver drives on, and what if we never know what happens next."
That movie was all piercing stares and knowing smiles, hammer-beatings and screeching tires, with a fairytale-like hero that drives off into the uncertain night when others might finally settle for safety. Gosling chose mystery over certainty, which makes his stance toward established superhero films a bit unsurprising.
"If you’re doing a franchise, that’s your life for a long time," Gosling points out, clearly not all that interested in joining a studio like Marvel, which signs its superhero stars up for six-film contracts that tie them up for nearly a decade. Those are films that are made to gross a billion dollars, and he also seems to hint that the drive for massive box office saps creativity. After all, his highest earning film is 2011’s , which made $142 million worldwide.
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"Some people have managed to get into [franchise] films that are interesting with interesting directors, and some have not."
There are no such dice roles for him; Gosling recently completed work on a film by Terrence Malick, an experience he calls "like nothing else." In all, he is slated to feature in four films this year, and suggests that the world is a bit sick of him. That seems impossible — slightly enigmatic with a devilish grin but a personal life clean of scandal, he holds an unending reservoir of goodwill from critics and fans alike — but he’s absolutely earnest. It’s part of the reason he says he won’t be acting in his directorial debut, , which begins shooting this spring.
"I just need a little break from myself," Gosling admits. "I got into the habit of just having a lot of options, and then suddenly getting option anxiety, and I need to get a little distance and give myself and the audience a little break."
The notion of a top-shelf, in-his-prime actor making his directorial debut and not acting in it sounds at first outrageous, but Gosling’s got the decision-making track record to earn the benefit of the doubt. And the movie, billed as a fantasy thriller about a single mother and her teenage son, doesn’t lack marquee names, with Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, ‘s Matt Smith and his co-stars Mendes and Ben Mendelsohn leading the way.
"I think I’ve kind of over-saturated myself with myself, made a lot of movies and have lost a little perspective on what I’m doing. So this is a way for me to still make a film but have a new experience doing it. And see it from another perspective, which I think I need right now," he adds, hinting at a certain exhaustion with being in front of the camera.
The last three have been the busiest years of his life: he’s made 12 films, taken tours around the world to promote them, and become a real life super hero, spending downtime swooping in to save women from oncoming traffic and breaking up fights on city streets, as he did in New York several years ago.
It’s fair to assume that he won’t be able to disappear from the headlines, no matter how sick of himself he gets.